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Food Safety from Farm to Fork

I am working with the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance’s Digital Voices Council through September 2017. This post includes a link to a blog that was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own. 

When you think about food safety you may think of employee hand washing practices in restaurants or other food service areas. Or maybe food recalls also come to mind.

You may be very surprised to learn that farmers continuously consider food safety measures too. Careful food safety measures are taken on the farm, in food delivery and processing, storage and handling. The food safety measures you practice in your kitchen are similar to the standardized safety measures used on the farm. Farmers have standards of practice just like any other industry, and continuously evaluate their practices to ensure the health and safety of their animals and to deliver a safe food product. 

How Farmers Maintain a Safe and Healthy Environment on the Farm

Brad Greenway is a South Dakota pig farmer and reports that livestock farmers are always focused on several key areas to be sure food is safe from farm to plate. Biosecurity is one of them.

Biosecurity on the farm refers to management practices that are designed to minimize or prevent infectious bacteria and diseases making their way onto a farm. This includes managing or limiting the number of people and vehicles that are on the farm, cleaning barns and equipment, immunizing animals, and monitoring and maintaining the environment where the animals live.

Brad is also a member of the National Pork Board’s Antibiotic Task Force and says farmers recognize the need to stay on top of this issue.  For instance, on his farm, he highly monitors the use of antibiotics among his pigs and only uses them when needed.

“If one or a few piglets seem listless or sick, they are treated with the right antibiotic, at the right time, in the right dose,” says Brad. “This is simply the right thing to do.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic resistance is a world-wide issue of concern which encompasses the health care industry, health care workers, individuals, policy makers, and the agricultural sector. Farmers are highly aware that antibiotic resistance is a hot topic.

Food Safety at the Plate

Just as farmers care about food safety on the farm, you should do so in your kitchen. Keep your kitchen clean and be aware of proper food handling.

  • Check for proper cooking temperatures. Did you know that pork no longer needs to be cooked “well done”? Today’s pork can be safe by cooking to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F. The lower cooking temperatures make for a more delicious, juicy and tender end product too. Use a food thermometer to check doneness.
  • Understand sell-by dates. Food waste is a growing issue, by understanding these use by and sell-by dates, you’ll waste less food and money.
  • Always wash cutting boards in hot soapy water. Avoid “cross contamination” by never using the same knife, utensil or cutting board that you’ve cut meat on for other food (such as vegetable, fruit or bread).
  • Store foods properly. An easy rule is “keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot”. Bacteria begins to grow after about two hours, so if you are serving a buffet or having a picnic, be sure to refrigerator or keep leftovers in coolers at that time.
  • Always wash your hands frequently when handling raw or cooked food.

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Simple Pear Crisp

Who doesn’t love pie? But pie takes a bit more time and skill than a simple fruit crisp.

Instead of going to the trouble of pie crust, adding an oat topping to sliced fruit is a great way to enjoy a dessert that gets a serving of fruit into your day! To make this dessert in even less time, consider adding a peeler to your kitchen gadget cabinet. I love this one. It not only makes peeling and coring quicker, it makes even slices. Plus, the kids may enjoy helping you so it’s perfect for Family Meals Month®!

Adding this fruit crisp to this week’s menu may help your child succeed. Did you know that kids from elementary school to high school who eat meals with their families four times a week or more earn better test scores? Crisps are so easy to throw together and make a healthy dessert. Here’s how to do it.

Make Family Dinner Easy with a Slow Cooker and a Pan

Life can sure get hectic at times. If you’re a parent, then it may be even more hectic. Between work, grocery shopping, after school activities, and homework, evenings are often rushed and late. Getting dinner on the table should be a fun event, and it can be.

The key to creating balanced, easy suppers, is to plan ahead. Using a slow cooker allows you to whip dinner together quickly because you can get the time-consuming part done – your protein. And you can make extra for multiple uses. Vegetables can take a bit of extra prep time too, so chopping vegetables when you buy them, saves time when preparing the actual meal. You can also buy frozen vegetables such as sliced bell peppers with onions (sometimes called fajita mix), cubed butternut squash or frozen shredded potatoes.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Use the slow cooker. There are so many options here.
    • You can add 3 chicken breasts with seasoning and about a cup of water or low sodium chicken broth, cook on low for 5-6 hours. The chicken breasts can be shredded and used in tacos, burrito bowls, salads, or wraps.
    • Add 2-3 peeled, sliced apples, place a 2 pound pork loin, season lightly with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup vegetable stock. Cook 5-6 hours. Serve on hearty rolls for a hot sandwich supper, or add to rice for a one dish meal.

      Slow cooked pork loin sandwich with a side of roasted kale, Brussels Sprouts and sweet potatoes.

  • Roast Vegetables. Not only do roasted vegetables taste amazing, they are so easy. You can make a big batch, and save leftovers for another meal. Just cube a bunch of your favorite vegetables, spread on a lightly greased cookie sheet (I use olive oil), and place in a 400 degree oven for 35 minutes. This week I bought a bag of small Brussels Sprouts, sliced onion, and cubed a few sweet potatoes. I drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with cinnamon and a pinch of salt.
  • Think one-dish meals. Pasta and rice is a simple base to top with vegetables and protein. Skillet meals are easy and quick. I made this “Meatball Fondue” this week, and it was a hit. We added a tossed green salad to complete the meal. I made the meatball mixture ahead and refrigerated, the after work, the whole meal only took 20-30 minutes to put together. If you don’t have time for that, simply substitute frozen meatballs.
  • While they are higher in sodium than making a from-scratch recipe, boxed rice and bean dishes are an easy and nutritious starter to a meal. You can simply add a small lean steak or pork loin, or you can just enjoy a meatless meal of rice and beans, and add some fresh fruit or tossed salad to it.
  • Don’t forget dessert! A simple scoop of ice cream can’t get any easier. And a fruit crisp is pretty quick too. We had some pears from our backyard tree this week, so I used those. Simply spray an 8×8 baking dish with vegetable spray, place 4-6 cups sliced pears (or apples) onto bottom of dish, and add a crumb mixture on top (1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup oats, 1/4 cup flour, 3 TB vegetable oil or butter – mix to combine). Bake for 35 minutes in a 375 oven. 

The most important thing is that you set a goal to sit down and eat dinner as a family more often. Sure, I’d like you to offer a balanced, healthy meal, and try new foods and add more veggies, but start by sitting together. Set the table, use real dishes, use napkins, divvy up the chores, and enjoy a family meal!


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Balanced but Practical Lunches for Teens: What-ever!

With school back in session, it’s lunch packing season. Now that you have a teenager, you know that the days of love notes and cutting sandwiches into fun shapes for your finicky child are over, but lunch still needs to be enticing enough to eat, and still provide the nutrition your teen needs to stay healthy and learn. 

Even though nutrition is still so important during the teen years (they’re still growing), teenagers tend to take a “Whatever!” attitude about, well, everything you recommend. Anyone who has a 13 year old is all too familiar with the “eye-roll”, but once children reach middle school, what others think of them is one of their biggest worries. The eyes at school may even be on their packed lunch.

Lunch time at school is also a social time, a time where kids see what other students eat, exchange snacks, and become part of the lunch room scene. Give them the resources they need, but the struggle into their hands and let them be in charge of lunch.

If your middle or high-schooler is packing a lunch, consider this:

  • Even though they may not think they still need to drink milk, teenagers still do need calcium. The requirement for 13-18 year olds is 1300 milligrams a day. The easiest way to ensure they get it: 4 servings of milk. One serving is the equivalent of 8ounces fluid milk, 8 ounces yogurt, 1/2 cup ricotta, 2 cups cottage cheese, or 1 1/2 ounces cheese. I always encourage milk as a beverage with meals. You can’t force it on them, but you can remind them that calcium supports strong bones and healthy smiles. I often “get scientific” with my kids (if you don’t keep up with your milk, your bones will break when your my age).
  • Variety is important, but lunch periods are often short. Every school (and kid) is different, but be understanding of the amount of time they may have to sit down and eat it. Sometimes convenience items like an applesauce cup over an apple or a protein bar instead of a meal or sandwich, may be easier for a shorter lunch period.
  • Allow your teen to help plan and shop for lunch items. Encourage healthy choices but involve your teen in the choice. Allow a “junky” food by balancing it with a fruit or vegetable. Encourage fruits and vegetables, but let them decide which ones. Let this struggle go.
  • Some kids may choose monotony during the school year. My sons pretty much packed the same lunch every day during the school year (PBJ sandwich, applesauce/banana/grapes or other fruit, chips or a cookie, and milk). Offer a larger variety during the summer, and at dinner time all year. Simple and easy is okay.

[Of course the easiest way to ensure a balanced lunch is to utilize the school lunch program. School Lunch has come a long way and many schools are offering amazing options. The only reason my sons didn’t buy lunch was the time factor.]

Here are some simple packed lunch meal plans. Teens love nothing more than independence, so let them pack whatever, whenever they want, and drop the worries:

Old Fashioned PBJ

  • Peanut butter and strawberry jelly on whole wheat or white bread (don’t go nuts over white bread if that’s what your kids enjoy)
  • A serving of fruit and/or raw carrots or small salad 
  • 8-16 ounces milk
  • 1 ounce bag of chips or 2 cookies

New Age Hipster

  • Roasted chicken wrap
  • Quinoa salad with cranberries
  • 8-16 ounces Almond Milk
  • Baby carrots with hummus

Salad Lover

  • Chopped baby kale with slivered almonds, sliced strawberries, feta cheese (add tuna or leftover grilled chicken)
  • Whole wheat pita pocket
  • 8 ounces milk

Submarine Sammy

  • Crunchy French roll with baked ham, turkey, provolone cheese, chopped lettuce, tomato
  • 1 ounce chips
  • Bunch of green grapes
  • 8-16 ounces chocolate milk

Lunch packing doesn’t have to be fancy or stressful. Just encourage them not to pack a bag of junk, and no skipping! By keeping the healthy lunch ingredients they want in the house, along with brown bags, sandwich and snack sized zipper bags, and your teen can pack his or her own balanced lunch whenever they want (and there will be something in there, thanks to your behind the scenes grocery shopping). When they ask you about what they should pack for lunch, your new motto can be: “Whatever”.

Feel free to share your teen lunch tips or struggles in the comment section.




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Fall into Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits

Summer goes by so quickly and here we are starting a new school year. I find that the rest of the world tends to match the school year schedule, with less work during summer, and then Fall gets busy very quickly.

As this busy season begins, be sure to have your eating habits in check. What have you been working on? Consuming less refined carbohydrates? Less alcohol? More fiber? More dairy?

The best diet is a healthy plan that you can maintain. Not only is the DASH Diet plan something supported by science to lower blood pressure and manage weight, but it’s pretty easy to adopt. A Mediterranean style diet is similar, and also pretty easy and delicious to adhere to. If you’d like some help getting on track, try my coaching services. In the meantime, start working on these goals this fall:

  • Plan a good breakfast, and add some protein to it. Have a batch of hard cooked eggs in the fridge so they are ready to eat. Try a half-cup of cottage cheese or ricotta with some fruit to go along with a slice of whole grain bread. Spread peanut butter onto an English muffin, and enjoy with a latte. Oatmeal makes a great breakfast too.
  • If you have children, make your own lunch when you make theirs. I found that I’d pack a great lunch for my kids, and then not spend any time planning mine (and it’d often end up less balanced).
  • Think more vegetables. When dining out, look for the veggie side dishes to go with your entree.
  • Choose lean meat cuts. Many people think it’s “bad” to include meats such as beef or pork in their diet, and then they feel guilty when they eat them. Don’t feel bad! Just choose lean cuts and smaller portions (5-7 ounces) and go ahead and plan meals with beef or pork through the week. Including some beef in your diet is also an easy way to ensure you’re getting the iron you need.
  • Get your omega-3 fatty acids. Adding salmon, trout, eggs, walnuts or flax seed to your diet ensures you get some of these beneficial fats in.

Salmon over sautéed spinach and a side of penne.

  • Add some dairy. Choose a variety of sources – low fat milk, yogurt, full fat cheeses. Be aware that full fat dairy products are going to be higher in calories, so plan accordingly. Dairy foods have been shown to lower blood pressure and are part of the DASH Diet plan.
  • Don’t categorize foods as good and bad. Pasta is not bad. White bread is not bad. Sugar is not bad. Fat is not bad. Foods just need to be balanced in your diet. Variety and portion control are important. Yes you should try to include some whole grains, but you can still make your child a peanut butter and jelly on white bread if that’s what they like. Just balance that by including some other foods with fiber in your diet.
  • Add some beans to your diet. Beans are so nutritious and a great way to add fiber to your. They are high in B vitamins and provide some protein. Add them to salads and soups, rice, burritos, or chilis.
  • Choose beverages wisely. It’s easy to go overboard with calories when you drink them. Sugary or alcoholic drinks may go down easy, but don’t make you full. Alcoholic drinks also tend to increase appetite. Stick to moderation with alcohol (1 drink a day for women, 2 for men).
  • Move more. Any extra movement you can fit into a day is a good thing. Set small goals. When you’re short on time, accept the idea of a 15 minute walk. As I always say, “some exercise is better than no exercise”.

What are your back to school health and fitness goals? Share in the comment section.

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Does the Non-GMO Label have any Impact on Your Health?

This post includes a link to a blog that was sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own.

Throughout the course of my 30-year nutrition career, one thing has remained constant: nutrition misinformation. I’ve turned my current communications career into a fact-finding mission by working with the food industry to help consumers understand what’s in their food, the safety of those ingredients, and how to appropriately balance diet and lifestyle. My goal is to help consumers relax and enjoy eating for good health!

What is the Non-GMO Label Doing for You?

Recently there’s been quite a bit of buzz about the non-GMO label. Some feel that labeling should be mandatory because consumers “have a right to know what’s in their food”. Rightly so, (ingredient labels should suffice) but my concern is that the simplicity of a non-GMO front-of-package label may mislead the consumer to assume that:

  1. There is a non-GMO equivalent of that product [there are ten GMO crops available on the US market: soybeans, corn, canola, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, summer squash, papaya, apples and potatoes]
  2. That a non-GMO product is better than a GMO equivalent

Some consumers also equate “Non-GMO” with environmentally friendly. In reality, this technology can actually save resources. GMO technology helps farmers to maintain soil, reduce pesticide use, increase production, and conserve resources. Sounds pretty environmentally sustainable, right?

These “No” messages don’t equal “healthy”. Don’t feel guilty about having a snack!

What can you actually do for an improved diet?

Eating well is a little bit more complicated than simply avoiding an ingredient. Since GMOs have been shown to be safe, there’s no reason to avoid them. Instead, there are many other things you can work on to improve your diet:

  • Eat more Vegetables: Choose fresh, frozen or canned. If you are looking to reduce sodium, fresh or frozen is best, but some canned vegetables have low sodium options.
  • Choose Fruit: Choose fresh, canned or dried. Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants and vitamins and minerals.
  • Add legumes and beans: These nutrition powerhouses provide vitamins, minerals and fiber, as well as protein.
  • Choose lean beef, pork and poultry: Provide the protein you need daily, as well as essential minerals including iron and zinc. Enjoy these foods along with a side of veggies.
  • Add dairy foods: Milk provides calcium, protein, potassium, vitamin D, and phosphorous. Research shows that including dairy in a balanced diet can help with weight control and blood pressure.
  • Use a moderate amount of fat: Include heart-healthy fats such as canola oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, soybean or other liquid vegetable oils. Also, adding nuts, seeds, or avocado to snacks and salads is another way to add healthy fat to your diet. While coconut oil was recently in the news, it should only be consumed in small amounts. Your total fat intake should be moderate, and you should focus on choosing liquid oils in cooking, but using small amounts.
  • Fiber-rich grains: Such as barley, oats, bran cereals are essential for digestive health.

Healthy eating is a life long challenge. Set goals to eat a balanced diet with lots of variety. Add more vegetable dishes into your diet, choose lean meats most often, include low fat dairy regularly, try new whole grain dishes, and enjoy treats in moderation.

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This Little Piggy Went to Market

I had the opportunity to visit the lovely city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and local area farms recently for a farm immersion trip sponsored by the National Pork Council. While my travel expenses were paid, I was not paid to write this post, but wanted to share what I learned.

A litter of piglets resting with their siblings

There seems to be all sorts of dietary disconnect going on in America these days. There are gluten-free dieters, Paleo diet worshippers, Vegans, Pescatarians, and everything in between. People are fussy about their food and have very strong opinions about “what you should eat”. While health can be sustained enjoying a plant-focused diet that includes meat products, many vegetarians or vegans push their dietary choices onto others by creating ugly images of farming.

The Dichotomy of Animal Welfare and BBQ

So you want good BBQ, but you don’t want any animal harmed? “Animal welfare” comes up often in consumer surveys as a concern. I think the idea may have started when Chipotle ran animated commercials showcasing poor animal farming conditions (the cartoon version), perpetuating the notion that “factory farms” are “cruel”.

Over the past six years I’ve visited several real farms, and have had the opportunity to meet several farmers and their families. I also live in a rural area, and we know several families who run farms. All of these people are genuine and hard-working. They take offense to the rumors flying around about “factory farms”, poor treatment of animals, and lack of concern for the environment. This is their business, their livelihood, their family heritage. In actuality “factory farms” are large farms where animals are humanely raised for food; and 97% of pig farms are family-owned.

In every case, the farms I’ve visited have been cared for and sustained for generations. The owners of the land care properly for their animals, and preserve their land. They use advancing technologies to help them manage soil, water, crops and animals.

Sure you may be thinking, “well of course the farms you visited were nice”, and this is true. No organization is going to send you into a “messy office” to showcase an example of their work. I’m sure there are poorly run farms, and irresponsible farmers, just as there are irresponsible people in every profession. But overall, I can’t imagine too many having the desire to take on so much work and responsibility, for so little money, unless they were truly passionate about farming, devoted to the land, and cared about their animal livestock.

The Science of Farming and the Tour

There are several universities around the country that have animal science schools and South Dakota State University is one of them. It’s a beautiful campus with top notch Animal Science and Nutrition Science departments.

We had the opportunity to visit the Swine Education and Research Center where we heard from Russ Daly (Veterinarian and Professor, Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences Department), Dr. Erin Cortus (coordinator of the Environmental Training Program for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), Dr. Bob Thaler (PhD in Swine Nutrition and the South Dakota Extension Swine Specialist), and Dr Kendra Kattelman (dietitian and Director of Dietetics SDSU).

The Swine Life

We have four backyard chickens. They’re kept in a small coop (a chicken tractor which gives them fresh grass every day when it’s moved). They seem to like being close to each other and are healthy egg-layers. Pigs don’t seem to mind being close to each other either. When people become worried about “animals being penned up” or in close quarters, they likely don’t consider all of the details as farmers do. First of all, these pigs are being raised for food. This is a business that ultimately sends a product to market for its customers.

What animal science facilities continually do is work on ways to keep animals safe and healthy so they can produce the best pork products in the most efficient manner. Care for the environment and the animal are top concerns, and amazing systems have been created to ensure progress.

For instance, let’s look at manure management. As larger livestock operations are in place to meet demands, the total number of livestock has remained relatively unchanged; but, more livestock are kept in confinement (to both keep them at consistent, comfortable temperatures, safe, control disease, and manage manure). Dr. Erin Cortus is an expert in air quality and manure management (yes, there’s a science for that!). Manure analysis and soil analysis data is done so that nitrogen levels meet but do not exceed the crop’s needs.

“Manure management is about minimizing risks and losses. Through responsible management practices, we can retain more of the manure nutrients for use by the crop (replacing inorganic fertilizers), rather than losing the nutrients to the air and surrounding environment”, says Cortus

Scientists like Dr. Cortus are very interested in the emissions that result from raising agricultural animals, and are continually working to analyze systems and reduce emissions. Manure is analyzed for content which can tell the scientist how well the pig is eating and digesting, and also helps them with soil management. The manure is collected from an underground storage system that allows the manure to pass through grates in the stalls and pens. The collected manure is “harvested” every six months, when it’s vacuumed out of the barns, and into holding tanks so it can be used for fertilizer.

Happy Pigs

Some people have a utopian vision of animals roaming free in the fields, but this isn’t necessarily ideal when it comes to raising high quality protein. Housing pigs indoors allows the farmer to create a safe environment for the animals, control temperatures and air quality, and make them more comfortable.

Equipment that regulates barn temperatures and air quality. During various developmental stages, pigs prefer different temperatures and conditions.

Keeping pregnant sows in pens also keeps them secure and allows the farmer to monitor their calories and health.

Gestation Crates keep sows safe. When in large groups, dominant sows will become aggressive, and could injure other sows.

Mama pig hydrating

When the pregnant sow is ready to give birth, they are moved to farrow pens, Piglets are born (or farrowed), in farrow pens designed to keep the mama pig comfortable and fed without the risk of harming the piglets (by sitting or stepping on them).

Farrow stall

Bottom Line

Here’s the deal. To supply pork products to supermarkets and restaurants everywhere, you have to raise and harvest pigs. While there’s also some public misconception about what’s best for the animal being raised, farmers take animal welfare concerns seriously, and are becoming more and more transparent.

There’s a logical, evidence-supported reason for every farming practice. The next time you hear something negative about farming or agriculture, ask a farmer your questions.



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Does Your Diet have the Power of Poison?

Photo taken at Power of Poison in the Natural World exhibit, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

What’s worse, sugar or fat? Is salt good or bad? How much of it should you include in your diet? Will a “sugar detox” improve my health? Are plants sprayed with glyphosate poisoning us?

These are questions I hear often. There’s much debate about which substance in our diet is the most harmful, and the big picture is often lost when we focus on one substance, such as sugar, fat, or salt. In actuality, there are upper limits set for just about every nutrient.

When debating whether salt, fat or sugar, and more recently, glyphosate (the weed control herbicide) may impact your health, it’s really important to understand the concepts of hazard and risk.

Hazard Versus Risk

Since taking a toxicology class in grad school, I’ve always been fascinated with the human body’s response to toxins and the presence of natural toxins all around us. As a dietitian, you may not think I’d need to understand anything about toxicology, but there are many basic principles of toxicology that are actually very important to understand.

I recently took a trip the the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh where they are hosting an exhibit this summer called The Power of Poison in the Natural World.  The exhibit illustrated this difference using a broad range of poisonous hazards within nature around the globe.

The adage “the dose makes the poison” is one I use often, both in my professional discussions as well as during dinner table chats. This notion of dosage describes the simple difference between a substance being a “risk” versus a “hazard”. Hazard is defined as something that can cause harm. Epidemiological nutrition studies consider how a hazard may pose harm by increasing risk of diseases like cancer, or damage to major organs (liver, kidneys, lungs, or the reproductive system), or something that can cause birth defects or have neurotoxic effects.

A hazard is defined as something that can cause harm. Risk is the potential for a hazard to cause harm.

An example would be the foxglove, or digitalis, plant. We have this beautiful flower growing in our wildflower garden. It’s beautiful, but toxic in the wrong dose. The plant is used to make the drug digoxin, which has been used for atrial fibrillation and heart failure. So sometimes small amounts of toxins (or hazards) can actually produce beneficial properties. The dose makes the poison.

Photo taken at Power of Poison in the Natural World exhibit, Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Snake Bites Versus Our Diet

As my science-loving son often reminds me, most snakes won’t hurt you unless taunted. A viper presents a hazard when the snack bites, but risk increases if you get in its way and pursue it. You reduce your risk by leaving snakes alone when you see them. (Fun fact: baby snakes are more hazardous than adult snakes, because they lack control of the amount they venom they inject into their prey).

Risk equals hazard plus degrees of exposure. In the case of a bite from a venomous pit viper, the outcome is grim, as any level of exposure to that sort of venom is debilitating or even deadly, depending on the speed of anti-venom treatment.

The degree of exposure to components of our diet however are a bit different. I could put a half teaspoon of sugar on my oatmeal, eat two Hershey Kisses, have a glass of wine, eat 2 pieces of fruit, drink 6 ounces of orange juice, and enjoy a half cup of ice cream, every single day and not be at risk for sugar poisoning. I can also cook with salt, consume processed meat for lunch twice a week, and used canned food daily, for example, and not be at risk for salt poisoning.

Are Americans poisoning themselves with sugar or salt? I don’t think so. It’s not necessary to “detox” by completely eliminating the hazard. Think about all of the hazards you encounter every day: the sun, the road, insects, the bleach you may use to brighten your clothing or disinfect something, your pet, your plants, soap, wine. Would you want to completely eliminate all them by never going outside, not planting a flower pot, not bathing, and not leaving your home? Never visit another winery?

In reference to a large bowl of salt which could be fatal. Photo taken at Power of Poison in the Natural World exhibit, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Be Sensible

You can drink too much wine. You can expose yourself to too much sun without sunscreen. Could some people reduce how much sugar or sodium they consume? Absolutely. But I don’t feel that scare-tactics are needed to motivate them to do so. Here are some simple ways to reduce your sugar and salt intake:

  • Drink more water to quench your thirst in place of soft drinks or lemonade. Substitute sparking waters or diet soda for regular. If you love soda, set a goal to limit it to 12 ounces or less daily (if you have diabetes, or need to lose weight, you should completely eliminate it).
  • Limit desserts and bakery items such as cinnamon buns, donuts, danish, cake, cookies, to just once a week.
  • Limit your portion of ice cream. Summertime screams ice cream right? Enjoy it in smaller portions. Order the small cone or sundae. Use a small ramekin to portion out a half-cup scoop at home.
  • Eat less candy and avoid “King Size” unless you share it.
  • Shake less salt on your food, and read labels for sodium. Choose more low sodium foods.
  • Reduce the number of bread products you consume in a day (3-4 servings, with one slice or 6-8 crackers being one serving).
  • Read labels on seasonings and choose more salt-free herb blends, and spices, in lieu of salts.
  • Calm down. Eat and drink sensibly.

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Fighting Obesity in the First 1000 Days

I attended an intriguing lecture about early feeding, sponsored by Nestle (Gerber baby products) but was not paid to write this post. As a mother of three, I believe whole-heartedly in the importance of early feeding, and Gerber supports research about early feeding and offers some excellent educational tools for mothers. 

I believe that early feeding is very important to health, and may be the most effective way to reduce the incidence of obesity. I don’t have solid evidence just yet, but there are some compelling trends showing up about the unique window of opportunity the first 1000 days of life to influence future health through nutrition. These 1000 days span the:

  • 270 days during pregnancy
  • 365 days during the child’s first year of life
  • 365 days during the child’s second year of life

So much happens both nutritionally and behaviorally during this time frame. The mother’s diet supports the developing fetus as the infant is nurtured through pregnancy. Appropriate nutrition and the support a child receives during this time can have a huge impact on the child’s future health. Finding the sweet-spot of getting nutrition and weight gain “just right” during pregnancy is key.

The First Two Years Are Crucial

This happy 2 month old’s nutrition comes exclusively from breast milk and formula.

During the first six months, the infant gets her nutrition from either breastmilk, infant formula, or a combination of both. At four to six months, complementary feeding begins with the introduction of some developmentally appropriate table foods or baby foods. By age two, the child’s diet continues to expand and this is a time to foster independent eating.

How can the first two years of a child’s eating be so impactful? Well, poor dietary habits start in infancy. During pregnancy, proper nutrition supports normal growth and development of the fetus, but once the child is born and begins feeding, the subtle cues exchanged between mother and infant have a real impact on feeding and behavior. In other words, a mother is essentially “programming” the infant during the first two years. This programing during pregnancy through age one impacts the child’s metabolic system, immunity, and growth. From age one to two, the mother and caregivers are also providing programming for satiety (knowing when you are full), along with programming for the behavior and development of eating.

There are several modifiable dietary factors that may increase the risk of childhood obesity during the first 2 years of life:

  • lack of breastfeeding
  • early introduction (before 4 months) of solid foods
  • high intake of sugar sweetened beverages
  • low intake of fruits and vegetables

According to the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) average calorie and protein intake exceeded requirements for age from birth to 35 months (interestingly, hot dogs, bacon and sausage are among the high calorie foods in an infants diet age 6-24 months. There are many better choices).

In a nutshell, to be sure your baby is getting off to a good start, consider these healthy habits from birth to age two:

  • Birth to four months: Provide only breastmilk or infant formula. If bottle feeding, pay close attention to when the baby is done. The bottle doesn’t have to be emptied every time.
  • Four to Six Months through one year: Begin to offer small servings of baby foods or mashed table foods in the appropriate consistency and portion. Offer cooked cereal (like oatmeal), fruits and vegetables first. Avoid choking hazards. Check with your pediatrician to be sure your baby is ready.
  • One to two years: Offer healthy “table foods” from the basic food groups (cooked vegetables, soft meats, fresh fruit, cheese, eggs, crackers, toast, low sugar cereals). Avoid fast food and sugary beverages during the first two years (soda, fruity drinks). At age one, the baby can begin drinking milk (begin using a cup at 6 months, and avoid bottle feeding after age one). The American Academy of Pediatrics just released a statement recommending no fruit juice during first year.

When Are Babies Actually Beginning Solid Food?

While it’s ideal to avoid solid food until after age 4 months, parents aren’t always listening to that advice. Unfortunately, many parents begin feeding solid food too early. Research has shown that many factors relate to introducing foods too early. Mothers reported several reasons for offering food to infants younger than four months:

  • the baby seemed hungry
  • the baby was old enough
  • the baby wanted the food they were eating
  • they thought the baby would sleep better
  • a doctor or health care professional recommended to begin feeding

Ideally, an infant should not be provided with any food besides breast milk or infant formula the first four to six months. At that time, the infant should be able to hold his head up and sit upright, weigh at least 13 pounds, can close mouth around spoon, and can move food from front to the back of mouth.

Waiting until at least four months of age, and looking for cues that the baby is ready, supports long-term eating habits, nutrition and healthy weights. There are also behavior-related factors that increase the risk of childhood obesity:

  • Lack of responsive feeding practices from caregiver
    • Not paying attention to hunger and satiety (“I’m full”) cues, e.g. baby turns head away, squirms, stops feeding, etc.
  • Improper sleep habits
  • Lack of family meals
  • Screen time
  • Inadequate active play

What Are Toddlers Eating?

courtesy of José M. Saavedra, MD Chief Medical Officer Nestlé Nutrition

I’m alarmed at the amounts and types of foods being fed to children under the age of four.

  • 41% of children aged two to three consume fast food one to two times per week
  • 10% consume fast food more than three times per week

French Fries logs in as the top vegetable consumed by two to four year olds (along with mashed potatoes, broccoli, corn, carrots and green beans), yet most parents, when asked, think their child gets enough vegetables. I have nothing against fast food, but age one to four is an important time period to nurture healthy eating habits by introducing fruits, vegetables, and grains so the child can develop a palate for these healthy foods. Save fast food for the teen years.

courtesy of José M. Saavedra, MD Chief Medical Officer Nestlé Nutrition

Young children are also consuming too much sodium, inadequate whole grains, and too many “empty calories” (foods that are high in calorie and low in nutrition) like sweetened beverages.

Making Feeding Easier for Mothers

There’s no question that moms need guidance about early feeding. Perhaps parents do not have access to the information, a support system that encourages proper feeding, or they feel guilty or confused over what and how much to feed baby. While on the one hand there is a baby-led weaning movement going on, and a direction to “eat more whole foods”, on the other hand, there’s clearly a disconnect when it comes to feeding babies the first two years. This shouldn’t create guilt for mothers who may do well to rely on some convenience.

The baby-led weaning philosophy encourages children to eat what they tolerate, need, and then stop. It also encourages parents to be tuned into eating behaviors. But if the family isn’t already eating a healthy diet, this approach may not be the best fit.

One of the benefits of using some packaged “baby foods” is the clear direction given on labels about what age the food is appropriate for, and also how much a serving should be per age. In addition, packaged baby foods are often fortified (iron, B vitamins) which can benefit the overall nutrient profile for the child.

Don’t Miss Your Opportunity

The recent research about the importance of these first 1000 days supports how important parents are in setting up a child for successful eating throughout life. Take the time to watch the infant, look for cues that he is done, or needing more. Never force feed or use food to withhold/reward behaviors. And just like adults, infants and children also need a proper sleep schedule and some structure to function and eat properly.

Ten years ago I wrote a piece titled “Parenting Food”. The current research showing that authoritative parenting styles are most effective (responds to signals, is nurturing and structured), also applies to feeding. Being too restrictive, or too indulgent, won’t result in a child that can self-regulate and stay healthy.

Good nutrition starts early. Effective early feeding strategies will be an important part of the solution to childhood obesity.



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Why I Don’t Eat “Clean”

I will be blogging about food facts and sharing information about modern agricultural practices over the next several months. These posts will be notes as sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, but are expressions of my own.

Clean eating. I get it. Eating more whole foods (vegetables, fruits, fresh meats, nuts, oats) is a good idea. While the initial idea of this term was to encourage people to reduce the intake of packaged food and thereby improve their diet and eat well, it’s now a blurred trend that denotes removing all sorts of things from the diet. I cringe when I see marketing ads for the “eat clean” philosophy that direct you to avoid “processed” food, GMOs and foods with “too many ingredients.”

Many food trends seem to be driven by restaurants, food companies or even celebrities—and their claims frequently aren’t fact-based. For example, let’s consider Chipolte’s misleading marketing statement, “Chipotle should be a place where people can eat food made with non-GMO ingredients”. The statement indirectly implies that GMO ingredients are “bad,” or even harmful, despite and abundance of research and consensus they are extremely safe.

In addition, McDonald’s recently announced that they’ll be switching to only fresh meat (not frozen) in their quarter pounders next year. Other restaurants are also joining in on the “fresh” trend that seems to be a focus for food companies. Is this necessary? In my opinion, not necessarily. Frozen meat is practical, and completely safe and healthy.

I understand that food companies are responding mostly to consumer demand. But I have to ask, are consumers demanding these things because they are misinformed? Company marketing statements provide the illusion of enhanced nutrition, more sustainable and fostering a healthier environment. But when companies switch out or eliminate ingredients, it’s in my opinion, primarily to benefit their bottom line and increase sales.

Here’s a list of buzz words used on the front of package labeling that can confuse and mislead consumers:

  • Gluten-free
  • Hormone-free
  • No High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Cage-free
  • non-GMO
  • Grass fed
  • Fresh
  • Natural
  • Clean

In many instances, these claims have nothing to do with the quality or health of the food. At times, they can even be misleading. For instance:

  • When foods like corn chips that never contained gluten are labeled “Gluten-free.”
  • Chicken that’s labeled “hormone-free” despite the fact that farmers don’t use hormones in poultry (and, it’s illegal).
  • Foods where there are actually no GMO alternatives, are labeled non-GMO.
  • Cage-free eggs suggest that hens kept in cages aren’t healthy or cared for properly. I’ve never met a farmer that didn’t care about his or her animals.

I don’t like trendy diet and health-focused terms. Consumers deserve to have access to food facts without the demonization of our safe and abundant food supply. Then they can relax and just enjoy eating.

I’m not worried about “eating clean” because I know that there’s no real metabolic difference between consuming a slightly processed food over a fresh food. The key to a healthy diet is variety and balance, and there are many ways to create a healthy diet.

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