Fitness & Nutrition Roundup: Brown Fat, Tomatidine, Joe’s Crab Shack, and BrusselKale

Findings from the University of Warwick have revealed new insights about weight loss. Brown fat – a type of fat cells that burn calories – has been discovered on an adult patient using an MRI. Normally, brown fat is common during infancy, but disappears as a person ages. So, this discovery opens the door to new possibilities for weight loss and fat in adults. More research will bring answers.

A new study out of the University of Iowa has identified that tomatidine, a compound found in green tomatoes, helps protect against muscle loss and fatigue as one ages. The next step is to isolate this compound and evaluate the side effects of taking larger doses. Who knows – it is possible that you could see tomatidine coming to a supplement store near you!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that Joe’s Crab Shack uses up to 14 grams of trans fat in the entrée “Pasta-laya” and “Crab Cake Dinner.” That’s a heck of a lot more than the 2 gram a day cap recommended by the American Heart Association. The CSPI says these practices are dishonest and could have serious implications for regular customers at the chain.

Meet the new kid on the vegetable aisle – BrusselKale. Using traditional breeding methods, U.K. farmers have created this hybrid of brussel sprouts and kale. The new vegetable has the health benefits of both foods – in one. Coming to a grocery store near you!

Wellness Wednesday: Eat Well and Stay Active This Summer

In this last week of class, with finals looming, many students are feeling the stress of this time of the semester. I notice that as the assignments and deadlines approach, I find myself exercising less and eating whatever I find in front of me that is quick to prepare (or does not require any preparation at all, cue the bag of marshmallows). I start to feel pretty tired and stressed, and I don’t always have time to pay close attention to my exercise and eating patterns. Food and physical activity goals melt away and then just seem like memories of things I once cared about.

But hold on, all is not lost! We have one big opportunity coming up to spend a little more time on ourselves: summer.

That’s right, summer – the promise of freedom from classes and new opportunities. Summer is a great time to re-evaluate, re-create, or re-commit to a food and fitness plan.

Keeping Physically Active

This summer, you might be away from campus, and potentially without access to a gym, but don’t let that stop you! There are plenty of ways to stay physically active over the summer that don’t require a gym membership. Here are some fun things to try outdoors:

  • runningSkateboarding
  • cycling
  • rock climbing
  • swimming
  • speed walking
  • skateboarding

Caution! One caveat of working out in the summer heat: try to get out early in the day. Intense heat during mid-day and afternoon can make you sweat more, leading to dehydration, which might come sooner than you expect. 

If you are missing the free weights in the gym, there are plenty of exercises that you can do just with body resistance. Try going to a playground and doing some pull ups on the monkey bars, or doing pushups on the ground or with your hands on the side of a picnic table for a little less resistance. There’s also the ever-popular seven minute workout, which you can do anytime and anywhere.

In addition to the solo workout, there are lots of options to do fun things with a team. When I moved to a new city a few years ago and was trying to figure out how to meet new people, I remembered how my brother had made tons of new friends by playing kickball. I searched for a local league and joined a kickball team. My kickball team became a bowling team in the winter and a soccer team in the spring, and then they were just my new group of friends to exercise and hang out with. There are sports leagues in many cities, and while they typically do have a fee, they usually cost a lot less than you would pay for a gym membership. And they comes with free friends!

If you’re still itching to get back to the gym, try looking for your local YMCA, which often has much lower monthly membership fees than a standard gym (check out the special discount for young adults aged 18-24).

Eating Well

OnionEat Those Vegetables

The summer is a delicious season. I admit that I immediately picture hot dogs on the grill and frequenting the ice cream truck (never too old), but summer also means abundant fresh local produce from your own garden or from a local farm. Surveys show that Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and young Americans (aged 18 to 24) are especially likely to be among the low-consumers. If cost is a barrier, remember that frozen vegetables contain the same nutrient content as fresh, and are often cheaper. If you live in a place that is near farms (that includes the Triangle!), volunteering on a farm in exchange for local fresh vegetables can be a cost effective option to increase your vegetable intake, while staying physically active at the same time.

Make Food Goals

Whether you choose to try eating more vegetables, avoiding sweets, or becoming a pescatarian, you can increase your chances of success by making concrete and achievable goals. Once you have goals, make a plan for how you’re going to stick to your food goals. Write it down. Refer to your goal as the summer goes on and into the fall semester.

This summer, one thing that I plan to do is make a weekly menu. I occasionally feel overwhelmed by the decision of what to cook or what to bring for snacks during the day and I know that if I just wrote down things I like to eat, map those onto the days of the week, and make a rotating schedule, I will feel much more at ease. Making a weekly menu plan could also be a great way to carry your commitment to eat well from the summer into the fall.

Whatever you do, where ever you are, have a great summer (you’re almost there!) and take care of yourselves, Tar Heels!


Photo credits: skateboarder by Victor Erixson, vegetables by Webvilla, both retrieved from

Wellness Wednesday blog posts are written by Student Wellness or Campus Health Services staff members. Wednesday blog posts can be found both here and on


The Evolution of Portion Size

Q: What do hamburgers, bagels, soda bottles, salads and pancakes have in common?

A: They’re growing!

Just recently, I ate a restaurant for a friend’s birthday on what happened to be “free cake Tuesday.” With the purchase of an entrée, you received a free slice of cake at the end of your meal! Now, while I’m not complaining at all about free cake, I was shocked to see each “slice of cake” served in a to-go box because the slice literally filled up the whole box and the waiter must have known that we couldn’t eat it all in one sitting. My mind was conflicted between two thoughts: (1) This is an AWESOME slice of cake, and (2) seriously, what kind of place serves slices of cake this large!? After a bit of Google exploration, I was interested to see just how much documentation there is of changing portion size over time! The plates that our parents saw in front of them twenty years ago were extremely different from what we see and have grown to expect today! Check out some of the differences that I discovered; it’s not too difficult to understand why the portion size isn’t the only thing growing in America—the average waistline is following the same trend.

Before you continue, take a moment to check out this portion size quiz to get a visual representation of the change in portion size over time and the difference in calories and required exercise this means for the average American!

Restaurants have been a major contributor to the “portion distortion” that is so prevalent today. Whether it’s a fast food, Mexican, or Italian restaurant, we order food and expect a giant meal to be brought out in front of us. Steaks start at 8 oz. sizes when a single serving size is 4 oz. and a combo at a Mexican restaurant might have 4 enchiladas on one plate plus rice and beans when two enchiladas would actually be enough to fill you up. We want bang for our buck, so we expect huge plates and enough food to bring us to the point of discomfort in order to feel like we’re getting more for our money.

But the crazy portions haven’t just stayed in restaurants—the overgrown restaurant portions have led to distorted expectations at home, as well. When making a meal at home, studies have shown that the amount of spaghetti that the average person serves himself or herself is twice as large as it used to be twenty years ago! Plate and cup sizes have also grown, making “a cup of milk” larger than it was previously as well. Even healthy foods prepared in the controlled environment of our own homes are hard to keep at an appropriate size!

These statistics from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [1] show just how dramatically the portion sizes of some common foods have changed in the past twenty years:


Then (20 years ago): 3’’ diameter portion; 140 calories

Now: 6’’ diameter portion (think Alpine bagels size); 350 calories

Spaghetti with meatballs:

Then: 1 cup spaghetti, sauce, three small meatballs; 500 calories

Now: 2 cups spaghetti, sauce, three large meatballs; 1,020 calories


Then: One “regular” sized, single-patty cheeseburger; 333 calories

Now: One “regular” sized, single-patty cheeseburger; 590 calories

Blueberry muffin:

Then: 1.5 oz.; 210 calories

Now: 5 oz.; 500 calories (don’t ask me about this math, they’re the ones with the statistics)

Not a big fan of bagels, spaghetti, cheeseburgers, or muffins? How about pizza, coffee, popcorn, and soda? Even salads have doubled in size and calories in the past twenty years. It’s nearly impossible to get a well-portioned meal or even a snack!

What does this mean for you? As evidenced by the statistics above (and common sense), larger portion sizes have more calories, and people are eating more now at each meal that was typical in the past. Controlling portion sizes takes more attention and effort now than ever before, but it is possible. One way to cut down on your portion size is to share huge restaurant entrees with a friend, but the best way to control your portion size is to listen to your body and to learn to simply stop eating when you’re full! So often we eat quickly and to the point of near-misery by the time we leave our favorite restaurants, when in reality, if we would stop eating when we are full and simply take a to-go box to enjoy for a meal later, or the following day, we could avoid overeating and have two meals for the price of one!

Just remember that when a plate of food is placed in front of you, you don’t actually have to eat it all (contrary to what your parents may have told you as a child). You know yourself and you know when you’re full. Certainly, eat until you’re full and happy and don’t have to worry about being hungry again in an hour, but don’t eat until you feel like you may just burst at any moment. Be aware of oversized portions to make smart decisions when it comes to food and exercise regularly and you’ll be ahead of millions of Americans who have fallen for the portion distortion trap. It’s your one body; take care of it!

Lace Up & Get Ready for 2014 Spring Fling

Looking for the perfect way to end your busy spring semester? We have the answer.

Spring Fling is a 2.7 mile fun run or 1.5 mile walk on May 2nd, open to UNC Chapel Hill faculty and staff. This event is very popular – in previous years, over 500 participants have joined the Spring Fling as both individual and departmental teams. At the conclusion of the run/walk, refreshments will be provided for re-hydration and relaxation! Spring Fling is rain or shine – so come out regardless of the weather.

Spring Fling also has a charity aspect. At the event, participants should bring canned goods to donate to the Glenwood Elementary Family Assistance Program. Participants can also bring non-perishable pet item donations for the Orange County Animal Shelter.

You can also walk away from Spring Fling with a prize. After the conclusion of the run/walk, an award will be given to the team with the most participants, and the team with the most creative spring-themed costumes. There will also be a special prize drawing, which participants can enter by donating to any of the charity causes at the event (non-perishable food donations OR pet items like food, blankets, leashes, etc.)

Registration info:

Individual Registration: Click here to complete online registration or visit the Campus Rec Main Office (SRC 101) to register in person. On-site registration will also be available on event day. 
Team Registration:
Must be printed out, signed by all team members, and turned in to the Campus Rec Main Office or faxed to 919-962-3621 ATTN: Spring Fling. Click here to download the team form, or stop by the Campus Rec Main Office to pick up a copy.
Registration Open: Monday, April 7, 2014
Registration Close: Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 12 p.m.
On-site Registration: Accepted 11:30 a.m. until 12 p.m. race day for individuals only

For more information regarding this event, please contact Lauren Mangili at

Spring Fling 2014

• Friday, May 2nd 2014
• 12:15pm
• Meet in front of the Student Recreation Center
• Register in advance OR the day of the event



5 Eggcellent Easter Weekend Recipes

It’s already Easter weekend, and no matter what your plans may be, popular tradition will be bringing eggs, dye tablets, vinegar and fun to houses all over the country. No matter how old I get, I’ll never be too old to enjoy the fun of dying eggs for Easter! However, I always get caught up in the fun of seeing how many color combinations my sister and I can make, and before I know it, we have a bowl of two dozen hard-boiled eggs sitting in our refrigerator. I like hard-boiled eggs and I think that they make a great and easy morning protein source… but 24 hard boiled eggs can be a bit much for a family of four that includes two people who don’t enjoy hard boiled eggs. What to do with the colorful egg dilemma? Here are five ways to use those extra hard-boiled eggs to make a meal almost as exciting as dying the eggs in the first place!


  1. Use them in a salad: Hard-boiled eggs are a great addition to salads, especially for vegetarians, who may otherwise lack protein in their salads. Stick to savory salads with toppings such as carrots, cucumbers, and tomatoes rather than salads containing fruit and nuts if you’re wanting to add egg. It sounded completely strange to me before I tried it, but one of the most popular salads on the restaurant menus in Italy was a salad with lettuce, tomato, black olives, corn, tuna, and you guessed it—hard-boiled eggs. It was served with salt and pepper shakers, a bottle of red wine vinegar, and a bottle of good-quality olive oil so that I could control the ratio of the dressing on my own salad. Don’t be afraid to be creative when it comes to salads; salads with fruit are my favorite and I never expected to enjoy a salad with egg and tuna, but I was pleasantly surprised and ended up eating it several times.
  2. English muffin breakfast sandwiches: English muffins are chewy, delicious, and the perfect size to serve as a base for a delicious breakfast sandwich. Slice up your hard-boiled eggs and warm them up in the toaster on top of an English muffin with some bacon or ham and cheese for a classic breakfast sandwich. For a more non-traditional breakfast sandwich, try using mozzarella cheese instead of cheddar and replace the meat with tomato slices or a spread of mashed avocado on each side of the muffin for some morning fruit and veggie magic.
  3. Delicious strawberry shortcake: What!? We’re talking about hard-boiled eggs here! That’s right—old fashioned and delicious shortcake recipes call for mashed hard-boiled egg yolk as an ingredient required to give the shortcake it’s great taste and texture. Layer your shortcake with fresh chopped strawberries and homemade (or not) whipped cream to make an impressive springtime dessert!
  4. As a topping: From baked chicken to grilled asparagus crumbled egg yolk as a topping adds creaminess and richness to both hot and warm dishes alike.
  5. Add texture to potato salad and meatballs: Add texture, taste, and volume to potato salad by stirring in coarsely chopped hard boiled eggs to your favorite potato salad recipe. Extremely finely chopped or blended hard-boiled eggs mixed into raw meat before it is formed into meatballs makes for tasty meatballs with natural added flavor and vitamins.
  6. (Bonus!) Egg salad and Deviled eggs: I call these bonuses because I thought that they were the most common hard-boiled egg recipes out there! Both typically contain a lot of mayonnaise and not a lot of texture other than the soft texture of the egg. Try lightening the recipes up a bit by using a half-and-half combination of light mayonnaise and plain Greek yogurt and add texture and flavor by stirring in paprika and/or finely chopped cucumbers, celery, and capers to your egg salad or deviled egg filling.

Before you know it, you’ll have put that large bowl of multicolored eggs to great use and definitely not to waste! And remember that Vitamin D I talked about just last week? Egg yolk is a great source! The yolk has a lot of flavor and nutritional value to offer, so don’t just set it aside; put it to good use!

I hope everyone has a fantastic long weekend and is ready to start off next week refreshed and prepared for the madness that is finals week. Happy especially Good Friday! :)

Images from

Simplifying the Science: How Smoking Pot Changes the Brain

The Study:

Breaking it down:

A recent study from The Journal of Neuroscience revealed that casual marijuana use may change the brain more than previously thought. 40 young adults (age 18-25), 20 pot smokers and 20 non-pot smokers, were studied for brain changes over time. The pot smokers – who used marijuana at least once a week – showed altered size and shape of brain regions associated with reward processing and judgment. The particular brain region, the “nucleus accumbens” and surrounding areas, had greater grey matter density in pot smokers.

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 12.57.56 AM


Brain scans of pot smokers show increased gray matter density in certain areas. Pot smokers on the left, non-pot smokers on the right.

results-of-scientific-experimentsWhat does this mean for you? Well, if you’re a casual pot smoker (once a week), your habit could be changing what feels enjoyable to you. THC, a chemical in marijuana, is believed to become chemically addictive to the brain. This could lead to a higher threshold for pleasure, or alter decision-making. The researchers in the study admit that more research is needed to understand the “functional outcome,” or day-to-day effects, of this brain change.


The bottom line? If you’re under 25 and smoke marijuana casually, your habit is noticeably altering important parts of your brain. It’s too soon to tell what effects this change has on daily life. It’s also unclear how adults over 25 who casually smoke pot are affected.


images courtesy of The Journal of Neuroscience and

Wellness Wednesday: Making a Change – Are you Ready?

Have you ever thought about making a change? Perhaps creating a new habit? Studying more? Or finally kicking that late-night frosty habit that was only heightened by the recent discovery of the swirled chocolate and vanilla frosty?

We all want to make a change at some time or another. Through my work at Student Wellness, I’ve learned a bit about making changes.

I do motivational interviewing (MI) over at Student Wellness as a part of my job. MI is a type of counseling that is non-judgmental, non-confrontational, and non-adversarial, and focuses on eliciting “change talk” from clients. This is done, in part, by understanding the Stages of Change, and “meeting people where they are.”

So, without further ado, I present to you the Stages of Change (also called the Transtheoretical Model if you want to impress someone with how smart you are). I find this incredibly helpful for thinking about making positive, healthy changes in my own life, and I hope you find this useful as well.

Think about what it would take to move you from one stage to the next. Would weighing the pros and cons help? Would seeking out more information be useful? What would you change if you could? How about writing out a plan, or talking about making a change with a friend or family member? What are potential barriers to change? Whatever you want to change, you alone are the one that can do it. Hopefully, by understanding this model, you are now one step closer to making a small step towards positive changes in your life!


1) PRECONTEMPLATION (Not ready to change)
The individual is not currently considering change: “Ignorance is bliss.”
People are not intending to take action in the foreseeable future, usually in the next six months.

2) CONTEMPLATION (Thinking of changing)
Ambivalent about change: “Sitting on the fence.”
Not considering change within the next month.

3) PREPARATION (Ready to change)
Some experience with change and are trying to change: “Testing the waters.”
Planning to act within 1 month.

4) ACTION (Making change)
The active work toward desired behavioral change including modification of environment, experiences, or behavior has been taken. At this stage people have made specific overt modifications in their life-styles within the past six months.

5) MAINTENANCE (Staying on track)
Here, the focus is on ongoing, active work to maintain changes made and prevent relapse. At this stage people are less tempted to go back to their old habits and increasingly more confident that they can continue their change.

Take care of yourselves and each other, Tar Heels!


Wellness Wednesday blog posts are written by Student Wellness or Campus Health Services staff members. Wednesday blog posts can be found both here and on

The Powerful Potato!

Mashed, baked, fried, hash-browned, or boiled—potatoes are one fantastic food. Not only do I think that potatoes are one of the most delicious things to grow from this amazing earth, but they’re also impressively good for you! Here are some of the incredible benefits that potatoes have to offer:


Basic Nutritional Facts:

  • One very large, plain baked potato with the skin has approximately 200-280 calories, 0g total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 30mg sodium, 63g carbohydrates, 7g fiber, 4g sugar, and 7g protein.
  • So we see that potatoes are not at all calorically dense considering how filling an entire potato can be! A single potato also contains a great amount of fiber and protein, which means that not only will they keep you feeling fuller longer than most foods, they’re good for the digestive system as well!

Vitamins and Minerals

  • Potatoes have much more to offer than just carbohydrates and protein; they’re also loaded with vitamins and minerals!
  • A single large potato contains significant amounts of Vitamins C, K, and B6, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, and Pantothenic Acid.
  • Fun Fact: One white potato has more vitamin C than a sweet potato!
  • Potatoes also contain noteworthy amounts of essential minerals that we require each day from our diets: calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese.
  • Another Fun Fact: A potato has more potassium than a banana!
  • Each of these vitamins and minerals plays a major role in regulation and function of bodily processes. Trying to explain the necessity of each of them could be the topic of an entire book, but just be aware that there is a recommended daily amount of vitamins and minerals and that potatoes can be a valuable contribution to your daily recommended intake!
  • For more detailed nutritional information for a plain baked potato, click here!

Potato Recipe Goodness

  • For some awesome potato recipes, check out to see how versatile potatoes can be in your diet! Also, here are some of my personal favorite ways to eat potatoes!
  • Baked with ranch sour cream (or other toppings): I’m actually not the biggest fan of the plain butter and sour cream topping that people typically eat on baked potatoes. Baked potatoes are incredibly easy to make (even in the microwave), and I like to change up the flavors by putting different toppings on my potatoes. Some of my favorite toppings are shredded cheese, chopped up steamed broccoli, Italian dressing, and sour cream with a packet of dry ranch dressing mix stirred into it to give it a tangy, ranchy flavor.
  • Southern fried potatoes: I’m not talking about French fries or any other shape of deep fried potato. Instead, my mom cuts thick semi-circle shaped slices of potato and fries them in a big frying pan with just a little bit of olive oil, chopped up onions, salt, pepper, and a seasoning my family likes called “Canadian steak seasoning.” I honestly don’t even know what all is in it because it comes mixed together and the helpful ingredients list just says “spices.” The soft, slightly browned seasoned potatoes make the perfect side to burgers and other typical summer cookout foods.
  • Potato Pizza: That’s right—potatoes and pizza make an awesome pair! While I was studying abroad last summer, one of my favorite types of pizza that I tried was called the “PPP: Pesto-potato pizza!” As you might assume, instead of red sauce there was a pesto base, delicious mozzarella cheese, and a layer of thinly sliced potato circles completely covering the top! Mellow Mushroom also has a delicious potato pizza; try it out if you’re feeling adventurous sometime!
  • Pink mashed potatoes: I know, you already think I’m crazy and I’m not helping my case. But no matter how many times we’ve been told to not play with our food, it’s still kind of fun to experiment every now and then. All credit for this one goes to my boyfriend, who taught me that if you boil a beet with your potatoes and then mash the beet completely smooth and mix it into your fluffy white mashed potatoes you end up with the coolest looking magenta mashed potatoes ever! (And the flavor doesn’t change at all!) Of course we had to make them together after he mentioned it to me, and they were delicious! I like to add milk, sour cream, salt, pepper, and a little butter to the plain mashed potatoes to make them especially creamy and delicious!

Sadly, “carbs” and “starches” have gotten a bad reputation among dieters and people in general as we are all exposed to commercials and claims about “carb-less diets” working miracles. The truth is that starches and carbohydrates make up the base of the food pyramid and are great sources of energy and fiber in our diets! The potato is an especially awesome exception because it acts as both a starch and a vegetable and provides high energy, high fiber, high protein, and a plethora of vitamins and minerals per serving! Potatoes have been a dietary staple throughout history and are still an excellent addition to a varied and balanced diet today! Adding some potato goodness to your diet is as easy as trying out a new potato recipe next time you decide to cook, choosing a baked potato as your side at a restaurant (including Wendy’s on campus), or popping a potato in the microwave for 5 minutes for a quick baked potato at home! (Just don’t forget to stab fork holes into the potato before microwaving to prevent explosion due to pressure build-up inside of the potato).

You know you want to try those pink mashed potatoes. Do it! A healthy addition to your meal is just a potato away!

Images courtesy of

UNC Sport Clubs Athlete: Kerry O’Donnell

Campus Recreation has a thriving sport clubs program, with 50 active clubs. These range from aikido to underwater hockey and are run by the student athletes themselves. Many of these teams and athletes have competed and received recognition on national and international levels. Campus Rec is extremely proud to boast such dedicated and talented student athletes! Periodically Tar Heel Tone Up will be featuring these student athletes so they can share their exciting stories. Today, we will be featuring Kerry O’Donnell, a member of the UNC Equestrian Team, who has qualified for the IHSA (Intercollegiate Horse Show Association) National finals.


The UNC Equestrian Team is a dedicated group of about 25 riders from many different skill levels.  The team competes in IHSA horse shows against local schools, including St. Andrews, NC State, ECU, UNCW, Duke, and UNC-Charlotte.

At a horse show, riders select a horse from the host school’s barn to ride for that particular show. What makes these shows tricky is that the riders are not allowed to interact with the horse until they are being judged in the show ring. Riders are judged on their “equitation,” a term which describes the position, style, and overall effectiveness of the rider with the horse. The rule book for these shows describes ideal form as having “a workmanlike appearance, seat and hands light and supple, conveying the impression of complete control should any emergency arise.”

Matt Gellatly Shooting

Kerry O’Donnell is a distinguished member of the UNC Equestrian Team. She’s been riding since the age of 5, and now Kerry has qualified for the IHSA National Finals, which will take place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in early May. Kerry just recently advanced to the Open Level of competition from the Intermediate Level, which means she has won more than ten Hunter Seat equitation classes on the flat in recognized competitions.

Dedication is the perfect word to describe Kerry’s equestrian training. She currently takes two lessons a week with her coach in addition to riding her personal horse throughout the week. On the weekends, Kerry continues to improve – she attends horse shows with her team or practices with her horse.

Kerry says that she truly enjoys riding and the bond that is developed with her horse. Even though the horse is not obliged to do what the rider asks, Kerry says that they are “naturally willing” and are easy to create a partnership with. Kerry trains horses – but they also have taught her important lessons: “responsibility, communication, hard work.”

For Kerry, the equestrian team is a unique experience because riding is usually an individual sport. However, the combined  score of the team determines how they place.

To learn more about the UNC Equestrian Team, click here. And Check the team out on facebook.

We are so excited for Kerry’s success and we wish her the best of luck at the IHSA National Finals!

Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin

So here is my dilemma: on one hand, we’re told that unprotected sun exposure can cause damage to DNA and increase risk of skin cancer. Some dermatologists are extreme enough to suggest that wearing sunscreen is essential before any amount of sun exposure and that you should avoid exposing your skin to the sun between the hours of 11am and 3pm at all costs. I’m not kidding; I’ve known a dermatologist who adopted this as his philosophy for preventing melanoma. On the other hand, we are told that a certain amount of unprotected sun exposure is extremely beneficial, if not essential, for producing adequate amounts of vitamin D, one of the most important vitamins for the body. What is a person to do in this sticky situation? Become a shadow hermit? Take some extra supplements? I’m not a fan of either idea.


Let’s take a quick detour. So, I think that historical word origins can be pretty cool sometimes. I know that’s kind of nerdy, but I’m ok with it. In the early twentieth century, several scientists began to notice that certain disorders could be prevented or cured simply by eating certain foods. In particular, one scientist noticed that eating polished rice (the pretty rice without the hull) didn’t prevent a neurological disease known as beriberi, but eating unpolished rice (with the hull still attached) would prevent the disease. Obviously there was something special about these rice husks that had to do with preventing the disease. In 1912, Cashmir Funk, a Polish scientist with a really awesome name that sounds like a groovy sweater, found the specific chemical compound in the rice husk that was responsible for preventing beriberi. The compound contained an “amino” group, which is the chemical term for a group with a nitrogen atom attached to three hydrogen atoms (NH3) and it was vital to a healthy life. Therefore, Funk decided to name the compound a “vitamine,” which was later shortened to vitamin [1]. So there we have it: the word vitamin didn’t exist until 1912, and our great-great grandparents had never even heard of the vitamins and the sunscreen that are advertised as being so essential today. Crazy how that works.

But coming back to the topic at hand, vitamins are so named because they are essential to life and must be consumed in the diet; our bodies do not synthesize vitamins themselves. Or do they? The truth is that we simply don’t synthesize adequate amounts of the vitamins that we need, but two vitamins can, in fact, be synthesized in the body. A large amount of our necessary vitamin K is synthesized by gut bacteria, and a large amount of required vitamin D is synthesized from cholesterol compounds in our skin in a reaction that requires UV light. Vitamin D is essential primarily for maintaining the balance of calcium in the body: adequate blood calcium levels are needed for proper neuron function and muscle contraction, but adequate bone calcium levels are needed for the mineralization process that makes our bones solid and not spongy. The bones and the blood exchange calcium, based on the current needs of the body, and vitamin D that facilitates and maintains this balance.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means that it can be stored in the body much better than water-soluble vitamins. This makes vitamin D supplementation risky because it is easy to overdose—in fact, vitamin D is the most toxic of all of the fat soluble vitamins. The best way to be sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D is to spend a small amount of time exposed to sunlight each day (without the protection of sunscreen) to facilitate the reaction that makes vitamin D in your skin. People with lighter skin complete this process more quickly than people with darker skin, because darker skin means more melanin, which means more protection from UV rays. Ten minutes with face, legs, and arms exposed is plenty for a fair skinned person to get enough vitamin D on a sunny summer day, but thirty minutes might be required for a person with darker skin to make the same amount of vitamin D with the same amount of skin exposed.

Several factors block the UV rays that are required for the vitamin D making process, including window glass, clothing, sunscreen, and latitude. Yep—latitude. North of 42 degrees latitude, (some sources say Atlanta), there are not enough UV B rays reaching your skin to synthesize vitamin D during the winter from around October to March [2]. That’s a pretty big hunk of the year! So what are some other sources of vitamin D for those months when the sun apparently isn’t going to help us out? Most milk is now fortified with vitamin D, as well as some cereals that are fortified with all sorts of vitamins. Fatty fish such as salmon is also one of the best sources. But vegans take note—plant foods just aren’t good sources of vitamin D, so it’s important for you to get enough exposure to sun when the timing is right!

Although many foods commonly bought at the grocery store are fortified with vitamin D, experts say that it’s still important to allow some sun exposure for adequate vitamin D synthesis. Studies have shown that low vitamin D levels were associated with higher risk of heart disease and colon cancer—yikes! [2].   But what about the risks of sun exposure? It’s all about moderation. Although I am a huge believer in the necessity of sunscreen, I try to remember my great great grandparents who had never even heard of it to remind myself that a few minutes in the sun without sunscreen each day is perfectly OK. For me and my fair skin, just walking from class to class throughout the day is probably enough time to synthesize some vitamin D, but if I’m planning on staying out for a while, the sunscreen is coming with me, and it should be going with you, too!

So go on, wear that tee shirt and those shorts and don’t put your sunscreen on right away if you’re anticipating some quality time in the sun. You’ll be doing yourself a favor by making some Vitamin D; just don’t forget to keep track of time and sunscreen it up after a few minutes. You can always make up for a little lacking Vitamin D with your breakfast cereal, but those corn flakes aren’t going to help you out when it comes to skin cancer [3]. Only you can do that.

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