Homemade soft pretzel (plain) - Photo credit Bryan Ochalla - Used unmodified via Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Photo Credit: Bryan Ochalla via Flickr
Used unmodified under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

By Shelly Najjar

Carbohydrates (carbs) are mentioned a lot, by many people. In November you hear about carbohydrates because of Thanksgiving feasts and American Diabetes Month. In January you hear about people going on low-carb diets for weight loss. In the summer people try to give up carbohydrates for swimsuit bodies. Carbohydrates are in the news and in conversation, but what are they? Do we need them? Are they bad? Do they make you gain weight? This post is an introduction to carbohydrates.

What is a carbohydrate?

Medical Dictionary Definition:

any of various neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (as sugars, starches, and celluloses) most of which are formed by green plants and which constitute a major class of animal foods –Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary

Real Life Definition:

Carbohydrates are compounds that occur naturally in foods (and can also be manufactured and added to foods) in three types (starches, sugars, and fibers).

What foods have carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in dairy, starches, fruit, sweetened beverages, and dessert sweets. There can be added or naturally occurring carbohydrates in any of these. Foods do not have to taste sweet to have carbohydrates. Some examples include

  • Dairy: milk, chocolate milk, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and regular or flavored yogurt (not cheese)
  • Starches: any type of pasta, bread, rice, beans, starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, lentils, etc), crackers, cereal, etc (any starchy food)
  • Fruit: apples, oranges, grapes, melon, berries, fruit juice, etc (any fruit)
  • Beverages: fruit juice, lattes, chocolate milk, sweet tea, non-diet sodas, energy drinks, etc (any drink sweetened with anything other than non-caloric sweetener)
  • Sweets: cake, cookies, pies, candy, etc (anything made with starch or fruit ingredients and/or sweetened with anything other than non-caloric sweetener)

Plain meats, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, and tofu (all without added sauces, which could contain carbohydrates) do not have carbohydrates. Also, non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, avocado, lettuce, carrots, onion, etc. are not counted to have carbohydrates if eaten in portions less than 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.

Are some carbohydrates better than others?

Some carbohydrates affect our blood sugar more than others, and have different benefits. The three main types of carbohydrates are starch, sugar, and fiber.

Once digested and absorbed in the body, starch and sugar raise our blood sugar, while fiber, the indigestible carbohydrate, does not have the same effect on our blood sugar. Fiber is not digested or absorbed by our bodies, but it does make us feel full and have many health benefits, so fiber-containing foods are recommended as a part of a healthy diet. Whole grain foods (which has all parts of the grain: endosperm, germ, and bran) have fiber and starch, are also recommended for overall health.

Most starches are digestible in our small intestines and will affect blood sugar, but there is also a type of starch called resistant starch that behaves more like fiber, since it continues into the large intestine without being digested. And, like fiber, many resistant starches can be digested or fermented by the bacteria in our large intestine, which helps us stay healthy (Source: Weisenberger, 2012).

Sugars can be naturally occurring or added to foods. Examples of foods with naturally occurring sugars are apples and milk. Added sugar is in many candies, cookies, and canned fruits in syrup, and includes sugars like honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, raw sugar, etc. Even if the food (like honey) has sugar naturally, when used as a sweetener, it counts as an added sugar. In general, the recommendation is to eat as few added sugars as possible.

Are carbs bad for us? Do they make you gain weight? How many carbs do we need?

Carbohydrates are neutral. We need carbohydrates to live, but too many or too few of them in our diets can cause problems. Carbohydrates on their own do not cause a person to gain or lose weight. Weight changes are caused by a variety of factors, including diet. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA2010):

“Strong evidence shows that there is no optimal proportion of macronutrients [macronutrients include carbs, fat, and protein] that can facilitate weight loss or can assist in maintaining weight loss […] evidence shows that the critical issue is not the relative proportion of macronutrients in the diet, but whether or not the eating pattern is reduced in calories and the individual is able to maintain a reduced-calorie intake over time. The total number of calories consumed is the essential dietary factor relevant to body weight.”

It goes on to say that we can choose healthy eating patterns that work for us, as long as they are within the right caloric range for us, and are consistent with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) established by the Institute of Medicine. The AMDRs are “ranges for the percentage of calories in the diet that should come from carbohydrate, protein, and fat” and “take into account both chronic disease risk reduction and intake of essential nutrients” (Source: DGA2010). Based on the ADMRs, we should eat between 45-65% of our total calories from carbohydrates. This includes all sources and types of carbohydrates and should be based on how your body responds and your overall health. (Your medical team can help you decide exactly how many carbohydrates you should eat – Click here to find a dietitian).

In general, most healthy people do well with about 45-50% (about half) of their calories coming from carbohydrates. For someone eating 1800 calories, this is about 200-225 grams of carbohydrates, spread out evenly throughout the day (usually about 45-60 grams at each of 3 meals, plus about 15 grams at 2 snacks between meals). Carbohydrates should come from a variety of foods, including many fiber-containing foods. Here are some helpful guides to let you know how many grams of carbohydrates are in how much of certain foods:


  • Carbohydrates come in many types, from many foods.
  • We need carbohydrates to live, and they can and should be part of a healthy diet, coming from a variety of healthy foods.
  • While most people seem do well on a diet with up to half their calories coming from carbohydrates (about 45-60 grams carbohydrate per meal), only a medical team can help you decide what your specific health situation requires.

Read More:

Shelly Najjar, MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and editor of Nutrition Nuts and Bolts. You can contact her on Twitter (@ShellyNajjar), LinkedIn, and at shellynajjar.com.

Like this post? You can support me and this blog if you click here before shopping on Amazon, so that a small commission on whatever you buy will be sent to me at no extra cost to you.

Cooking oil in pan - Free use photo via morgueFile

Free use photo by cgiraldez via morgueFile

Last week I participated in a hands-on cooking class at a wonderful co-op in Seattle. While searing an oh-so-tasty chicken tarragon entrée in organic canola oil, the question arose, as it usually does at cooking classes: “What oil is best to cook with?”

Olive Oil – To Cook with, or Not to Cook with?

You may have heard that olive oil is not the wisest choice for cooking. “Why is that? But I’ve heard it’s healthy for you,” you might say. And you’re right. It is good for your health. It is rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3s, monounsaturated fats (a healthy dietary fat that may help lower total cholesterol) and is a staple of the Mediterranean Diet.

But olive oil has a lower smoke point, which means that olive oil will begin to smoke when cooking at temperatures between approximately 325°F to 460°F, depending on type. Heating olive oil or any oil to its smoke point degrades its healthy compounds, even increasing harmful, potentially carcinogenic compounds, and releasing free radicals which can ravage our cells.

Hello there olive oil and balsamic vinegar little fella. Photo Credit: Aden Davies (ad76) on Flickr

Photo credit:
Aden Davies (ad76) on Flickr
Used unmodified under
CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Olive oil has its place, though, as an ingredient in salad dressings and for sautéing vegetables over low to medium heat. Combine it with balsamic vinegar for a dipping for whole grain breads.

What Should I Use Instead?

The answer depends on personal preference as well as the type of cooking you are doing. Use oils with a high smoke point for searing, browning and all-purpose cooking. Use oils with a medium-high smoke point for baking, oven cooking, sautéing and stir-frying. Oils with a medium smoke point are best for lighter sautés, sauces and cooking over low heat.

If you’re seeking an oil with a higher smoke point for all-purpose cooking, consider canola oil, which has a neutral flavor and is loaded with those heart-healthy omega-3s. The chef at my cooking class opted for canola for the chicken tarragon, noting it is also a good source of monounsaturated fats and is versatile, good for high-heat cooking as well as baking and sautéing.

Peanut oil also has a high smoke point and is a smart choice for stir-fries and other high-heat cooking. Avocado, almond, safflower and sunflower oils are also good varieties for higher-heat cooking.

Is Rice Bran Oil in Your Pantry?

If not, you might want to seek out a bottle, but be forewarned this oil comes with a slightly higher price tag at approximately 12 cents per ounce versus 6 cents per ounce for canola oil, according to a recent comparison by Cooks Illustrated. Price aside, interestingly, the chef whipping up the divine chicken tarragon entrée recommended rice bran oil for high-heat and all-purpose cooking. Rice bran oil? I hadn’t heard of it. Apparently many others in the class hadn’t, either. “What…” we chimed, “…is that?”

Chef Pam Sawyer explained that rice bran oil is her go-to for its health benefits and variety in application. Rice bran oil contains nearly 50 percent monounsaturated fats and similar to olive oil and canola oil, is high in omega-3s. It is a good source of vitamin E, which serves as an antioxidant that rids the body of damaging free radicals that arise from normal metabolic processes and from environmental factors such as pollutants.

Rice bran oil’s versatility lends itself well for sautéing, baking and cooking at high heat given its high smoke point (approximately 495°F). Sawyer also uses less of it when cooking, in comparison to multiple dollops of other oils that she has had to use while cooking. The rice bran oil heats up nicely and evenly, is light and coats a pan with a thin sheen.

This shelf-stable oil can last approximately three years in your pantry; it is one of the most stable oil options. “You can have this oil near your stove and it won’t break down like other oils would,” Sawyer said. Canola oil, in comparison, can go rancid at room temperature in a hurry, Sawyer said; thus, she suggests refrigerating canola if that is your preferred oil.

Here’s to healthy cooking!

**Please share – what is your favorite cooking oil?**

Krista Ulatowski, MPH, RD, is based in Seattle, where she practices in the areas of nutrition writing, marketing and social media. She also counsels clients in weight loss and corporate wellness settings. Connect with her at @PhytoK or send an email: krista.ulatowski@gmail.com.

You may also be interested in…

Dark Chocolate Caramel Turtle Brownies by Elaine Ashton (hfb) on Flickr

Dark Chocolate Caramel Turtle Brownies
Photo Credit: Elaine Ashton (hfb) on Flickr
Used unmodified under CC BY-ND 2.0 license

By Shelly Najjar

Calories: It’s on every food label, but what does it mean? What do they do? How many should we eat?


“A unit of measure used to express the amount of energy in a food”
Source: Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food (2007) by McGuire and Beerman (I get commissions for purchases made through that link*)

In general science, a calorie (little “c”) is a very tiny measure of energy. To make this amount useful, in nutrition, we talk about Calorie (big “C”), kilocalories, kcals, or kcalories. These words all mean the same thing: 1000 calories (with the little “c”). The one on the food label is the big “C” version.

How many Calories should I eat?

Everybody needs calories to live. There are many equations you can use to find out how many Calories you should eat each day, but to make it easier, you can use a Calorie needs estimator that will calculate a range for you. The range will change based on many factors.

These include

  • age
  • sex
  • height
  • current weight
  • goal weight
  • activity level
  • if you’re recovering from serious injury (like major burns, trauma, broken bones, etc)
  • if you’re female, the program also should ask you if you’re pregnant or nursing

You can also get a free customized food plan from the USDA’s SuperTracker program, which includes estimations of how many Calorie, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and other nutrients you need each day.

Where do calories come from?

Calories are in almost every food we eat or drink, with the exception of plain water (and water flavored with zero-calorie flavorings). Some foods and drinks have more calories than others.

Foods are made up of the macronutrients called carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Some foods and drinks also have alcohol in them. Here is the amount of Calories that each gram of those things provide:

  • Carbohydrates (carbs) have 4 Calories (kcal) in 1 gram (g)
  • Fats have 9 Calories (kcal) in 1 gram (g)
  • Proteins have 4 Calories (kcal) in 1 gram (g)
  • Alcohol has 7 Calories (kcal) in 1 gram (g)

A note on the alcohol calories: This is per gram of alcohol, not per gram of alcoholic beverage. If you drink mixed drinks with lots of sugar (a carbohydrate), you need to add the calories from each gram of sugar (even if it’s natural sugar from fruit juice) to figure out how many total calories the drink has.

How many calories are in… ?

If you want to find out how many calories a certain food has, you can check the Nutrition Facts label. If the food doesn’t have a label, you can use a variety of resources to find out how many calories a food has.

Here are some reputable places to look for calorie information:

You may also want to read…

Shelly Najjar, MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and editor of Nutrition Nuts and Bolts. You can find her on Twitter (@ShellyNajjar), LinkedIn, and at shellynajjar.com

I appreciate your support. *Affiliate link = Amazon pays me a small portion of the sale price, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend things that I think are worth buying. You can support me and this blog if you click here before shopping on Amazon, so that a small commission on whatever you buy will be sent to me at no extra cost to you.

whole wheat bread

Bread made with wheat flour is one common source of gluten.
Photo by Stacy Spensley (notahipster on Flickr)
Used unmodified under the CC Attribution license

Is the gluten-free diet a food fad that will eventually flame out, or is it a path to better health? The answer depends on whether you need to avoid gluten…and the fact is that most people don’t need to.

What is gluten and where is it found? Who should avoid it?

Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat and other members the Triticeae tribe of grasses: Rye, barley, triticale, kamut and spelt. Most people can eat these cereal grains without ill effects. However, an estimated 8 in 100 people can’t, due to a wheat allergy, celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

How common are wheat allergies?

Fewer than 1 in 100 children have a wheat allergy (1), and about half will outgrow it before adulthood. If you have a wheat allergy, your body’s immune system reacts inappropriately to one (or more) of the many proteins found in wheat. This may or may not include gluten. Symptoms appear within minutes or hours and can include skin rashes, intestinal discomfort, wheezing and anaphylaxis. Generally, people with wheat allergies don’t have problems eating rye and barley.

What is celiac disease? How common is it?

As many as 1 in 100 people have celiac disease (1), a genetically inherited autoimmune condition that causes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine after gluten is ingested. Celiac disease isn’t a food allergy in the traditional sense, because it involves different antibodies than involved in most food allergies, including wheat allergy. Celiac disease is sometimes called gluten intolerance, but this term is imprecise and falling out of favor.

With celiac disease, the reaction to gluten can be pinpointed to specific parts of the complex gluten protein: alpha-gliadins (wheat), hordeins (barley) and secalins (rye). When gluten reaches the small intestine, these so-called “celiac molecules” are freed and modified by the tissue transglutaminase (tTG) enzyme. It’s during this process that the immune system goes on the defensive in people with celiac disease, and the cells that line the small intestine get caught in the crossfire.

What happens when individuals with celiac disease eat gluten?

Intestinal Villi by Shelly Najjar for Nutrition Nuts and Bolts

Villi are fingerlike projections from the small intestine that increase your body’s ability to absorb nutrients. If a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, the villi get flattened and nutrients aren’t absorbed as easily.
(Yes, this is a Microsoft Paint drawing, but you get the point, right?)

The immune system’s defensive attack causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine. Over time, the small finger-like projections (villi) of the intestinal lining become flattened, or atrophied. This is significant, because the villi greatly increase the surface area of the intestinal wall, allowing for adequate absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. When the villi become atrophied, the body has trouble absorbing certain nutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin D and folate. Down the road, this can lead to health problems like anemia and osteoporosis.

Potential symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, vomiting and poor appetite, as well as weight changes, chronic fatigue and neurological problems. Infants and young children may be short for their age or fail to gain weight. However, many people (adults in particular) with celiac disease have no obvious symptoms, which means the intestinal damage and poor nutrient absorption can continue unchecked unless they are tested for the disease.

Can I inherit celiac disease?

Celiac disease is associated with two human leukocyte antigen (HLA) genes, HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8. About 95 percent of people with celiac disease test positive for the HLA-DQ2 gene. The remaining 5 percent usually have the HLA-DQ8 gene, and there are a number of other genes that collectively contribute in small ways to celiac disease risk (2). However, only a fraction of people who are carriers of the HLA-DQ2 gene, will go on to develop celiac disease, suggesting that being genetically predisposed is necessary but not sufficient.

How is gluten sensitivity different from celiac disease?

An estimated 6 in 100 people suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) (3), which has similar symptoms but does not cause damage to the intestines.

What is the treatment for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?

The only known treatment for celiac disease is total, lifelong avoidance of gluten. This means avoiding not just the gluten-containing grains themselves, but foods that contain the isolated gluten. There is no known safe level of gluten consumption for people with celiac disease, and even tiny amounts have the potential to cause intestinal damage and long-term health problems. Oats cause problems for some people with celiac, but it’s unclear whether this is due to cross-contamination or to an actual protein component of the oat. People with gluten sensitivity can often be less strict about avoiding gluten, letting their symptoms be their guide.

How are celiac disease and gluten sensitivity diagnosed?

Because celiac disease is a lifelong condition that requires total avoidance of gluten, while gluten sensitivity is less severe, it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis. Testing for celiac disease starts with blood tests for specific antibodies. If the test results are positive, the final step to confirm diagnosis is to take biopsies from four to six areas of the small intestine to look for flattening of the villi.

For accurate diagnosis it is important to undergo testing before giving up gluten. The symptoms, intestinal damage and antibody levels associated with celiac disease resolve quickly when gluten is removed from the diet.

There is no standard method of diagnosing gluten sensitivity. The first step is to rule out wheat allergy and celiac disease, as well as other conditions that can cause intestinal inflammation and distress, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Then, if symptoms improve on a gluten-free diet and return after adding gluten back to the diet, gluten sensitivity is the likely culprit.

Can a gluten-free diet improve my health or help me lose weight?

There are many healthful, naturally gluten-free foods that have benefits for everyone. For example: fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, nuts, eggs, yogurt, poultry, lean meat and gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice. However, gluten-free cookies, cakes, crackers and other processed foods may be just as processed and filled with artificial ingredients as their gluten-containing counterparts. Even worse, most gluten-free flours and grain products are not vitamin-enriched. The bottom line for all eaters is this: Consider what you are eating as well as what you aren’t eating.

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Seattle registered dietitian nutritionist and a graduate of the Nutritional Sciences Program and the Graduate Coordinated Program in Dietetics at the University of Washington. She writes a nutrition column, “On Nutrition,” for the Sunday Seattle Times. She also blogs at Nutrition By Carrie.

(1) Pietzak M. Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity: When gluten free is not a fad. J Parenter Enteral Nutr 2012 36: 68S

(2) Sapone A et al. Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: Consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine 2012, 10:13

(3) Volta U et al. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: Questions still to be answered despite increasing awareness. Cellular & Molecular immunology 2013 10, 383-392

What are nutrients?

Posted: January 14, 2014 in What is ... ?
Tags: , ,
Photo Credit: Gualberto107 via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Photo Credit: Gualberto107 via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Shelly Najjar

“Nutritious,” “nutrient-rich,” and “nutrient-dense” are words used often in the media and by health experts. But what do they mean?

What are nutrients?

Here are two slightly different explanations of what nutrients are:

There are six categories of nutrients:

  • water, carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (these are all called macronutrients, because we need to eat relatively large amounts of them)
  • vitamins and minerals (these are both called micronutrients because we need to eat very small amounts of these)

Buzz-word Dictionary

Nutrient-dense: “the relative ratio of nutrients in a food in comparison to total calories” (Source: Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food*)
(*I get commissions for purchases made through this link)

Nutrient-rich: the same as nutrient-dense

Nutritious: provides nutrients (Source: Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary); “Foods that contain high levels of nutrients are more nutritious than foods that do not.” (Source: Nutritional Sciences: From Fundamentals to Food*)
(*I get commissions for purchases made through this link)

How do you know if a food has nutrients in it?

For packaged foods, you can read the food label.

For foods without packages, you can look up foods on sites like SuperTracker or CalorieKing.

You can also eat healthier and get more nutrients by following these suggestions:

  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean meats, and other protein sources like seafood
  • Limit added sugars, saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium (salt), refined grains, and alcohol

To get free information about nutrition basics delivered to your inbox, click here.

You may also be interested in reading…

Shelly Najjar, MPH, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and editor of Nutrition Nuts and Bolts. You can find her on Twitter (@ShellyNajjar), LinkedIn, and at shellynajjar.com.

I appreciate your support. *Affiliate link = Amazon pays me a small portion of the sale price, at no extra cost to you. I only recommend things that I think are worth buying. You can support me and this blog if you click here before shopping on Amazon, so that a small commission on whatever you buy will be sent to me at no extra cost to you.