Winter Squash, Heartburn, and Negative Calories

Q: Can you suggest some healthful (and tasty) ways to prepare winter squash?
Q: What causes heartburn?
Q: Is it true that celery supplies “negative calories”?

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: Can you suggest some healthful (and tasty) ways to prepare winter squash?
A: Acorn, butternut and other varieties of winter squash are loaded with health-promoting beta-carotene, potassium and vitamin C. One of my favorite winter squash recipes calls for cutting the squash into one-inch cubes and tossing it – alone or along with other vegetables like onions or parsnips – with just enough olive oil to lightly coat it. I usually add some herbs (like thyme) or a spice like cumin or cinnamon and bake at 375 degrees in a single layer on a cookie sheet until the squash cubes are tender. Winter squash also make a fabulous addition to stir-fries, pasta or rice bakes, and homemade soups. For more recipe ideas, visit the Web site of the American Institute for Cancer Research (www.aicr.org) and search their Recipe Corner. AICR’s New American Plate Cookbook is another great recipe resource that places an equal emphasis on the flavor and healthfulness of food.

Q: What causes heartburn?
A: Heartburn occurs when the acidic contents of the stomach flow backward into the esophagus (the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach) and irritate the tissue there. This is also called reflux. While some studies have suggested that high fat meals are a cause of reflux (purportedly due to a relaxation of the stomach opening that makes it easier for acid to back up into the esophagus), other studies now contradict that idea. Obesity, however, has been shown to cause reflux; the backflow is likely initiated as abdominal fat increases pressure in the stomach, pushing acids past the valves that usually contain them. Researchers say the damage that follows is probably the reason that a major international report from the American Institute for Cancer Research identifies obesity as an important cause of esophageal cancer. Smoking and alcohol have also been found to promote reflux. Non-diet, non-weight related culprits, such as hiatal hernia and pregnancy hormones, are implicated as well. Frequent heartburn is not something to be ignored or tolerated by constantly popping antacids. Start with basic lifestyle changes: if you smoke, stop; limit alcohol and other foods that may relax the opening between the stomach and esophagus (coffee, chocolate, mint, excess fat); eat small portions; and avoid lying down for three hours after eating. In addition to resolving your heartburn, addressing these issues will likely benefit your health in other ways. If your heartburn is not resolved with the above lifestyle and diet changes, proper medical therapy can control the problem for almost everyone.

Q: Is it true that celery supplies “negative calories”?
A: The whole concept of negative calories – that a food supplies fewer calories than you burn chewing and digesting it – is illogical as a weight control strategy, whether you’re talking about celery or any other food. In theory, the concept is true: two stalks of celery (roughly 12 calories) will require approximately 13 calories worth of energy to chew, digest, absorb and metabolize the food. Although you could technically say that eating celery burns more calories than it contains, that one-calorie difference is very approximate. More importantly, a deficit of one – even ten calories – is completely insignificant when looking at total energy requirements. To put things in perspective, consider that you need to burn roughly 3500 calories more than you take in each week to lose just one pound of body fat. Banking a handful of negative calories from foods like celery will have no impact on the (or your) bottom line. On the other hand, substituting low-energy-dense vegetables and fruits, like celery, for other high calorie foods will impact total energy intake; this is the primary role such foods play in weight control.

Reprinted with permission from the American Institute for Cancer Research

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