I attended tours of veal farms in Pennsylvania and Indiana this summer to learn more about how today’s veal is raised and was sent some free samples of ground veal and cutlets to experiment with, but I was not compensated for this post. This dish was a big delicious hit with my family so I wanted to share it.
It’s back to school time. Quick dinners are where it’s at, right? This dish will be a family hit and it’s pretty simple. You can always make the meatballs ahead in a big batch and then freeze them so they are ready for a weeknight meal. You can even cook the whole batch, and freeze them cooked, so they are really ready to help you save time on busy school nights! I bake them on a large cookie sheet.
Veal is the secret ingredient to these tasty, tender mini meatballs. Of course you can serve them with any basic pasta or spaghetti recipe, and you can also make the regular sized (2-3 inches) instead of mini. But I love the mini meatballs paired up with my low fat gorgonzola sauce. Don’t forget to add a veggies – I used spinach, but broccoli, carrots or green beans work too!
Rosanne's Gorgonzola Pasta with Mini Meatballs
- 1 pound ground veal
- 1 egg
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped or pressed
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan or Romano cheese
- Ground black pepper to taste
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound penne pasta or other short cut pasta
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Pinch of grated or ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup low sodium chicken stock
- 1/2 cup 1% milk
- 3/4 to 1 cup Gorgonzola crumbled
- 3 to 4 cups baby spinach cleaned and trimmed, chopped
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Add water to a large stockpot with a pinch of salt, and bring to roaring boil.
- While water boils, prepare the meatballs. Place ground veal into a medium sized glass bowl. Add bread crumbs, parmesan cheese, egg, garlic, and pepper. Mix well until all ingredients are well-combined (use a spoon, your hands, or you can put ingredients into a mixer to mix). Form into small 1-inch meatballs. Place on a nonstick cookie sheet (or use silicone mats), and bake for 10 minutes.
- When pasta pot is at a roaring boil, add pasta and cook al dente (about 8 minutes). Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, then drain pasta (don’t rinse).
- While pasta cooks, melt butter in a small saucepan. Add flour and stir quickly and cook for 1-2 minutes. Gradually add wine and cook until reduced by half. Add chicken stock, and bring back to boil. Once boiling, reduce heat and gradually stir in milk, nutmeg, and Gorgonzola cheese.
- While cooking sauce, heat 2 TB of water in a small non stick skillet. Add chopped spinach and stir until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Drizzle with olive oil, lightly add salt and pepper.
- Add the drained pasta to the sauce and mix. Serve the meatballs with the pasta, and a side of the spinach. You can also serve the pasta and meatballs on top of the spinach.
I LOVE my silicone mats for baking or roasting meatballs, chicken, fish, or vegetables. They make clean-up much easier (and they are dishwasher safe – but so easy to just wipe after use, with soapy water). Of course they are great for baking cookies too.
I have a sweet tooth. Some people (like my husband) don’t. Sure he’ll eat an occasional dessert or homemade cookies, but he mostly has no craving for it. I don’t overeat sugar however, I just really enjoy a high quality baked good once in a while.
I’ve raised three sons, and as a parent, I’ve never banned sugar, sweets, or sugary beverages. This N=3 experiment doesn’t matter, but for the record, none of my sons are overweight nor have struggled with overeating or weight issues. Yet they’ve eaten their fair share of sugar.
When I read articles like this past week’s Washington Post piece about detox and sugar, it makes me a little crazy.
“Sugar is everywhere: It’s in cereal and skim milk, bread, salad dressings, wine, white potatoes, pasta and pizza — not to mention desserts.”
There is so much wrong with this statement. Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Everything we eat can eventually be broken down into sugar (glucose – our body’s energy source). Here are some facts:
- The sugar in milk is lactose, and it’s the naturally occurring carbohydrate in milk. It’s not the sugar that you should be talking about when you say “I want to reduce my sugar intake”.
- Bread also provides carbohydrate, along with some protein to the diet. It’s not high in sugar.
- Salad dressings? Usually a bit of sugar is added to tame the vinegar, but unless you are drinking it, it’s not even worth bringing up.
- Wine gets its calories from alcohol. Yes, some wines are sweeter and have a higher sugar content, but abusing alcohol is a much bigger issue than sugar.
- White potatoes have no more sugar in them than orange or purple potatoes. They do have a higher glycemic index, but since you generally are eating white potatoes as part of a meal, this is also a negligible affect. Potatoes are a great source of potassium, vitamin C and fiber.
- Pasta is made from wheat, and is a complex carbohydrate (starch).
- Pizza? Not what I would consider a sugary food. The tomato sauce may have some sugar added (I never add sugar to my tomato sauce) but the tomatoes also provide some natural sugars (along with lycopene, antioxidants, and other healthy substances). Pizza is as healthy (or unhealthy) as its toppings. I’d consider saturated fat and sodium, not sugar, the concern with the typical delivery pizza.
- Desserts – okay he got this right. Desserts are high in sugar and should be consumed in smaller portions, and not daily.
Sugar is Everywhere – I can’t get away from it
Despite my attempt to write about a variety of topics, I often get pulled back in to write about sweeteners (both caloric and noncaloric) – Mostly because they are always being demonized. I’ve worked with industry on these topics in the past (and no, I am not a shill). I am asked to work with industry because of my viewpoint – it’s not the other way around (they don’t persuade me to have a view). My viewpoint has remained unchanged for 30 years: Sugar nor non-nutritive sweeteners (sugar substitutes) are causing the obesity epidemic, or causing cancer, or liver disease.
What can cause these disorders is an overconsumption of calories, poor overall eating habits, sitting too much, and an overall unhealthy lifestyle (poor diet, smoking, drinking, drugs, not following doctor’s orders, and a sedentary lifestyle).
You Don’t Need to Detox
Journalists continue to glamorize the idea of “doing a Detox”, and this is concerning. Why? Because young people are listening for one. They are still forming their eating and lifestyle habits, and when they read these sorts of headlines every week, they feel pressured to detox in some fashion. “Going on a Detox” has become common language that suggests it’s a “healthy way to live”. It’s not.
Randomly depriving yourself of certain foods, ingredients, or food groups, sets you up for disordered eating and an unhealthy relationship with food. It also does not in any way give you any guarantees for health, disease prevention, nor longevity.
Weight Control and Fitness
While I don’t support the Detox method as a healthy way to maintain your health or lose weight, you do want to be aware of extra pounds creeping on.
The number on the scale isn’t the only predictor of health however. Weight loss is hard, especially during middle age, so even maintaining weight (“weight control”) is a reasonable goal. Dietitians will often say “the best diet is the one you can follow”, and this is true. As long as it’s balanced, helps you lose or maintain your weight, it’s good. This could be a higher protein style diet (30-40% protein with less, but a healthy amount, of carbohydrate) or it could be a DASH or Mediterranean style diet, or it can even be the occasional fast (Intermittent fasting has gained ground in research, and can be a healthy way to maintain weight as you age, if done properly).
Fitness is also important to health and well being. So even if you are struggling to lose ten pounds, if you can improve your fitness level, you are going to have a better metabolic profile.
Finally, getting an annual check-up is a good idea. Having bloodwork drawn can tell a lot about your health. But if your doctor advises you to “go on a Detox”, ask for another opinion.
Inputs have Outputs
For several years now you may have heard messages that you should ‘limit refined grains’, or even that refined grains were bad for you and may raise your risk for disease. I attended a conference session sponsored by the Grain Foods Foundation that shared data about how refined grain messages got mixed into the “eat more whole grains” recommendation.
The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) states to “replace some refined grains with whole grains”, but the media has at times interpreted that as “avoid refined grains”. In turn, consumers began to associate all “white grains” with “an unhealthy choice”.
To reduce disease risk and balance nutrition, the DGA dietary recommends you eat:
- A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
- Fruits, especially whole fruits
- Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
- A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
Over my career, I’ve preferred to help people work on what they should eat more of, rather than what they should eat less of. Somehow, nutrition messages always end up becoming negative ones – “This food is bad”. Instead of “eat less of this”, the message changes to, “don’t eat this!”
Do You Avoid Refined Grains?
Have you been avoiding refined grains like white bread or pasta? Or feeling bad when you do eat them? Well, there’s no evidence to show that refined grains are “bad” for you, but there is evidence that shows that whole grains are good for you. Somehow along the way, the message has been mixed up – putting a slice of white bread or a dish of white pasta in the same category as pie or sweet rolls. This may become a reality when a child is shamed in the lunchroom because her mom made her a PBJ on white, or if you bring a pasta salad not made with whole wheat pasta to a picnic. Gasp!!
It’s been interesting over the years to see some friends using whole wheat pasta exclusively because they thought “the other kind” was not a good choice (I’ve shared before that I don’t like whole wheat pasta, and use regular, usually imported from Italy). A bread lover from way back, I always have bought a variety of breads for my family – including white, Italian, French, and multi-grains.
The dietary recommendation is to make half of your grains whole grains. This does not mean “avoid all refined grains”. They too can fit into your diet.
As you can see in this infographic, what the media often portrays as “refined grains” (white flour, rice, pasta, and bread) are lumped into the same category as what most dietitians would refer to as “sweets and baked goods”. Even when I counseled heart patients 25 years ago I’d advise them to include some high fiber grains (like a high fiber cereal, brown or wild rice, a high fiber bread, bun or English muffin) and limit desserts and sweets.
The messaging for refined grains has sometimes been associating them with poor health, suggesting that whole grains have positive effects on health and body weight, whereas refined grains have a negative effect on health and body weight.
Let’s take a look at the actual evidence.
There is evidence that whole grains are associated with all cause mortality. The more whole grains in the diet, the lower the risk of disease. Food frequency reports show that dietary patterns that included high fat dairy, sugary beverages, red meat, processed meat, refined grains, and French fries were associated with poor health. So while refined grains were included in this unhealthy dietary pattern, this doesn’t mean that refined grains themselves are the cause for poor health or disease, but the overall dietary pattern may.
One study found:
Patterns from exploratory factor and principal component analyses characterized by red and processed meat, refined grains, high-fat dairy, eggs, and fried products (“mainly unhealthy”) were positively associated with diabetes.
Studies show association between a dietary pattern and disease risk. But when you look at refined grains individually, there’s no relative risk. On the other hand, a Mediterranean diet and DASH diet have a strong potential for preventing diabetes. These dietary patterns do not eliminate refined grains (like white bread or pasta), but they do recommend limiting high sugar foods (high sugar grain desserts and baked goods for instance).
The research shows “high whole grain intake, but not refined grains, is associated with reduced type 2 diabetes risk”. This is consistent with the DGA – urging you to add whole grains to your diet.
The Take Away
Including whole grains in your diet, like multigrain breads, bran and oat cereals, brown and wild rice, farro, or barley, may reduce your risk of diabetes and other diseases.
You can however, still enjoy some refined grains (white rice or pasta, white breads or buns). But, you do want to limit the sugary stuff. Sure, enjoy a dessert once in a while (even every week), but not daily, and in small portions. Refined grains such as donuts or sweet rolls don’t really fall into the same category as refined bread (white, French, Italian) and English muffins for instance.
The DASH Diet follows many of the principles of the DGA, including the recommendation to consume whole grains in your diet. Balance, variety and moderation continue to support nutrition dogma that results in a dietary pattern that supports a healthy lifestyle. So include whole grains into some of your choices, but go ahead and enjoy that sandwich on white, your crisp rice cereal, or a dish of regular white pasta.
Beans are good food. They are loaded with fiber and important B vitamins as well as magnesium, potassium and protein. A half cup of beans provides about 7 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. Canned beans are also really economical and easy to prepare.
This layered dip is a crowd-pleaser and super quick and easy to put together, even at the last minute. To make it healthier and high protein, I use vegetarian, fat-free refried beans (traditional refried beans use lard), non fat Greek yogurt (to save calories and add extra protein), and lots of chopped fresh peppers on top.
Healthier Layered Dip
- 1 15-oz can vegetarian, fat free refried beans
- 1 cup nonfat Plain Green yogurt
- 2 TB low sodium taco seasoning
- 3-4 small avocadoes
- 1-2 TB lime juice from 1-2 limes
- 3 bell peppers, finely chopped use a variety of colors - red, orange, yellow, green
- 2-3 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
- 1 2.25 oz can black olives drained and rinsed
- 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese you can also use a shredded Mexican blend
- TB chopped cilantro if desired
- Open refried beans and put into a microwave safe glass 2-cup measuring cup. Microwave on high for 1-2 minutes, checking and stirring at 1 minute, until mixture is smooth.
- Spread beans evenly onto a large oval platter.
- Mix Greek yogurt with taco seasoning mix until completely blended. Dollop the yogurt onto the bean mixture, and gently spread over the beans, almost to the edge.
- Mash the avocado, and add lime juice. Blend. Spread avocado mixture onto yogurt.
- Sprinkle the shredded cheese on top of the avocado.
- Combine the chopped bell peppers, olives and tomatoes in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the bean mixture.
- Finally, add the cilantro if desired. You can also add some jalapeno pepper slices, or add a few drops of hot sauce over the top for some heat.
- Serve immediately, or refrigerate 2 hours or overnight. Serve with tortilla chips and cut vegetables.
Summer has arrived. For many, a cold beer never tastes as good as it does in the summertime. Since it’s Father’s Day weekend, there’s are a lot of articles about what to get dad, or what you can throw on the grill, but what do dads really want?
Most likely: Peace, quiet, and their favorite beer.
My husband and I love beer. As with food, moderation is important. Health authorities recommend that while binge-drinking (defined as 5 or more drinks on one occasion) is an unhealthy habit, moderate intake (women can have no more than 1 drink per day, and men no more than 2 drinks per day) seems to have no harmful effects. In fact, a moderate intake of alcohol may even have some benefit.
To keep in mind –
- Guidelines. You may choose to have 3 beers one day when celebrating a special occasion, and not have any on other days, and that’s probably okay. As Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean says, “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”
- Calories count too. Calories in beer come from its alcohol content, so a higher the alcohol content, yields a higher calorie count. I personally would rather just have one good beer, than three light beers, but that’s up to you. Just don’t overdo it too often.
Sure, I want all dads to be as healthy as they can be, but I also want them to be happy. This means eating food you enjoy, but balancing it out with exercise, and balancing the splurge meals with lighter ones. As you enjoy a healthy spread of food this weekend (perhaps some grilled vegetables and a nice lean steak), allow yourself to enjoy a cold brew or two with it.
Here’s a review of some of my favorite picks (including % abv – alcohol by volume) for adventurous beer drinkers to try out:
- Sierra Nevada IPA. My husband and I fell in love with this beer in 1991 when we went to visit a friend in Reno, Nevada. Nobody I knew in the East was drinking IPA then. It’s still one of my all-time favorite IPAs. We also love that it comes in cans, which is great for picnics, poolside or boat docks. It’s 5.6% abv.
- Dogfish Head 60-minute IPA. I’ll admit right now, I’m partial to IPAs. We visited the Dogfish Head pub in Rehoboth Beach around 1999 and have been enjoying this beer ever since. Maybe the 6% abv does it?
- Founder’s Centennial IPA. Founder’s brews some great beers. This IPA is piney and floral, with a lot of other complex flavors I can’t describe, with a 7.2% abv punch.
- Fat Point Brewery is worth a stop if you’re anywhere on the Gulf coast of Florida (it’s brewed in Punta Gorda), offering a bunch of great beers that sound great for summertime. I love the Big Boca at 5.1%, and I’m looking forward to trying their Going Mintal – a wheat beer brewed with mint.
- Southern Tier Goat Boy. Another confession: We’re partial to goats. Sort of. My husband is a cyclist and has competed in triathlons. A few summers ago he was out riding on country roads of Maryland, and a goat ran straight out into the road in front of him, putting him head over tin cup. He got scraped up pretty good, and hurt his shoulder. Ever since, he’s had a love-hate relationship with goats. So we admit, even before tasting a beer called Goat Boy – we liked it (labels can lure you in right? To boot, they put their goat on a bicycle when creating the logo, so what’s not to love?) This is a German style bock beer – an imperial weizenbok. Dark and malty. Fun fact – “Ein bock” is German for billy goat – for that reason bock beers often have goat references.
- Voodoo Brewery is brewed right in my little Pennsylvania town (but you can find them all over), and their beers are delicious. They have standards, and then brew up specialty craft beers seasonally. Since I’m partial to IPAs, the Hoodoo is a fav, along with the Gran Met (especially lovely in “Met-mosa” form, topped with a big splash of orange mango juice).
I admit, I’m what some folks call a beer snob. Please don’t take offense. I also enjoy some light beers on really hot days, or times when I just wanter a lower alcohol beer (golfing). For those times, these are good summertime picks:
- Bud Light Lime. Beer Advocate rates this as “awful”, but if you’re not a serious beer drinker, you don’t like microbrews, and are just looking for something refreshing to drink on a hot day – this may be the beer for you. It’s only 4.2% abv, and has a light hint of lime
- Amstel Light. This is a light, 100 calorie lager-style beer. 3.5% abv
- Stella Artois. Belgium beers are really nice in the summertime, and Stella pretty much got the whole “beer can be poured into a cool glass” thing going (The “chalice”). 5.0% abv
Be good to your dad. Drink responsibly, and Happy Father’s Day.
I had the opportunity to attend a continuing education session about Nutrigenomics that was sponsored by Nutrisystems®. Dr Tim Church (Medical Director, Genetic Direction) and Courtney McCormick (a registered dietitian with Nutrisystem®, Inc) spoke about how nutrigenomics and personalized nutrition could become enhanced tools for weight loss.The following is my reflection of the information shared.
Current dietary guidelines are used established to assist policymakers, as well as nutrition and health professionals, to recommend a dietary pattern that supports health and offers reduced risk of disease. The guidelines are based on the current body of evidence from human nutrition research. Nutrigenetics, or nutrigenomics, may be able to help us create more meaningful advice by providing personalized dietary guidelines based on an individual’s genetic make up.
Nutrigenomics is the study of how genetics influences metabolism and dietary response and the role of nutrients and bioactive food compounds in gene expression.
Interest in this technology is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2017, the Direct-to-Consumer genetic testing market for tools such as Ancestry® DNA and 23andMe®, was 117 million dollars. It’s estimated that by 2026, this will rise to 611 million dollars. There’s also consumer interest in personal genetics and how what you eat specifically could impact any real risk of disease.
The quick growth in this area is partly due to the reduction in costs associated with genetic technology. This technology is much more available due to the huge reduction in costs over the past ten years. To put this in perspective, consider that in 2001 the “cost per genome” was 100 million dollars. It’s now less than one thousand, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute. A 2005 genotype sample may have cost 1500 dollars to produce, while a 2018 sample only cost 50 dollars.
Research has exploded in this area over the past twenty years as well. In 1995 there were about 100 publications per year on the topic of weight loss genetics. In 2015-1017 there were several hundred per year. Between the lower costs and the advanced science, we are going to continue to see more genetic testing applications in the future.
The Future of Personalized Nutrition
Nutrisystem® now offers a personalized dietary plan based on a your DNA (DNA Body Blueprint™), and they sent me a free DNA Body Blueprint™ to try out earlier this year. Here’s how it worked:
- I received a packet in the mail required several saliva samples to send back.
- I created a profile at Nutrisystem.
- Once my DNA was analyzed I received a report and a personalized diet plan based on my DNA.
Several other dietitians I know also took the test, and they all agreed that it was pretty spot on. It included personalized nutrition, information about your body’s metabolism, food breakdown, fitness tips based on your DNA, vitamins and minerals in which you may not process well, and eating behavior tips based on your DNA profile.
The test uses a gene mapping system that only looks at certain parts of certain genes, in this case, genes related to obesity (in the ancestry type of analysis, the SNPs would determine genetic similarity to your parents and family). Scientists have analyzed these SNPs (Single nucleotide polymorphisms – “snips” for short) to determine which ones relate to what type of disease. The SNPs are variations in the DNA sequence. I am not a geneticist, so I don’t fully understand how this works, but I do know there is good science to support the process.
In my case I was happy to know I am a carb-burner, but my body isn’t great at processing fat. I also learned that my body responds well to resistance exercise but doesn’t burn fat efficiently with cardio (I love weight lifting, and I’ve always been able to do push ups. In all the years I ran, I enjoyed it, but could never increase my speed much, and I’ve always had a higher body fat percentage, no matter my weight). It also told me what I suspected – I am not caffeine-sensitive! I process caffeine, normally, while others process it more slowly (yep, I’m one of those people who can drink coffee before bed and still sleep).
Of course I happen to be a dietitian, so I’ve prescribed myself dietary parameters over the years, and they look exactly like what my DNA says they should be. Which begs the question:
“Why not just go work with a registered dietitian for a personalized eating plan?”
What Will You Do with this Information?
Going forward, this kind of personalized information can support your goals to stay healthy, eat better, and avoid or put off, disease. But, even when you are armed with the best, and most personalized information – guess what? You still have to make changes and adopt healthier behaviors. That’s right – same old song: You’ll still have to do the work to plan, prepare and eat the right foods, and schedule regular exercise into your life.
Even Dr. Church, who works with a company that develops DNA lifestyle plans said that “genetic testing results aren’t going to solve all of our problems”, it’s simply a better tool for the toolbox. Despite the interest in genetics and personalized medicine and nutrition, we aren’t anywhere near using it as a “solution” to obesity or disease.
However, for many who choose something like the Nutrisystem® DNA Body Blueprint™ program, it’s a helpful guide (especially if you’ve received bad dietary advice in the past) that can point you in the right direction for weight management. Even if it simply affirms what you may already have known (as in my case), make help with motivation. Knowing that your genetic profile says you have “below average” weight loss ability, doesn’t make it any easier to lose weight, but you might be empowered to understand why. Other aspects of the test (such as the vitamin mineral information) may be useful in supporting future weight loss too.
It certainly confirms what registered dietitians have known for decades – there is no one diet that suits everyone. But as Dr. Church suggests, these data sets are just another tool. As they become more affordable, you’ll likely see more of them. The science is there – the results are valid – but you are still the one that has to make behavior changes, or in some cases for instance, accept that your genetics limits your idealistic body image. The more we learn, the clearer it is that we can’t always fight our genes, but it may be useful to know specifically what we can control, and what we can’t.
Summer months are a great time to add more vegetables to your diet. I have found that most adults who say they don’t like vegetables have had very limited exposure to them, or maybe have only had them prepared one way. Let’s say you grew up being offered only boiled vegetables – chances are you are not a veggie lover. This is why it’s always great to keep an open mind about continuing to try new foods, prepared in new ways, throughout your lifetime!
Zucchini is a summer squash variety and can be prepared a variety of ways. It’s not only a tasty veggie, it cooks quickly, is really low in calories, loaded with vitamin A, some vitamin C and a good source of fiber. If you haven’t tried any in a while, it’s easy to find fresh zucchini from your farmer’s market or grocery store.
I wanted to share this super-simple recipe that I created, inspired by visits to a French restaurant. They didn’t give me the recipe, but I re-created it for myself as best as I could – I sometimes will “cheat” and use a jarred tomato sauce instead of their homemade tomato coulis to save time, but the end result is about as yummy as theirs! Even my teenage son tried this and liked it. This dish makes a great first course or side dish and is so easy and delicious! If you’re looking for something to bring to your next picnic or barbecue, this dish is it.
Easy Zucchini Rollatini
- 1 medium zucchini sliced thin longways, 1/8 inch thickness
- 1-2 TB olive oil
- sea salt
- 4 ounces Boursin Cheese or another soft herb cheese
- 3/4 cup tomato sauce jarred basil, or homemade marinara
- Heat Grill on medium-high
- Wash zucchini and gently scrub skin. Slice zucchini, long-wise, carefully with knife, or use a mandoline slicer (tips for kitchen tools in our DASH Diet For Dummies® cookbook). Drizzle olive oil onto zucchini. Use pastry brush to evenly coat each slice. Lightly salt slices.
- Place zucchini slices onto hot grill using tongs. Watch closely and turn when black lines appear and vegetable becomes translucent. Continue cooking on other side for a few more minutes. Remove to plate.
- Allow zucchini slices to cool slightly.
- Spread tomato sauce lightly onto medium serving plate.
- Spoon 1-2 teaspoons of the herbed cheese onto one end of a slice of zucchini. Roll zucchini up, place onto serving plate coated in sauce.
- Continue step 6 for each zucchini slice and refrigerate until ready to serve.
You may have read several news pieces about the recent study comparing two small groups of people who were offered the same amount of calories of either “ultra-processed food” or “whole foods”, but only the ultra-processed food group gained weight. The authors then conclude:
“Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment.”
How can this be you ask? Well, the subjects were presented with three daily meals and were instructed to consume as much or as little as desired. Twenty people (with BMI around 25-29, stable weight, yet slightly overweight) were placed into two groups – one that offered ultra-processed food, the other offered whole foods. Both groups were offered the same amount of calories, but different food. The group offered the ultra-processed food ate more of their ration (about 500 calories more daily), and therefore gained weight over the 2-week observation period.
It’s frustrating to me when anyone wants to water down the complexity of obesity. It’s not that simple. Lifestyle, medical history, genetics, stress levels, age, activity – all impact body weight.
I don’t think this study was a revelation to any registered dietitian who’s spent years interviewing clients, taking diet histories, and counseling people. The 1970’s marketing campaign of “you can’t eat just one” potato chip, still rings true when it comes to salty or sweet snack foods.
For example, let’s compare eating potato chips (“ultra-processed potatoes”) and baked potatoes (whole food). Most people could easily eat 300 calories (2 ounces) of potato chips in one sitting (and still be “hungry”). They may have a harder time eating the same amount of calories of whole potatoes (2 medium-sized baked potatoes) in one sitting. You could also wolf down the 300 calories in chips much more quickly than the 2 whole potatoes.
A Comparison of Extremes
Popular diet advice seems to be stuck in a mentality of extremes. You’re not told to just “reduce carbs” you have to go “ultra low carb”. You can’t just add a little bit more healthy fat or protein into the diet, it has to be high fat and high protein. I have never subscribed to this all or none philosophy. It doesn’t work for most people long-term, and it’s often completely unnecessary.
This study used the definition of ultra-processed food as “formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes.” It compared two very different extremes – a diet that is filled with ultra-processed to an ultra-idyllic diet of fresh, whole foods. Neither of those scenarios is realistic or necessary to achieve a healthy dietary pattern. Furthermore, the study’s implication that if you avoid ultra-processed food and start eating whole foods, and cooking more, you won’t gain weight and you’ll be healthier – is a stretch.
At the surface, this statement is partly true – Over consuming ultra-processed food isn’t healthy choice, but the notion that simply eliminating them from your diet is a solution to weight control, completely minimizes the time, skill, and effort it takes to shop for ingredients and cook food on a regular basis. It also doesn’t address how overall dietary patterns impact health.
And that’s the thing – there is a different between what you eat at one meal, in one day or in one week or month. Your dietary pattern includes the foods you consume over weeks and months. Not single meal conveniences.
My concern is the details of the definition of processed food will get lost in the headlines from this recent study. The study suggests there’s one ideal, but there are actually many ways to create basic, balanced meals, and some processed foods can be used to do it.
Many processed foods (canned beans, vegetables, rice, pasta, frozen meal kits) provide great nutrition for healthy inexpensive meals you can prepare easily at home. For example, it’s also a myth that canned or frozen foods is associated with poor diet quality. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are processed, but not “ultra-processed”. There’s research showing that diet quality can actually be enhanced by including canned fruits and vegetables.
Idealistic meals also don’t address other socioeconomic issue such as “food deserts”. People who don’t have access to the grocery store, or other markets with fresh food, are at a disadvantage. They may not have transportation or a corner store is their only choice. They may prioritize paying rent or the gas bill over food. They may have not only very limited food choices, but may not have a kitchen, stove, or cooking utensils available to them. They may also be in a socio-economic situation where a dollar “meal” consisting of a candy bar and a sugary drink is what they can afford in that moment to survive.
In other less extreme (and perhaps more widespread) instances however, it’s not the food desert or lack of choice, but a lack of skill or failure to prioritize the value of nutrition and its role in health and well-being. Dietitians who work in community nutrition settings are always working toward helping people make the most of their food budgets and resources; working together to help people understand nutrition basics and get exposed to new foods and flavors.
But even then, it’s going to take more than just “eat less ultra-processed food” messages to improve health and diet quality of a growing population. Taste preferences, food exposure, cultural influences – all impact what people eat. If one is brought up on ultra-processed food, they are not going to accept a piece of grilled salmon salad overnight (as the figure below from the recent study suggests). We need real solution to “better” choices that are reasonable, not “ideal” ones.
Back to Basics with Budget-friendly Meals
To get better meals to more people we need to start talking about meal planning in simple terms. Not fancy food, but simple basic meal planning. You don’t have to shop at a Whole Foods® market, use fancy ingredients, “buy local”, or have farmer’s market access to eat a less-processed diet.
There are many resources available about healthy nutrition and planning healthy budget-friendly meals. The challenge is, getting this information to folks who need it, and helping them learn both cooking and nutrition basics. This process can start in schools with the school lunch program (which exposes children to new foods they may not otherwise be exposed to at home), home economics curriculums, or in the community at local farmer’s markets and grocery stores where recipes and cooking demos may be available.
Simple, healthy diets can be planned from basic unprocessed foods (meats, dairy, grains, vegetables and fruits). Agricultural organizations such as the Beef Checkoff and Pork Checkoffs have always provided free nutrition information, recipes, cooking tips, and doable meal planning ideas for all budgets. The National Dairy Council also provides budget-friendly ideas for adding nutrition to the diet. On the plant front, the Grains Foods Foundation provides simple recipes for grain-based meals, the Produce for Better Health Foundation provides ways to add more plants to your diet and choose the least expensive produce, and the Canned Food Alliance offers facts about how canned foods can add inexpensive protein, fiber and vitamins and minerals to your diet.
Nutrition and health care professionals (and journalists) need to come together and agree that better, or decent, nutrition is an admirable goal. The longer we hold up this “salmon salad on fresh field greens” or the “flax seed green smoothie” or “the plant forward diet”, as “ideal” nutrition for everyone, the further away we’ll be from improving diet quality for those who really need it.
In a session sponsored by Beneo earlier this year, I learned more about how certain fibers interact with the gut’s flora. I was not compensated to write this post, and the thoughts expressions are my own. This post includes affiliate link to Regular Girl® products, I am not affiliated with any of the other product ideas linked in this post however.
If you do a search for “microbiome, health”, you’ll find over 10 million hits. Scholarly articles hit at about 165,000. Study of the human microbiome is relatively new science, and interest in this area is rapidly growing for good reason. The microbiome is the beneficial microbes and pathogens that exist throughout our body, with the largest community found in our guts.
Research theorizes that the health of gut bacteria can impact whole body systems, and possibly impact obesity, heart health, neurological status, immunity and other aspects of human biology.
There’s no question that diet plays a role in gut health, and we’ve known this for years. Diet (both nutrients and non-nutrients like fibers) have an impact on the physiological function of our guts (digestion, absorption, transit, excretion) and also impacts our immunity and endocrine secretion. The food we eat then in turn also impacts those beneficial microbes in our guts. Essentially what we eat “feeds” those healthy microbes, for better or worse.
In addition to diet, other factors impact the microbiome. Antibiotic medications generally have a negative impact, and probiotics a positive one. You probably have heard all of these terms (“microbiome”, “probiotic”, “prebiotic”), but it can get confusing, so let’s differentiate them.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotic foods introduce good bacteria into the gut. They are found in naturally in some fermented foods (like kefir, buttermilk, lactobacillus milk, yogurt, aged cheese, or kimchi). Not all fermented foods contain probiotics however. Also, some foods that claim to contain “live, active cultures” may not have the right bacterial strain, nor an adequate amount. Probiotics can also be found in supplement form (pills or powders, and more recently some refrigerated snack bars).
Probiotics in yogurt for instance, can even improve any lactose intolerance you may experience. And, including probiotics in your diet will improve gut function overall, leaving you with less gas, bloating, diarrhea or other belly troubles.
All types of fiber (soluble and insoluble) are good for you, but not all fibers are prebiotic fibers. Prebiotic fibers are a type of fiber that provides nutrition to good (probiotic) gut bacteria. We get soluble fiber (oat bran, barley, beans, nuts, some fruits) and insoluble fiber (wheat bran, whole grains, vegetables) in our diet, but prebiotic fibers have a unique impact on the gut microbiome. Prebiotic fibers are found in onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas, whole wheat, and artichokes.
Inulin and oligofructose are two supplemental prebiotic fibers of particular interest. These “functional fibers” nourish the bacteria in your colon. These fibers are used as functional food ingredients in products such as yogurt, beverages, infant nutrition products, snack/sports bars or other baked goods.
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber that has many potential benefits:
- Digestive health: Improves the balance of intestinal flora
- Weight management: This fiber helps you stay full, reduce food intake
- Strong bones: Increases calcium absorption
Oligofructose is naturally extracted from chicory root, and a subgroup of inulin. Both inulin and oligofructose stimulate the growth of intestinal bifidobacteria. Bifidobacteria are friendly bacteria and helpful to our guts. The exact molecular mechanism of how these bacteria have these positive impacts isn’t completely clear yet.
Bottom Line: What to Eat Today
This is a really exciting area of nutrition. We will continue to see more research, and more applications of these functional food ingredients. While the research grows, what we know so far seems like a pretty positive case to include probiotic foods or supplements, and prebiotic fiber in the diet. So how can you act now?
Here are my tips:
- Eat a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables (Bonus: DASH Diet supports this habit!). The variety matters too, because every plant offers different nutrients that have different functions. Include the foods I mentioned that have prebiotic fibers (onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas, whole wheat, and artichokes).
- Eat a diet that includes natural probiotics. Enjoy yogurt daily, or a fermented food like sauerkraut or kimchee with a meal. Personally I think low fat yogurt is the easiest and tastiest way to include a daily probiotic, and you have the added benefit of yogurt fitting into a heart healthy DASH Diet plan. Choose a yogurt that includes probiotics on the label, and choose the ones that specify the bacteria strain (will include numbers with the bacteria name on the ingredient label). As an affiliate for Regular Girl®, I attest to the acceptability and ease of use of the product – which provides both prebiotic fiber and a probiotic (Bifidobacterium lactis), so that’s also an option.
- Enjoy whole grains and cereals to provide a variety of soluble and insoluble fibers to your diet.
- Add a prebiotic fiber like inulin to your diet. Supplements should never replace healthy eating, and you don’t have to use a daily supplement, but adding a supplement during the week may be prudent. The initial research seems very promising to me, so I recommend including some foods that use inulin or chicory root. You’d have to eat 200 bananas to get the dose of inulin you’d get from a snack bar supplement. You can choose to either use a supplement powder, or you can choose foods that include inulin on the ingredient list (like cereals or bars).