Fish: How Much is Too Much of a Good Thing?

September 21, 2015 by  
Filed under Dietary Patterns, Meat, Protein


In nutrition, we often learn about the hazards of under consuming certain foods or nutrients:

  • The typical American only eats 12-15 grams of fiber per day instead of the recommended 25-38 grams
  • Americans fall short of intakes of nutrients of concern like potassium, vitamin D and calcium
  • Eating too many refined grains with added sugars and fats is crowding out optimal fruit and vegetable intake

But what about the upper limits? When it comes to fish, perhaps you have wondered how much is too much?

With fish, the notion is for every fish meal you’re having means you are in turn likely not eating a high saturated fat meat or other animal protein meal. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say to eat fish 2-3 times per week. But what if you eat it every day?

That was the question recently posed to Harvard researcher and professor Eric Rimm in a article. He posits that it’s probably ok for most people to eat fish every day – certainly moreso than beef or other types of protein.

Rimm and other dietitians and healthcare professionals warn against high or daily fish consumption for some high risk populations: namely pregnant and breastfeeding women and small children. Although the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish are essential for brain and growth development, high levels of fish in those populations could increase risk for mercury toxicity.

Instead, pregnant and breastfeeding women and children are recommended to follow the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2014 revised guidelines of consuming 8-12 ounces of fish per week. That’s 2-3 regular sizes of fish or roughly 1.5-2 cans of tuna per week.

For the rest of you not in those populations: the benefits of eating more fish likely outweigh any potential drawbacks…so eat up!

Peanut Allergy Precautions Take a Turn for Infants

September 9, 2015 by  
Filed under Consumer awareness, Protein


Things are a-changin’ in the world of peanut allergy precautions.

According to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization, peanut allergy is one of the most common food allergies and allergy to peanuts appears to be on the rise in children. Currently between 1-3% of children in westernized countries are thought to have peanut allergy.

Despite these trends, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently endorsed the Consensus Communication on Early Peanut Introduction and the Prevention of Peanut Allergy in High-risk Infants. The title is a mouthful, but the takeaway is clear:

  • Early introduction of peanuts is safe and effective in infants at high risk of peanut allergy
  • Health care providers should recommend introducing peanut-containing foods into the diets of high risk infants aged 4-11 months

Previous AAP recommendations were rather nebulous with regard to guidelines for the introduction of peanuts in both high or low risk peanut allergy infant groups.

The about face on early introduction of peanuts in high risk peanut allergy infant populations is based on research published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study found that the early introduction of peanuts significantly decreased the frequency of the development of peanut allergy among children at high risk for peanut allergy.

If you suspect your child is in the high risk group for peanut allergy, check with your primary healthcare provider about recommendations for the introduction of peanuts and peanut-containing ingredients.

For more information on food allergies, see the AAP’s Allergy Tips website or FARE’s About Food Allergies.

Does Tryptophan in Turkey Cause Food Coma?

November 26, 2014 by  
Filed under Digestion, Protein


You hear it every year around Thanksgiving time: the turkey is to blame for your after dinner food coma. But is that really true?

As with most things in internet nutrition lore – the answer is, “Not exactly.”

Tryptophan is one of the 9 essential amino acids that your body can’t process, so it needs to get from food.

Complete proteins contain all 9 essential amino acids, and all animal foods are complete proteins. Since turkey is an animal food, it falls in this category.

Tryptophan plays many roles in the body, but one thing it does is serve as a precursor to serotonin, a sleep inducing chemical. Hence…the turkey tryptophan and sleep connection.

But the reality is, there is no more tryptophan in turkey than in many other animal or meat products.

The real reason you’re probably falling asleep after Thanksgiving is because you’re sated (or oversated) and ready to start digesting all of those nutrients, including the tryptophan!

You can learn more about the tryptophan – and other nutrient content – of your favorite foods by using the USDA’s Nutrient Database sort by nutrient website search (select Tryptophan from the dropdown menu).

Climate change and the meat we eat

November 2, 2013 by  
Filed under Meat, Protein

How many folks use energy efficient light bulbs? Anybody drive a hybrid car? Who makes efforts to reduce, re-use, and recycle? Good, because we need all the help we can get! Climate change is official and we’re all responsible and/or affected to some degree (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2013).

This topic is related is related to food in two distinct ways: crops and meat. With regard to the former, rising temperatures are expected to negatively impact global production to the tune of 2% per decade for the rest of this century (Gillis, 2013). This at a time when food prices and availability are already critical issues. The good news is that it’s not too late to take action.

That’s where meat comes in. No matter how many energy efficient light bulbs you use or hybrid cars you drive, eating less meat may be the most environmentally-friendly action you can take part in. From the inputs required to produce livestock feed (e.g., diesel fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, water, and land) to the greenhouse gases emitted from the manure that comes out the other end (e.g. methane), meat takes a significant toll on the climate. According to the Environmental Working Group (2011), here’s a summary of how eating less meat stacks up against other climate-saving actions over the course of a year:

  • If you eat one less burger a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for 320 miles or line-drying your clothes half the time.
  • If your four-person family skips meat and cheese one day a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for five weeks – or reducing everyone’s daily showers by 3 minutes.
  • If your four-person family skips steak once a week, it’s like taking your car off the road for nearly three months.
  • If everyone in the United States ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would be like not driving 91 billion miles – or taking 7.6 million cars off the road.

It’s not necessary to become a vegetarian in order to save the planet, although that certainly wouldn’t hurt. Other positive actions you could take part in include eating fewer meat and dairy products, eating “greener” meats, eating more plants, and wasting less meat.

Food for thought

Would you and your family consider taking part in Meatless Mondays? What types of meats are better or worse for the environment? What types of plants are considered complete and/or complementary proteins? What are some health benefits associated with eating less meat? Check out the report by the Environmental Working Group for answers to these questions and more.


Environmental Working Group (2011). “The Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change and Health”. Accessed November 2, 2013:

Gillis, Justin (2013). “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.” The New York Times, November 1. Accessed November 2, 2013.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013). “Fifth Assessment Report: The Physical Science Basis”. Accessed November 2, 2013.



Should You Be Gluten Free?

October 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Carbohydrates, Digestion, Protein

Gluten is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat, barley and rye (and related grains). It is found in the endosperm of the grain kernel and consists of the proteins gliadin and gluterin. Gluten gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keeps its shape.  You may have heard or read about the health benefits of gluten-free diets and seen numerous gluten-free products in the grocery store. Proponents of gluten-free diets claim that this dietary pattern promotes weight loss and may be beneficial in numerous other ways, such as helping those with osteoporosis, anemia and diabetes. Have you wondered if this is true? Have scientific studies been conducted to back up these claims? Let’s take a closer look at some the purported health benefits and also consider who may benefit most from a gluten-free diet.

There are indeed folks that have to avoid gluten at all costs, namely, those suffering from celiac disease (also frequently called celiac sprue). This autoimmune disorder occurs in genetically predisposed people from early life onwards. People with celiac disease experience pain and discomfort in the GI tract, chronic constipation, fatigue and other symptoms. The underlying cause is related to gluten exposure. In those with celiac disease, an enzyme in the epithelium of the GI tract reacts with gluten proteins and causes an immune reaction whereby the immune system attacks the small bowel tissue. This causes an inflammatory reaction and as a result, the villi of the epithelium are blunted and malabsorption of many nutrients occurs. The only treatment for celiac disease is life-long adherence to a gluten-free diet. Clearly the preponderance of gluten-free products now available in the grocery stores benefits those with the disease. But what about other individuals, can they also benefit from gluten-free foods?

How about going gluten-free for weight loss? Gluten-free diets tend to be similar in energy content to traditional diets, but more careful planning when going gluten-free may promote making healthier food choices. So from this perspective, gluten-free may promote weight loss, for reasons not directly related to gluten. Does avoiding gluten help those with the other disorders listed above? There are few properly controlled scientific studies to support many of the gluten-free claims, so it’s hard to know for sure. Another consideration is the foods that you might avoid by going gluten-free, such as breads, pastas and other grain products. Given that these foods are important dietary sources of B vitamins, fiber, iron and other nutrients in the American diet, avoidance of them may increase risk for various nutrient deficiencies.

Certainly, the incidence of celiac disease is increasing in the U.S. Current estimates are that 1:100 people may have celiac disease and some of them may be undiagnosed. For these individuals, going gluten-free is necessary and will often dramatically improve quality of life. From this perspective, the current popularity of going gluten-free is beneficial. The real question though is, how beneficial is gluten avoidance for the other 99/100 people in the U.S.?

Does Protein Supplementation Build Muscle?

September 18, 2013 by  
Filed under Protein

Many personal trainers and exercise gurus recommend protein supplementation to build muscle. Their recommendations usually suggest ingesting a bolus of protein (perhaps 25-40 g) after a workout. They will cite anecdotal reports of enhanced muscle building and increased strength following this regime. Some noted health authorities, famous athletes and celebrities may also endorse protein supplementation and be employed by companies that make protein-enriched food products. As scientists however, we need to know what properly controlled, peer-reviewed research has to say about this topic.

Some basic considerations are useful to clarify the issue of protein supplementation. First, do most people get enough protein in their diets? If not, then protein supplementation would seem to be promising. Second, do athletes need more protein in their diets than the RDA and if so, do most athletes consume enough protein from regular foods to support activity and muscle building? Third, does increasing protein intake support muscle growth, and if so, when should extra protein be consumed, before, during or after a workout? And lastly, if one consumes more protein, do the amino acids produced from protein breakdown preferentially travel to muscle and improve muscle physiology?

Nutrition scientists have considered these issues in detailed investigations using animal models and in human clinical trials. It turns out that most individuals in the U.S consume more protein than the RDA. Studies have shown that athletes have higher demands (up to 2-2.5 times higher) for dietary proteins, especially strength and endurance athletes, but since they consume more calories each day, they can usually meet protein needs by consuming a normal, varied diet. Concerning protein increasing muscle mass and strength, studies have shown that exercising (i.e. using) muscles increases these parameters and that increasing protein intake alone will not have the desired effects. There is evidence however, that a modest amount of protein consumed during or after a vigorous workout (as part of a long term resistance-type training program) will enhance muscle repair and could have some effect on muscle mass and strength (Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 96(6): 1454-64, 2012). It is however important to keep in mind that if protein is consumed in excess of energy need, it will ultimately be metabolically converted into triglycerides and stored in adipose tissue.

Given these facts, do you think consuming excess protein is going to have a positive influence on your athletic abilities? Could consuming excess protein before or after a workout have a placebo effect? What about if one is a vegan? Do vegans have higher protein requirements? Are vegan diets typically lower in protein content? Does decreasing carbohydrate intake and substituting protein sound like a sound strategy to improve athletic performance? Why or why not? These are all important issues that should be considered as one develops a diet that supports athletic performance and maximizes muscle strength and endurance.