Is Organic food better?

By Wenjun Liu, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

When it comes to organic foods, there are two commonly asked questions.  The first is are they healthier and the second, are they safer than conventionally grown products. 

Many of us used to believe organic foods had higher vitamin and mineral content. A recent systemic review on human studies found that there was no significant difference in vitamin and mineral content between organic and conventional plant or animal products, but a difference was noted in polyphenolic phytonutrient content. The study reported 19-69% higher levels of phytonutrients in organic foods as compared to conventional foods. Research has not yet identified why organic foods contain higher amounts of these disease-fighting factors.

When trying to decide between organic or conventional, there are a few things to consider. Organic foods tend to be harder to find and when you find them they are more expensive – up to 40% more than their conventional partner. 

Another reason people might choose to consume organic produce is for a reduced likelihood of pesticide residue.  Pesticide use is heavily regulated in the United States and you are not likely to find much residue, even on a conventional product. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes the “Dirty Dozen” annually.  This list identifies particular plant products that you may want to consider buying organically, if you are concerned about chemicals.  There is a companion “Clean Fifteen” list that includes products that normally contain very little pesticide residue.

Overall, aim for consumption of more whole, unprocessed plants and/or plant-based foods whether organic or conventional, because they contain abundant fiber, vitamins, and minerals.                      

Is Organic Healthier?

By Wenjun Liu, UC Davis, Healthy Aggies Nutrition Peer Counselor

When it comes to organic foods, there are two commonly asked questions.  The first is are they healthier and the second, are they safer than conventionally grown products. 

Many of us used to believe organic foods had higher vitamin and mineral content. A recent systemic review on human studies found that there was no significant difference in vitamin and mineral content between organic and conventional plant or animal products, but a difference was noted in polyphenolic phytonutrient content. The study reported 19-69% higher levels of phytonutrients in organic foods as compared to conventional foods. Research has not yet identified why organic foods contain higher amounts of these disease-fighting factors.

When trying to decide between organic or conventional, there are a few things to consider. Organic foods tend to be harder to find and when you find them they are more expensive – up to 40% more than their conventional partner. 

Another reason people might choose to consume organic produce is for a reduced likelihood of pesticide residue.  Pesticide use is heavily regulated in the United States and you are not likely to find much residue, even on a conventional product. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes the “Dirty Dozen” annually.  This list identifies particular plant products that you may want to consider buying organically, if you are concerned about chemicals.  There is a companion “Clean Fifteen” list that includes products that normally contain very little pesticide residue.

Overall, aim for consumption of more whole, unprocessed plants and/or plant-based foods whether organic or conventional, because they contain abundant fiber, vitamins, and minerals.                      

The only ‘diet’ you need: Intuitive Eating

By Meigan Freeman, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

Intuitive eating was developed by two registered dietitian nutritionists as an alternative to toxic diet culture. It focuses on taking care of your body rather than starving it, as many diets tend to do. From this revolutionary program branched many other projects, including Health at Every Size® (HAES®), a body acceptance movement developed by our very own UC Davis doctoral graduate, Dr. Lindo Bacon. Intuitive eating and HAES® have been the focus of many research studies which result in increased self-esteem, mental wellness, fruit and veggie intake, and decreased eating disorder behaviors in participants. 

Before we dive into these research studies, I want to break down a common body weight myth. Have you heard that being overweight is a risk factor for higher mortality or certain diseases? I sure have, however this correlation is toxic and demonizes overweight or obese individuals for a largely genetic and environmental factor which is difficult to control, their body mass index (BMI). Many epidemiological studies that assessed the relationship between BMI and mortality did not control for confounding factors like fitness, nutrition quality, weight cycling, or socioeconomic status. When the confounders are controlled for, the association between weight and mortality tend to decline. Body weight may be an indicator of unmeasured lifestyle factors, some of which can be modified with healthy lifestyle behaviors regardless of BMI (Campos, P., et al). In other words, BMI is not the most readily controllable factor towards health, rather health is about other factors, like increased fruit and veggie intake, fitness, and mental well-being. For a further breakdown of common nutrition myths, I highly encourage you to read Dr. Bacon’s short and informative HAES® manifesto.

Despite what the media wants you to believe, it is so important to understand that a person’s weight and BMI is NOT a measure of their health. Remember, you cannot tell just by looking at someone’s weight if they are healthy or not. So, if losing weight is not the cure-all for living a healthy life, then what is? Well, intuitive eating will not cure everything, but research does show that applying this weight-neutral concept can provide participants with long-lasting mental and physical benefits. 

            The first study I looked at was conducted by Dr. Vivienne Hazzard, PhD, MPH, RD who studied the associations of intuitive eating by following a group of ~1,500 adolescent participants over 10 years. She found that intuitive eating education was linked to lower instances of depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, and extreme weight control behaviors, such as binge-eating, skipping meals, and diet pill intake (Hazzard et. al., 2020). 

In a second study, Dr. Mary Christoph, PhD, MPH, followed up on the same participants who were previously educated in intuitive eating as adolescents and then surveyed them on retained intuitive eating knowledge and dietary intake as adults. Women in the top quartile of intuitive eating retention consumed 0.6 servings more fruit and 0.4 servings more vegetables, as compared to women in the bottom quartile. Men in the same top quartile consumed 0.3 servings more fruit and 0.6 servings more vegetables, but 0.6 less servings of whole grains, as compared to men in the bottom quartile (Christoph et. al., 2020). Overall, participants who retained their intuitive eating knowledge as adults consumed more fruits and vegetables than participants who did not retain this knowledge. As we all know, regular consumption of fruit and vegetables are important for obtaining fiber and micronutrients.  

            A third study conducted by Kelly Romano, MS, EdS, found harmful associations between calorie counting and self-weighing among college students. These behaviors were linked to higher levels of eating disorder severity and attitudes as assessed by the standardized Eating Disorder Questionnaire. In contrast, intuitive eating was found to be associated with lower eating disorder severity scores (Romano et. al., 2018) These results are especially alarming to me, as I see many so-called nutrition and fitness experts encouraging calorie counting on social media. Next time you come across this advice, consider whether or not it is healthy for your mental and physical well-being. 

            Overall these research studies show that intuitive eating can lower disordered eating attitudes, including binge eating, restriction, and diet pill intake, increase body- and self-esteem, and even increase fruit and veggie intake as compared to weight-loss focused diets. You can start incorporating intuitive eating and HAES® into your life by: 

I sincerely hope intuitive eating and HAES® has resonated with you. As a nutrition student, it breaks my heart to see my family, friends, and peers fall into the weight-loss trap. You do not need to lose weight to be healthy or beautiful. Embrace your diversity and treat yourself with kindness. For more intuitive eating resources, tips, and studies visit intuitiveeating.org and lindobacon.com

Food Safety Tips and Tricks

By Brandy Carrillo, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

As we continue to practice social distancing and follow safety guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves spending a lot more time at home. Because of this, I myself have started to bring out the inner chef within me and have done a lot more cooking at home. While it is great that many of us have become more skilled in the kitchen, it is also important to remember to keep the basics of food safety and handling and in mind when preparing your home-cooked meals. Food safety goes far beyond the simple “wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm soapy water” and encompasses all the steps you may take while reaching that final cooked product. Today I’ll be sharing some basic food safety tips and tricks to help guide you in the kitchen and allow you to prepare delicious and nutritious home-cooked meals safely.

Grocery Shopping

  • Make sure to always double-check the expiration date on all items in your shopping cart
  • Be wary of items with visible dents, holes, or tears in their packaging
  • Keep any raw meat seafood, or poultry separate from other items in your cart to help avoid cross-contamination
  • Try to make cold/ refrigerated items the very last thing you toss into your cart
  • Make sure to inspect any produce for signs of spoilage or mold especially in pre-packaged/ pre-portioned bundles

Storage

  • Be sure to refrigerate any perishable items within 2 hours (1 hour if the temperature is above 90℉) of purchase
  • Make sure to allow cooked meals to completely cool down before storing them in the fridge and never immediately refrigerate hot foods
  • Hot foods should be stored in large, flat containers so they cool down more efficiently
  • Make sure to accurately label leftovers with the date they were cooked and stored

Food Preparation

  • Thaw frozen meats in the fridge and not at room temperature
  • Separate meat, poultry, and seafood during preparation and never use the same cutting board and utensils to prep meats and fresh produce
  • Make sure to thoroughly wash hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food

Cooking

  • Always follow the cooking directions on the packaging of food
  • Always reheat leftovers to at least 165℉ and bring all sauces and soups back to a boil
  • Make sure to cook raw meat, poultry, and egg products thoroughly and use a food thermometer to check if foods have been cooked to a high enough temperature to kill any harmful bacteria

As busy college students, it is crucial to take necessary precautions during our grocery shopping, food handling, storage, and preparation to help drastically decrease the risk of foodborne illness. While it’s really easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of student life, it’s important to make sure we can do everything we can to keep ourselves safe during these crazy times.

The Link Between Mind and Gut: A Close Look at IBS

By Meigan Freeman, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

Did you know that your gut has a brain of its own? Okay, it may not be a whole brain, it can’t paint a masterpiece or write an essay for you, but it does respond to your emotions and eating habits. Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach before a date or interview? Those “butterflies” are your gut-brain responding to your emotions and they have a profound effect on digestion. Your gut, including the intestines, stomach, and esophagus is surrounded by a set of neurons, called the enteric nervous system (ENS), which controls digestion. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a gut disorder and provides an excellent example of the interesting relationship between our higher brain and gut nerves.

IBS affects 12% of the population in North America and affects more women than men. The disease is chronic and can be incredibly uncomfortable to live with, causing diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and bloating. IBS is a biopsychosocial disorder meaning biological (certain foods), psychological (emotions and mental illness), and social factors (support system and routine) influence flare-ups. Without one certain cause, IBS is difficult to understand and treat. Thankfully there are some helpful ways to manage this disorder, which I will outline, but first let’s consider how our gut-brain and mind influences IBS.

Our body is made up of two nervous systems, the central nervous system which consists of the brain and spinal cord and the peripheral nervous system, encompassing all other nerves. This series of nerves allows the brain and gut to communicate through neurons and hormones. When the higher brain is stressed, communication can be compromised with increased stress hormones. Studies in patients with IBS showed increased activity in the hypothalamus and amygdala, two important organs which release stress hormones related to our flight or fight response. In particular, the hypothalamus releases the stress hormone, corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF). Rats with heightened CRF levels show increased anxiety-like behavior, diarrhea, and stomach sensitivity, some symptoms of IBS. These studies indicate that when patients are stressed or anxious their brain releases stress hormones which interact with their gut-brain, resulting in digestion problems and pain. Furthermore, stressful and traumatic events like rape and childhood abuse have lead to digestive disorders, manifesting sometimes weeks and even decades after the event.

If you suffer from IBS, know that there are ways to manage this disorder. Although, I will give some tips below, it is important to speak to your doctor or a dietitian about your individual care. Here are the tips as promised, mostly obtained from Harvard Medical School.

  • Eat fiber rich foods. An easy way to do this is by simply incorporating more fruits and veggies into your diet and replacing some refined grains with whole grains.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, especially water and caffeine free tea.
  • I know it can be difficult, but try to avoid stressful situations as much as possible. Consider talking to a therapist for mental help and clarity. A startling 50-90% of IBS patients have mental illness, mostly anxiety and depressive disorders. Do not be afraid to ask for help.
  • If stressful situations cannot be avoided, try managing the stress with meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, or journaling. A free yoga resource I personally love is Yoga with Adriene on YouTube. Any other ways that personally help you to relax are also encouraged.
  • Get regular sleep. This helps keep stress levels down.
  • Many IBS patients find success with a low-FODMAP diet, or foods low in specific, hard-to-digest, carbohydrates. I highly recommend working with a dietitian on this diet, but I included an image below for reference of foods to avoid and enjoy.
  • Try keeping a food diary to see which foods give you more digestive distress. Use the avoid section on the image below for the most common foods that cause digestive issues.

I hope this article was helpful to you, especially those with IBS. As you can see, IBS is a complicated disorder due to the intertwined feedback of mind, gut, and body. Much research is still needed for how mental stress can manifest as physical symptoms, nevertheless you can get help with this disorder by working with a doctor and dietitian.

image source

Intuitive Health

By Rebecca Rinck, Heathy Aggies Intern

I’ve found that the Covid-19 pandemic has been similar to the first year of college in stress and eating habits. I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed and out of touch with my body and health. Additionally, it’s a new year! With the new year comes the pressure of making a resolution. For me, a new year’s resolution usually revolves around being healthier through diet and exercise. But for some reason, these resolutions never lasted very long. I’ve realized they probably did not work because they did not give me joy. While promoting your health through diet and exercise is a common goal, I was doing it for the wrong reasons.

Instead, this year I decided to combat the pandemic’s stressful times and resolution pressures with intuitive eating and exercise. Intuitive eating is the practice of listening to your body for hunger cues and eating in response to hunger or appetite in a way that values pleasure. While intuitive exercise is encouraging physical activity that is enjoyable and not discouraging. This is not about losing weight or trying to look a certain way, but instead is the idea that people should adopt healthy habits for the sake of their happiness and health. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty good to me.

Here are a few steps to get yourself started:

Start listening to yourself

We spend a lot of time thinking about others, but we often lack focus on ourselves. Start by checking-in with yourself throughout the week, maybe write down what you did and how you felt that day. Simply listening to your wants and needs is a great way to start practicing intuitive eating and exercise.

Permit yourself

Intuitive eating focuses on permitting yourself to eat. It moves the motive away from weight-loss and towards a healthier mind and body. Intuitive eating also means straying away from restrictive ‘fad’ diets because these diets lead to deprivation, often leading to binging, which then leads to guilt, followed by restriction. This cycle is unhealthy for not just our bodies but also our minds. Instead, remember to respect your body, no matter your weight or shape.

Intuitive exercise means permitting yourself to have a day off. Overworking our bodies does not do us any good. We should instead allow ourselves to relax without needing permission through exercise to eat.

Take pleasure

Taking pleasure and having a good relationship with your food is very important. Start by simply breathing. Allow yourself to take your time, breathe, and really enjoy your food. A slower pace allows us to feel fullness indicators and determine when we reach satiety. Check-in with your fullness and stop eating when you are comfortably full or satisfied; remember you can eat more when you’re hungry again.

Take pleasure in your movement! Move your body in ways that are enjoyable for you. Exercising is a great way to work off some pandemic stress and can boost your mental and physical health. So, try out different activities! Maybe hiking or biking along trails is your thing! For me, yoga and weight training make me enjoy exercising and improved my mental well-being.

Be mindful

Be aware of your food and pay attention to its taste while refraining from mindless munching. Eat with compassion and notice when rules or guilt come to mind. Be in the moment by turning off the T.V. or other entertainment. Be with your food and just your food. Savor your food by thinking about the different smells, tastes, and textures. Is your meal spicy, crunchy, or salty? Lastly, observe by noticing your body. Is it rumbling? Do you feel satisfied or full?

These practices apply to intuitive exercise as well! How did you feel after that yoga class? If your activity is done outside, take notice of your surroundings. Is it cold, bright, or quiet? While entertainment during exercise is popular, maybe try turning down the volume or completely omitting any extra noise. On the other hand, music can make workouts more enjoyable as well! It is all about what works for you.

These small changes can have powerful effects! Let us know how intuitive eating and exercise work for you. Which of these practices did you implement? Which exercises bring you joy?

Sweet Dreams!

By Claire Benoist, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

College students notoriously don’t get enough sleep. Juggling classes, assignments, studying, and other responsibilities, can make it hard to find the time. College students get an average of 6-6.9 hours of sleep, but according to the sleep foundation, young adults ages 18-25 need between 7-9 hours of sleep. Most people have heard that getting adequate sleep improves mood and focus, allows our body to go through repair cycles and boosts immune function.  It also allows us to process information and store memories. But did you know that sleep can affect nutrition too?

One of the many things our bodies do while we sleep is regulate hormone levels, including ghrelin and leptin, commonly known as the hunger hormones. Ghrelin stimulates hunger and leptin triggers the feeling of fullness. Research shows that decreased sleeping times are associated with higher ghrelin levels and lower leptin levels in the blood. This imbalance in hormones causes increased appetite, especially for high calorie foods, and tends to make people overeat during meals. And when cravings aren’t satisfied, the hangry sets in. So, what can we do to avoid this?

Here are a few tips:

1. Make sleep a priority.

Did anybody else dread the words “time for bed” when they were younger or was that just me? One of the perks of being an adult is not having anyone tell you when it’s time to go to bed, am I right? But unfortunately, as busy college students, we tend to look at sleep as something we do only once we get everything else done and we don’t prioritize it as much as we should. Our bodies like to have consistency in our sleep-wake cycle so try to go to bed within the same hour every night.

2. Make your bed a sleep only zone.

Beds are for sleeping, desks are for studying. Especially with remote learning, it’s tempting to attend classes and do your studying in your bed, but when you use your bed only for sleeping, your brain and body will associate getting into bed with going to sleep.

3. Block out noises and lights.

Make your room a dark and quiet sleep oasis by blocking out lights that are coming through your door, windows or any electronics around your room. Eye masks can help to do this and can also ensure that you wake up when you are ready to, not just when the sun tells you to. Noises can also wake you up before it’s time. A white noise machine or some ear plugs can help to drown out noises and let you get the sleep you need.

4. Exercise daily.

Exercise causes certain biological processes in the body that have been linked with better sleep quality and can help to relieve stress. This can be any exercise and doesn’t have to be any specified amount of time. A morning run through the arboretum, an afternoon at-home body weight HIIT workout video, an evening yoga flow, whatever feels good to you.

5. Avoid heavy meals, caffeine and sugar in the evening.

This is a nutrition article after all, and as much as quality sleep affects our nutrition, nutrition can also affect how well we sleep. Heavy meals can feel uncomfortable in your stomach when laying down. Keep your night-time snacking light in order to avoid the discomfort. Eating large amounts of sugar before bed can also affect how easily you fall asleep. Sugar initially causes blood sugar levels to spike, causing an energy burst. This may cause you to toss and turn as you are trying to fall asleep. A while later, blood sugar levels begin to drop as insulin helps sugar enter your cells, letting you finally fall asleep. However, soon the sugar crash effect caused by the dramatic drop of blood sugar will trigger a stress response which will likely cause you to wake up again. To avoid this, keep sweet late-night snacks balanced with fiber and/or protein which stabilize the absorption of sugar into the blood. And of course, I have to address caffeine, the life blood of college students. Caffeine is a stimulant that is found in coffee, most teas, and soda that can stay active in our bodies for as long as 5-6 hours. To avoid having it affect your sleep, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends not consuming caffeine within 6 hours of your intended bedtime.

6. Avoid electronics 30-60 minutes before bed.

Am I seriously suggesting to Gen Z-ers that they shouldn’t be using electronics before bed? No Netflix? No TikTok? Yes, I realize that’s a lot to ask but it’s much too easy to keep scrolling and clicking “next episode” and not see the hours go by. Scrolling through Instagram, watching your favorite show on Netflix, or even reading though your BIS 2B notes causes mental stimulation which is the opposite of what you want before bed. The blue light emission from electronic devices can also disrupt the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. So, what can you do instead?

I’m glad you asked! Here are some ideas of non-electronic things you can do to get ready for bed:

1. Read a book. I’m not talking about school-assigned reading here. This should be a book you enjoy reading that relaxes you.

2. Prepare for tomorrow. Write down the things that are on your mind that you need to do tomorrow and put it away. This will help clear your mind and keep tomorrow’s responsibilities from keeping you awake tonight.

3. Journal. This practice has gained popularity in recent years. Write down anything important that happened that day, how you feel, what your goals are for the next day, or just whatever thoughts come to mind.

4. Pamper yourself. Paint your nails. Do a facemask. Light some candles. Take some time to do whatever makes you feel good.

5. Yoga/Meditate. There are some great resources for guided meditations and calming yoga flows online. Find one you like, dim the lights and let yourself fully relax.

Sweet dreams, Aggies!

The Benefits of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

By Brandy Carrillo, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

In today’s crazy diet culture, it can be quite tricky to navigate the maze of macronutrients, micronutrients, grocery shopping, meal prepping, food preparation, etc. One misconception I’ve continuously come across is that fat is bad and should be avoided at all costs. In reality, fats are an essential part of a balanced diet and contribute to organ protection, supporting cell growth, energy source, and many more processes. Fats are composed of fatty acid chains- either saturated or unsaturated and within unsaturated fats are both omega-3 (alpha-linolenic) and omega-6 (linoleic) fatty acids. Both of these fatty acids are essential, meaning that the human body is not able to produce them on its own and needs to get them from outside sources. The two are extremely important to growth and repair but are also important precursors to other bioactive lipid mediators as well.

Omega-3 fatty acids have an anti-inflammatory function and are primarily known for their role in heart health and can be found in both plant and animal sources. They are also known for their role in supporting brain, nerve, and eye development infants and maintaining a healthy immune system. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in many foods including oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring, walnuts, flaxseed, and leafy green vegetables.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that individuals consume at least 2 servings of seafood (fatty fish) per week which are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-6 is more pro-inflammatory in comparison to omega-3’s anti-inflammatory action, but it’s still important to consume foods containing omega-6 fatty acids. They help support gene regulation, a healthy immune system, as well as blood coagulation and clotting.

Sources of omega-6 include vegetable oils like sunflower, corn and canola, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, as well as meat and eggs.

Overall, both of these fatty acids are essential fats that your body needs for energy and proper functioning, though it is crucial to take into consideration the anti-inflammatory versus pro-inflammatory functions of the two fats and to focus on consuming more omega-3 versus omega-6 fatty acids. The typical American diet usually results in a much higher intake of omega-6 than omega-3. To make sure you get enough omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, try to eat a few servings of seafood each week, or if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet you can incorporate plant-based sources of omega-3 like flaxseed or chia seeds in a smoothie or oatmeal, beans in a salad or burrito bowl, or edamame in a stirfry! By focusing on having a balanced diet- focusing on healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein foods, you’ll get the complete range of essential nutrients your body needs!

Tips for a Healthy Holiday

By Wenjun Liu, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

December is about family and food and seasonal celebrations can help us forget about everything 2020 has brought and not notice the winter cold as much. A big part of the season is delicious food. Having a piece of pecan pie and a tumbler of eggnog should not bring you anxiety, but instead, should bring pure joy with every single bite and sip. 

You don’t need to deprive yourself, eat only boring foods, or take your treats with a side order of guilt. Here are some tips for a healthy holiday season: 

  1. Don’t celebrate with an empty fuel tank. Before setting out for a feast with the family, eat something so you are not starving. Snack on something that combines complex carbohydrates with protein and unsaturated fat, like apple slices with peanut butter or a slice of turkey and cheese on whole-wheat pita bread. When you’re super hungry, it is much harder to practice restraint at the celebration.
  2. Take 10 before taking seconds. It takes a few minutes for your stomach’s “I’m getting full” signal to get to your brain. After finishing your first round of food, take a 10-minute break. Make conversation. Drink some water. Then recheck your appetite. You might realize you are full or want only a small portion of seconds.
  3. Distance helps the heart stay healthy. Don’t linger in the kitchen. That makes it easier to mindlessly reach for food. 
  4. Drink, Drink, Drink. Have a glass of water between holiday drinks. It will help keep you from drinking more than you wanted to and also keep you hydrated!
  5. Put on your sneakers. Exercising is a great way to work off some holiday anxiety and boost physical and mental health. If you are at a family gathering, suggest some games with body movements before the feast or even between dinner and dessert.
  6. Make room for veggies. At meals, don’t ignore fruits and vegetables. They make great snacks and even better side or main dishes. Find a “MyPlate” Holiday makeover presentation here.
  7. Don’t shop hungry. Eat before you go shopping to minimize straying from your list with impulse buys. 
  8. Pay attention to what really matters. Although food is an integral part of the holidays, it is really the time for family and friends. Whether you plan to celebrate the holiday in person or virtually, treasure the time of the year when you can truly sit down and catch up with everyone. 

Hope you all enjoy this special holiday season. Stay safe and have fun! 

The Vast Universe of Bacteria and Our Microbiome

By Meigan Freeman, UC Davis Nutrition Peer Counselor

We go throughout our day without ever really thinking how we are able to digest our lunch, circulate blood to our tissues, and read this text. To put it much too simply, our bodies are made up of vast networks of cells communicating with one another. However, research has uncovered another species helping us with these bodily tasks: single celled bacteria. There is an entire microbial world living right alongside us with whom we often do not give a second thought. In fact, there are trillions of bacteria living on and in your body right at this moment. A recent study estimated that there are just as many bacteria living in us as the number of human cells we have (this is in contrast to the previous estimate of 10:1 bacteria to human cells). Additionally, these microbes are not just useless hosts, in contrast, they contribute more genes necessary to human survival than humans do (source). Bacteria are central to our existence, without them I don’t think humans would have the earthly impact they have today.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms and have been around much longer than humans have. It is hard for us to comprehend the insignificant amount of time that humans have been on earth, but we have only been around for a tiny sliver of the earth’s life (around 200 thousand years), and bacteria were the first to evolve around 3.5 million years ago. The oldest fossil currently discovered is of a cyanobacteria, who thankfully began photosynthesizing which increased oxygen storage on earth and led to the evolution of plants, animals, and much much later, humans. Bacteria played a huge part in our existence millions of years ago and continue to play a huge part in our lives today.

Although we often associate bacteria with illness, the majority of bacteria have no effect on humans and others live in symbiosis with us by taking residence in our gut. These specific bacteria are known as our intestinal microflora and are extremely beneficial to human digestion. Two ways that our intestinal flora benefits us is by increasing our resistance to infection and by producing essential nutrients.

It turns out humans are not very good at sensing harmful bacteria in their food or water and we end up ingesting small amounts of pathogenic bacteria quite frequently. Fortunately, the microflora in our gut is very competitive, not unlike the competition we see in larger ecosystems. If we ingest new bacteria strains, including pathogens, our bacteria will fight to keep their spot in our gut. One way our microflora out competes new bacteria is by producing bacteriocins, a protein that is toxic to similar bacteria and limits the growth of new strains (source). This bacterial competition keeps new strains from establishing a home in our gut unless we digest a significant amount of the pathogen. It is due to our microbiome that most people have a resistance to a certain level of pathogens.

Nutritionally, our microflora benefits us by producing essential vitamins and short-chain fatty acids. Our microbiome is known to produce a variety of B vitamins and vitamin K which is essential to our diet. One study discovered that participants on a low-vitamin K diet did not suffer from vitamin K deficiency due to their microbiome providing this nutrient for them. Additionally, our microbiome digest fiber to produce short-chain fatty acids including butyrate, propionate, and acetate. These fatty acids are very beneficial for our health. Butyrate is being studied for its potential to induce cell death in cancerous colon cells. Propionate and acetate increases feelings of fullness after meals and is why you feel full longer after eating a meal high in fiber (source). 

Fortunately for us, the microbiome pretty much functions and benefits humans without our input. However, there are some foods we can eat to maximize microbial benefits. These foods are fermented and introduce probiotics, or healthy bacteria, into our gut. Fermented, probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir (fermented dairy drink), kombucha (fermented tea), kimchi (fermented cabbage), and other pickled vegetables. Although probiotics are not necessary, they may help digestion and stomach issues, like constipation or diarrhea. In contrast, fiber is necessary for humans and our microbiome loves fiber. Fiber can be found in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and beans. Eating fiber makes you feel full longer and aids in healthy digestion. We do not think of our microbiome much, but next time you eat a meal, think of the billions of bacteria you are feeding and taking care of, and be sure to eat some fiber!