Good news if your New Year’s resolution involves deprivation of any kind and you’re questioning your ability to keep up with your best intentions. According to Dr. Gail O’Brien of Alliance Internal Medicine in Edgartown and an internist who is an expert in nutrition, many of the things we’ve come to believe are pure evil — caffeine, alcohol, carbohydrates — are not necessarily guilty pleasures to be avoided at all costs. However, Dr. O’Brien cautions, “Everything in moderation.”
Recent research has shown that, despite popular belief to the contrary, coffee consumption may possibly have some health benefits. Caffeine can actually serve as a preventative measure in the case of some conditions like Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
“There’s certainly a wealth of evidence that caffeine is not harmful,” says Dr. O’Brien. “Some people don’t tolerate it, but in general it’s not harmful. There may even be some protective effects.”
But don’t plan on double espressos with every meal. Dr. O’Brien stresses that she is only condoning small amounts. “There’s no harm in having a cup of coffee or two a day.”
Similarly, alcohol is not necessarily a no-no — unless, obviously, you have a propensity to abuse it. “There’s a body of evidence that suggests that alcohol in small amounts helps in preventing heart disease,” says Dr. O’Brien says.
She notes that some people mistakenly believe that wine has special properties. “It’s not specifically wine that’s healthful — or damaging,” she says. “It’s the alcohol itself. There’s nothing beneficial about wine per se. There’s something beneficial about alcohol — specifically in heart disease.”
Currently, there are no hard and fast conclusions about how alcohol aids in the prevention of heart disease. “There are theories that it’s a blood thinner. There are a lot of theories out there, but no one knows exactly what the benefit is.”
Sugar, on the other hand, has no known health advantages (unfortunately!). However, if you’ve overindulged during the holidays, Dr. O’Brien doesn’t believe that you have to go cold turkey to ease the cravings.
“It’s hard because people want to enjoy the holidays,” she says. “One way to approach it is to understand that for a short period it’s okay to indulge in what we call celebratory eating, but some people continue with bad habits after the holidays are over.
“It’s a feedback loop,” she continues, explaining how cravings lead to over consumption, which leads to further cravings. “If you cut the sugar back down the craving will go away.”
Dr. O’Brien doesn’t think it’s necessary to eliminate sugar altogether. “A little isn’t going to harm you. It’s an excess that’s harmful.” However, hidden sugar is everywhere. “American food, processed food has too much sugar. So we eat too much when we go with what’s available in grocery stores and restaurants.”
The result of overindulgence: “It causes your body to have to produce too much insulin and you build up fat.”
When it comes to recent trends in weight loss, carbohydrates have been accused of being the absolute evil — the food of the devil himself. However, according to Dr. O’Brien carbs are a necessary part of a healthy diet.
“Historically there’s always some trendy diet out there,” she says, referring to carb free/high protein regimens. “Generally those diets result in short-term weight loss, but they’re not good for people’s health.”
The key to weight loss, according to Dr. O’Brien, is generally cutting back on carbohydrates but not going carb free. “You need carbohydrates for energy,” she says. “What’s important is the quality of carbs. You want to eat foods that have other nutrients. Beans and legumes are great because they’re an excellent source of protein and fiber. Whole grains are good. The problem is that people eat carbs that have no protein. Processed carbohydrates turn right into sugar because the processing removes the fiber. When the body processes a simple carb it turns it into a sugar. The body doesn’t need that much sugar and the excess becomes fat. It raises your blood sugar level and the body produces insulin.”
Getting your calories from carbs can also keep you from feeling satisfied. Says Dr. O’Brien, “When you eat carbs, you’re hungry later on. The body uses up sugar quickly. You get almost glycemic. It’s a vicious cycle. Satiety comes form the denser foods like protein and complex carbohydrates.”
It seems like every few months, the latest miracle food is being touted, but is there a perfect food? “I’m a little old-fashioned,” she says. “That food-of-the-moment-stuff seems like nonsense to me. I truly believe in eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If one does that consistently they will feel better. That’s where people struggle. There’s so much pressure in our society to not eat well. If you eat well, you feel well.”
If weight loss is your goal this year, there’s no magic bullet. It’s the same old tried and true formula, according to Dr. O’Brien: “Watching your calories and definitely everything in moderation.”
For more information or to reach Dr. O’Brien, call 508-627-3600 or visit alliancemv.com.