The Critical Window of Early Feeding

Did you know that the first 1000 days in a child’s life (conception to age 2) are critical to a child’s health, and potentially his future? What a mother and infant eat during these days can impact the child’s behavior, neural development, and even food preferences. In addition, proper feeding during this period can improve school-readiness and risk of chronic disease later in life. I attended a sponsored session earlier this year, presented by research dietitian Keli Hawthorne discussing the important nutrients of concern and how meat can be a first food once baby is weaned.

Meatballs are a perfect first food for baby.

Nutrition During Pregnancy

What you eat, and how much, are both important during pregnancy. As soon as you know you are pregnant you’ll want to pay extra attention to your diet. First off, no alcohol. If you smoke, now is the time to get support to quit.

Fifty percent of all women gain too much weight during pregnancy! You may sometimes hear “You’re eating for two!”. False! You are not eating for two. In fact, weight gain should be managed during pregnancy, with a recommended weight gain of about 25-35 pounds. Gaining too much or too little can be harmful for the baby and for mom. This can vary from woman to woman, and women who are overweight at conception should try to limit weight gain to 20 pounds. If you’re underweight, a 30-40 pound weight gain is okay. Of course if you’re pregnant with multiples, you’ll gain more. Talk to your doctor about what’s appropriate for you.

There are also some nutrients that become extra important, and you do need about 250-300 more calories per day. That’s not a lot. It basically means just adding one or two healthy snacks per day. Here are a few examples of high-calcium snacks that can provide those extra calories. Choose two:

  • One string cheese with an apple
  • A cup of low fat or non fat yogurt with fruit
  • A glass of milk and 6 crackers with peanut butter
  • Half a turkey sandwich on wheat with a glass of milk
  • 1 cup low fat cottage cheese with fruit
  • A strawberry-banana smoothie (banana, 4 ounces milk, 4 ounces plain yogurt, 1/2 cup strawberries)

Folic acid and iron are two nutrients that are important during pregnancy, as well as calcium (if you don’t take in the calcium, the baby robs it from your bones and teeth). Your doctor will prescribe a prenatal vitamin-mineral supplement to take daily, in addition to eating a balanced diet. You can learn a lot more about exactly what to eat from my colleague Elizabeth Ward. 

Breast or Bottle

Whether a woman chooses to breast or bottle feed, it’s important to pay attention to the baby, and track her growth and weight gain. While breast milk is highly nutritious and may support immune strength, some women and their babies have a more challenging time than others. That’s okay! It’s her choice to do what she can, and what’s comfortable for her.

I do encourage moms to give it a go however. Some research has shown there’s a 4% reduction in childhood obesity for each month a baby is breastfed, so even if you only breast feed for a month or two, it’s all good. And whether you breast feed or not, babies age birth to 12 months should only be drinking breast milk, infant formula, or water. There’s no need for other beverages. After age 1, cow’s milk can be introduced as a beverage, and I encourage milk with meals, and water in between. Your child can enjoy soda or juices occasionally when she is a teenager, small children don’t need them (neither do teens, but that’s another story).

Introduction of Solid Food: Baby Led Weaning

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid foods at around 6 months of age, and the World Health Organization recommends the same, with meat, poultry, fish or eggs eaten daily or as often as possible. From age 6 to 18 months, a critical period of growth happens, which is why it’s so important to understand how to offer solid foods. Iron is often a nutrient of concern and breastfed babies should be supplemented with iron at age 4 months, but they often aren’t. The 6-18 month window is also an opportunity to instill healthy eating habits by introducing a variety of foods.

Consider these statistics: Twenty percent of 1-2 year olds eat no fruit, and 30 percent eat no vegetables. Worse, 75% of 12-month olds are drinking sugar sweetened beverages daily. This is not a good trend!

“Provide nutritious foods starting at 6 months of age that are high in iron and zinc such as meat. The iron in infant cereals like rice cereal is not as well absorbed by your baby’s body compared to the iron from meat, and some cereals don’t contain any iron at all. 1 in 4 toddlers don’t get enough iron in their diet which is important for brain development.” says dietitian Keli Hawthorne. 

Even though vegetarianism and veganism are trendy right now, infants will have a much more difficult time meeting nutrient needs by eating a vegetarian diet without proper supplementation. So if you aren’t already vegan, offer a variety of foods, including meats, to your infant. Using recipes that the whole family can enjoy makes meal time easier.

Wait. Meat? When I had my children, iron-fortified cereal was a typical first food, and it was common advice to “offer veggies first” so that they will “accept them”, and then fruit, and later meat. First foods were pureed. We now know there is really no evidence to the order of introducing foods to baby, and since meats are nutrient dense – beef in particular is an excellent source of iron and zinc (two important nutrients for infants and toddlers) – it’s a healthy first food.

Hawthorne says, “Most parents don’t start meat until about 9 months of age, but the recommendations are to actually start them much earlier, at 6 months of age, because of the important nutrients they contain. There’s no evidence that foods should be offered in any certain order – including starting with rice cereal or vegetables before fruits. However, all foods should be introduced individually for at least one time to monitor for any signs of reactions or allergies.”

You may choose to use processed baby food for convenience, and that’s fine. Parents can puree beef and other meats when first staring solids if they like. Or you may choose to try  “baby-led weaning”. This technique simply encourages parent to offer the same foods that they are eating, and allow the infant to self-feed. Hawthorne suggests that those who want to do baby led weaning can skip purees and offer meatballs, a short rib, or chicken drumsticks – something that the baby can grasp easily at 6 months of age (of course babies and toddlers should be monitored for choking when eating).

Dietitian and author of Born to Eat, Wendy Jo Peterson, says, Baby Led Weaning (BLW) is a good fit for your family if you prefer to eat with your child, share the same family foods, and embrace the messiness of exploring foods. Here are her tips for success:

“To kick start the BLW journey it’s vital to understand the difference between gagging and choking and identify proper textures that support success with BLW foods. Most families are nervous initially, but once they see their baby navigate whole foods from their first bite they gain confidence in their baby’s abilities. Blenders have not existed for very long, and babies have thrived long before electricity. Have confidence that this is a viable choice that many families have done for centuries.”

There’s no one right way to feed your baby, but you do need to include wholesome nutritious foods daily. It’s still fine to choose to purchase packaged baby food, however, as with other packaged foods at the supermarket, marketing tactics and facts don’t always match up. In the case of baby food, some brands use “stages”, and there’s really no evidence for that. They may also include the ages on the package labeling. For instance, the ‘stage 1’ foods often don’t include meat. Rather than allow the food labels to educate your choices, ask your pediatrician if you can meet with a dietitian, or find a book written by a registered dietitian (RD or RDN).

One More Thing

You also may be concerned about food allergies when introducing foods. According to Hawthorne, more research has been done lately on reducing allergy risk. “We used to think we should delay introduction and even completely avoid potential allergy foods like peanuts, but more current science shows the opposite. It’s better to introduce foods even as early as 6 months of age just like any other food as the best strategy to reduce later food allergy risk”. Peanut allergy is an example. New research now shows that early introduction of peanut products in infants actually reduces future allergy.

There is a lot to know about the first 1000 days, and early feeding – prepare yourself with the facts, and find support to give your baby a good head start in life.

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A Toxicology Lesson for Dietitians

I attended a really interesting session about pesticide residue at my state’s annual nutrition meeting, titled, “Organic and non-organic foods and pesticide residue: Important information for nutritionists and dietitians”, presented by Amir Golmohamadi, Assistant Professor at the Department of Nutrition at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. I’m sharing some of his slides here.

History of Farming

Amir began by sharing some of the history of farming and the Green Revolution. He described agriculture of both past (primitive) and present (modern and industrialized) as an “artificial situation” – man manipulating soil, moving plants, cross breeding and selecting seeds, fertilizing soil, irrigating, etc., in all cases, to increase the yield and quality of food. The output increased significantly with virtually the same inputs from the 1940s to 2016.

In 1990, the Organic Food Production Act was passed in the US. This defined standard organic farming practices and acceptable organic production inputs. This led to the agricultural certification – USDA Organic. This farming method means that the food was produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), without synthetic pesticides, and without irradiation. There’s been significant growth in the sale of organics foods over the past 16 years. Interestingly, consumer demand for organic food seems to outweigh the availability of land.

Pesticide and Herbicide Use

Many people who are concerned about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are also concerned about glyphosate.  Some GM plants involve the use of glyphosate (“Round-up Ready” plants like corn, soybean, cotton and alfalfa), but others do not. Yet public perception about the link between this herbicide and GMOs is strong. Glyphosate is an herbicide that controls broadleaf grasses and weeds. Farmers use Round-up Ready seeds for crops to help them control weeds. There is also bt-corn (corn engineered to naturally ward off the pesky corn borer). While these herbicide resistant crops initially decreased the use of herbicide application, there’s some question whether this affect lasts. Of course as more acreage is grown, more herbicide may be used overall, but in general, these advances have allowed farmers to plant more crops per acre, using less resources.

Farmers take care to protect themselves and their workers when these chemicals are applied.Pesticides and insecticides are dangerous substances and need to be handled carefully. They also follow strict rules in terms of amounts used. As any toxicologist will tell you, “the dose makes the poison”, and this is important to understand when we are discussing pesticide residues on food.

What is a PPM and Inherent Toxicity

A part per million (PPM) is equivalent to 1 milligram of a chemical substance per liter of water. This would also look like one second in eleven and a half days. Or one single grain of sugar among 273 sugar cubes. According to Dr. Golmomahadi, the EPA uses risk assessment to characterize the nature and magnitude of health risks pesticides may pose to humans. This includes assessment of how much of a chemical is present in an environmental medium (e.g., soil, water, food), and how much contact (exposure) a person or ecological receptor has with the environmental medium. This helps determine the inherent toxicity (hazard) of the chemical. Hazard is the property of a chemical having the potential to cause adverse effects with exposure. Risk however, is the probability of the adverse effect occurring. So for instance, if you do not work on a farm, your risk is much lower than the worker who applies the pesticide applications each year (yet also takes care to do so safely).

So What About Our Food?

Consumer lists, such as the “Dirty Dozen” promoted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) use flawed methodology to determine residue, and also don’t match the residue to human tolerance levels. Luckily there are science-based risk assessments. In the above slide, the red zone is the absolutely highest tolerable level of a pesticide where no effects have been identified (No Observable Adverse Effect Level). According to Dr. Golmomahadi, crops found to have this level are removed from market. The orange and yellow areas show acceptable daily intakes (ADI – a toxicological safety limit that specifies the amount of a substance can be ingested every day over an entire lifetime without harm – this is usually hundreds times less than the NOAEL). In this case, crops may be assessed on a case by case basis, and prevented from getting to market if necessary.  Finally, the green area is the Maximum Residue Levels (MRL).

Dr. Golmomahadi gave the example below of pesticide residue in strawberries (since they often top the “Dirty Dozen” list). You would have to consume 1100 pounds of strawberries per day to potentially pose a risk from pesticide residue!

Take Away

The takeaway here is that some pesticide residue does not equal “toxicity”. Testing is done to determine upper safety levels and the approved tolerance levels (or maximum residue levels, MRL) are hundreds of times lower that the levels determined not to cause issues. Very specific testing is done to determine the upper levels where there is no observable adverse effect (NOAEL), and then the safety levels are set way below them. Ninety nine percent (99%) of the products have lower level of pesticide than the Tolerance Level (TL).

Dr. Golmomahadi stressed that there is no pesticide risk to worry about from food. There is other types of risk in terms of pesticide exposure through direct exposure however (for instance, not following protocol when applying the pesticides, heavy pesticide exposure through the air). He also points out that pesticide residues are found in both organic and non-organic foods. He also feels that over-dependence on pesticides is not sustainable, and farmers and scientists should explore all options. He reassures –

“The US food system is one of the safest in the world. EPA and USDA routinely check the pesticide residue in all foods.”

Should you worry about pesticide residue from your food? No. It’s always good practice to wash your fruits and vegetables (dirt, manure, or other residues can also be present). You are at no more risk eating non-organic fruits and vegetables than you are eating organic fruits and vegetables.

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Real World Research on Weight Loss

I attended a conference session, sponsored by Dupont earlier this year about weight loss and weight maintenance, presented by obesity expert Dr. James Hill.

Obesity is a popular topic of discussion among exerts and non-experts alike. There’s no shortage of opinions about both the causes and best treatments. I agree completely with Dr. Hill – we continue to want to blame one thing for the obesity epidemic, when in fact there may indeed be over 100 factors.

This busy diagram gives a visual for how complicated obesity is.

Dr. Hill has a PhD in physiological psychology and has served as President of the American Society for Medicine (ASN) in 2008-9. He was also President of The Obesity Society (TOS) in 1997-8; Chair of the first World Health Organization Consultation on Obesity in 1997; and a member of the NIH Expert Panel on Obesity that developed the first U.S guidelines for the treatment and prevention of obesity. Dr. Hill has published more than 600 scientific articles and book chapters, and he’s currently Director of the University of Alabama Nutrition Obesity Research Center. So yeah, he knows a thing or two about obesity. People can learn more about the weight management programs he developed at I love their tagline:

Most of our daily behavior is automatic – we don’t really think much about it. State of Slim will help you replace the automatic behaviors that are keeping you overweight and unhealthy with new ones that make it easier for you to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

I had the chance to interview Dr. Hill about some key thoughts about weight loss and weight maintenance, and what he has found to be successful for people.

RR: Why do you recommend a high protein, low carbohydrate diet for weight loss?

JH: A substantial amount of research has shown that high protein diets usually lead to more weight loss than lower protein diets. We have found this in our research. We do not know exactly why. I think it is probably because the higher protein diet makes you feel fuller and this helps you better stick with your diet plan. Initially we restrict amount and type of carbohydrate (stressing veggie intake, reducing sugar intake). However, as people add more exercise into their lives, we increase both amount and type of carbohydrate (still limiting sugar).The more you exercise, the more carbohydrate you can add to your diet without promoting weight regain. We also tell people that they should get very few (or zero) calories from beverages and most from foods.

RR: For those who are trying to lose weight on their own, what sorts of high protein foods do you recommend? Do you recommend avoiding some foods?

JH: We have conducted research to compare animal vs plant protein in a high protein weight loss diet. Both contribute to weight loss equally well – so you have a choice. You can be a vegetarian or you can include meat. For the latter we recommend non-fatty fish and lean cuts of meat.

RR: You say people have to fix their “broken metabolism”. Do you have some encouraging words for my readers?

JH: MOVE YOUR BODY. Your metabolism becomes broken (less metabolically flexible) when you quit moving and this puts you at risk for obesity and obesity-linked chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.  You can best fix your metabolism by starting to move your body again – becoming an exerciser. Then your metabolism is working for you, not against you in your efforts to maintain a healthy weight. Exercising is one of the best things you can do for your health. You don’t need to exercise to lose weight, only to keep it off permanently. We recommend about an hour a day of exercise.  Now don’t panic, you just need to give up one TV show each day. If it is important for you (and it is essential for keeping weight off), you can find the time.

RR: Why is it important for people to understand that weight maintenance shouldn’t use the same strategy as weight loss?

JH: You can lose weight on any diet as long as you reduce your total energy intake. For example, several studies have shown similar weight loss on low carb and low fat diets. But most people can’t stick with either over the long term. Weight loss is short term and you can do just about anything for a while. Keeping weight off is very different. First, exercise becomes essential and is the most important factor. It improves your metabolism but also allow you to eat an amount that is more satisfying than if you don’t exercise. Our research shows that people who are most successful over the long-term eat a relatively low fat diet, high carb diet. This only works if you exercise to burn the carbs.  Keeping weight off is forever, so you have to find a diet and exercise program that you can stick with.

The Key Takeaway

The diet for weight loss is not the same as the diet for weight maintenance. As Dr. Hill suggests, many people can make a change in their diet for the short-term. It’s the long term that counts, and is most challenging. His recommendation for weight loss, is a short term high protein, low carbohydrate diet (limiting caloric beverages, sugars, starches). Carbohydrates can be gradually added to the diet as exercise increases, and then the maintenance plan is higher in carbohydrate, but still adequate in protein (yes, DASH Diet would fit this bill). There’s no question that movement is important to keep our metabolism optimal. Exercise needs to continues through weight maintenance! Start slowly, and find types of exercises you enjoy.


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Just Wash It – Ignore the Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) sends out a powerful marketing campaign every year, (kale-haters may love this year’s list) but it’s just a myth that keeps on giving. You’d think the “DONATE NOW” button is a tip-off. It’s the epitome of bad science. For years, the EWG has published a “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” list of fruits and vegetables, suggesting you should avoid the “dirty” ones, and choose certified organic options instead.

Despite the fact that the science does not support their methods, nor position, this list continues to get huge press every single year. The popular news feed, the Skimm, featured in their feed….In response to the EWG, a more reliable source on produce (both organic and convention) was established, reassuring US consumers that all the produce you find in your markets is safe, and how to handle it before eating (wash it all, unless marked as pre-washed).

I’ve written about risk and hazard, and how “the dose makes the poison” before, and I could write more about the EWG’s new list, but I have several colleagues who already have, so they’ve saved me the time. Check out these blogs and a podcast on the subject to get informed on what science has to say about the Environmental Working Group’s methodology and conclusions:

Abby Langer Nutrition

Street Smart Nutrition

Healthy Under Pressure Podcast

Survivor’s Table

How to Handle Produce:

  • Rinse salad greens thoroughly through a colander
  • Cut ends off green onions, celery, leeks, and run water through, rubbing out any dirt, and washing thoroughly
  • Rinse berries thoroughly in a colander
  • Rinse all vegetables before cooking or eating
  • Rinse apples, pears, and grapes, (scrubbing as needed with hands or soft brush) and dry with a paper towel
  • Wash citrus that you slice to use with peel in cooking or drinks


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3 Easy Steps to Planning Family Snack Time

I’ve written about family mealtime in the past, and have supported the idea of “eating together is better” since the late 1990s. Since we know sitting down to eat together supports the physical and emotional growth of children – but consumer data is showing that snacks are often making up 40-60% of people’s eating occasions – perhaps we should combine these thoughts?

How about letting go of all of the pressure to have more meals together during the week, and start a new tradition – Family Snack Time!

  1. Choose a time of the day to get your family together
  2. Plan an easy, healthy snack
  3. Involve the children in planning the snack

Pick the Best Times, on the Best Days

Life is busy when you are raising children. With different schools, different extracurricular activities, different work schedules, it can be challenging to all come together on the same time each day. Take a day off to think about everyone’s schedule and determine which days and times will work best for convening in the kitchen at home. This may be a Tuesday morning at 7am, or a Thursday night at 7pm. Maybe you can meet up every night at 7:30pm. Or maybe your teens have time alone at home from 3:30 to 5:00pm when they could prep their own healthy snack.

Whatever time or day, choose a few during the week, when the pressure of planning and preparing a meal is off, and you’ll simply have a great snack together.

Planning Better Snacks

While you may be worrying about meal time, and grocery shopping for it, don’t forget about snack planning. Consumer data suggests that eating patterns are changing. If half of Americans are snacking, with many replacing meals with snacks, it’s then important to make those snacks count. As snacks become more appealing as meal replacements, more healthy options come onto the market. Overall, consumers are choosing healthier packaged snacks, more fruits and vegetables, and smaller portions, than five years ago. This is good news!

The food industry uses consumer market surveys to decide which direction to go. I had the opportunity to sample a new snack created by iconic bean company Bush’s, who has decided to follow the snack trend with some healthy snacks of their own, including roasted chickpeas (A funny side note – years ago I wrote an article titled Beans are Good Food. It is one of my most successful posts to date). These low sugar, crunchy snacks offer up 5 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber per ounce.

Kids, We’re Having Snacks for Dinner

Families are busier than ever. Relinquish the pressure of family meal time by substituting healthy snacks instead. Make some weeknight “dinners” into snacks. Think of them as mini-meals. You still can sit together and enjoy them as a family, but in less time and with less stress. You can serve these at a dining table or on TV trays or the coffee table. The important thing is to prepare them and enjoy them together.

Involve the children in planning the snack using the following 3 guidelines: 1) It has to include a fruit or vegetable, 2) it has to be made from “real food” (yet potato chips aren’t a great choice), 3) it has to be the right size or amount. In addition to healthy packaged snacks, do continue with the trend to include  fruits and vegetables for snack time. While some single-serving packaged foods clearly “look like” a snack, other packaged items can help keep things quick and available during your busy week. If you find that snacks fit into your diet better than meals here are some other convenient snack ideas that can turn a snack into a family meal:

  • Plain Greek yogurt topped with flax seed granola and unsweetened canned peaches.
  • Flavored tuna or salmon pouches. Adding herbs and spices to tried and true foods can make them more appealing and add variety to your eating experience. Let everyone choose a flavored pouch, and add a plate of raw veggies and whole grain crackers to the table to eat along with it.
  • Nuts and nut bars. Look for bars that are low in sugar and contain nuts. Be careful however, some “nutrition bars” are really glorified candy bars.
  • Sometimes you really want a chip right? Instead of regular potato chips, try some of the baked chips or a tortilla chip. Bush’s is launching a new Bean Chip that has similar calorie and fat numbers to tortilla chips, but with twice the protein and four times the fiber (and they taste great). Serve these along with a bean dip or salsa and some carrot sticks. Add a glass of milk or sparkling water.
  • Sit down together, and enjoy bowl of cereal. You can’t beat the nutrition in a bowl of ready-to-eat cereal. Most are fortified with iron, vitamins and minerals, and many contain whole grains (a great source of fiber). Look for 3 grams of fiber or more, and 10 grams or less of sugar. Create a “cereal buffet bar” for dinner. Set out 3-4 types of healthy cereal. Include calcium and protein-rich low fat milk, and offer sliced bananas, fresh blueberries, or canned peaches for toppings and extra nutrition.
  • Sit at the coffee table with Cheesy Toast. Top slices of bread with slices of cheese and toast in the toaster oven until the cheese melts. Cut them into triangles and serve these slices along with apple or pear slices and a glass of milk.


Bush Beans provided me with free samples of their new snack products, but did not pay for this post. My thoughts and opinions here are my own.

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St. Paddy’s Day = Beer and Good Food

St. Patrick’s Day is almost synonymous with beer right? I’m sure those of Irish decent, and those who love the Irish, will be enjoying a beer or two this weekend.

If you are trying to lose weight, alcohol of all types can contribute a lot of extra calories. All beer gets most of its calories from alcohol. Light beers have less calories than regular beers, and the choice is usually a personal taste preference. Darker beers, like porters and stouts, actually have less calories than ales, and lagers usually are lower in calories still. But a Pale Ale (my favorite) and most craft microbrews are going to have higher calorie counts.

Like every other food or beverage, it’s all about portion control. I’d rather have one or two IPAs than three regular beers, so that’s my choice. Calories from alcohol count, so you need to manage liquid calories just as you do food.

Take the high road and enjoy your weekend: Drink responsibly, and eat good food along with your beers – never drink on an empty stomach! Try this Ploughman’s Lunch from Cooking Light®


Guinness Stout: 170
Guinness Draught: 210
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale: 230
Budweiser: 195
Heineken Lager: 210
Killian”s (Coors): 220
Rolling Rock: 190
Coors Light: 135

But, if you’re enjoying a craft beer, with upwards to 6.5% or even 9% ABV? Then look out – the calories per pint are 260-360 calories.

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Are Snacks Replacing Mealtime?

It seems that Americans continue to idealize a traditional mealtime routine, even though eating rarely happens that way. I recently attended a conference session, sponsored by Bush Brothers & Company, that addressed the topic of meals and snacks. Consumer data was presented showing how meals have been redefined over the years, and how proper snacks may help fill nutrient gaps.

Even though it’s 2019, many of us may still think that including a “sit down meal” in your day is important when it comes to healthy eating styles. I am one of those people. I do believe there is a lot that can happen (beyond nutrition) when people sit together at a table and share food. Several studies have suggested that children do better in school and engage in less risky habits when families sit down regularly to share a meal. But the reality is, people aren’t doing it.

Rather than try to convince you to schedule better mealtimes, and cook more meals at home, I’m going to go with the flow. Understanding that you simply don’t have the time or energy to make meals happen every day, I want to help you make better snack choices – and maybe even work on “planned family snack time” as well (look for more tips in next week’s post).

What is a Snack?

Defining a “meal” or “snack” can be tricky. Let’s take a look at some typical definitions of meals and snacks, and some of the recent consumer data on eating styles.

The standard definition of “meal” is – “an act or the time of eating a portion of food to satisfy appetite”.

A snack is defined as “a light meal; food eaten between regular meals”.

The terms are a bit fuzzy. What people actually perceive a snack to be can vary too. For instance, to me, a slice of toast with peanut butter is a meal (breakfast) but to someone else, it’s a snack. Since eating and drinking can happen anywhere at any time of the day, snacking has become a popular eating style. New data suggests that people are sitting at the table less and less at home.

What Shapes Our Food Choices?

Lots of things shape the way people eat and the food choices they make. Surprisingly, even though many pictured the “ideal family mealtime” of the early 20th century as one where the whole family sits together eating a home-cooked-from-scratch-meal, it really didn’t happen that way for most. Flash forward to the 21st century, and you see a rise in single person households, with only 28% of households having children under age 18, and a smaller middle class. This demographic results in more people eating alone, with less meal rituals. Grocery shopping routines have changes as well. Rather than one large trip that plans out a whole week, people are shopping as needed with 63% of food choices decided within an hour of consumption.

Image and data from The Hartman Group, “Snackification” FoodFluence Presentation, Pew Research Center data included, used with permission

Even though you may dream about eating “3 meals a day and cooking them from scratch”, reality looks more like this –

Breakfast: skipped, or grabbing leftovers or a bar

Lunch: Catered at work, or a fast casual pick up

Dinner: Skipped at work, or eaten out

The History of Eating

Current eating habits actually look more like those of the Native Americans and early Colonists, who simply ate when they were hungry (snack-like foods such as berries or nuts) often while walking or standing. It was during the Industrial Revolution of the mid 1800s that we began sitting at a formally set table, where conversation became an art, as did table-settings.  During WWII snacks became an expression of American freedom, as soldiers enjoyed rations of chocolate bars, and food companies were actively marketing new “fun foods”.

According to the Hartman Group, 91% of consumers snack multiple times throughout the day, with an overall 50% of eating coming from snack occasions. Forty-two percent of Millennials (and 30% of all consumers) say that snacking allows them to try out global flavors. Millennials also use snacks as a source of fuel pre- or post-workout. The data suggests that several factors are at play that have resulted in the snack habit – time pressures, competing commitments, lack of cooking skills, changes in wellness and culinary trends (nutrition, wanting to try new foods), and the sheer availability of food that enables constant choices, and consumption. The result – about 42% of consumers are replacing meals with snacks. Other less healthy snack habits happen too, with 22% of all snacking being aimless (due to boredom or to cope with stress).

Image from The Hartman Group, “Snackification” FoodFluence Presentation, Pew Research Center data included, used with permission

It’s suggested that Americans will spend 200 billion dollars on snacks in the year 2020. Coincidentally, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) will be reviewed and updated at that time. Since Americans are consuming so much of their food via snack time, it will be a good idea to create guidelines for snacking that are consistent with the DGA. People want healthy snacks that are easy to prepare and make them feel good (i.e., not a “guilty indulgence” but rather, a nutritious choice). Food companies are working to meet this new “healthier snack” goal, by providing more options that offer better nutrition, calorie control, and convenience.

Moving toward Nourishment and Optimization

People are looking for snacks for three main reasons:

  1. Nourishment (key nutrients, managing appetite)
  2. Optimization (energy, mid-day pick me up, fueling a workout
  3. Pleasure (comfort, reward, new flavors)

Moving toward the goals of nourishment and optimization when choosing snacks may be the answer to improving overall nutrition, weight management, and health goals. Perhaps you can view snacks more like “mini-meals” and not indulgences.

The next time you think you need a snack, consider why you think you need it. Give snack time more thought, and plan snacks that can fill important nutrition needs, help you manage hunger (and weight), and support your overall health goals.


Bush Beans sponsored a continuing education session about consumer meal and snack data, but did not pay for this post. My thoughts and opinions here are my own.





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Where Are You Getting Your Nutrition Advice?

March ushers in National Nutrition Month® – a month to reflect on your eating and exercise habits, and make positive lifestyle changes. It’s also a time when registered dietitians try to convince you to find your diet and nutrition advice from a credentialed professional.

Why a Registered Dietitian?

The registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) must meet a minimum education requirement and have a supervised training experience, prior to being eligible to sit for the registration exam. They must also continue their education each year throughout his or her career, in order to maintain that credential.

All of this includes a deep dive into not just food and nutrition, but also human physiology, biochemistry, and a general understanding for how the body’s digestive, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems work.

How to Spot A Poser

Many who may claim to be diet experts (on the Internet – Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms) have absolutely no science background or formal education in food or nutrition science. Often, they have a huge social media following, and some of these imposters even write best-selling books. Despite the numbers, many of these self-claimed “experts” don’t have all of the information, and worse, don’t have any governing bodies requiring them to be ethical. In other words – they can say anything (most medical professionals, such as RDNs, have a Code of Ethics).

Who are these folks? Well, they are often someone who has had a personal experience with weight loss, or has achieved a level of fitness (it’s often the superficial “look” that they may market to sell their diet or products). Others may indeed have a medical background (like physicians) but may force their own personal eating styles (bias), as opposed to fully embracing all of the evidence and the vast number of lifestyle, behavioral, and cultural factors involved in a person’s food choices.

Other times these “experts” are “science journalists”. I have nothing against journalists, but just because you can do research on a subject, does not make you the same kind of expert as the person who has both studied, researched, and applied the topic in practice. Diet book authors who are only journalists have no medical or science background (dietetics and nutrition fall into both the medical and science categories), may use small surveys of individuals to create their hypotheses or support their positions on how people should eat.

Nutrition poser’s usually have these things in common:

  • Recommend you avoid sugar (“because it’s toxic”)
  • Usually promotes rigid “rules” to eating which eliminates most carbohydrates (especially wheat – bread, pasta, crackers, baked goods)
  • Recommends eating mostly meats and protein or fatty food (keto-style, Whole 30)
  • Uses catchy titles make the the diet plan seem easy
  • They make the diet plans sound appealing by asking you “do you suffer from low energy?” and other ridiculous questions (everyone has lows and highs in energy levels from week to week)
  • Strong statements claiming that certain food groups (almost always carbohydrates) are secretly having a negative impact on your health and fitness
  • Promises weight loss in the shortest time possible, and use buff body photos to sell it.

The problems with the above blanket recommendation? There is no science to support this sort of diet and lifestyle. It also can leave you with a diet deficient in many vitamins and minerals, requiring you to take supplements. And, it’s likely not sustainable for long term health (and life!).

For instance, there’s no evidence of the long-term health impact of a very high fat, low carbohydrate diet, and no evidence that it’s “better” than a low fat, high carbohydrate diet for weight loss (when calories are controlled). Can a low carbohydrate diet work for weight loss? Absolutely. But it’s not the only option, and it doesn’t mean “sugar is toxic” nor that your “energy levels will be through the roof!” as soon as you adopt it.

Eating well can be easy at times, but it can also be quite difficult to maintain on a day to day basis. There’s a lot of junk food out there to contend with. I’m never going to tell you that you should never treat yourself (or feel guilty about it!), nor that you should completely avoid any one food or food gruop. Since most people enjoy indulging in food and drink once in a while (pizza, potato chips, dessert, birthday cake, cocktails, burgers, fried food, etc), some may find that is seems easier following a strict set of rules instead of just managing cravings or splurges on a regular basis. But does it really work for long-term health?

If you find that “challenging” yourself to eliminate certain foods for a week (or two weeks, or 30 days) helps you stay on track, fine. But if you find yourself having to do it over and over, year after year, and you are not sustaining your weight, or sustaining better biomarkers (thinks like blood sugar, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and lipids), then you might conclude that these temporary fixes aren’t really worth it, nor are they working.

Be A Critical Thinker

The tricky part is that some of the information these diet book authors dole out is plausible, however most of it is misleading, or downright false. They generally don’t support evidence-based (well-researched) dietary plans. I am biased for adopting a DASH Diet, a Mediterranean Diet (because they are both evidence-based), or a plant-based diet, but I certainly don’t assume everyone should, or needs to, eat this way.

That’s just one of many differences between a Poser and a Registered Dietitian. An RDN is not going to automatically suggest a diet plan for you. He’s going to fully assess your health, medical history, social history, and more – to make a determination about what sort of dietary plan may work best for you.

I recommend you celebrate National Nutrition Month® this year with some critical thinking. Don’t share every sounds-too-good-to-be true or sounds-a-bit-wacky advice you see posted on Facebook or elsewhere. THINK. Ask questions such as “Where did this originate?” “What do other experts have to say on the topic?”

And – Check in with a registered dietitian to confirm what’s best for you. 



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Snacking Can Be Heart-Healthy

It’s Heart Month, and it’s a good idea to gradually add more heart-healthy foods to your overall diet. If you are trying to follow a DASH Diet plan and lifestyle, one strategy is to choose well at snack time.

Research about how consumers eat is showing that snacks are becoming more frequent, and often used as meal replacements. You may be wondering if you can still adhere to DASH Diet guidelines and include snacks during your day.

The answer is – Yes. Of course tried and true healthy snack foods, like fresh fruits and veggies or nuts, are always a great snack to enjoy anytime:

  • Fresh apples or pears
  • Citrus fruit
  • Fresh berries or melon
  • Raw carrots and bell pepper slices – dip in hummus
  • Banana with a smidge of peanut butter
  • 15-20 almonds or walnuts

But are there other ways to make snacks a little more exciting? Absolutely! For instance one of my favorite ways to use up leftover bananas (the overripe ones that nobody in my house likes to eat) is to turn them into oatmeal muffin cups. Just mash two bananas up, add 1 beaten egg, 1 cup of oats, 1/4 tsp baking powder, 1 TB brown sugar, stir until well-combined. Spoon into muffin cups, bake at 350 F. for 12-15 minutes. Boom! You have banana oatmeal cups to go! These also work well as a great DASH Diet breakfast snack on-the-go.

Since the DASH diet guidelines also encourage you to include 2-3 servings of low fat dairy daily – add a glass of milk or a low fat Latte to these muffins. Other ideas – enjoy a low fat yogurt or an ounce of low fat cheese at snack time. Low fat string cheese is convenient, and the individually wrapped sticks are easy to take with you.

Health Food On the Go

Having healthy snacks with you when you are away from home is a good strategy to ensure you choose well, and include heart-healthy nutrients into your diet. Along with fresh fruit, almonds, walnuts or peanuts are easy favorites. I keep a small tin of nuts in my purse for times when I’m late for a meal and hungry.

Popcorn can fit too. Popping your own with unsaturated oil (like peanut or canola oil) is best, and popcorn provides a good dose of fiber too. Don’t over-salt it.

Craving something sweet or crunchy?

While nuts and fruit make great snacks, sometimes you may be craving something else, or you may simply need something non-perishable and convenient. For this reason, I recommend keeping some healthy packaged snacks on hand for those “on-the-run” times. There are so many choices on the market – some make more sense than others. Many of the single-packaged snacks have me yawning (or scowling because I feel the packaging is wasteful), but others can really serve a purpose in adding healthy food, with convenience, to your diet.

KIND occasionally sends me snack bar samples. They are mostly nuts, and some contain some fruit. The nut bars are higher in protein, and each bar provides 180-220 calories and about 3-5 grams of fiber. If you suffer from any food intolerances, they are gluten free (and some are wheat free and dairy free as well). They also offer “mini” bars, which are great for middle-aged women needed to add just the right amount of nuts (and calories) to her diet.

Two things I like about these bars: 1. They taste really good! 2. They have simple ingredients, with fruit offering the sweetness (and they add chicory root fiber, inulin, which is a prebiotic fiber – a good thing).

Another great snack that’s been trending, are roasted chick peas. These make a great snack by the handful, or a great topping for salads. You can add either sweet or savory flavorings to suit your taste. If you don’t have time to make these at home, Bush’s Beans have created some new snacks that offer creative ways to get more beans and legumes into your diet. Their chick pea snacks are tasty and convenient. They offer a simple way to add beans to the diet for people who may not have experience cooking beans, or have otherwise not incorporated this healthy food group into their diet.

Always read the Nutrition Facts panel on packaged snack bars – check out the calories, sugar, and fiber content. Many may market products as “good source of protein” but this doesn’t mean they are necessarily high in protein, or that the product is healthier. Some “health bars” are really glorified candy bars. I recently compared one popular brand to a Snickers® bar, and while the “health bar” had 4 more grams of protein, it also had 5 more grams of sugar.

The Future of Snacking

The purpose of planning better snacks is to add more nutrition to your diet, plus provide energy to hold you over until the next meal, but they may also be used as substitute for a meal, at times when your schedule is hectic.

Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more data in future posts about how meals and snacks have changed over the years – and you may be surprised to learn that snacking may be a great way to improve your eating habits!



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The Growing Probiotic Market

Probiotics. You’ve probably heard about them. People toss the term around in a positive context: “You need probiotics. They’re good for your gut!”

But what are they? What types of probiotics are out there, how do they work, and what should you be looking for? I recently attended a conference session presented by Dr. Anthony Thomas and sponsored by Jarrow Formulas that threw my own understanding for a loop. You see, going into this session my understanding was that probiotics were mostly judged by quantity and availability. When you see numbers such as “5 billion cultures” it seems like a good thing right?

It is, but I also learned that the strain of the probiotic is important, and that not all good bacteria have probiotic properties. Checking labels, I realize that some foods or supplements include a probiotic, and identify the strain, and others may not.

Probiotics and Health: The Strain Matters

Research on the health benefits of probiotics is ongoing. Some studies have linked a positive relationship between probiotics and depression.  There have also been mice studies suggesting how probiotics can impact blood pressure. Gut microbes may even impact the risk of stroke. 

I truly find the research about our gut microbiota to be a fascinating new frontier in medicine and treatment of disease. There will be a lot more to come which is why the focus on probiotic strain will likely be very important for future treatment models.

Probiotics and the Gut

Probiotics are live microorganisms that promote a health benefit, such as healthy bowel function in the gut.

Research about gut microbiota has been ongoing for several years. Disruption of the gut microbiota has been associated with poor health. The theory is that probiotics can help restore the normal microbial environment in your intestines. If that sounds too simple, you’re right – it’s complicated. Not all probiotics will have the same impact on your gut or your health, but the bacteria in your gut impacts your health.

It may be that you aren’t “what you eat” but more like “You are what the microorganisms in your gut produce after you eat”.

A Quick Bio Refresher

Remember all of those Latin terms, family, genus, species…in animals? Well, bacteria also follows its own taxonomy. Even though the bacteria of the same species may share characteristics, their function differs by strain.

Many of you may be familiar with Lactobacillus acidophilus. It’s a bacteria found in the human body. Lactobacillus is the genus, acidophilus is the species. There are many strains. The strain may appear at the end of the name, and may be noted with letters or numbers.

How Can I Get Probiotics Into My Diet?

Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are two common probiotic bacteria. Probiotics can be found in foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, aged cheeses, kefir (a fermented dairy drink) or yogurt. You often hear “Eat yogurt for probiotics”. This is sometimes, but not always true. All yogurt is a good source of calcium, protein and potassium, but it may not always contain probiotic bacteria, and it may not always be labeled. You may also not know what strain of probiotic is present in sauerkraut, for instance, either (although it’s high in Lactobacillus).

The Activia® Yogurt in the photo here lists L. Bulgaricus and S. Thermophilus, and also the active probiotic B. Lactis with strain numbers (Bifidobacterium lactis DN-173 010/CNCM I-2494). While probiotic strain is important, not all brands will list the strain, even if they know what it is. This may change as we learn more about strain.

Lactobacillus (genus) bulgaricus (species) and Streptococcus (genus) thermophilus (species), are used to create yogurt. The Oikos® Triple Zero contains active yogurt cultures, but not probiotic cultures. The other store brand Greek yogurt doesn’t list strain either, but may contain an active probiotic strain. I encourage you to check the labels on your favorite yogurt and other potential probiotics.

In addition to yogurts with added probiotic strains, you can take a probiotic supplement with identified strains. As the research gets stronger, it will likely become more clear which strain is associated with which health benefit (memory, mood, blood pressure, reduced stroke risk, or anti-aging benefits).

Devil in the Details

Now that we know there could be a link to better health with proper probiotic products, many companies quickly get on the bandwagon – and they may, or may not, be offering products that are effective and quality-controlled. It’s important to proceed with caution, and seek information from credible sources, and understand that the research is still emerging.

As far as probiotics go, identifying specific probiotic strains is going to be important, however, as you evaluate your choices of probiotics.



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