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Eating Across the Lifespan

You hear nutrition messages every day. “Eat less sugar.” “Adopt a plant-based diet.” “Avoid GMOs” “Include smoothies in your diet.” “Eat less salt.” “Avoid packaged food.” “Don’t eat carbs.” But who are these messages actually directed to? How can you, my reader, actually figure out what you are supposed to eat?

Age and Activity Matter

courtesy of eatright.org

courtesy of eatright.org

The media tends to look at our food landscape as one table, if you will. One table filled with one healthy list of foods within food groups that everyone must eat.

But how a 50 year old man or woman should eat looks nothing like how an 18 year old boy or girl should eat.

“There’s this thing called the lifespan”

At every stage of human life, there is a set of nutrients that are required, and a range of energy (i.e. kilocalories) needed to sustain your activity during that stage. As nutrition professionals we have always used height and weight tables and charts, as well as USDA guidelines for what the Recommended Dietary Intake or Upper Limit of various nutrients are. Since obese children have an altered metabolism, things have changed over the years when it comes to assessing their needs. And no assessment tool is without drawbacks – this is where the physical exam and diet history come in.

While parents provide genetics, they also provide the eating environment for their children. A healthy metabolism is formed early in life – with breast or bottle. Early feeding helps a child understand and listen to his hunger and satiety cues. Early introduction of a variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, can help a child’s palate develop to accept those foods, textures and flavors. Your best bet in treating obesity is avoiding obesity. It’s much harder to lose weight, than to maintain it (although that’s still quite a challenge).

Nutrition and Activity Key during Middle-Age

Your body begins to require less calories each decade after age 30. Once you reach 40, more prominent metabolic changes may occur. The media and television personalities often tout carbohydrates as “bad”, and while this blanket statement is too broad, it is true that your body may be having a more difficult time processing carbohydrates, or that you simply are requiring less quick energy (The glycemic index can also be used a tool to choose healthy foods.). If you are a parent, you don’t want to get into the trap of restricting food in both your diet and that of your child or teenager.

While the examination of how carbohydrate metabolism changes with aging isn’t clear, there’s no doubt that exercise is ever more important as you age. Assuming that your activity is light to moderate, most people between the ages of 45-65 are going to require less calories from smaller amounts of food, with a focus on whole foods from the basic food groups, limiting treats such as cocktails, dessert, fried food, etc. In other words – just about everything you eat should be providing good nutrition, not empty calories.

So what about calories? Men over 45 require anywhere from 2000-2800 calories, while women require anywhere from 1400-2200. Calorie needs depend on physical activity, age and height. Try evaluating your diet with the USDA Supertracker, then set goals to eat a bit less and move a bit more. When you track what you eat, and exercise, you’ll have more energy, and may also gradually drop a few pounds.

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What’s Happened to Breakfast?

cerealmuffinGeneral Mills Cereals sent me a delivery of cereal, recipes and helpful tips that I’ll be using to help families transition back to school this fall.

I was at the gym this week after a few weeks off. August had been so hectic with travel and transition, that I just had to break from my usual workout routine at the gym. When I saw one of the trainers, I said “Happy New Year!” and she laughed.

But truly, September almost feels like a new year to me. Summer can be much less structured for families with children in school the rest of the year. During the summer, hot temperatures and travel may have you cooking less at home, and meals get sporadic, but now you feel like you have renewed motivation to create a comforting meal at home.

Easier said than done perhaps? Many families get so busy, that come September, they don’t even realize that they don’t have a meal planning strategy. Without a plan, junk food happens. Children may wake up late, or have a long commute to school, which encourages either a quick, low quality, or skipped breakfast. Lunch meals for adults who are at work may be grabbed on the go through a fast food lane. The dinner hour may be sabotaged by after school snacking or evening commitments for school sports or business meetings.

How Can You Stop the Crazy Train?

Well, it does take a bit of planning and goal setting, but you can do it. In the coming weeks, I’ll offer some quick and easy meal ideas for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but first, you have to make a lifestyle change.

  • If you find yourself skipping breakfast (and the kids are modeling the same behavior), think about what you can eat or drink in the time you have. It may mean setting the alarm 20 minutes earlier or prepping some items before you go to bed. But if there are easy choices around the kitchen in the morning, you don’t have to think, you can just grab and go.

Where Did Breakfast Go?

I recently heard that some millennials feel that a bowl of cereal is “too much work” (after all, there’s a bowl and spoon involved). For my generation, a bowl of cereal was the go-to breakfast – easy and nutritious. In my household, everyone still enjoys a traditional bowl of cereal – for breakfast, snack, or even as a light meal.

If you haven’t had cereal on your shopping list lately, try it again as a creative ingredient in recipes that take your breakfast on the go – smoothie bowls, muffins, or energy bites. Cereal fits into the lifestyle of every age group – from preschoolers, to high school and college students, to busy middle-agers (yep, that’s me).

  • Smoothies and Smoothie Bowls: A smoothie bowl is like a smoothie, only you pour into a bowl and enjoy with a spoon. What’s the point? You get more nutrition packed into the bowl than say, your typical oatmeal. Plus you get to experiment with a variety of flavors and ingredients. Use your blender or juicer to blend up a frozen banana or berries, 4-8 ounces of milk (less for smoothie bowl, more for smoothie bottle), and a half cup of your favorite high fiber cereal (such as Cheerios®). Add a tablespoon of peanut butter and a dash of cinnamon, and you have a breakfast bowl (or bottle) to go. This can work great for both high school and college students who enjoy taking their blender bottles with them, and have busy schedules.
  • Cereal on Stand-by. While your college freshman is out of your sight and control now, a gentle reminder that breakfast is a good way to begin the day can’t hurt. Many college meal plans offer a 14 meal-per-week option, which unfortunately encourages students to choose lunch and dinner over breakfast. They may however be very open to an easy breakfast of cereal with milk in their room. Some may be able to use their ‘flex cash’ to purchase milk to keep in their dorm fridge.
  • Muffins. Who doesn’t like a muffin? Muffins are a quick one-bowl bakery item. By baking them at home you can control the portion and ingredients. You’ll find your homemade muffin to be less sweet and more substantial (less like cake, and slightly more dense) than bakery muffins. Bake them when you have some time, then freeze in a zipper bag and just grab one anytime. Since cereal offers both whole grain and vitamins/minerals, you can easily create a tasty muffin that provides a very quick breakfast or snack for your busy teen.
  • Keep fruit in the fridge, and ready-to-eat. If it’s melon is sliced or chopped into chunks, it’s more likely to get eaten. If a bowl of grapes are on the counter, someone will grab some. If you slice up apples or pears and place it into bowls on the dinner table, it will get eaten. Simple strategy that really works.

Remember, healthy eating is worth it. It may not always be the easiest choice, but it’s one that’ll make you feel good. Start your day off right.

 

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Meatless Monday or Anyday: Versatile Garden Pasta Salad, al fresco

School is in session but the weather still says “summer”. Soon we’ll have a nice break from the heat with a few days of temperatures in the 70s. Autumn is the perfect time to enjoy a garden pasta salad with a back to school outdoor picnic. I love eating outdoors. I love the sounds of the birds, the sunshine, and the cool breeze. A pasta salad is so versatile, because you can add just about anything to it, and also use up leftovers. It can be a meatless meal, or you can add cheese, chunks of cooked chicken breast or mini meatballs.

This easy dish can be a meal, or a side dish, and travels well for pot-lucks and picnics. You can also make it ahead, and then use it through the week on busy weeknights. Enjoy!

pastasald

Very Veggie Pasta Salad

1 pound of whole wheat penne or elbow macaroni

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 large cucumber, seeded, diced

3-4 plum tomatoes, seeded, diced

1 bell pepper or 2 banana peppers, seeded, diced

1/2 cup chopped spinach or kale

1/4 cup slivered almonds or chopped walnuts (optional)

3 TB chopped fresh herb (use your favorite – basil, oregano, thyme)

2 TB lemon juice or favorite vinegar (I love my Sicilian lemon vinegar)

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup feta cheese, or a vegan cheese (optional)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Cook pasta, according to al dente directions (usually about 8 minutes). Drain well.
  2. Add chopped vegetables, nuts and herbs to pasta, and toss until mixed. You can use any veggie you like. I prefer dicing them. Try adding cubed and roasted eggplant or chopped broccoli or cauliflower.
  3. Mix lemon juice and olive oil in small bowl. Pour over pasta and toss gently until mixed.
  4. Add crumbled feta cheese and toss. (You can also add cooked chicken or chopped cooked shrimp)
  5. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours, or up to a day, until ready to eat.

 

 

 

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FREAKN FLOSN

Have you heard about the so-called “FLOSN” movement? Apparently this young adult movement  is gaining ground. Since becoming a curmudgeon, I think it’s pretty ridiculous.

The acronym FLOSN stands for Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal, Non-GMO. I was shocked by a recent story about a college freshman who quit the first semester because the food served at her university didn’t meet her FLOSN standards (a la Food Babe, she describes how she couldn’t possibly function if she’s feeding her body “toxic chemicals”. If I were her parent, she’d be cultivating her own vegetable garden and supplying the local food bank during her self-chosen gap year after dropping out).

A few dietitians I know who teach at universities have made humorous statements about student demands, including,

“Students and millennials claim to want ‘farm to table’, but they’ve never been to a farm, and they don’t own a table”.

It’s difficult for baby boomers like me to swallow the demands of such elitists. Here’s why: We had grandparents and parents who lived through the Great Depression, when jobs and food were scarce. My grandfather owned a butcher shop where no part of any animal went unused. My grandmother baked several loaves of bread from one sack of flour; fed the fresh bread to her family, and sold the rest so she could buy the next sack of flour. She wasn’t able to demand that the flour be unbleached, organic, or “local”. And yes, Ms Millennial, many of these ancestors sacrificed their lives for you during WWII.

For any parent who has helped support a child’s college education, you’ll know there are enough extra expenses. Adding to the food bill won’t help secure spots for more students. Universities may provide some unhealthy choices, but they also provide many healthy ones, all of which can be consumed to create a healthy overall diet. Let’s not forget how challenging it is to feed 5000 to 45,000 students (My guess is that most students who subscribe to FLOSN have never prepared “Food for Fifty”).

pastameme

So let’s chew the facts on FLOSN:

  • FRESH. Sure, everyone loves fresh food. Fresh herbs flavor a dish in a completely different way than dried herbs do. This doesn’t mean dried herbs are bad for you. They are just different. They aren’t as bold in flavor, but they have a shelf life, which is awesome. Fresh isn’t always best though. In fact, often flash frozen vegetables retain more nutrients than fresh. When it comes to food safety, fresh isn’t always best either. If you purchase fresh fish or chicken, and don’t cook or freeze it right away, you’ve got a food-borne illness risk. We are fortunate to have a safe and convenient food supply, and options with longer shelf life.
    • Bottom Line: Fresh isn’t always best and isn’t a hard rule for healthy eating 24/7.
  • LOCAL. It’s great to support local farms and growers, but being able to enjoy local produce or meats depends on your geographic location. We have a local pub that supports local farms and bakeries, but they also serve a limited menu of about 4 items, and a much smaller crowd than a University serves. Nothing about “local” in itself makes it more nutritious or economical for the business. Local isn’t always tastier either. Sometimes we grow green beans in our garden that don’t taste anywhere near as good as big farms can grow, package and ship to my supermarket.
    • Bottom Line: It is wonderful to form local partnerships, but to do this exclusively is not going to be in every business model, and certainly is not possible for most universities to pull off.
  • ORGANIC. Many argue that Organic is more nutritious than traditional produce. While there may sometimes be some nutritional differences, they aren’t significant. Others argue that Organic is better because the farming method uses less pesticides. While it’s true that Organic uses “natural” and not synthetic pesticides, they are pesticides nonetheless. More often than not, higher doses are used on Organic farming than in conventional. Finally, for some, the more expensive organic produce is simply not in the food budget, or easily available in local markets.
    • Bottom line: Organic is a choice, but not a necessity.
  • SEASONAL. Again, when you live in the Northeast, you can’t enjoy “seasonal” fruits and vegetables all year, unless you have a root cellar and want to eat only potatoes, squash and turnips all winter. And it’d be unlikely your cellar would hold these vegetables in good condition. I use canned tomatoes most of the time, and my pasta dishes are delicious.
    • Bottom Line: A healthy diet should include variety, and fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables can all serve a purpose.
  • Non-GMO. Scientifically there is no great nutritional value to choosing Organic and/or non-GMO over traditional or GMO. Common foods that are genetically engineers include corn, soy, canola, and sugar beets. There is no harm in consuming products that may contain ingredients made from these plants. Overall, these comprise a fairly small part of your diet.
    • Bottom line: there is no evidence that genetically engineered plants are harmful or have any variation in nutrition. While some claim environmental reasons for choosing to avoid GMO products, one could argue that there are many other industries which impact the environment. Overall, my view is that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to GMO.

Who knows, perhaps some universities will begin a “FLOSN Food Plan” option at a much higher cost than the ‘traditional meal plan” for these spoiled students. Perhaps I’ll come up with my own acronym: “SCAN food rules movement” instead: Safe, Convenient, Affordable, Nutritional.

Yes, the college years are a period of personal growth, but growing up entails tolerating things that aren’t comfortable, making sacrifices, showing compassion for others, and eventually supporting yourself. By the time you graduate, you may begin to understand that you hold a small place in a big world. Holding up your fiduciary responsibility may involve a modification of the no-expense-spared mentality – whether it’s food, fashion or furniture purchases. Believe it or not, you may even be faced with a time when non organic pasta and a canned tomatoes help get dinner on the table.

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Bad Moms Go Back to School

Usually I post about food and nutrition science, but this week’s post is a bit more philosophical. It concludes with some simple tips for back to school nutrition and wellness, so feel free to skip ahead…

As a mother of 3 sons who are teenagers and beyond, I am at the point in my life where I ask “Did I do enough? Teach the right things? Grow a good person?”

I’m going to pat myself on the back and say, “yes”. I probably did too much at times, taught the wrong things, and wasn’t always a perfect role model, but you know what? Who is perfect? Nobody.

As parents you go through quite the lifecycle. You have babies that you feed well, cuddle and nurture. You make sure they are accomplishing their birth age development skills, you take them to the pediatrician when they’re sick. When they become school-age (now at age 3 for preschool), you make sure they can separate and become social creatures. You help with homework and pack healthy lunches and snacks all through elementary school. You buy a cool backpack for the awkward middle school years, hoping they’ll find a place to fit in. Then high school begins and you have to start letting go.  What’s done is done, and they have to start making choices that you pray are the right ones. You become a safety net. You take the late night calls, you breathe a sigh of relief when the garage door opens and your teen get home safely, you worry less about their soda consumption or obsession with smoothies, and more about their safety and overall well-being.

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Health Halo: Junk foods that market “healthy”

Back to School, Drop the Shame

Which brings me to the Back to School theme and the Bad Moms movie. I went to see the movie Bad Moms with a few girl friends last week. I did laugh out loud. The movie was over the top (on purpose) to show us how crazy and warped parenting rules have become.

I’m calling all moms of school aged children to cut themselves a break. There is so much food shaming out there that even the most level headed mother will start to question herself. Personally, I feel the Organic food industry invented the notion of feeling shameful for choosing a treat for your child. I’m not talking about organic apples, carrots, or bananas, but the huge industry of packed Organic snacks that have a health halo around them. Since moms continue to be the primary shopper in the household, there’s no question that this industry is marketing to them.

Me? I’m old school  I buy my kids original junk food.

image

Now that school is back in session, or soon to be, give yourself a break. Be a “Bad Mom” (i.e., imperfect but balanced, allowing time for yourself, and providing a reasonably healthy diet for your kids, along with enough downtime for everyone). Consider this:

  1. Don’t overdo it. It’s okay to bring your B game to the first day of school.  Remember that there’s plenty of time the first few weeks of school to pick up snacks or school supplies. For whatever reason, we moms tend to go into “nesting” mode the days leading up to school. As if you can’t buy notebooks or a pair of jeans on September 10th or something.
  2. If you don’t get a photo of “the first day”, let it go. This obsession with fancy Pinterest-worthy photo moments of kids holding a plaque of their grade on a cute little chalk board, drawn with  perfect calligraphy, is a bit much. And way too much pressure for moms who don’t have the time or skill for such things. Trust me, when you child moves to college they aren’t going to care about their outfit on the first day of 6th grade. Matter of fact, they may wish to erase that memory.
  3. Encourage breakfast. While the research that breakfast improves school performance is now being questioned, fueling the body in the morning is a good idea, especially for younger children. Keep it quick and simple: A small bowl of cereal with milk, fruit, a glass of milk or yogurt smoothie, and English muffin or frozen waffle with peanut butter.
  4. It’s okay to pack potato chips. My children love a lunch box that includes a small 1-ounce bag of chips. Love. It. Check here for more.
  5. Fruit and veggies balance out the chips. Pack either packaged or fresh – and be sure they are the ones your kids will eat. As we dietitians like to say, “It’s not nutrition if you don’t eat it”. Pack at least one likable fruit or veggie every day in the lunch bag or box.
  6. I recommend variety, but I can tell you that during the school year my children were pretty happy with routine. They often would pack the same things daily: peanut butter and jelly, a ham sandwich, applesauce or grapes, yogurt, chips, milk. We used the variety rule during the summer. If you can get your child to embrace mixing it up, awesome. But if you can’t, don’t worry. Not all kids are born to crave turkey wraps with sprouts and avocado. I love those, but my kids don’t (Exposure is good though. It’s good that your child can identify the vegetable or fruit, but don’t force them to eat it). And truthfully, I didn’t eat avocados or sprouts until my twenties when I took a trip to Nevada and California. So there’s plenty of time for your child to try new foods and embrace them on his own terms.
  7. Do have an after school snack plan. If your child stays at school, offer to bring something healthy in. If they are old enough to come home alone, have a plate of sliced cheese with fruit ready in the fridge, easy-to-reheat leftovers, or a sandwich ready to eat. Encourage teens to have something substantial and healthy over junk food after school.
  8. Fuel an athlete. Once your child is in middle or high school, they might begin to understand reason that what they eat does impact their performance. Pour them a big glass of chocolate milk when they get home along with a sandwich. Then have a balanced dinner too.
  9. Do try to have dinner together, even with teens. It gets to be a real challenge to get teens to the table, but do your best, even if this means dinner is at 7:30 or 8:00pm. When you children are young, there’s more time to cook and plan meals. With teenagers, you’ll find yourself doing a lot more pick ups and drop offs, leaving you less time for planning, shopping and cooking. Keep it simple: Soup and sandwich night, Taco Tuesday, Pasta Friday, etc. Keep kid-friendly canned green beans or corn on hand, fresh fruit or a bagged salad that you can easily add to the table.  What is important is that you sit at the table, chat, and eat. Expect your children to help clear the table, and wash dishes or load dishwasher too as part of the nightly ritual.
  10. Take some Me Time. If your children are always exposed to an exhausted woman who is constantly setting rules about what to eat, or keeping up a perfect household, they will tune out and may even become stressed or anxiety ridden themselves. Schedule regular exercise, find a hobby and realize your children can and will grown up in spite of you. They may not even need you as much as you once thought, so make some popcorn, pour yourself an iced tea, and put your feet up.

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Summer’s Bounty and Leftovers with Endless Possibilities

Our backyard vegetable garden yielded a lot of cucumbers this summer. Often the veggies come in faster than you can eat them but cooking in batches and making the most of leftovers is always a good plan. For instance a cucumber and tomato salad tossed with vinegar and oil will last for a few days. We also have quite a few banana peppers – loaded with antioxidants! You can stuff them with sausage and bake with tomato sauce, or just slice them and saute them in oil, then add to pizza or omelets.

Some people enjoy batch cooking on Sundays. I prefer to relax on the weekend (and unless it’s celebration – no, I dont’ find batch cooking relaxing). Instead, I often cook extra staples during the week. If I make pasta or rice, I’ll cook extra for leftovers. If I’m grilling chicken, I’ll throw on extra pieces. It’s just as easy to roast or grill four pounds of meat as it is two pounds, and you can use the extra in different ways through the week. Last night I did just that – marinated two pieces of lean pork loin and grilled them both. I sliced the grilled roasts and we enjoyed them for dinner with corn on the cob, grilled peaches, cabbage slaw, and a cucumber tomato salad. I made my own version of “pepper poppers” by stuffing banana peppers with cream cheese and roasted those too. (For an appetizer, you can stuff each pepper with plain or herbed cream cheese or goat cheese, then wrap with refrigerated dough and bake for 10-15 minutes. Delicious!)

When you cook extra, the leftovers can serve as ingredients for a whole new meal or dish, and save you lots of time the next night. Yes, leftovers can taste good!

porkPeachsoftTaco

A few notes about the meal:

  • Buy fresh pork loin or pork tenderloin. There are a lot of packages in the meat case that are pre-marinated, but not only are these really high in sodium, they also lack flavor. To me, they taste salty yet very bland. It’s so easy to marinate meat. All you need is vinegar or citrus juice. For tougher cuts of meat, pineapple is a great tenderizer also. See the easy marinade I used, and look for other options in cookbooks or online.
  • If a recipe says “marinate overnight” you don’t always have to. If it is a tougher cut of meat, you may want to, but marinating for an hour or more still provides flavor and tenderness.
  • Chop all the garden veggies you have into a salad or slaw. or roast them all together with onions and garlic in the oven. Peppers, eggplant, zucchini, and other squash varieties are delicious roasted. Just cube them, toss in olive oil, add a pinch of salt, two crushed garlic cloves, and roast for 35-45 minutes.
  • Variety in the diet is important, but during sweet corn season? Eat it every night if you want to!
  • Add fruit to your meals. Grilled fruit is so delicious with pork and chicken, and can be used in fresh fruit salsas on fish.

Grilled Pork Loin with Peaches

2-4 pounds pork loin, trimmed of fat

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup water

pinch of salt

1/2 tsp dried oregano or 2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves

4-6 fresh peaches, washed, halved without pit

1-2 Tablespoons brown sugar

  1. Begin by mixing marinade. Put brown sugar into a gallon zippered storage bag. Add vinegar, water, salt, and oregano. Mix until sugar is dissolved. Add pork loin and seal bag well. Refrigerate for 2 hours, or up to overnight (when ready to grill, remove roast from bag, discard marinade). While pork is marinating, or just before you are ready to grill, prepare peaches. Halve peaches, discard pit. Sprinkle a bit of sugar onto each half.
  2. Be sure grill is preheated, then turn to low. If you have more than one burner, only turn on one or two, and place pork loin onto grill area in indirect heat. When roast is almost done, place the peaches on the hot grill, skin side up. Turn them in about 10 minutes. Cook pork until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. I use a meat thermometer.
  3. When pork loin is done, remove from grill to platter and tent with foil. Remove peaches from grill when they are fork tender and slightly caramelized in color.
  4. Slice the roast into 1/2-inch slices and sere with grilled peaches.

I added steamed corn on the cob, grilled pepper poppers, and cole slaw to this meal.

The Next Day: Peachy Soft Tacos with Slaw

Slice leftover pork and grilled peaches into bite sized pieces. Place pork pieces onto soft tortilla. Microwave for about a minute on 70% power. Top with a few spoons of cole slaw.

cornPorkTaco

 

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Ditching Preservatives: A market strategy or a journey to food-borne illness?

A recent news story about a case in the European Union court concluding that health and nutrition professionals really can’t be in a position to have up to date knowledge about all foods – almost had a “trust no one” stance to it. This reminded me of the decision Panera Bread® has made recently about their new menu, as well as Chipotle’s® marketing strategies (Chipotle’s® most recent advertisement, i.e., short film, tries to downplay artificial colors or flavors drawing a “big is bad” conclusion in it’s way-too-long quirky film. I categorize their ads as fear-mongering, and their decisions have led to some problems).

So far, so good for Panera® (at least from a marketing and food-borne illness standpoint) in their decision to remove all artificial ingredients and preservatives from their product line. They claim this is aligned with the “clean eating” theme they’ve created. They are removing:

  • Artificial flavors
  • Preservatives
  • Artificial Sweeteners
  • Artificial Colors
  • Meat treated with antibiotics, and more

So if you have diabetes and wanted to enjoy a diet or sugar free beverage, your choice apparently will now be water, plain coffee or tea.  And did you know it’s usually a good thing for animals to be treated with antibiotics when they have an infection?

It’s kind of a crazy list, and what’s the point?

Well, of course the point is money. These nouveau fast food companies are answering a supposed public cry for “natural” feel-good foods and beverages. I guess that is what food marketing is all about – appeal to the most popular consumer. A few years ago the northeast grocery store, Wegman’s, followed the same crowd by coming up with their “food you feel good about®” store label. That label was used on all foods or beverages that didn’t have artificial flavors or colors, trans fats, hormones, antibiotics, or high fructose corn syrup. An interesting and random list.

I find it maddening that, by creating a “no-no” list, these companies perpetuate the notion that these safe ingredients are somehow not good for you. This is not just misleading, but untrue! And in most cases, they know it. Time will tell if this trend will lead to more food borne illness. Or at the least, moldy bread.

Preservatives Play a Role in Food Safety

I view preservatives as a functional and progressive way to reduce waste and improve shelf life. Artificial colors? Well, they provide mostly aesthetics, so I can go along with the trend of substituting naturally occurring colors to enhance food. Artificial sweeteners however provide a variety of options for weight control – both for people with diabetes and people who are minding their calorie intake by reducing empty calories from sugar. In moderation, there is no concern with their safety.

It always comes down to balance and moderation. Convenience is clearly in demand, as people are eating in restaurants and picking up partially prepped food at the grocery store, more and more. But this “clean eating” trend? I don’t know.

Here’s a picture of the salad I ate today.

saladIs it “clean”? Well, the cucumbers, greens, and tomato happen to be from our garden. I washed them, but it’s possible bugs crawled all over them, and maybe a deer urinated on part of something. And there’s also salmon in there – the packaged type. It contains lemon juice and citric acid acting as preservatives, and maltodextrin – likely used as a thickener. I’m not worried about any of it.

My point is, that removing artificial flavors, or preservatives, and high fructose corn syrup, aren’t going to make or break your diet. Don’t fear these types of ingredients. They are safe, and in some cases, offer beneficial preservative properties (even sweeteners have functional properties beyond sweetening). Eat a well balanced diet, adding more plants (vegetables, fruits, grains), and enjoy small portions of your favorite treat foods. I know it sounds boring, but balance and moderation still rule.

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Charred Chard: Chock Full of Vitamins, DASH Diet Friendly

“Eat your greens” said my grandmother. Growing up, my Italian immigrant grandparents always grew vegetables in the summer, and my dad followed suit. Now my husband is the gardener of the house. My grandfather built a “hot bed” in which he’d start some greens or small plants, like tomatoes or peppers, early and then transplant them into the larger garden. My husband also has constructed a raised hot bed for lettuce and swiss chard.

People my age remember watching Popeye’s arms bulge every time he reached for a can of spinach and gulped it down…

Greens are good for you. They also have a unique flavor, sometimes bitter, sometimes pungent. For this reason, many people turn their noses up if offered to eat kale, spinach, swiss chard, or collards. But like many vegetables, if they are cooked properly and creatively, they can be delicious, and if they aren’t made to be delicious, who is going to eat them? Nobody.

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Move Over Kale

This year, my husband grew quite a great crop of tender swiss chard. There are basically two types – white or red. Chard is a medium to deep green color, has visible “veins”, but the stem may be red or white (light green). When picked fresh, the broad leaves are very hearty. It’s way better than kale (IMO) and is rich in Vitamin K, and also a good source of vitamins C, E and A – both antioxidants. It also provides magnesium, potassium and iron. Of course it’s high in fiber, and very low in calories, and is a great addition to your DASH Diet eating style – helping you lower blood pressure and stay heart healthy.

My husband made a salad with it one day, and this isn’t really the best way to enjoy it – the leaves are fairly thick, and not as tender raw. But there are numerous ways to cook it.

Simple ways to enjoy Swiss Chard:

  • Always clean your greens. Rinse well with water, running your fingers along each leaf. Then drain and dry a bit either in a colander or with a paper towel or salad spinner.
  • Once clean, you can chop the chard and saute in hot olive oil with garlic. It will cook in minutes.
  • Chard is delicious with eggs. After the greens begin to wilt in the pan, add 3-4 scrambled eggs and cook. You could also remove greens from pan, pour in eggs and make an omelet with chard and cheese.
  • You can also roast or grill chard. To grill, drizzle greens with olive oil, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then place whole leaves in bunches onto grill pan on grill. Turn with tongs once wilted.
  • Roasting chard is quick and delicious too. You can coarsely chop it, or roast whole leaves. Place onto baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and cook in 425 degree oven for about 10-15 minutes or until slightly charred. You can eat it as is, or add it to grain salads. Try my delicious recipe below. It makes a great side dish, or can be a main dish, portioned over rice or another grain.

Roasted cauliflower and chick peas with chard and feta. 

1. Clean 1 head cauliflower, rinse, break into flowerettes

2. Open a 7.75 ounce can of garbanzo beans (chick peas). Rinse well, drain and let dry. 

3. Place cauliflower and beans onto large baking sheet. Drizzle with 3 TB olive oil and toss to coat.

cauliflowerChickpeas

4. Roast in 400 degree oven for 30-35 minutes. 

5. While vegetables are baking, clean Swiss chard and dry. Chop coarsely. 

6. Add Swiss chard to pan, about 20-25 minutes into roasting cauliflower mixturre (cooking chard for 10 minutes)

cauliflowerChard

7. Remove pan from oven. Add 3 ounces crumbled feta to a serving bowl. Transfer cauliflower-bean-chard mixture to serving bowl and mix gently.

8. Top dish with 3 TB Panko crumbs. Drizzle with 1-2 teaspoons olive oil and return to oven for 10-15 minutes. 

Serves 5-6 

Serving size: 1 cup

casseroleCauliflowerChard

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Super-sized or Super-mindless?

I’ve been a dietitian for a long time. I’ve seen sick patients, well patients, patients with diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, kidney disease, obese patients, and patients with eating disorders.

Genetics and physiology play a role in the development of some disease, but lifestyle and behavior also contributes. There’s never been a time when food has been more political or polarizing. Some people who choose organic judge others who don’t. Some want to point fingers at the food or beverage industry for causing the behaviors that lead to obesity and obesity-related disease (primarily diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease). Some want to blame childhood obesity on school lunches, chocolate milk or soda, while others feel a vegan lifestyle is the solution to our public health woes.

Luscious looking cakes in an Italian bakery are not causing obesity.

Luscious looking cakes in an Italian bakery are not causing obesity.

Super-sized or Super-mindless?

At what point will experts and the media pick up on the behavior end of the story? At what point will someone finally step up and say – it’s not just what you eat, but how and how much of it. It’s not bread or gluten’s fault – it’s the fact that your plate is unbalanced or perhaps your bagel or bun is just too darn huge. It’s not fat’s fault, but eating avocados by the half dozen isn’t going to help anymore than restricting butter. It’s not sugar’s fault, but serving up giant blueberry muffins or guzzling 20 ounce sweet teas or soda on-the-daily could be part of it.

Rather than diss sugar, why not fight for:

  • Regular sized muffins (the ones that were the size of your grandma’s cupcake tin)
  • Normal sized bagels (2.5 inch diameter, not 4 inch diameter)
  • 8-inch wraps (not 10 or 12-inch)
  • 8 ounce beverage cups
  • 6 ounce juice glasses
  • Smaller pieces of cake
  • Not having food around every where you turn

Many anti-sugar fanatics, however, will insist that controlling the food supply is the answer to obesity, while other experts suggest that the fact that “early learning is constrained by children’s genetic predispositions, which include the unlearned preference for sweet tastes, salty tastes, and the rejection of sour and bitter tastes.” has an impact here.

Humans like salty and sweet things. We just do.

A recent study about behavior concluded that the frequency of eating junk food is unrelated to an adult’s body mass index. Well I could have told you that by looking at my 18 year old son who mostly sustains himself on potato chips, popcorn, cereal, milk, and water (save your judging – he eats some vegetables and real meals too). But seriously, behaviors count, and they can be modified!

One of the study authors, Brian Wansink, has done a lot of research into the psychology of eating.

“…clinicians and practitioners seeking to help individuals obtain a healthy weight should examine how overall consumption patterns such as snacking and physical activity influence weight, instead of just eliminating “junk foods” from patient’s diets.”

Registered dietitians know this. The media, and perhaps some celebrity doctors, want to point the finger at the food industry, instead of helping individuals understand their own behavior and helping them modify it in a way that allows them successful, long term weight management.

So don’t buy into the scary headlines that say:

“XXX is Poisoning You”

“XYZ is toxic”

“Never eat this one food!”

Trust a dietitian who is willing to actually interview you, find out about your lifestyle and history, and help you set goals that you can achieve.

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Poorly Designed Studies: Association is not Cause

FoodDetectiveIt’s just my nature to question things. Almost every single day you may read a health-related headline. Often times the headline may correlate a diet, food or ingredient to a health issue. But you may not realize that it’s a correlation, since the headline may mislead you into thinking it’s an absolute link.

In the nutrition science world, it’s vital to be careful of the terminology we use. While there may be good research showing a link between a food or nutrient and health and disease, this often can not be applied to all people of all races, genders, and ages. While our physiology is standard, humans are still very individual. This is why being evaluated by a registered dietitian who can fully analyze your individual diet and healthy history is the best way to get proper dietary advice. It’s common for qualified health professionals to use language such as “may cause” or “may be linked to”, with emphasis on the word “may”.

A recent news story that was reported widely on social media recently with a headline “Prenatal BPA exposure linked to child obesity”. The study was published in an environmental health journal. Even though the study had several limitations, and did not control for diet, obtain any dietary data, nor data about physical activity and pre-pregnancy or postpartum weight, the authors concluded a link to obesity with BPA exposure.

Huh? How can you design a study that draws a conclusion about obesity without at least monitoring and documenting dietary intake and physical activity? Well controlled dietary studies are difficult to do, but even self-reported diet intake is better than nothing.

This recent news is a perfect example of why you need to read beyond the headline and also consider finding the original study to review. In this particular study, 727 women, specifically of African American or Dominican who had resided in Northern Manhattan or the South Bronx for at least 1 year before pregnancy, were chosen for the study. They had to be nonsmokers, non drug users, and without diabetes or hypertension or known HIV, and were selected during their 3rd trimester of pregnancy. Urinary BPA concentrations were measured in both the mothers and children through the study. The only weight history recorded for the mothers was a self-reported weight history taken during the third trimester of pregnancy.

The study authors conclude –

“These results suggest prenatal BPA exposure is associated with overall body fat and central adiposity, accounting for height.”

Is this a positive correlation? Sure, but not independent of several other uncontrolled variables (e.g. dietary data nor information about sedentary versus active lifestyles. remember – epidemiological studies can’t show causation).

The authors do admit this shortcoming:

“While our study was limited by the lack of dietary data during pregnancy and childhood, accurate dietary data are extremely difficult to acquire from young children given age-related development of language skills and recall ability. Dietary measures would also require quantification of BPA in food items, which was outside the scope of this study.”

Even getting some general dietary data from the children would have helped (did the mother breast or bottle feed, when was the child weaned to solid food, what beverages did the child consume most frequently from age 1-7? etc). The weight history and dietary history of the mother would be good information to have also.

Don’t use a headline to draw conclusions. If a headline leaves you scratching your head, read further. Correlation is not causation.

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