Healthy Living

What's new in health, diet and nutrition.


Q. I heard about a new natural sweetener called agave. Is it a healthier alternative to regular white sugar?

A. Agave (uh-GAH-vee) is called a natural sweetener because it is derived from the leaves of a cactus-like desert plant. Often sold as agave nectar or syrup, it’s a sweetener that can be used both in warm and cold beverages, as well as in baking.

Agave actually has more calories per teaspoon when compared with white sugar: 20 calories for agave versus 15 for sugar. There are no special health benefits associated with agave consumption, so don’t be fooled by the “natural” claim.

In contrast to some recent claims, agave is not a preferred sweetener for diabetics. If you like the unique taste of agave, use it sparingly. It’s best to keep your intake of all sugars low for optimal health benefits.

Soda Tax: Better Health for Pittsburghers?
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s proposed tax of 2 cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages will raise an estimated revenue of about $25 million per year for the city of Pittsburgh. But does that actually translate into better health for our community?

Excess sugar intake—soft drinks account for 7 percent of our total daily calories—is linked to obesity (a direct pipeline to diabetes), poor diet (guzzling all those drinks crowds out healthy foods), cavities and heart disease. It’s not proven that a higher price will cut consumption, but it is an important public-health strategy to make consumers more aware of their beverage choices. Although officials are still debating the details of the plan, a tax on sugary drinks sounds like a win-win for good health. Certain drinks would not be taxed, including diet sodas and low-calorie sports drinks. Looking for a free option for summer hydration? Reach for water—filtered or unfiltered—right from the tap.

Mammograms Are Not the Only Prevention
While the debate rages on about how often women need mammograms to support good health, there is one area where all experts agree: There are healthy lifestyle steps that can reduce the risk of getting breast cancer.

The consensus from an international panel of scientists that reviewed more than 900 studies on the connection between lifestyle habits (including weight, breast feeding, alcohol consumption and exercise) and breast cancer occurrence was very clear. Women can cut their risk of breast cancer nearly in half by adopting the following four healthy lifestyle habits: achieve and maintain a healthy weight; get daily physical activity; limit alcoholic beverages (one serving per day at most); and practice breast-feeding.

Men can get breast cancer, too, and although the death rate is higher, the incidence of breast cancer in men is approximately 100 times lower than in women. While the causes of breast cancers in men remain unknown, similar healthy lifestyle steps apply.

in the news

Best Diet for Your DNA
Both behavior (environment) and biology (DNA/genetics) contribute to the obesity epidemic. Factors such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise and high stress contribute from lifestyle factors, but how much influence do genetic factors have on our ability to lose weight?

A new study from Stanford University compared weight loss in people who had been randomly assigned to one of four diet groups (ranging from low-fat, low-carb and two mixed plans) to assess weight loss. The calories for all four diet groups were reduced, and all participants lost weight. The researchers went back to the same study participants and obtained a DNA sample with a cheek-swab test to measure genetic factors related to how fast or slowly carbohydrates, fats and proteins were digested and stored in the body. For the second study, the participants were re-assigned to their “best” diet group matched to their DNA factors, which would be expected to optimize their rate of weight loss, based on genetic factors. When the “best DNA match” diet plan was used, study participants lost twice as much weight after a year, compared with the group just randomly assigned to a certain diet.

While calories-in and calories-out always determine weight loss, if you’re struggling to lose weight, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at your “diet predisposition” to see if you might boost your rate of weight loss—with your same effort level—by learning more about your genetic factors linked to weight loss mechanisms. For more information, visit

Dr. Madelyn H. Fernstrom, Ph.D., C.N.S., is the founder and director of UPMC’s Weight Management Center. She is the diet and nutrition editor for NBC’s "Today Show" and is the author of The Runner’s Diet. Also, visit "Health Journal with Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom," a health and wellness blog at

Top Docs Q+A

This month, we asked Dr. Douglas Kress, M.D., Dermatology, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC:

Q. What should I do to keep my skin healthy during the summer months?

A. While the sunny summer months certainly mean more time spent outdoors, skin irritations such as sunburn, insect bites and poison ivy can damper even the best summer plans. Avoid summer skin-care troubles by following these preventative skin-care recommendations.

Of course, summer skin care starts with—you guessed it—sunscreen. Using sunscreen appropriately involves not only picking the right SPF but also making sure that you correctly apply it.

For most people in Pittsburgh, an SPF of 30 is sufficient.

Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before you first go out into the sun and then reapplied either several hours later or each time you come out of the pool for more than a few minutes. Use sunscreen daily from at least Memorial Day to Labor Day in the Pittsburgh region .

In addition to sun protection, there are at least two other seasonal risks to watch out for this summer: poison ivy and insect bites.

You can avoid poison ivy by looking out for plants that have clusters of three green leaves that can have tinges of red. For those who know they are very allergic to poison ivy and know they are going into areas where they might come in contact with poison-ivy plants, Ivy Block, an over-the-counter cream, can help keep skin from being exposed to the poison-ivy plant resin that causes the reaction.

To avoid insect bites, use a DEET-based insect repellent, which is the best type of insect repellant available. DEET concentrations below 10 percent are recommended for children.

Although there are products that contain both sunscreen and insect repellant, dermatologists don’t usually recommend them because sunscreen needs to be applied much more frequently than insect repellant should be applied.

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