Your top nutrition queries answered

By Joan Wides, August 8, 2008
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Learn whether chicken soup gets rid of colds, why you should eat breakfast and how to get your omega-3

I can't eat breakfast. Why is it so important that I should?
After the overnight fast, a carbohydrate-rich breakfast such as cereal, toast and fruit supplies the brain with glucose to boost performance. Regular breakfast eaters have been found to have better memory, concentration and mood than those who do not eat breakfast. By skipping breakfast, you risk missing out on important nutrients like fibre, iron, folic acid and calcium. Research has shown that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight than breakfast eaters.

No-one in my family likes eating fish, and one is a strict vegetarian. From which foods other than fish can they get omega-3 fatty acids?
Oil-rich fish is the best source of heart- protective long-chain omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Some short-chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant sources such as flaxseeds (linseeds), pumpkin seeds, rapeseed (canola) oil, nuts such as walnuts and to a lesser extent, soya and green vegetables. But these short-chain fatty acids do not have the same health benefits as the long-chain fatty acids found in oily fish. Omega-3 supplements are available, as are eggs, milks, yoghurts and breads fortified in varying amounts with omega-3 long-chain fatty acids.

Are there health benefits which justify paying extra for organic foods?
Many choose organic food to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives, despite the fact that pesticide use is strictly controlled and residues monitored. Others believe organic food is more nutritious. But most evidence shows that the nutrient levels are similar in foods produced by both organic and conventional agriculture.

Is it true chicken soup is good for getting rid of colds and flu?
Although anecdotally, chicken soup has medicinal/therapeutic properties, there is no evidence to support the idea that it boosts the immune system. Probably its comforting nature plus the care and love underpinning its making rather than its nutritional content makes it therapeutic.

I don't like red meat. Do I need to eat it?
Red meat is a valuable source of protein, vitamins and minerals, and iron. Lack of iron can cause anaemia, which can result in irritability, low mood, tiredness, and impaired concentration. If you do not eat red meat, you can obtain iron from oily fish (mackerel, sardines, herrings) and dark poultry meat (chicken and turkey) and some from eggs. Vegetable iron, which is less well absorbed, is provided by fortified breakfast cereals, nuts, pulses, green leafy vegetables and wholemeal bread. Eating Vitamin C-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables at the same meal will enhance its absorption.

Are there any foods which will help my son's acne?
Emerging research has shown that a low-GI (Glycemic Index) diet may be beneficial in treating acne. The surges of sugar in the blood following a high-GI diet are thought to produce excessive insulin which has an impact on the hormones involved in acne. More research is required before a low-GI diet to reduce acne can be conclusively recommended. Foods that provide Vitamins A, C and E (fruit, vegetables and other plant foods) and zinc (meat, dairy produce, nuts and seeds), together with eight glasses of water per day, are considered beneficial for everyone's skin.

Is a vegetarian diet always healthier than a non-vegetarian one?
Vegetarian meals are not always a healthier choice than those based on animal foods, since some vegetarian dishes contain a lot of fat, especially when they are made with cheese, oil, pastry or creamy sauces, or if they have been fried. Lean cuts of red meat with all the visible fat removed, chicken without the skin and fish cooked without too much fat are healthy low fat options. Choose low-fat vegetarian dishes made with pulses, TVP or tofu.

Is it true that lack of sleep causes weight gain?
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is a risk factor for obesity. Sleep deprivation (under eight hours of sleep per night) was found to be associated with changes in hormones that control hunger. Levels of the hormones leptin (curtails appetite) were reduced, while those of ghrelin (increases appetite) were increased. Healthy men having under four hours' sleep per night were found to have significantly greater cravings for calorie-dense sweet, salty and starchy foods. Sleep deprived people are likely to be less physically active and so have lower energy expenditure. Also, less time spent sleeping means more time available for eating and drinking!

I'd like to cut down on salt but I can't work out the difference between sodium and salt on the food labels.
Salt is made up of sodium and chloride. Sodium is the ingredient which can cause raised blood pressure. To calculate the amount of salt in a food, multiply the amount of sodium by 2.5. Current health guidelines advise us to eat no more than 6g of salt (2.5g of sodium) per day.

Last updated: 3:50pm, August 22 2008