Does Diet Pop Cause Cancer?

First of all, I’m from Pittsburgh and we call it POP, not soda.

Second of all, the above question is a bit too broad. The question we should be asking is, “Does the artificial sweetener, aspartame, cause cancer”? Found in Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and Diet Mountain Dew, aspartame is one of the most common artificial sweeteners used in today’s food industry.

diet coke

What Is Aspartame?

Aspartame is also commonly known as NutraSweet or Equal. It is comprised of a methyl ester of aspartic acid and phenylalanine dipeptide. The majority of use for aspartame is in low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, sugar-free beverages. Gram for gram, aspartame has the same caloric content as sucrose (4 calories/gram). However, because aspartame is nearly 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), much less is needed in order to obtain the desired sweetness in foods and drinks. So much less, in fact, that companies can claim “zero calories” on food labels.

Physiologically, aspartame is digested by becoming hydrolyzed in the intestinal lumen by esterases and peptidases into aspartic acid, methanol, and phenylalanine, where these individual components are then absorbed into the general circulation. Aspartame is a white powder that is stable under dry conditions, but degrades in high temperatures.

aspartame chemical structure

Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA approved the use of aspartame for use in dry foods in 1981 and for general purposes in 1996. The first use of aspartame in carbonated beverages was in 1983. Today, aspartame can be found in more than 6,000 foods and pharmaceuticals worldwide.

What Products Contain Aspartame?

You may be surprised at the extensive and varied list of products that contain aspartame.

  • NutraSweet
  • Equal
  • diet or sugar-free soft carbonated soft drinks
  • breath mints
  • cereals
  • chewing gum
  • flavored syrups for coffee
  • flavored water
  • frozen ice cream novelties
  • fruit spreads
  • sugar-free gelatin
  • hard candies
  • ice cream toppings
  • no-sugar-added or sugar-free ice cream
  • iced tea
  • instant cocoa mix
  • jams and jellies
  • juice drinks
  • maple syrups
  • meal replacements
  • mousse
  • nutritional bars and drinks
  • puddings
  • sugar-free cookies
  • sugar-free ketchup
  • vegetable drinks
  • yogurt (drinkable, fat-free, sugar-free)

How Much Is Too Much?

The FDA has set an “acceptable daily intake”, or ADI, for each artificial sweetener. The ADI is set as the maximum amount considered safe for consumption each day during a person’s lifetime.

The U.S. ADI for aspartame is 50 mg per kg of body weight (mg/kg). The European Food Safety Authority has recommended a slightly lower ADI at 40 mg/kg.

To put this into perspective…

The average 12 oz can of diet pop contains 180 mg of aspartame.

For an average individual weighing 68 kg (or 150 pounds), the ADI level would be 3409 mg of aspartame

That is nearly 19 cans of diet pop per day!

It is safe to say that even the most avid diet beverage drinkers consume well below their ADI for aspartame. To prove this, diet soft drink consumption has increased over the past 20 years from 4.8 oz per person per day in 1984 to 5.5 oz per person per day in 2004 (see graph below). Nevertheless, the 5.5 oz is WELL below the FDA approved ADI for aspartame consumption.

diet drinks graph

Does Aspartame Increase the Risk for Cancers?

This is a question that has been debated for over the past 20 years. The overall consensus from most national health agencies is that, NO, there is no conclusive evidence that aspartame consumption increases the risk for cancer.

In a 100-page scientific review paper, the safety of aspartame was evaluated on several parameters. In regards to cancer, “There is no evidence to support an association between aspartame and brain or hematopoietic tumor development”. This extensive journal article reviewed both animal and human studies and found that most of the animal studies used aspartame levels well above the ADI, often in doses up to 4,000 mg/kg of body weight.

In a study published in 2012 in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition, researchers prospectively evaluated and assessed the diets of >125,000 individuals over a 22-year period (from the Nurses Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study). Results found that, in men, >1 serving of diet soda increased the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphomas (RR: 1.31, 95% CI) and multiple myeloma (RR: 2.02, 95% CI) compared to men who reported no diet soda consumption. There was no significant difference found in women subjects. Interestingly, however, researchers also found a significantly greater risk of men (not women) developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma in subjects who consumed regular sugar-sweetened sodas. In summary, because of the differential effects on men vs. women and because of the apparent cancer risk in individuals who consume regular soda, it is difficult to interpret these results and put the full blame on aspartame as the cancer culprit.

In conclusion, the following are statements made by several national health agencies and associations regarding the consumption of aspartame and cancer:

  • The American Cancer Society states, “There are no health problems that have been consistently linked to aspartame use”.
  • The National Cancer Institute states, “There is no clear evidence that the artificial sweeteners available commercially in the United States are associated with cancer risk in humans”.
  • In a position paper by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Studies have found no evidence of a wide range of adverse effects of aspartame, including hypersensitivity reactions, elevated blood methanol or formate levels, and hematopoietic or brain cancers”.
  • The FDA states, “The food additive aspartame may be safely used in food”.


Magnuson BA, et al. (2007). Aspartame: a safety evaluation based on current use levels, regulations, and toxicological and epidemiological studies. Crit Rev Toxicol. 37(8):629-727.

Schernhammer, et al. (2012). Consumption of artificial sweetener and sugar-containing soda and risk of lymphoma and leukemia in men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 96(6):1419-28.


How Much Protein Do I Need?

This is probably the most common question I am asked as a dietitian. Whether someone is an elite athlete or a casual weight lifter, it seems they all want to supplement with this magic muscle powder. However, most of the population has major misconceptions about what protein is, how your body uses it, and how much you should be consuming.


What Is Protein?

Protein is one of the three major macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fat) that contain amino acids and nitrogen.  There are 20 different amino acids. The human body can synthesize 9 of the amino acids on its own (non-essential amino acids), but cannot synthesize the other 11 amino acids (essential amino acids) and need to be consumed through the diet. Thus, it is important to consume a variety of protein in your diet in order to have a balance of essential and non-essential amino acids. Proteins provide a variety of biochemical functions in the body.

Functions Of Protein

1. Energy – 1 gram of protein = 4 calories

2. Antibodies – to help defend again foreign pathogens (ex: Immunoglobulin G)

3. Muscle building and contraction – (ex: actin and myosin muscle fibers)

4. Messaging – protein hormones help send chemical messages throughout the body (ex: insulin, growth hormone)

5. Storage

6. Transport – transport proteins help move molecules to different parts of the body (ex: hemoglobin)

7. Structure – provide structure and support to cells

8. Enzymes – help to catalyze biochemical reactions (ex: lactase)

Daily Protein Requirements

The general population:            0.8 grams protein/kg body weight   OR  10-35% of total energy intake

Endurance athletes:                  1.2 – 1.4 grams protein/kg body weight

Resistance-trained athletes:    1.6 – 1.7 grams protein/kg body weight

*Key Point To Remember: These ranges are in KILOGRAMS of body weight, NOT pounds of body weight. (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds)

Example – For an average 150 lb individual:   150 lbs x (1 kg/2.2 lbs) = 68 kg

68 kg x 0.8 g protein/kg body weight = 55 grams of protein per day

If you don’t feel like doing the calculations, below is a table of the RDA for protein by gender and age.

protein RDA

In general, Americans are consuming well over the RDA for protein. The graph below depicts the average amount of protein consumed by Americans. Throughout the lifespan, the amount of protein is consumed the greatest between the ages of 19-30 years old. Since I am a part of this age group, maybe that is why so many of my peers are asking me questions about how much protein they need.

Source: NHANES 2003-2004

Source: NHANES 2003-2004

Amount of Protein in Common Foods:

  • 1 oz beef = 7 g
  • 1 oz chicken breast = 9 g
  • 1 oz soft cheeses = 6 g
  • 1 oz medium cheese = 6-7 g
  • 1 oz hard cheese = 10 g
  • 1 oz tuna = 7 g
  • 1 cup soybeans = 29 g
  • 1 large egg = 6 g
  • 1 oz nuts = 9 g
  • 1 oz tofu = 2 g
  • 1 slice bread = 2 g
  • 1 slice bacon = 3 g
  • 2 TB peanut butter = 8 g
  • 8 oz milk = 8 g

How Much Is Too Much?

“The more protein I eat, the bigger my muscles will get.” This is not necessarily true. First of all, consuming an excess of calories, whether it’s via protein, carbs, fat, or alcohol…will be stored in the body as fat. Second of all, the human body cannot properly utilize protein beyond a certain amount.

The upper limit for protein is generally 2 grams protein per kg body weight.

protein lifter

Side effects of excess protein consumption include metabolic imbalance, toxicity, nervous system disorders, and kidney problems. When excess protein is consumed, your body uses more water in order to excrete it. For this reason, individuals consuming a high protein diet should also be consuming adequate water in order to prevent dehydration. High protein diets also tend to be higher in cholesterol and saturated fat, which can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.

Does Whey Protein Aid In Muscle Building?

Please refer to one of my previous blog posts for an in-depth explanation behind the research on whey protein.

Bottom Line:

1. Most Americans consume far more protein than they need.

2. Consume a variety of different protein sources to get a variety of other nutrients.

3. Do not OVER supplement with protein, this can cause long-term damage to your kidneys as well as your wallet.

HMB Supplementation and Athletic Performance in Exercised Adults

This was an hour-long, graduate-level presentation I gave in a nutrition seminar course. The audience was master’s students and professors in the West Virginia University Animal & Nutritional Sciences Department.


The DASH Diet ranked #1 Best Overall

As a future dietitian, the number one health question I get asked by friends, family, and patients is: “What is the best diet?”.

“The answer is not so simple”, I tell them, “You have to do what works best for you”.

fad diet

Luckily, health professionals at U.S. News & World Report ranked 29 of the “Best Overall Diets”. The overarching winner?…(drum roll please)…The DASH diet.

The DASH diet recieved a total score of 4.1 out of 5 possible points. The diets were judged based on the following categories: short-term weight loss, long-term weight loss, easiness to follow, nutrition, safety, best for diabetes, and best for heart health. However, not all categories were weighted equally. For example, long-term weight loss was weighted twice as much as short-term weight loss…which I completely agree with (because I believe long-term weight loss is the most imporant factor in determining the success of a diet).

Also known as the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, the DASH diet was developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and low-fat dairy and limits foods with added sugar, red meat, and added fats.  Originally, the DASH diet was designed with the purpose of lowering blood pressure and, after several randomized control trials in the 1990’s, it has proved successful at this. In more recent years, the DASH diet is supported by the USDA in promoting overall health and weight loss for the general public.

If you are thinking about following the DASH diet, daily serving suggestions and a sample menu are available below. For more information, the NIH has published a very informative document with complete details about the DASH diet.


The “Best Overall Diets” according to the U.S. News & World report are ranked as follows:

#1.  DASH Diet

2.     TLC Diet

3.     Mayo Clinic Diet

3.     Mediterranean Diet

3.     Weight Watchers

6.     The Flexitarian Diet

6.     Volumetrics Diet

8.     Jenny Craig

8.     The Biggest Loser Diet

9.    The Dean Ornish Diet



Drink Diet Soda, Gain More Weight?

I know the concept seems counterintuitive: drink more diet soda, gain more weight. However, there has been a media buzz revolving research studies which indicate just that. These artificially sweetened, zero-calorie beverages are marketed as a way to consume less liquid calories, resulting in an energy deficit and thus weight loss. The FDA recognizes stevia, aspartame (Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and other no-calorie sweeteners as safe for the general population to consume.

In addition, food products containing artificial sweeteners has been on the rise over the past 20 years. Know what else has been on the rise? America’s rates of obesity. Are the two linked? I’m not so sure.

Source: Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010 June; 83(2): 101–108.

Now I’ll be completely honest here, I’m not afraid to admit I absolutely love an ice-cold glass of (fountain) Diet Coke/Pepsi every now and then (or perhaps more often than I care to admit). I’ve also had a few of my peers ask me about this diet soda-weight gain dilemma as well. So I thought it made perfect sense for a food blogger, such as myself, to delve into the sticky and sugary research to find the “truth” behind these claims.

However, when I began my literature search, the articles that supported this claim were only rat studies and human observational studies. For the most part, most large health organizations do not feel that these research studies are strong enough evidence to support the conclusion that diet soda can lead to weight gain.

The Rat Studies

In a 2008 article by Swithers and Davidson, 27 rats were randomly assigned to three diet treatment groups for 5 weeks. A control group, a group that consumed yogurt sweetened with glucose for half of the days, and a group that consumed yogurt whose sweetness alternated between glucose and saccharin for half of the days. Therefore, these two groups of mice were consuming the same number of calories, but with differing amounts of prolonged sweetness. Results found that rats gained significantly more weight and gained significantly more fat mass when they received the artificially sweetened yogurt.

There were a few more studies very similar to this one conducted by the same researchers on rats with different artificially flavored colas, puddings, etc…all revealing similar results.

So what did these studies tell us? They indicate that sweetness was associated with weight gain in rats, even when the “sweetness” was coming from a no-calorie sweetener.

These results are very intriguing because they support the link between artificial sweeteners and weight gain. But I have two problems with this study. One is that the test subjects are rats. It is difficult to compare a rat’s food intake to a human’s because, let’s face it, us humans tend to have more complicated reasons for what and how much we eat. Number two, the sample size is extremely small with only 8-10 rats per experimental group, which doesn’t tell us a whole lot.

The Human Observational Studies

An observational study of over 5,000 participants in San Antonio, Texas followed subjects for 7-8 years. Results found that, not only was artificially sweetened beverages associated with weight gain, but that the more people consumed the more weight they gained (shown in the graphs below).

How Much Is Too Much?

The upper limits of how much non nutritive sweeteners are deemed “safe” for the general population is surprisingly very high.

In a 2009 article from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, authors reported common zero-calorie sweeteners and their Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI), presented in the chart below.  What do these numbers actually mean in terms of real food?

For aspartame, consumers would need to drink upwards of 18-19 cans of diet soda per day in order to reach the ADI, 8-9 sweetener packets for saccharin, and 6 cans of diet soda for sucralose.

Maybe We’re Just Looking for an Excuse?…

This same article looked at dozens of studies relating to the topic of artificial sweeteners, and the authors concluded that there wasn’t enough substantial evidence to link nonnutritive sweeteners with increased appetite and weight gain.

In addition, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics released a position paper this year which encourages the use of zero-calorie sweeteners as an aid in weight loss along with a reduced calorie, healthy diet. The Academy also made the conclusion that artificially sweetened beverages are not associated with poor appetite control or weight gain. The paper does state, however, that some of the research may be limited and more research may be needed. I’d have to agree with that. I would like to see many double-blind, randomized control studies which directly proposes an intervention on humans as opposed to just retrospective, observational, and animal studies.

That being said, after looking into some of the literature I still find it hard to completely associate diet sodas with weight gain. Even though the obesity epidemic is on the rise, artificial sweeteners can not be to blame when there are (literally hundreds of) other contributing factors as to why people are gaining more weight. For example, individuals may be choosing more higher calorie, higher-fat foods in conjunction with their diet sodas. For example, have you ever been in line at McDonald’s and seen someone order a Big Mac and a Diet Coke? I highly doubt it’s the Diet Coke adding inches to their waist line…

So in my opinion, if you feel the need to crack open a fizzy can of diet soda…at least it’s better than drinking regular soda which has an extra 140 calories per can. That’s a plus, right? And anyways, I’m more worried about artificial sweeteners being associated with a higher risk of cancer…but that story’s for another blog post some other time.

Dietitians Ranked #3 “Best Career for Saving the World”

One of the main reasons I love being a dietitian is because it is one of the most rewarding experiences.

Please read this article by CNN, who named Dietitians as the #3 “Best Career for Saving the World”!

Factors Contributing to West Virginia’s “BIG” Obesity Problem

West Virginia is the #3 “Most Obese” State in the U.S.

Source: Centers for Disease Control.

Source: West Virginia DHHR Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011

According to the Center’s for Disease Control, nearly two-thirds of West Virginian adults are overweight (BMI>;25) and nearly one-third are obese (BMI>;30). The statistics are alarming, but the data that worries me the most is the rate of childhood obesity. In West Virginia, 14.4 % of children ages 2-5 are overweight (85th to ;95th percentile BMI-for-Age). These numbers stay consistent in kids up to 18 years old.

Obesity in WV is Correlated With Being “Unhealthy”

According to the CDC’s Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFFS), the obesity rate in WV has increased by 4.6% since 1989. If obesity keeps growing at this shocking rate, by the year 2018 nearly HALF of all West Virginians will be obese! If this holds true in the year 2018, the Nat’l Board of Economic Research estimates that obesity will cost the state of WV nearly $2.3 billion dollars. But why does obesity matter? Why is obesity such a “big” deal anyway?…Obesity is important because it contributes to an individual’s overall health. In fact, West Virginia is ranked #1 in the U.S. for the prevalence of cardiovascular mortality, diabetes, and hypertension (as shown by the graphs below).

West Virginian residents who were obese were less likely to report their overall health as “Excellent/Very Good”.Source: West Virginia DHHR Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011

Obese individuals have the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
Source: West Virginia DHHR Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011

How does your WV county stack up?

Source: West Virginia DHHR Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011

Factor’s Contributing to West Virginia’s Obesity Epidemic

So the million dollar question is: Why are so many West Virginian’s overweight or obese?

The answer is not a simple one. Obesity is a complex issue that involves both genetic and environmental factors. But what is it about the environment in West Virginia that is making it’s residents SO unhealthy and SO overweight?

1. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption: A healthy diet is probably the most important factor in maintaining a healthy weight. The diet of West Virginian’s, however, is of poor quality. Everywhere you turn there’s a fast food joint offering fatty convenience foods. But, like in any region, the food is just a part of the culture. For example, the pepperoni roll is famous in WV since it was invented in Fairmont, WV around 100 years ago. Good old southern cooking is absolutely delicious…there’s no denying that. But there is also no denying how unhealthy it can be as it’s fried up in butter, fat, and salt.

Not to mention, West Virginian’s aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables. According to the 2007 CDC BRFFS, fruit and vegetable consumption in this state is very LOW. West Virginian adults consuming 2 or more servings of fruits daily was only 24.9%, compared to a national average of 32.8%. And West Virginian adults consuming 3 or more servings of vegetables daily was only 26% compared to the national average of 27.4%.

2. Access to Healthy Foods: To give a picture of the overwhelmingly easy access to fatty, fried, fast foods…here is another alarming statistic: In Huntington County, WV (which is in the #1 most obese county in the entire country!) there are more pizza joints than there are health clubs available in the entire state!

3. Physical Inactivity: The state of WV used to be bustling with manufacturing jobs, mostly coal mining. In recent years, however, the coal mining industry has been on the downfall and the manufacturing jobs that used to require strenuous labor and physical activity are now not as readily available to it’s residents.

As you can see in the figure below, West Virginian’s are more physically INactive compared to the national average rates. According to the CDC BRFFS, 33.2% of West Virginians reported physical inactivity compared to the national average of 24.2%.

Source: West Virginia DHHR Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011

4. Access to Community Streets/Sidewalks: West Virginia, “Wild and Wonderful”, undoubtedly has the most beautiful landscape of all the U.S. states. Wouldn’t that encourage people to get outside and enjoy the beauty that surrounds them? Well, you would think. But have you ever tried to walk, run, or bike along any streets in WV? It is QUITE a dangerous endeavor. Cars zip by as they swerve around narrow and hilly back-country roads. And there are nearly no sidewalks available for people to use…unless of course you’re willing to get in your car and drive somewhere that has a safer place to walk or bike (but whose going to do that?). In addition, WV has yet to pass the Complete Streets legislation, which aims to ensure that pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists have safe access to community streets.

5. The Economy: Having a low SES status can sometimes be an indicator of the overall health of an individual. According to a Gallup poll, WV ranked as having the LOWEST score in an economic confidence index.

6. Education: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, WV has the LOWEST rate of attaining a Bachelor’s degree. In WV, only 17.3% of the population will get a college education.

7. Dental Problems: West Virginia has the HIGHEST rate of tooth loss in the U.S. Nearly one-third of adults by the age of 35 have lost at least 6 or more permanent teeth and 42% of WV adults over the age of 65 have lost ALL of their natural teeth.

Having a toothless smile is no laughing matter. Having little or no teeth truly does affect a person’s ability to consume food. After all, would you be able to bite into an apple or chomp on a salad without having any teeth?

8. Disabilities: West Virginia has the HIGHEST rate of disabilities according to the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. The study looked at individuals ages 16-64 years old with disabilities that included functional limitations in physical, mental, and communication disabilities, limitations in activities of daily living (ADL) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADL).

Being physically disabled affects a person’s ability to exercise and burn off extra calories…thus causing more subsequent weight gain.

9. Depression: West Virginia is tied with Mississippi for the HIGHEST rate of depression in the U.S. according to the CDC. Nearly 5.3% of adults in WV meet the criteria for clinical depression.

10. Overall Well-Being: According to a Gallup poll that took into account diabetes, frequency of physical activity, consumption of produce, city optimism, and the uninsured – WV ranked as having the LOWEST score of overall well-being.

11. Lack of Registered Dietitians: According to an article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, WV has the second lowest number of Registered Dietitians (RDs) per capita in the state. With only 17 RDs per 100,000 WV residents, this creates a lack of access to accurate nutrition information and accredited nutrition professionals to combat the obesity problem.


BOTTOM LINE: Needless to say, the state of West Virginia has A LOT of confounding factors contributing to it’s obesity epidemic and Registered Dietitians have A LOT of work to do in the future. So we know the obesity problem exists, but how can we fix it? Well…I’ll have to save that blog post for some other time. 🙂


West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health. Obesity in West Virginia. 2011.

Haughton B, Stang J. Population risk factors and trends in health care and public policy. J Acad Nutr & Dietetics. Supp, March 2012.

Whole Wheat, Whole What?

Whole grains are being buzzed about all throughout the media, but many Americans do not understand the true definition of what “whole wheat” actually means and the benefits it can provide to your health.

Refined vs. Whole Grain: Whole Grain WINS the Battle Every Time

Refined grains go through a process called milling, which strip the grain of the bran and the germ (refer to the “Anatomy of a Grain” below).  Milling removes some of the most important nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, Vitamin E, and many minerals.  Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread and degermed cornflower.  Refined grains are most commonly used because of it’s thinner texture, taste, longer shelf life, and price.

Whole grains refer to grains that are not refined, or have not gone through the milling process. This leaves the bran and the germ intact and leaves behind all the nutritious “stuff” – the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Whole grains can either be consumed whole (such as brown rice and my favorite whole grain…popcorn!) or as an ingredient in many foods  (such as whole wheat breads and pastas).

Confused about whole grain vs. whole wheat?? …They are exactly the same thing!!

Types of Whole Grains

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn – including whole cornmeal and popcorn
  • Millet
  • Oats, including oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Rice, brown and wild
  • Rye
  • Sorghum (also called milo)
  • Teff
  • Triticale
  • Wheat – including varieties such as spelt, durum, bulgur, and cracked wheat

Americans Aren’t Getting Enough Whole Grains…Period.

Take a look at the figure below from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines For Americans.

Americans are only reaching 15% of the goal for whole grains and nearly 200% of the limit for refined grains!  To put it simply, we aren’t getting nearly enough whole grains in our diet (and this needs to change, stat.)

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Nutrients in Various Types of Whole Grains

The health benefits of whole grains most documented by repeated studies include:

  • Stroke risk reduced 30-36%
  • Type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21-30%
  • Heart disease risk reduced 25-28%
  • Better weight maintenance

Other benefits indicated by recent studies include:

  • Reduced risk of asthma
  • Healthier carotid arteries
  • Reduced risk of inflammatory diseases
  • Lower risk of colorectal cancer
  • Healthier blood pressure levels
  • Less gum disease and tooth loss

 How Much Should I Be Eating?

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, written by the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services, suggests that at least half of grains should be whole grains. Or to make it simpler,aim for about 3-5 servings of whole grains every day.

Source: 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans

LOOK AT THE FOOD LABEL – Look at the ingredients list. If the FIRST ingredient is whole grain or whole wheat, then it is likely it’s a 100% whole grain product. If whole grain is not the first ingredient listed, then there are other types of grains (not necessarily whole grains) in the product as well.

Look for the Whole Grain Stamps! There are two…

Food producers have the option of putting a “Whole Grain Stamp” on the front of a food package.  There are two types of stamps: a “Basic Stamp” and a “100% Stamp”.

  • Basic Stamp:  The food item contains at least 8 g, or half a serving, of whole grain…BUT may also contain some refined grains as well.
  • 100% Stamp:  The food item has all of it’s grains from whole grains, or a minimum requirement of 16 g of whole grains (which is a whole serving).

A few words of caution…

Folic Acid – Whole grains are not a natural source of folic acid.  Thus, look for items that are fortified with folic acid…the easiest source to find fortified whole grains is ready-to-eat cereals.  Folic acid is especially important for pregnant women in order to prevent the birth defect, spina bifida.


“2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. USDA & Dept. HHS.

The OMG Diet…Like Totes Made Me LOL

Want to lose 20 pounds of pure fat in just 6 weeks?!

This is a claim from the latest fad dieting craze. The OMG Diet is based off the sensationalist book, Six Weeks To OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends. Published in July 2012, it is written by British author, Venice A. Fulton. The book has been criticized for its unorthodox dieting and fitness tips with ideals suggestive to that of eating disorders.  He also stresses “competitive dieting” in order to be the skinniest of all your friends and have them saying “OMG, you look great!”

I scoured through the internet in an attempt to learn more about Venice Fulton, which is only his “pen name”. The author’s real name is Paul Khanna and, according to various sources, he reveals little about himself, his background, and his credentials. What I do know about him is that he hails from North London and has a bachelor’s degree in Sports Science from the University of Bedfordshire. He supposedly helps celebrities (who still remain unnamed) with drastic weight loss.

The author’s strange health tips go against most of the information I have ever learned in my six years of higher education in nutrition. They include:

1.)      Skipping breakfast –  Fulton says: “In the morning, your body has almost no blood sugar floating around, and you literally have once in a day opportunity to burn stored fat immediately.”

2.)    Certain fruits block fat loss – “Fruits and their spin offs like smoothies, certainly contain vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, but they also tend to be rich in fructose.” says Fulton.  “Fructose stops leptin, our body’s fuel gauge, from doing its job. With nothing telling us to pull the gas nozzle out, we keep eating.”

3.)    Snacking is evil – “There’s no such thing as a healthy snack,” says Fulton. “Anything that is consumed between major meal times is certainly unhealthy. And that covers every single thing that is regarded as a health snack. Your body must have long gaps between meals to live off its own structure.” “Snacking is holding back the whole globe. It’s wholly inappropriate for humans, unless you’re a baby.”

4.)    Exercise is most effective in the morning – Preferably prior to eating anything except a cup of black coffee.

5.)    Broccoli carbs are worse than soda carbs – Fulton says: “In some, the quantity of carbohydrate can itself determine their chance of skinny success, with the specific source of the carbs not making a noticeable difference.”

6.)    Guzzle down the coffee – “It encourages your body’s fat cells to open up and release their contents and you can use up more stored body fat as a fuel.” …Just remember to keep it black.

7.)    Cold baths – “Cold baths are a completely natural metabolism booster. The bath should be 68F/20 degrees celsius, which is room temperature water. If you sit in that water, your heart will beat 25 times faster than if you were standing normally in the room. That’s good because it forces your body to increase its metabolic rate. The effect can last up to 15 hours in some people. It’s incredible and a great way to eradicate a sluggish metabolism,” says Fulton.


So what CAN you eat on the OMG Diet??  Here are sample meal plans from two successful OMG-dieters. Doesn’t sound like much food does it? No wonder they lose weight.

Breakfast: Black coffee

Lunch: Tuna sandwich

Dinner: Grilled fish or pork with vegetables

Alcohol: Two pints of lager twice a week and ten pints on a night at the weekend


Breakfast: Diet Coke

Snack: Diet Coke

Lunch: Sandwich or salad with yogurt

Snack: Diet Coke

Dinner: Chicken with veg

Treat: Gin & Tonic every other night


So you’re telling me in order to lose 20 lbs in 6 weeks the only thing I need to do is wake up in the morning, skip breakfast, drink a cup of black coffee, exercise on an empty stomach, take a cold bath, avoid fruits and carbs, and never have any snacks throughout the day?

LOL … I think I would probably pass out from exhaustion and starvation. If I was trying to lose weight, I would try to do it in a healthy way. Yeah, this crazy fad diet might shed some pounds right away, but this type of lifestyle simply isn’t sustainable. Like most other fad diets, you’ll probably just end up gaining all the weight back (if not more).

Not to mention, breakfast is the MOST important meal of the day because it gets your metabolism revving from the get go.  You should eat 5-6 small-portioned meals a day in order to keep your metabolism continuously running.  Another problem I have with this diet is that carbs are NOT the enemy…50-60% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, preferably healthy ones such as FRUIT. Fruit is a great nutrient-dense, low-calorie source of vitamins and minerals. Yes, fruit contains fructose…but there’s nothing wrong with that because fructose is a natural sugar. Trust me, apples and bananas are NOT going to make you fat.  And when did the temperature of my shower effect my body fat? Pssh please. I like my showers steaming hot, thank you.

My opinion is pretty obvious here, and the name is exactly how I feel about this diet…OMG.


“Assault” Pre-Workout Supplement

I have recently had a special request from an undergraduate student to blog about a specific nutritional supplement.  Like many other college-aged males, this student is physically active with an overall goal of increasing lean muscle mass and decreasing body fat. It is rare that I look into one specific brand or supplement, but he asked me to investigate the type of pre-workout supplement he uses, which is called Assault (sounds kind of scary, right?)

Traditionally, pre-workout supplements are consumed prior to training in the hope of enhancing focus, energy, and endurance during exercise as well as decreasing muscle fatigue post-workout.  Pre-workout supplements typically have an array of different ergogenic ingredients. When ingested together, these components are meant to work synergistically to enhance athletic performance. There are literally thousands of nutritional supplements being marketed to the public.  Therefore, athletes need to be wary of  exactly what they are putting into their body, the ingredients, the side effects, and the dosage.  What many individuals do not realize is that the Food and Drug Administration does not federally regulate nutritional supplements. Therefore, there is no 100% guarantee in regards to the manufacturer’s ingredients, nutritional claims, and safety regulations.

Assault Nutrition Facts

Assault is manufactured by MusclePharm in Denver, CO. It contains a vast variety of ingredients, thus making it difficult to pinpoint which ones specifically are the active ingredients that provide the greatest benefit.

One serving of Assault is half a scoop.  However, it is more realistic to assume that many athletes use one whole scoop at a time, making it twice the serving size.

One scoop (or 2 servings) provides:

  • 80 calories
  • 18 g carbohydrates
  • 28 mg Vit. B6 (1400% DV)
  • 170 mcg Vit. B12 (2833% DV)
  • 5 g creatine monohydrate
  • 6 g branched chain amino acids (BCAA)
  • 4 g beta alanine
  • Nitric oxide – Citrulline malate, L-arginine
  • 300 mg caffeine – That’s as much as about 3 cups of coffee…but imagine drinking them all at one time!

The main active ingredient in Assault is more than likely the caffeine content.  The other ergogenic ingredients are the B-vitamins and nitric oxide.  B-vitamins assist with energy metabolism, DNA synthesis, the formation and repair of red blood cells.  Nitric oxide (such as L-citrulline and L-arginine) increases blood flow and oxygen supply to skeletal muscles, which also helps the body to pump out the lactic acid that creates muscle soreness (4).

However, researchers state the creatine and beta-alanine in the supplement both require “loading periods” of ingestion over several weeks in order to provide the best effects. (3)

Proposed Claims and Possible Risks

A 32-serving tub of Assault will run consumers around $30-$40, which will last about a month if used 3-4 times per week. Many users rave about its drinkability because of it’s variety of flavors, such as green apple, blue arctic raspberry, raspberry lemonade, fruit punch, and watermelon.  In fact, dubbed Assault the “Best New Supplement of Year, 2011”.

Proposed Claims (1)

  • Fights muscle fatigue and decreases recovery time
  • Boosts performance
  • Builds lean muscle and decreases body fat
  • Amps up intensity
  • Increases focus and intensity
  • Hydrates muscles – From what I can tell, it really doesn’t “hydrate” your muscles. Instead, it will dehydrate your body because caffeine is a diuretic. In fact, the manufacturer’s recommend drinking a gallon of water a day while taking Assault.  In terms of electrolytes, it certainly doesn’t contain enough to have a hydrating effect…with one serving containing only ~1% DV for potassium and ~2% DV for sodium.

Possible Risks and Side Effects (the company suggests staying hydrated by consuming 1 gallon of water per day to avoid some of these side effects)

  • Fidgety – Probably due to the large dose of caffeine
  • Prickly or tingly feeling of the skin – Probably due to beta-alanine. There are two theories as to why beta-alanine causes itchiness of the skin. 1) Beta-alanine stimulates nerve receptors to trigger the firing of neurotransmitters at random, and 2) Beta-alanine perpetuates the response of nitric oxide, causing a person to literally “feel” the blood running through the capillaries that are close to the skin. (2)
  • Increased heart rate – Caffeine
  • Dizziness – Caffeine or dehydration
  • Headaches – Caffeine or dehydration
  • Trouble sleeping – Caffeine
  • Nausea

Down to the Science

A study published earlier this year investigated the effects of Assault on athletic performance.   The randomized, double-blind study was conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of South Alabama. Twelve recreationally-trained males (average age of 28) participated in the three-week study. Participants were required to attend three separate training sessions. The first session consisted of baseline testing.  During the next two sessions, subjects were randomly assigned to ingest either 1 scoop of the Assault supplement or a placebo drink 20 minutes prior to exercise. The placebo was a flavored carbohydrate drink with similar color and flavor to the supplement.

Subjects were asked to perform exercises to determine 1 repetition max (1 RM) on the bench and leg press, 75% 1 RM on the bench and leg press repetitions to exhaustion, VO2 max, and various choice reaction time testing (which basically tested agility).  Participants were also asked to complete a subjective survey to describe feelings of energy, fatigue, alertness, and focus on a 5-point likert scale.

Results found that ingesting the Assault supplement 20 minutes prior to training provided significant increases only in leg press repetitions to exhaustion, perceived energy, alertness, focus, and some agility exercises.  Most of the benefits of the supplement were seen in anaerobic exercises with no significant increases seen in aerobic endurance performance. (3)

PROs of this study:

  • It was a randomized, double-blind study, meaning neither the researchers nor the participants knew the contents of the drink at that particular time.
  • The researchers were not funded by the manufacturer.
  • The supplement and placebo were similar in color, taste, and size.
  • Subjects completed a 2-day food diary prior to the second training day in order to calculate caffeine intake from other sources.

CONS of this study:

  • Small sample size of only 12 participants.
  • Participants were all male, with no females.
  • Short time period of only 3 weeks
  • Participants were all recreationally trained (with strength values in the 75th and 90th percentile in the bench and leg press 1 RM and VO2 max in the 60th percentile).  It would have been interesting to observe the inclusion of individuals with varying levels of physical activity to see if there are differences in benefits based on a person’s baseline fitness level.
  • According to the 2-day food diaries, subjects consumed an average of 31.5 + 109.4 mg of caffeine per day through other food sources in their diet. To give some perspective, a 12 oz can of Coke contains 35 mg of caffeine and a cup of coffee can contain up to 100 mg of caffeine.  Thus, men who consumed larger quantities of caffeine on a daily basis may not have experienced the same effects of the supplement due to increased tolerance.

What’s the bottom line?

As a nutrition professional, my opinion is always to avoid taking any unnecessary supplements and to get proper nutrients from whole food sources. That being said, Assault DOES seem to work. In the study described above, participants felt more energized and alert during training sessions and the men were able to perform more leg press repetitions compared to the placebo.  The main effect of Assault is most likely due to the high caffeine content. For this reason, habitual caffeine users may not experience the same effects as non-caffeine users due to a higher tolerance. My concern with caffeine is the dangers it has to the body as well as the heart…ESPECIALLY when someone is exercising and their heart rate is increased to begin with.  I also do not like the fact that several users claim to feel “tingly” or “itchy” while using this supplement. I’m no doctor, but I’d say that definitely isn’t normal and definitely isn’t a good thing.





3.      Spradley, et al. Ingesting a pre-workout supplement containing caffeine, B-vitamins, amino acids, creatine, and beta-alanie before exercise delays fatigue while improving reaction time and muscular endurance. 2012. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9:28.