TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Eat Pretzels?

Runners, yogis and dieters love them — but are they good for you?

4/5 experts say no.

You might think pretzels are the best nutritional choice from the vending machine, since they’re typically free of (or low in) fat. But here’s a twist: pretzels aren’t a healthy pick, according to most of our experts.

“Pretzels are a snack food made from enriched flour which provides very little fiber and overall very little nutritional benefit,” says Kate Patton, a registered dietitian in the preventive cardiology nutrition program at the Cleveland Clinic. They might be low in fat, but they’re also low in protein, low in fiber and high in sodium—a typical one-ounce serving has 352 mg of sodium, almost 15% of the total daily limit recommended by the Food and Drug Administration. For snacks that are more nutrient-dense, Patton says, nuts, seeds, roasted edamame or popcorn would be better choices.

Another thing pretzels have in abundance are carbohydrates and they’re high on the glycemic index, says David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. High-glycemic index foods spike blood sugar levels more quickly than foods sitting lower on the glycemic index. Moul Dey, PhD, associate professor in health and nutritional sciences at South Dakota State University and a researcher of flour, agrees that eaters can do better than pretzels. “Pretzels are not in my preferred list of snacks,” she says.

But Kristi King, senior clinical dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, says it’s all relative, and if the options are pretzels or certain other salty snacks, then pretzels would be the healthier pick. “Pretzels are a great alternative to full-fat chips”—though you should watch the sodium.

And if you really love pretzels, there are some people are on a mission to make the snack healthier. “We have developed a ‘nutritional’ soft pretzel as a functional food,” says Yael Vodovotz, PhD, professor at the Ohio State University department of food science and technology. It’s a high-soy pretzel with a lower glycemic index and a higher amount of protein derived from plants, and Vodovotz hopes it will help people manage their weight. “We are comparing these functional pretzels to ordinary ones and preliminary data looks very promising,” she says.

But since the kind you’re most likely to buy is still far from a health food, for now, it’s best to limit the twists.

Pretzels
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

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TIME Diet/Nutrition

A New Taste Has Been Added to the Human Palate

TIME.com stock photos Food Snacks Chips Cheetos
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Say hello to the taste of pure fat

We classify food as sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami, but a new paper published in the journal Chemical Senses argues that we’re missing another basic taste: fatty.

It’s called oleogustus, and it’s the unique taste of fat, says Richard D. Mattes, distinguished professor of nutrition science at Purdue University and one of the authors of the study. “I can’t use any words that exist, so we’re forced to make it up,” Mattes says. (The Latin translation of oily or fatty taste is “oleogustus.”)

There’s no one definition for what makes something a basic taste, but Mattes thinks of it as meeting several categories: the stimulus should have a unique structure, it should bind or interact with a unique receptor, it should be carried by the taste nerves to the central nervous system where taste information is decoded, and it should have a particular function.

Mattes and his colleagues wanted to see if a group of people classified “fatty” as a taste that is unique from the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter or umami. They fed people a series of solutions, plugged their noses to control for odor and asked them to sort them into similar or dissimilar taste categories.

People indeed separated fatty acids into a tight group; when they were given samples of bitter, umami and fatty tastes, they sorted fatty acids in a league of their own, even though there isn’t currently an accepted category or name for the taste.

“It’s been very difficult to figure out if people really view this as unique sensation, because we have no word for it,” Mattes says. “It’s pretty strong evidence that they are, in fact, perceptually distinct.”

But lest you associate the taste category with a delicious slice of greasy pizza, Mattes has some bad news. “Fatty acid taste is awful,” he says. “We think it’s more of a warning system.” We might be able to distinguish a fatty taste, but it’s not the type of fatty taste we know and love. The creaminess and viscosity we associate with fatty foods is largely due to triglycerides: a molecule with three fatty acids that isn’t a taste stimulus, but rather a mouthfeel, Mattes says. Triglycerides also deliver fat-soluble flavor compounds, Mattes says, but that flavor isn’t the true taste of fat.

To get a sense of what that tastes like, imagine heating your fryer for a good long time and tasting the food you cook in it, Mattes suggests. It won’t be pleasant, and you certainly won’t want to eat it. “The food industry has known about this for a very long time, and they go to great efforts to keep concentrations of these fatty acids below detection thresholds, because if you can detect them you’re likely not to eat the food,” he says. But in small concentrations below detection levels, the taste can be pleasant—just as we enjoy the bitterness of wine, chocolate and coffee, Mattes says.

Classifying a new taste could help us understand our food better, Mattes says. “If you understand the workings of a sensory system, you can use them for purpose,” he says. “Whether that’s to improve the quality of the food supply, the safety of the food supply, reduction of cardiovascular disease, treat taste disorders, there are any number of possibilities here.”

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Eat Yogurt-Covered Snacks?

5/5 experts say no.

Yogurt-coated fruit sounds like a double-dosage health food. But don’t be fooled—a shell of “yogurt” contains some very un-yogurtlike things, according to all five of our experts.

While these coatings may be called ‘yogurt,’ they are really a kind of ‘frosting’ of which yogurt is an ingredient,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. The real stars of yogurt coatings are sugar—and not the kind that naturally occurs in dairy foods—and oil. “Having the name ‘yogurt’ in the mix is supposed to make it all okay,” Katz says. “It does not.”

In fact, the stuff that makes up yogurt coating—typically sugar, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, yogurt powder, emulsifiers and salt—is a far cry from its namesake. “One should definitely not think about these as a health food,” says Mario Kratz, PhD, a dairy researcher and nutrition scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “I’d place most of these snacks in the same category as candy bars.”

At first glance, the nutritional stats don’t seem so bad; for a popular brand, a 1/4 cup serving of vanilla yogurt raisins has 19 grams of sugar and 5 grams of fat, while the same serving size of regular raisins actually has more sugar—29 grams of it—but no fat. But that’s far from a nutritional wash. Since yogurt-covered raisins are so much chunkier than their natural, unadulterated peers, you get far fewer raisins per serving and far more of the unnatural kind of sugar.

There’s another danger to these snack food “impostors,” says Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist and feeding expert of the blog It’s Not About Nutrition: The Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right. “For kids, yogurt-covered snacks like yogurt-covered (or really, oil-covered) raisins and pretzels teach that these foods should look and taste like candy,” she says. Getting a kid to recognize that a yogurt-covered snack should only be eaten occasionally, she says, is the tricky part.

J. Bruce German, PhD, professor and director of the Foods for Health Institute at the University of California, Davis—and a yogurt researcher—says that while yogurt is a “nourishing food product,” the kind that’s dried, mixed with stabilizers and blanketed on dried snacks isn’t the same. “In general most of the attributes of fresh yogurt are lost in making coated snacks,” he says.

That’s why the snacks you buy at the movie theater aren’t the real deal, agrees Jennifer Willoughby, a dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. But here’s the good part: making your own snacks from real yogurt is a tasty and healthy treat. “Choose a plain or vanilla yogurt to dip fruit or nuts in, and then freeze for a sweet treat with significantly less added sugar and more nutritional benefit,” she says.

yogurt covered pretzels
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

Read Next: Should I Eat Butter?

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

More Than 200,000 Vietnam Vets Still Have PTSD

American flag Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Getty Images

New research reveals considerable PTSD in some vets, even decades after war

Many veterans who served in the Vietnam War still have war-zone-related post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers, led by Dr. Charles R. Marmar, of the New York University Langone Medical Center, wanted to look at the prevalence of PTSD over time. Thanks to the National Vietnam Veterans Longitudinal Study, a study of PTSD in Vietnam vets done more than 25 years ago, they had historic data on the prevalence of PTSD; they conducted a follow-up to the study by gathering new data from the 1,450 veterans who were still alive and willing to participate in another round of PTSD assessments. From 2012-2013, researchers gathered from each vet a self-report health questionnaire, a telephone health survey or a clinical interview by phone. (Some vets participated in two or all three of the measures.)

MORE: Meet 15 Extraordinary Wounded Warriors Who Are Stronger Than Ever

The team determined that even now—40 years after the war ended—about 271,000 Vietnam vets have full war-zone-related PTSD plus war-zone PTSD that meets some diagnostic criteria. More than a third of the veterans who have current war-zone PTSD also have major depressive disorder.

MORE: “Hidden Wounds”: Battling PTSD With Music

Men who served in the Vietnam war had a war-zone-related PTSD prevalence of 4.5%; when factoring in vets who met some of the criteria, that number climbed to almost 11%. For women veterans, those prevalences were about 6% and 9%, respectively.

“An important minority of Vietnam veterans are symptomatic after four decades, with more than twice as many deteriorating as improving,” the study authors write. “Policy implications include the need for greater access to evidence-based mental health services; the importance of integrating mental health treatment into primary care in light of the nearly 20 percent mortality; attention to the stresses of aging, including retirement, chronic illness, declining social support and cognitive changes that create difficulties with the management of unwanted memories; and anticipating challenges that lie ahead for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.”

TIME Research

This May Be How Acupuncture Tamps Down Stress

Acupuncture needles
Getty Images

Rats who got acupuncture showed fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression than stressed-out rats who didn't get treatment

Acupuncture may work by targeting the same pathways that stress travels along, according to a new study in rats from Georgetown University Medical Center and published in the journal Endocrinology.

Ladan Eshkevari, PhD, a nurse anesthetist, licensed acupuncturist and associate professor in the department of nursing and the department of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center, noticed that the acupuncture patients coming to her for pain were reporting improvement of symptoms unrelated to their pain, like chronic stress, depression, sleep and appetite.

“There was nothing in the literature about acupuncture for PTSD and chronic stress,” she says, so she decided to study it. To find out if acupuncture was affecting chronic stress, Eshkevari and a team of researchers looked at what happened in a key pathway in dealing with stress for both humans and rats: the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). It’s the same pathway targeted by some anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants, Eshkevari says, and the HPA is involved in the production of the stress hormone cortisol.

In the experiment, the researchers compared four groups of rats: one group was stressed and given acupuncture; another group was stressed and given sham acupuncture (at a non-acupuncture point to make sure any results weren’t due to a placebo effect); a third group was stressed and didn’t get any acupuncture; and a final control group just hung out without any interventions.

First, the researchers decided to look at an acupuncture point called stomach 36; according to Chinese medicine, it’s a potent point associated with stress, stomach issues and pain, and in humans, it’s located right below the knee behind the tibia bone. The rat equivalent of stomach 36 is on the hind paw near the knee, Eshevari says.

Because most people who get acupuncture come in for treatment after a stressful event, Eshkevari says, she wanted to expose the rats to stress before treatment. She put them in a bucket of ice that made their legs cold for about an hour, then let the rats acclimate to room temperature before their 20-minute-long acupuncture sessions.

“It took me months to figure out how to do acupuncture on an awake rat,” says Eshkevari. It would have been easier to anesthetize them, but Eshkevari didn’t want to affect stress hormone levels. So she cut up her husband’s tube socks to hold the rats during treatment. “It was only big enough for them to crawl in to their hind legs, so their hind paws would be hanging out,” she says. She put the rats in the socks, quickly inserted the needles and connected them to the electrodes for their 20-minute sessions.

After 11 days of stress and acupuncture, Eshkevari put the rats to the test. When placed in an open box, less anxious rats will more readily explore; anxious rats will sit in the corner. And in a forced swim test, rats are dropped in a bucket and forced to swim; the quicker they give up, the higher they score in depression.

The rats who had acupuncture at the stomach 36 point had levels of cortisol in their blood comparable to the control rats that weren’t stressed—and lower cortisol levels than the other stressed-out rats, including the rats who received sham acupuncture. Likewise, the stressed-out rats who didn’t receive acupuncture showed more anxiety, depression and hopelessness through the behavioral tests, while the acupuncture-treated rats behaved a lot more like the normal rats that hadn’t been exposed to anything, Eshkevari says. “In this model, acupuncture can allay some of the untoward effects of stress,” she explains.

To make sure the acupuncture was affecting the pathway they thought it was, the researchers gave the rats a drug to block the HPA pathway, then retested the rats of behavioral measures. The effect went away.

“That’s how we know that the acupuncture not only worked, but it worked via the pathway we’re hypothesizing it works,” Eshkevari says.

The study is in rats, not in humans, and Eshkevari says that it’s certainly not enough to prove that the mechanism works exactly the same way in humans. “It would be very interesting and much more useful to do these experiments on human models of stress,” she says.

Still, she believes it’s an important preliminary step. “I had a sense anecdotally from the patients,” she says. “Now I feel like we have some evidence that this does work, the placebo is controlled for, and when we block the pathway it stops working. We know this is a potential mechanism. Now I can more confidentially try to translate that to humans.”

TIME Exercise/Fitness

Find Out How Many Calories to Cut For Weight Loss

A new NIH calculator gives you a personalized plan in minutes

Forget the number 2,000—a new government calculator uses the latest research to spit out an exact calorie count and exercise regimen you’ll need to hit your weight loss goals.

The calculator, called the Body Weight Planner, is now available online for public use, but the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has used it in research since 2011. “We originally intended the Body Weight Planner as a research tool, but so many people wanted to use it for their own weight management that we knew we needed to adapt it with more information about how to achieve a healthy lifestyle,” said Kevin Hall, PhD, one of the creators of the tool and a senior investigator at the NIH, in a press release.

Read more The Best Way To Make Your Exercise Habit Stick

The calculator asks your weight, sex, age and height—standard measures often used to prescribe a calorie plan. But it also incorporates more recent research about exercise to further personalize your plan, asking you to estimate your physical activity level on a scale of 1.4 (sedentary) to 2.5 (very active), to name your goal weight and to pick a date by which you want to reach it.

Most of us get about that far in thinking through a weight loss plan, but the calculator doesn’t stop there. It also asks you to name a percentage by which you plan to increase your physical activity and tells you what kind of exercise, how much, how often and what intensity level it’ll take to get there. Adding in a routine of light running isn’t the same as starting intense swimming, and in a distinctive feature, the calculator doesn’t weigh all physical activity equally.

The resulting calculations tell you three things: the daily number of calories you’ll need to eat to maintain your current weight, the calories you’ll need to reach your goal in your specified time, and the calories you’ll need to maintain your goal once you’ve met it. You can then use SuperTracker, a meal-planning tool developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), to devise a meal plan based on your calorie stats. =

For people motivated by microscopic proofs of progress, there’s even an expert version of the calorie calculator that breaks down your goal by day, so you can see exactly how your weight loss will likely progress—decimal by decimal—if you stick to your program.

Read next: Here’s The Amount Of Exercise That Lowers Breast Cancer Risk

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Restaurant Food May Be Less Healthy Than Fast Food

burger
James Ransom

A new study finds that people eat more salt and cholesterol at restaurants than fast-food joints

If you eschew fast food but relish restaurants, you might think you’re doing your body a favor. But recent research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that in a lot of ways, eating out is even worse than driving-thru.

“People mainly focus on fast food and want to beat this animal to death,” study author Ruopeng An, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told TIME. As a result, the nutritional details of non-chain restaurants haven’t been as big of a research area.

So An used dietary recall data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003-2010 to analyze what people were eating and where. In the dataset, almost 19,000 adults provided self-reports of everything they ate for two days.

This study—and many others before it—found that eating at fast-food restaurants and full-service restaurants is worse for you than eating at home. Both types of establishments were associated with a daily increase in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium. Eating at fast-food restaurants was associated with an extra 190 calories a day, while eating at full-service restaurants was linked to an extra 187 calories per day. Fat was packed on at about the same daily rate: an extra 10 or so grams.

But in an interesting twist, eating at full-service restaurants added even more sodium and cholesterol than fast food did. Restaurants were linked to an extra 58 mg of cholesterol each day, while eating fast food only added an extra 10 mg. And while fast food added 297 mg sodium to a person’s daily intake, restaurants shoveled on an additional 412 mg.

The study also found that takeout might be better for you than dining in. When An compared the practice of eating restaurant food at home—as in takeout or delivery—to eating restaurant food on site, he found a rise in calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium for dining in. People ate an additional 200 daily calories when they ate in a restaurant, but that increase was only 121 calories when they ate restaurant food at home. (Nutritionally, it didn’t make a difference where fast food was eaten.)

Read more What Should I Order at Fast-Food Chains?

Why? When people eat out at restaurants, “they have more time, it’s more relaxing, it’s more like a social event, so they’re less cautious about overeating,” An explained.

But An also found some good news for restaurant-philes: eating at restaurants, compared to eating fast food, was associated with an increase in omega-3s, vitamin B6, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and zinc, plus a reduction in sugar. “From that perspective, consumption in full-service restaurants isn’t all bad,” he said.

An said he hopes the results will encourage more people to cook, but he’s realistic—we’re not going to stop going to restaurants. “You’re not obligated to eat the whole portion served to you,” he reminded restaurant-goers. “You can always bring some of the food home for tomorrow.”

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TIME Diet/Nutrition

Should I Eat Olives?

5/5 experts say yes.

How many of our experts love olives? Olive them!

Olives are a fruit borne of the olive tree, and when they’re not pressed for olive oil, they’re delicious as a snack. A typical serving of four large olives has 20 calories, and about two grams of fat—the good kind, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of Wellness Nutrition Services at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. Olives are one of the most nutrient-dense fruits around, and although they are mostly fat, that fat is a healthy monounsaturated kind which translates into benefits to the heart, brain and waistline,” she says.

In addition to all that healthy fat, olives are packed with antioxidants, says Parthena Kotzekidou, PhD, professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece. “My research shows that olives are a good source of biophenols,” a kind of antioxidant that prevents the accumulation of bad cholesterol in artery walls, she says, making them a heart-healthy snack.

The phenolic compounds found in olives are also anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and can help prevent some diseases, say José Alberto Pereira, PhD, professor in the school of agriculture at the Polytechnic Institute of Bragança in Portugal, and his colleague Dr. Ricardo Malheiro, PhD, a researcher in the school of agriculture at the same institute. The pair previously looked at table olives in Portugal and found that their extracts can inhibit certain disease-causing pathogens.

It’s easy to forget that olives are a fermented food, but that also means they’re rich in Lactobacillus, a kind of gut-friendly bacteria. Antonio Bevilacqua, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Foggia in Italy, says he has isolated some probiotic strains from the fruits and used them in olives and other foods. The probiotic potential of olives may be one of the more compelling reasons to eat them, he says.

Alas, the way that most of us eat olives—cured and fermented—can also be quite salty. “If you eat a diet of mostly real, minimally processed foods, enjoy olives along with it, being sure to sample the great variety of them,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “But if not—well then, fix that first.” In other words, the slightly higher amount of salt that comes with eating olives may be worth it if you cut out some of your other salty snacks.

Olives
Illustration by Lon Tweeten for TIME

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TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Your Phone Knows If You’re Depressed

TIME.com stock photos Social Apps iPhone
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Phone data could predict with 87% accuracy whether someone had depressive symptoms

Most of us are pretty attached to our phones, and researchers are starting to figure out what that connection can tell us about our health, including our mood. In fact, your phone may be able to tell if you’re depressed even better than a self-assessment of your own depression can, according to a small new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“We found that the more time people spend on their phones, the more likely they are to be more depressed,” says David Mohr, one of the authors of the study and director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The researchers also found that spending lots of time at home was linked to depression—and that phone data like this could predict with 87% accuracy whether someone had symptoms of depression.

Northwestern researchers recruited 28 people ages 19-58 from Craigslist and souped up their smartphones with location-and-usage monitoring software. At the start of the study, they took a standardized questionnaire that measures depressive symptoms; half of the subjects had symptoms of depression, and half did not. For two weeks, the phones tracked GPS location information every five minutes and pinged the users with questions about their mood several times a day.

The phone data the researchers collected were rich: how many places the participants visited each day, how much time they spent in each of those places and how frequently they used their phones, says Sohrob Saeb, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral fellow and computer scientist in preventive medicine at Feinberg. The researchers then correlated this objective data with their depression test scores.

What they hoped to find was a connection between the objective markers of behavior—such as where the people were and how often they changed locations—and their depression test results. That way, the data derived from phones could become a useful way to track depression without the user having to report how they were feeling, which is often a barrier to depression treatment, says Mohr, who has studied depression for about 20 years. “One of the things that we find over and over again is that people don’t answer questions,” he says. “In apps, they’ll respond to questions for a few days and then get tired of it.”

Mohr and his team indeed found a strong correlation between these objective markers and depression. Phone data were even better than the daily questions the users answered to predict depression test results. “People who tend to spend more time in just one or two places—like people who stay at home or go to work and go back home—are more likely to have higher depression scores,” says Mohr. When a person moved around was important, too; people who stuck to a regular pattern of movement tended to be less depressed, they found. “This fits into a larger body of clinical research showing that people with mental health problems in general, their circadian rhythms get thrown off,” Mohr says. “Usually it’s looked at with sleep and activity, but here we’re seeing it also in terms of their movement through geographic space.” When people get depressed, he says, their mood may pull them off their routine.

Depressed people, too, spent an average of 68 minutes using their phones each day, while people without depression only spent about 17 minutes on their phones. The software didn’t track what people did on their phones—just whether or not they were using it. But the authors have some ideas about why they saw phone activity rise with depression. “One of the things we see when people are depressed is that people tend to start avoiding tasks or things they have to do, particularly when they’re uncomfortable,” Mohr explains. “Using the phone, going in and using an app, is kind of a distraction.”

It’s preliminary research, but Mohr hopes to add to the number of smartphone sensors and use these to subtly help manage depression and spot it more quickly, without requiring any work on behalf of the user. “Being able to get people timely treatment for depression is a critical failure point in public health right now,” Mohr says. An app that people download on their phones—without having to answer any questions—may help pinpoint their depressive states more effectively and help them get treatment.

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