November 28, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

Which of the following provides the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids?

a) 4 ounces of fresh cold-water salmon
b) 4 ounces of canned sardines (in oil)
c) 4 ounces of fresh lobster
d) 4 ounces of canned salmon

e) Trick question. They all provide the same amount!

The correct answer is "d" -- canned salmon. Four ounces pack in 2.2 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids!

The remaining fish?

4 ounces of fresh cold-water salmon provide 1.7 grams, sardines contribute 1.8 grams, and fresh lobster contains 0.1 grams.

Omega-3's are essential (meaning our bodies can not produce them) polyunsaturated fatty acids that have been linked in hundreds of studies to lower risks of heart disease, cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, and even Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Recommendations are currently set at 1 to 2 grams a day (or 7 - 14 grams a week).

Why does canned salmon edge out cold-water salmon? Simple -- all canned salmon is wild.

The figure for cold-water salmon, meanwhile, is an average that takes into account wild and farmed salmon.

Farmed salmon offers lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids since they are fed grains (rather than subsisting on a natural diet of small marine creatures).

Although all salmon is a great source of Vitamin D (four ounces provide a day's worth!), canned salmon offers an additional bonus -- calcium. Turns out the cooking process softens the bones to such a degree that they can be eaten.

The result? A quarter of your day's calcium needs in a (lactose-free) four-ounce piece!

November 27, 2007

Turn It On: Super Skinny Me

"Turn It On" is a new section highlighting television shows relating to food and nutrition you won't want to miss.

I'm very excited for the premiere of Super Skinny Me on BBC America this Sunday, December 2 at 10 PM EST/PST.

In it, two female British journalists come up with a new -- and, I would say, scarier -- twist on the 2004 classic documentary Supersize Me.

For five weeks, they will emulate notorious celebrity diets in hopes of shedding five dress sizes.

I'll be watching it for the first time myself this Sunday and publishing a review Monday evening.

In The News: Aspartame Is Safe (?)

A few weeks ago, it was announced that an exhaustive study involving ten universities and medical schools and epidemiological studies dating back to the 1970s deemed aspartame an entirely safe alternative sweetener.

Read the fine print carefully and you'll notice that said study was funded by Ajinoto Company, Inc. -- one of the world's leading producers of aspartame!

The critical thinker in me can't say with absolute certainty that this latest study fully convinces me of aspartame's safety.

Let me be clear. A healthy adult having Diet Coke a few times a week or a bowl of Fiber One every morning (which contains aspartame) does not concern me.

However, my personal jury is still out on aspartame consumption and children.

There may be three decades of research on aspartame consumption, but as far as I know, it all involves adults.

Even when healthy adults are involved, I would much rather someone consume small amounts of real sugar than wolf down sugar-free products made with aspartame.

You Ask, I Answer: Fiber

Why [do] some food labels (fiber one, gnu food bars, etc.) eliminate the calories that cannot be digested because they are from fiber in the overall calorie count whereas other food labels may not? Isn't there some FDA standard??

-- Anonymous (via the blog)

Actually, the Food & Drug Administration allows food manufacturers to not take grams of insoluble fiber into account when tallying up their caloric totals.

Remember – wheat bran is the only food that is 100% insoluble fiber.

Thus, it is not surprising that cereals consisting solely of wheat bran -- like Fiber One -- do not count calories from this specific fiber.

When it comes to foods containing a mixture of soluble and insoluble fibers – such as the lentils in a soup – fiber grams are not subtracted from total carbohydrates.

Why doesn't soluble fiber get the same free pass?

Unlike its insoluble cousin which passes right on through our digestive system, soluble fiber is metabolized by bacteria in our colon.

This results in the production of short-chain fatty acids, which are involved in many processes, including glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose).

November 26, 2007

In The News: Rain, Taxes, Death.... and Contaminated Beef

It's time for another round of "ground beef recall"!

You guessed it -- E.Coli 0157:H7 has reared its ugly head once more.

This, by the way, is the same strand that, back in 1993, caused the death of 4 children who consumed contaminated meat at fast food giant Jack in the Box.

How do these outbreaks happen?

It's quite simply, really. Any healthy-looking cow can carry E.Coli in its intestinal tract.

Once the animal is slaughtered and its meat is ground up, E. Coli germs intermingle with it and, voila, E.Coli-infested beef is shipped off to your local grocery store.

To make matters more difficult, E.Coli-infested beef does not look, taste, or smell "funny".

This is why cooking beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit is crucial (it kills any living organisms).

Additionally, be sure to use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables so as to not cross-contaminate your raw salad greens with any bacteria present in raw meat.

Of course, on a much larger scale, if our food production system was better regulated and not hell-bent on accruing profits while jeopardizing cattle and human health, we wouldn't be constantly facing these outbreaks.

Not only are cows in feedlots practically living on top of one another (significantly increasing the spread of disease among a single population), they are also on a completely unnatural corn diet, which appears to increase their chances of contracting E.Coli 0157:H7 (the corn diet makes for a more acid stomach environment, which the E.Coli strain loves).

I believe the personal is often the political. Our hard-earned dollars are an extremely powerful vote.

If you choose to eat meat, purchasing local organic grass-fed beef (if within your price range) can help bring some peace of mind to your health and support more natural and sustainable practices.

November 25, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Zinc and the Common Cold

I really liked your post on Airborne. It was very enlightening! What about the zinc lozenges that supposedly are good to take when you have a cold? Are those also not worth it?

-- Ashley L.
Rockford, IL

Over-the-counter zinc remedies have risen in popularity over the past few years. At any given drugstore, you can buy lozenges, nasal sprays, dissolvable tablets, and even nasal gels (think a medicated QTip inserted into your nose for approximately ten seconds).

Zinc is an important immunity-boosting mineral. Best sources include pumpkin seeds, peanuts, brown rice, beef, wheat germ, almonds, pork, oats, quinoa, lentils and barley.

If your diet is generally low in zinc and other nutrients linked with a healthy immune system, you can certainly expect to catch more colds -- and recover less quickly -- than someone with a well-rounded diet.

I now eat much healthier than I did five years ago. Not surprisingly, I get sick a lot less often (and, when I do, I am back on my feet much faster than before). I do not take multi-vitamins, supplements, or amino acids. I simply eat real food that contains the nutrients I need.

Is it accurate, then, to assume that taking extra zinc when our nose is drippy and our throat is scratchy will have us back in tip top shape in no time?

Studies on the efficacy of zinc remedies provide mixed results.

Some suggest these products help shorten the duration and intensity of a cold, others conclude they perform no differently then a placebo.

Meanwhile, a recent study conducted at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlotesville -- and published in the Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases -- argues that while zinc lozenges are futile against the common cold, zinc nasal gels might prove helpful.

The reason? The cold virus thrives in our nose. By coming directly in contact with zinc, its strength and ability to replicate appears to be negatively impacted.

On the flip side, some users of zinc-based nasal gels and sprays have experienced long-lasting anosmia (loss of smell) as a result of using these products.

Best bets once you have a cold? Rest and make sure to drink liquids often and throughout the day.

I also don't see anything wrong with taking a decongestant or cough medicine, if necessary.

As much as I believe people tend to almost instinctively reach for a pill upon the slightest of symptoms, I also think there are instances where standard medicine certainly provides more benefits than problems.

Numbers Game: Awesome Omega-3

Which of the following provides the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids?

a) 4 ounces of fresh cold-water salmon
b) 4 ounces of canned sardines (in oil)
c) 4 ounces of fresh lobster
d) 4 ounces of canned salmon

e) Trick question. They all provide the same amount!

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Wednesday for the answer.

November 24, 2007

Say What?: Fancy Package + Exotic Fruit = Snake Oil

Last week I was flipping through New York magazine and came across one of the most ridiculous beverages -- and obnoxious advertising campaigns -- ever invented.

Allow me to introduce you to Borba Skin Balance Water. Caution: you will be entering a website with chill-out trance music and excessively beautiful people.

Per the advertisement, "Borba Skin Balance Water uses only the finest vitamins, minerals and botanicals to help you achieve a youthful, luminous appearance. All with no carbs of calories."


First of all -- can someone please send out a memo to all advertisers notifying them that carb-phobia and the Atkins Diet are, thankfully, a thing of the past and that there is no need for them to tout the absence of carbs in their products?

Moving on. The "finest" vitamins and minerals? All vitamins are created equal. There is no A-list reserve stowed away for luxury waters.

Not to mention -- these are the same vitamins and minerals naturally found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.

Anyhow, Borba Skin Water comes in four exotic (of course) flavors -- lychee fruit (replenishing), guanabana fruit (firming), acai berry (age defying), and pomegranate (clarifying).

I sincerely hope no one is chugging a $3 sixteen-ounce of water flavored with an exotic berry, truly believing the posh advertising campaign claiming it helps combat "oily skin, clogged pores and impurities."

Because it doesn't.

Although staying well-hydrated is one of many important factors in maintaining healthy skin, this is easily attained by drinking regular water.

If that's too boring for you, I recommend Hint Water, which delivers a pleasant fruity taste without sugar or hyperbolic promises.

Actually, one of the best things you can do for your skin is eat a varied diet containing different fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fish high in Omega-3, such as salmon.

In fact, if the above mentioned foods make up a large majority of what you eat, you are getting the same vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants the Borba folks want you to believe are exclusive to their water.

More importantly, you will be eating real food, rather than relying on extracts or flavorings, which do not contain the same health benefits.

Similarly, it is also important to keep the consumption of added sugars and processed foods low, as these foods can trigger cellular inflammation associated with various skin problems.

Water flavored with pomegranates or lychee fruit might quench your thirst, but it is far from being the fountain of youth.

You Ask, I Answer: Caramelized Onions

Are caramelized onions high in sugar?

One of my friends told me she read somewhere that they can have up to a tablespoon of sugar in them.

-- Kristin Potok

Jacksonville, FL

Although their name might make you think so, there is no added sugar in caramelized onions.

Caramelization occurs when the naturally-occurring sugars present in the onion break down and a large majority of the water dehydrates, leading to a sweeter taste, softer texture, and browning.

In fact, this is very easy to do at home. Simply dice up some onions, heat up olive oil in a pan, sautee the onions over medium heat, cover the pot for 5 minutes, uncover and stir frequently for approximately twenty to thirty minutes.

No sugar needed!

November 19, 2007

Say What?: A Whole Lot of Nothing

Now that whole grains have earned the respect they deserve, food companies are using their name in vain to get your dollars.

In the past few months, I have seen several new products promising whole grains (usually followed by an exclamation point) and failing to deliver.

One of the most common tricks lies in using the tagline "made with whole grains!"

What the food manufacturers fail to tell you is that the product contains a mere five percent of whole grains (and ninety-five percent refined flour).

Hence, it is made with whole grains, but is not a whole-grain food. Catch the subtlety?

The best way to catch this lie is by looking at the ingredients list. If the first item you see is "unbleached wheat flour," you know the product contains mostly refined carbohydrates.

However, if the words "whole (insert type of grain here) flour" are first, you have a whole grain item in your hands.

By the way, "stoneground wheat flour" is still a processed fiberless flour. If the words "whole" do not appear, it is NOT a whole grain.

Another commonly used misleading tactic? Listing the grams of whole grains per serving. Teddy Grahams boasts about this figure on their new cookie package ("five grams of whole grains per serving!").

They are counting on consumers to be confused and equate that with "five grams of fiber", which is VERY different.

Don't start worrying about whole grains vs. refined grain grams. Instead, focus simply on fiber grams. You want to look for at least three grams of fiber per serving for any bread product, for example.

Finally, keep in mind that if it comes in a bag and contains 25 ingredients (19 of which you can't pronounce), the promise of whole grains doesn't mean much.

I recently saw a new line of chips called Riceworks boast about the presence of brown rice (and "whole grains") in its ingredient list.

Well, each 1-ounce bag contains a mere 1 gram of fiber. It is such a processed food that the little amount of brown rice contained in each chip barely registers.

Stay smart. Don't let some high-salary-earning, nutritionally-clueless guy in a suit fool you with empty promises.

In The News: The Newest Public Enemy

Prepare for the next nutrition war.

Now that the trans fat battle has ended, the focus turns to sodium (which I discussed at length in issue 3 of the Small Bites newsletter).

Unlike trans fats, we need sodium in our diets to keep several crucial body processes running.

Unfortunately, we are getting, on average, twice as much as we need.

I think sodium has largely gone by unnoticed by the general public because it does not contribute extra calories to our diet ("so what if this has three quarters of the recommended sodium limit? At least it won't make me fat!")

Until now. The American Medical Association is pressuring the Food & Drug Administration to get food companies to lower the amount of sodium in many of their products.

The biggest industry at risk? Frozen and non-perishable processed foods. It is not rare to see TV dinners or tomato sauce containing 40% or more of the daily sodium limit.

Some brands -- like Amy's -- are ahead of the curve, recently launching lower-sodium versions of their soups. Expect many others to follow in 2008...

You Ask, I Answer: Tofu Spreads

I haven't been able to find any nutritional info on the tofu spreads offered at bagel stores. I have been using the tofu spreads as an alternative to light or fat free cream cheese, but I don't know if I am making the best nutritional decision.

-- Jean M.
New York, NY

Great question! Often times, we automatically relegate something made with tofu or soy to the "healthy" category. Are we right to do so?

Let's consider your question by comparing two tablespoons of regular, low-fat, non-fat, and tofu cream cheese in different categories:

CALORIES: 101 for regular, 69 for low-fat, 29 for non-fat, and 90 for tofu.

SATURATED FAT: 6.4 grams for regular, 5.3 for low-fat, 0.4 for non-fat, and 2 for tofu.

SODIUM: 86 milligrams for regular, 89 for low-fat, 164 for non-fat (remember, if you are completely taking out fat, you need something else for flavor's sake!), and 115 for tofu.

CALCIUM: Despite popular belief, cream cheese is not a good source of calcium. 23.2 milligrams for regular, 33.6 for low-fat, 55.5 for non-fat, and 60 for tofu. You should aim for 1,000 milligrams (1 gram) per day.

As you can see, they are all pretty equal.

Keep in mind that your average bagel contains 300 - 400 calories and approximately 650 milligrams of sodium (25% of the recommended daily limit).

If you are looking to add some extra nutrition to it, though, I recommend a tablespoon of peanut butter, packing protein (which helps keep you full for longer, especially if your bagel is not made with whole grains and therefore lacking this nutrient), heart-healthy fats, and vitamin E in a 94 calorie package.

Ideally, I would recommend you make your morning bagel a twice-a-week treat and opt for lower calorie breakfast choices the other three days.

November 18, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

According to figures by Consumer Insight, the average Thanksgiving dinner (three ounces of turkey with gravy + one serving of mashed potatoes + one serving of cranberry sauce + one serving of candied yams + one serving of green bean casserole + a slice of pumpkin pie + two bread rolls with butter) adds up to 2,777 calories and 90 grams of fat.

Yes, just one meal provides approximately a day and a half's worth of calories and fat for most people.

It isn't too far-fetched, then, to say that on Thanksgiving Day, many people can take in almost 4,000 calories.

One huge mistake I see many people make on holidays like Thanksgiving is starving all day (or follow non-sensical rules like "I will eat nothing but celery sticks until dinner") in anticipation of a huge meal where high-calorie foods are at their disposal.

End result? Gorging and bingeing all through dinner (and taking in more calories in one sitting than they would have had they eaten sensibly throughout the day) followed by some unrealistic diet goal announcement like, "that's it. Tomorrow it's nothing but chicken broth and grapes."

The best thing you can do before sitting down to a meal where overindulgence seems imminent is to prepare yourself.

Approximately forty five minutes to an hour before dinner, snack on foods containing fiber, healthy fats, and protein.

Some good pre-Thanksgiving dinner snacks include a handful of nuts, a Lara/Clif Nectar/Pure bar, whole grain crackers with hummus, and a bowl of whole grain cereal with raisins or a banana.

If you can make it to the dinner table without starving and wanting seconds of everything, you can enjoy your meal without overloading on calories.

Besides, you know as well as I do that slices of those tempting pies -- along with every other dish -- will be in the fridge tomorrow (and the day after, and the week after that). There is no need to shove it down if, by the end of dinner, you already feel like a Macy's parade balloon.

Also, find ways to make classic dishes healthier.

Serve whole wheat rolls with trans-fat-free margarine, opt for oven-roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes drizzled with olive oil and topped with chopped rosemary in place of mashed potatoes, and
check out this delicious low-fat pumpkin recipe made with a whole grain crust!

November 16, 2007

Chocolate: A Forbidden Sweet (Literally!)

Thank you to reader SJ Simon for sending me this interesting link about chocolate's forbidden past in Switzerland, of all places.

November 14, 2007

You "Ask", I Answer: Vegetarianism

You should not avoid red meat completely, it might hurt your health.

-- "Vedo" (via the blog)
Location Unknown

Not true.

While red meat is by no means junk food (it is a good source of vitamins B12 and B6 as well as iron, zinc, and protein), certain cuts can be very high in artery-clogging and bad-cholesterol-raising saturated fat.

A statement like "avoiding red meat might hurt your health" is entirely inaccurate.

If fish and poultry are your only sources of animal protein, for example, you are not missing out on any nutrients present in red meat.

Aditionally, well-planned vegetarian diets provide complete and balanced nutrition, with no need for supplementation.

Even though animal proteins are considered "complete" in that they contain all nine essential amino acids, soy protein is a complete plant protein.

As for the others? It's all about complementing. It turns out that the amino acids missing in grains are present in nuts. Thereby, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich provides all essential amino acids.

Vegetarianism is not dangerous, unhealthy or risky.

Many times, actually, vegetarian diets (that include all food groups and are not just a medley of pizza, French fries, ice cream, and soy chicken nuggets) end up being healthier than those of omnivores'.

The reason? Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fiber and phytonutrients while clocking in lower amounts of saturated fat.

You Ask, I Answer: Airborne

What do you think of Airborne?

-- Janet Adams

Philadelphia, PA

In case you've been in a deep slumber for the past ten years (or live outside the United States), allow me to tell you of the multi-million dollar business that is Airborne.

Created by a Californian second grade teacher who constantly caught more than just the sniffles from her students, Airborne is billed as a "cold remedy" that should be taken upon the first sign of having contracted a cold.

The tagline reads, "Sick of getting sick while traveling?" and suggests the enclosed tablets help your immune system from catching a cold in crowded places like airplanes, classrooms, and offices.

Although the creator has alluded to double-blind studies comparing Airborne to a placebo demonstrating that her product achieves what it promises, a 2006 investigation by ABC News revealed some interesting tidbits.

"Airborne said that a double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted with "care and professionalism" by a company specializing in clinical trial management, GNG Pharmaceutical Services.

GNG is actually a two-man operation started up just to do the Airborne study. There was no clinic, no scientists and no doctors. The man who ran things said he had lots of clinical trial experience. He added that he had a degree from Indiana University, but the school says he never graduated."

Interestingly enough, all mentions of that study (prominent on earlier packaging of the product) are now gone.

A few things stand out to me when I look at the nutritional composition of each tablet:

1) The presence of ginger, echinacea, forsythia, and isatis root. They give the illusion of homeopathy and alternative medicine, but there is no substantial research to show that any of these help prevent colds -- or their duration.

2) Each tablet contains 16 times the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin C -- or 1600% of a day's worth! This also happens to be exactly the upper tolerable intake (the amount you are recommended NOT to surpass each day) of said vitamin. This is troubling.

Not only do extremely high levels of Vitamin C raise your risk of developing kidney stones, bind the absorption of minerals like selenium and copper, and cause gastrointestinal distress -- they are also unnecessary.

Remember, Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. This means excess amounts are not stored in our fatty tissue. Rather, they are excreted in the urine. Giving your body 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C when it only needs 90 is like pouring 5 liters of water into a 1 liter bottle. Futile!

Buyers are instructed to take one tablet every 3 to 4 hours, but not exceed 3 doses a day. That is still a completely unnecessary amount of vitamin C (grand total: 4800% of the daily recommended amount and 4 times the tolerable upper intake limit).

3) Each tablet also packs in 230 milligrams of sodium. Take one three times a day and you're up to almost half of the recommended maximum intake of this overconsumed mineral. That's as much sodium as a tablespoon of soy sauce!

At $10 per package, I don't think Airborne is worth it. As I mentioned previously, there are no studies showing that high levels of Vitamin C help prevent or shorten colds.

The best way to develop a strong immune system is through healthy overall eating patterns. Making fruits, vegetables, whole grains, heart-healthy fats, and legumes (or lean meats) your staples guarantees that you are providing your body with the nutrition it needs.

Huge amounts of vitamin C will simply end up in the toilet a few hours later.

Besides, if you generally aren't providing your body with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, two days of megadosing will give you nothing but stomach cramps -- and possibly diarrhea.

Your best protection against colds? Wash your hands often.

I always like to keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer at my work desk and in my coat pocket. That way, after being on a subway or any place where high exposure to germs is likely, I can wash my hands with a quick squirt of the bottle.

So, save the $10 and buy yourself a nice scarf to keep yourself warm during these cold months.

November 13, 2007

In The News: Are You Being Fooled?

The folks over at the Center for Science in the Public Interest have compiled eight food frauds -- products that promise, but certainly don't deliver.

To wisen up before your next supermarket venture, check out the list here.

'Tis the Season... To Drink Big Macs?

The latest Starbucks campaign proudly advertises the seasonal return of three holiday beverages -- eggnog, peppermint mocha, and gingerbread lattes.

If winter just isn't the same with a daily eggnog latte for you, I'm afraid I have some bad news.

Even at its tamest (tall size, with nonfat milk), this beverage delivers 350 calories, 9 grams of saturated fat (45% of the recommended daily maximum), and 5 teaspoons of added sugar.

Let's put this into context for a minute.

That's as many calories as six and a half Oreo cookies, as much saturated fat as a Big Mac, and twice as much sugar as a chocolate frosted Dunkin' Donuts donut.

Like it grande (and still nonfat)? That adds up to 450 calories, 11 grams of saturated fat, and 7 teaspoons of added sugar.

Thinking more along the lines of a Venti (20 ounce beverage) made with 2% milk? This particular concoction contains 610 calories, 17 grams of saturated fat, and 10.5 teaspoons of added sugar.

We're talking 60 more calories than half a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, 85% of the daily saturated fat limit, and as much sugar as a can of Coke.

You're better off with the other two options.

A tall, nonfat gingerbread latte without whipped cream only adds 160 calories to your day.
The fat and saturated fat amount, meanwhile, are literally nonexistent. Here's a nice bonus -- you still get thirty percent of your recommended calcium intake!

Even if you like yours with 2% milk (Starbucks' standard), you are still getting a 200 calorie beverage with only 15% of a day's saturated fat.

Go ahead and have some eggnog at your office party, but keep it out of your daily coffee habit!

November 12, 2007

Elaine Was On To Something

Fellow Seinfeld fans must remember the infamous "muffin top" episode, in which Elaine opens a muffin top shop, arguning it is the only part of the baked good people enjoy.

Although success didn't follow, the folks over at VitaMuffin are having a much better run.

Their chocolate muffin tops -- found in the frozen section of your grocery store -- aren't just delicious (you know I don't recommend anything on my blog until I have tasted it), they also pack in their fair share of nutrition.

Let me be perfectly clear. This is not a "health" food. It is not meant to replace vegetables or fruits. It also does not give you license to eat an entire box in one day.

However, I think it's pretty nifty when a product delivers satisfying taste without going overboard on calories, fat, and sugar. After all, who CAN'T make something tasty with unlimited amounts of butter and sugar?

Each package contains four individually wrapped muffin tops. They make for an excellent dessert. So, if four of you happen to be sitting around the dining table, you won't be tempted to go back for more.

Here is the nutritional rundown per muffin top:

100 calories
1.5 grams fat
1 gram saturated fat

140 milligrams sodium
170 milligrams potassium
6 grams fiber
9 grams (slightly over teaspoons) of sugar
20% calcium

50% vitamin D

Try them out for yourself and let me know what you think.

Numbers Game: Gobble, Gobble, Gobble, and Gobble Some More

According to figures by Consumer Insight, the average Thanksgiving dinner (three ounces of turkey with gravy + one serving of mashed potatoes + one serving of cranberry sauce + one serving of candied yams + one serving of green bean casserole + a slice of pumpkin pie + two bread rolls with butter) adds up to ________ calories and _____ grams of fat.

a) 2,777/90
b) 2,098/76
c) 2,551/84

d) 3,276/105

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Thursday for the answer! And, stay tuned to this blog for tips on making this Thanksgiving waist-friendly for you and your loved ones.

You Ask, I Answer: Whole Grains/Diabetes

Why are whole grains regarded as good? Sure, they break down into sugar more slowly than white bread, but they do break down to the exact same sugar which provokes the exact same insulin reaction, just over a slightly longer period of time.

Yes, there are more nutrients in whole grains than refined, but you can get these same nutrients in higher quantities in meats and other non-grain foods. Even when whole, grains appear to be foods deficient in necessary nutrients and full of risk.

I consume mostly plant-based foods, and a large portion of my diet consists of whole grain and sprouted grain breads, whole grain cereals (Nature's Path Heritage Flakes and Nature's Path Raisin Bran), oatmeal, etc.

I don't know if there's any scientific validity to low-glycemic diets, but is there any cause for concern that insulin resistance could increase if a diet relies "too heavily" on whole grains?

-- Steve W.
Boston, MA

Whole grains are a healthy choice because they contain higher levels of fiber, vitamins, and minerals than products made with refined white flour.

Fiber is of significance here, as it helps regulate -- and stabilize -- blood sugar levels. Whereas munching on pretzels while watching television will spike blood sugar very quickly, replacing that with a high-fiber snack like whole grain crackers or almonds will prevent a sharp increase -- and subsequent decrease.

As far as them breaking down to glucose ("the exact same sugar which provokes the exact same insulin reaction") that is irrelevant to whether or not a food is healthy or not.

Why? Anytime we eat -- no matter what it is -- our pancreas secretes insulin. There is no way to have a meal or snack and NOT have this occur.

You could completely shun any kind of grains and your body would still need to release insulin after a meal to control blood sugar levels.

Also, I am not sure what you are referring to when you say whole grains are deficient in necessary nutrients. Which ones? They are a great source of B vitamins, fiber, protein, iron, and phytonutrients.

Additionally, studies have shown a correlation between diets rich in whole grains and lowered risks of stroke, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

As for them being "full of risk", I don't see how or why. They don't pose a threat to human health in any way (unless someone has a wheat allergy and is eating wheat products).

Insulin resistance is not going to be developed as a result of too many whole grains because, quite simply, your blood glucose levels are being more controlled than when you eat heavily processed grains. There is no need for you to be concerned.

One of the main risk factors for type-2 diabetes is being overweight, NOT eating a certain food group. The main theory is that fat cells are less receptive to the insulin being secreted by the pancreas. In turn, the pancreas keeps producing more and more, until it finally wears itself out.

This is why weight management -- not "carb" management -- should be everyone's focus.

November 9, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

A regular vanilla cupcake -- with frosting, same size as those pictured at right -- from trendy New York cupcake chain Crumbs contains 780 calories and 36 grams of fat.

Despite their mammoth size (three inches wide, close to an inch of frosting), the cupcakes you see to your right are considered "regular". They are not advertised as "large", "shareable", or "XXL". Regular!

Not only does one count as six bread servings (meaning that, calorically, it is equal to eating six slices of bread), it also has more calories and fat than a large order of McDonald's French fries.

You would need to eat six Reese's peanut butter cups to consume the same amount of calories.

Next time you're in New York, I actually recommend stopping by Crumbs. In my opinion, they are one of the best sweet indulgences this city offers (yes, nutritionists eat cupcakes!).

However, be sure to order the "mini" (still large, in my opinion) cupcakes which, on average, contain a not-as-treacherous -- but still considerable for a "treat" -- 350 calories and 16 grams of fat.

Best bet? Go in with a friend, pick out the mini cupcake that entices you both and split it down the middle.

You Ask, I Answer: Protein/Biological Value

I'm trying to determine how to increase my protein intake.

The only animal product I eat is salmon 2 or 3 times a week, and I don't eat very much dairy. I do eat mostly whole grain products and plenty of fruits and vegetables, but my diet is probably quite lacking in protein.

I've been considering adding whey protein powder, casein powder or pasteurized, organic egg whites to my diet in the form of shakes/smoothies to boost my protein intake. I'm avoiding soy protein isolate because the jury seems to still be out on the health risks of non-whole food soy products.

As far as drinking skim milk, I'm not a huge fan. I'm definitely not lactose-intolerant, but it tends to cause me to produce more mucous than usual in my airways (I'm asthmatic).

You probably can't provide any specific personalized advice, but any feedback regarding the benefits and drawbacks of adding whey protein, casein protein or pasteurized egg whites (aren't egg whites considered to be the perfect protein or is that food industry hyperbole?) to an otherwise protein-deficient diet would be appreciated.

-- Steve W.
Boston, MA

Although I do not know what your eating patterns are, I seriously doubt your diet is "protein-deficient" if you eat salmon 2 or 3 times a week and have a diet rich in whole grains.

In fact, it is extremely rare to see protein deficiencies in developed countries.

In the rare chance that your diet needs more protein, this does not mean you need to start chugging down protein shakes. Something as simple as spreading two tablespoons of peanut butter on toast or adding beans to a salad will increase your protein intake.

Think about this. To determine how much protein you need, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2, and then multiply THAT number by 0.8.

So, if you weigh 160 pounds, you divide that by 2.2 and get 72.7. Multiply that by 0.8 and you determine that you just need 58 grams of protein a day. Now, there is a 200% window that, among other things, accommodates for people with SLIGHTLY higher protein needs (i.e.: long-endurance athletes).

So, if you need 58 grams but end up consuming 75 grams (it's very easy to overconsume protein), you are still in the "safe" zone.

It is VERY easy to get 58 grams -- even without ever biting into a piece of meat, chicken, or fish. Whole grains are high in protein, as are beans and legumes (particularly soy-based meat alternatives like seitan and tempeh).

In terms of eggs being the "perfect protein": there is something known as "biological value," which tells us how well a certain protein is absorbed and used by the body. Egg protein has the highest biological value of all the proteins, meaning that almost none of it is wasted in your body.

For more information, please take a look at my Small Bites newsletter dedicated to protein.

By the way, click here to read what I wrote about the lactose-mucus myth.

You Ask, I Answer: B Vitamins

How much energy do B vitamins provide?
-- Michael Gardner

Buffalo, NY

Ah, yes, the "vitamins give energy" myth. I can understand why many people would think so, given the misleading advertising witnessed in vitamin and energy drink advertisements.

Centrum Performance multivitamins, for example, state that they use "higher levels of five essential B vitamins" to help create a blend for "the vitality of your mind and body." Monster Energy drinks boast about their high B vitamin level content.

From a metabolic standpoint, energy is exclusively derived from the three calorie-containing nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Vitamins (and minerals) do not contain calories, and therefore can not be used to produce energy.

So what's all the B vitamin hype about?

Well, the B vitamins play a major role in energy metabolism. Without them, our bodies wouldn't be able to get sufficient energy from our food.

In the United States, though (and other developed nations), deficiency of the B vitamins is practically unheard of.

Remember, the Enrichment Act of 1942 mandates that thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), and niacin (B3) be added to bread products, while a 1996 ruling by the Food and Drug Administration resulted in the required fortification of folic acid (B9) in enriched bread products.

Additionally, B vitamins are found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, meats, and dairy products. They are certainly not hard to come by!

The one group of people who are at risk for a vitamin B12 deficiency are vegans.

This deficiency results in a condition known as pernicious anemia (in which the body is unable to produce enough red blood cells, thereby causing fatigue), but can be prevented through adequate supplementation.

If your B vitamin intake already meets the recommended values, extra B vitamins will not provide more energy. Since they are water soluble (like Vitamin C), they will simply be excreted in your urine.

If you are eating sufficient amounts of food and lethargy and lack of energy have been a problem for several weeks, be sure to get a blood test. Chugging energy drinks loaded with B vitamins will do nothing but provide empty sugar-laden calories to your day.

November 8, 2007

In The News: Overweight = Healthy? (Part 2)

The controversial new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has the blogosphere talking.

Here is Marion Nestle's brief, yet illuminatingly concise, take on the entire thing.

By the way, Marion's 2002 book Food Politics is out on paperback with a new foreword. More than ever, it is a relevant, eyebrow-raising look at the rampantly absurd state of food marketing, consumption, and confusion in the United States. Highly recommended!

Breakfast of Chumps

Earlier this year, Wendy's gradually unveiled its new breakfast items in different regions of the United States, and -- joy of joys -- they are now available nationwide.

The results? Unfortunately, I see it as obesity: 1, nutrition: 0.

A buttermilk fresh sausage biscuit (pictured at right) starts your day off with 580 calories, 1,620 milligrams of sodium (75% of a day's maximum recommendation), and an entire day's worth of saturated fat -- that's equivalent to TWO Big Mac's!

The grande burrito, meanwhile, will lead to a grande tummy in no time.

We're talking 740 calories, 17 grams of saturated fat, and 1,980 milligrams of sodium.

The grande isn't the big man on campus when it comes to fiber, though. It delivers just three grams (this much fiber in 80 calories would be considered "great", but in 740 calories, it's miniscule).

Like a sweet breakfast? If you're craving a cinnamon roll, I hope you REALLY like sugar. One of these 310 calories "treats" packs in 2 tablespoons' of added sugar to your day.

As much as I love to police the fast food menus and show you the horrors, I think it is only fair to provide you with adequate choices in case you have no other options (i.e.: you need to get breakfast on the road as you are driving down any major highway in this country).

If so, the egg and cheese biscuit is among the least offensice items, thanks to its 290 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 700 milligrams of sodium.

If you're in the mood for a sweet start to your morning, opt for the French toast sticks.

Although they contain just as many calories as the cinnamon roll, the sugar content is significantly lower (8 grams -- two teaspoons -- rather than 24 grams!). The saturated fat count is also a respectable three grams.

Currently, Wendy's is hosting a bizarre contest here, where the ultimate prize is a "lifetime" of their hamburgers.

Shouldn't there be an asterisk after "lifetime", referring readers to teeny print explaining that their lifetime might be reduced as a result of eating too many?

November 7, 2007

Celebrity Diet Secrets: Defeating Diabetes?

Halle Berry firmly planted both feet in her mouth when she recently declared that she managed to "downgrade" her Type 1 diabetes into Type 2 (and go off insulin) through healthy eating and exercise.

I know Halle made for one fierce Catwoman, but no feline prowess can be THAT miraculous!

Type 1 diabetes, which is non-preventable, used to be known as juvenile diabetes because it is commonly diagnosed in children. There is no one "cause", but the more solid theories point to a genetic defect.

People with this condition are living with a non-functioning pancreas.

Remember, the pancreas is responsible for secreting insulin (a hormone that
converts glucose -- a sugar present in the blood after a meal -- into energy).

Without insulin, glucose remains in the blood (rather than go into cells for energy conversion), leading to various health complications.

People with Type 1 diabetes must inject insulin every single day.

People with Type 2 diabetes -- formerly known as "adult onset diabetes" -- are living with a pancreas that DOES secrete insulin, which the cells in the body don't recognize (hence the term "insulin resistance").

In turn, glucose remains in the blood, and the pancreas continues to secrete insulin.

In the longrun,
the pancreas tires itself out, and becomes unable to produce sufficient insulin on its own. The solution? Injecting insulin and/or taking pills that help stabilize blood sugar (the pills are NOT insulin).

Here's the good news. Type 2 diabetes can be kept under control by healthy eating, exercise, and practicing blood glucose management.

Type 1, however, can not be reversed, no matter how healthy the person's lifestyle,
since the pancreas is completely out of order and simply can not be resuscitated.

If Halle Berry was able to go off insulin, she was able to control her type TWO diabetes, not change from type 1 to type 2.

In The News: Overweight = Healthy?

Want to create a web of confusion and misunderstandings? Allow the media to report on a controversial scientific study, sit back, and enjoy the ensuing hijinks.

Today's New York Times reports on a study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association which concluded that overweight people have lower death rates than their obese, "normal weight", and underweight counterparts.

"Some who studied the relation between weight and health said the nation might want to reconsider what are ideal weights," reads one excerpt.

Many media outlets are giving this a rather troubling spin, rhetorically asking if people should worry about losing those extra five or ten pounds.

I have several concerns with this study.

Firstly, the study used body-mass index rates to determine what category participants fell into. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, BMI is a number acquired by inputting your weight and height into a formula. A BMI between 25 and 29.9, for instance, is considered "overweight".

One very limiting factor of this calculation is that fat and muscle mass are seen as equals. So, a sedentary 5'7" male with little muscle tone weighing 180 pounds has the same BMI as a muscular, athletic male of the same height and weight.

However, these two men have very different health profiles. The sedentary male has a higher risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis than his muscular counterpart.

For all we know, the "overweight" people (with high BMIs) in this study were athletic people with high muscle mass levels.

Additionally, I hope it is not news to anyone that being underweight is not healthy. Falling below your ideal weight compromises your immune system, raises your risk of osteoporosis, and is linked to low consumption of vital nutrients.

Lastly, this article exemplifies why it is problematic to equate our weight with our health. There are many people who do not consume excessive calories (and, therefore, do not gain weight), but do not make nutritious choices.

It is certainly possible for someone to fall into the "normal weight" category while shunning fruits, vegetables, and whole grain and not gain weight. Meanwhile, an athletic person with healthy eating patterns can be considered "overweight".

Let's not complicate matters further. If you are sedentary, ten pounds overweight and eat mostly processed foods, do not kid yourself into believing that you are healthier than your friend who eats healthy and is at a "normal weight".

Extreme circumstances not withstanding, the WAY you eat is more important than what you WEIGH.

Instead of obsessing over the scale, eat close to nature, limit processed foods, include a variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet, make most of your grains whole, and pay attention to portion sizes.

Tasty Tofu (No, that is NOT a typo of "nasty").

I can already hear my omnivore readers dry heaving.

"Tasty tofu? Aren't those two words antonyms?"

As a vegetarian, I have heard tofu being slandered, cursed, teased, and shunned to the "I'd rather go hungry than eat (insert food here)" bin.

It's a shame, really. When tofu is prepared well (seasoned and paired with complementary flavors), it is a true pleasure to the palate.

Unfortunately, many people are exposed to it in its steamed, practically tasteless version in Asian soups and platters. If that was my first impression of tofu, I would also ditch it faster than a hygienically-challenged blind date who lives in their parent's basement.

I use the word "shame" purposefully. After all, tofu is a nutrition powerhouse: high in protein, a very good source of potassium and calcium, low in sodium, and a contributor of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids.

Just when I thought tofu was the white-headed stepchild, I stumbled across a line of tofu products by More Than Tofu that warmed my soy-loving heart.

These blocks of tofu are already seasoned and available in a wide variety of flavors, from spinach-jalapeno to peanut-ginger and even Indian Masala.

I immediately looked at the nutrition label, fearing the extra flavors would drown a healthy food in excessive sugar and sodium.

I was pleasantly surprised!

One two-ounce serving provides 80 calories, an inoffensive 160 milligrams of sodium, less than one gram of sugar, a commendable nine grams of protein, a measly half a gram of saturated fat, and eight percent of our daily calcium needs!

Considering that a standard meal would comprise of two servings, this makes for quite a healthy, low-calorie component!

Best way to prepare it? Heat up a teaspoon of olive oil in a pan over a medium-high flame. Prior to placing the tofu in the pan, cut it into very tiny pieces.

Sautee the tofu for approximately five to seven minutes, until it acquires a golden brown color.

Serve it alongside a cup of whole wheat couscous, brown rice, or quinoa. You'll never look at tofu the same way again.

Numbers Game: More Than Just Crumbs

This makes the "Big Apple" moniker REALLY appropriate. A regular vanilla cupcake -- with frosting, same size as those pictured at right -- from trendy New York cupcake chain Crumbs contains ___________ calories and __________ grams of fat.

a) 510, 20

b) 625, 24

c) 690, 30

d) 780, 36

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Friday for the answer!

November 4, 2007

Numbers Game: Answer

In a recent Men's Health article, Registered Dietitian Cheryl Hartsough revealed that the average person consumes an additional 460-900 calories a day, every day, between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

The biggest culprits aren't holiday family meals astronomically high in calories, but the barrage of food we encounter in our daily lives throughout that six week period.

Vendors send cookies and sugary popcorn as a "thank you" to offices, friends invite us to holiday parties, potlucks at work result in piles of (usually unhealthy) food, dinners with friends we haven't spoken with in months fill up our social calendars -- the list is endless.

The result? We are exposed not just to more food, but more high-calorie, high-sugar, fat-laden foods.

And don't forget alcohol! Two five-ounce glasses of red wine, for instance, add up to 250 calories. Being liquid calories, they do not contribute a feeling of being full, either, so they do not take the place of 250 calories we would have gotten from actual food.

One of the worst mistakes you can make over the next few weeks is to attempt to "ban yourself" from eating certain foods. Trying to make it until January 1 without a single slice of pie or sip of eggnog is a recipe for disaster.

Don't get so hung up on what you are eating during the holiday season. Instead, focus on how much you are eating.

Huge potlucks are especially tricky. Eight desserts compete for our attention, and we think that having "a little of each" (so as to not offend our coworkers) is harmless. Wrong!

When it comes to desserts, choose one or two and serve yourself a small portion of each. Pick the ones that truly call out to you and ENJOY them. Don't serve yourself a cup of fruit salad -- instead of a small slice of that irresistible chocolate cake -- if three of the four fruits in it are your least favorite.

Prior to that, fill up most of your plate with healthier appetizers and entrees.

If someone contributes guacamole the the office holiday party, for example, put more heart-healthy guacamole on a few chips instead of a slight dab of it on two handfuls of chips.

The fiber and fat in the avocado-based dip will fill you up faster and also contribute nutrients not found in Tostitos.

If you know you'll be attending any sort of event with unlimited food offerings, have a light snack before heading out (a handful of nuts, a small apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter, a Lara, Pure, or Clif Nectar bar, etc.)

Starving all day in anticipation of a potluck or buffet will undoubtedly increase your risk of binge eating and unnecessary extra calories.

Above all, be prepared. Chocolate, cookies, candies, and other treats will soon become daily fixtures at your office. Fight back with a diet-friendly desk. Stash healthy snacks like trail mix, dried fruit, natural food bars, whole grain crackers, and low-calorie treats (like Soy Crisps) in your drawers.

November 2, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Vegan Desserts

Even though I'm not vegan, I love vegan desserts. Are they healthier than regular ones?

-- Bethany Atwood
Long Beach, CA

For those of you not familiar with the term vegan, it refers to people who do not consume any animal products. This includes meat, dairy, eggs, honey, and any other byproducts (i.e.: gelatin, which is made with cattle skin and bones).

Thirty years ago, vegans were out of luck when it came to eating out and grocery shopping. Mock meat was practically nonexistent (a far cry from today's booming market), and whatever was available wasn't very pleasing to the tastebuds.

Soy milk, a staple in many omnivores' diets today, was not available at conventional supermarkets, much less in the variety of flavors available today.

In the past fifteen years, vegan desserts have taken center stage as delicious treats, often described as tastier than conventional recipes -- even by non-vegans!

While vegan cuisine can definitely be nutritious -- low in saturated fat, high in fiber -- its desserts should be enjoyed for what they are (sweet treats), not consumed for health reasons.

Since vegan desserts lack butter, they are lower in saturated fat than conventional ones.

However, they still use fat (in the form of oil), sugar, and flour so the calories add up. For example, a slice of this peanut butter chocolate tofu pie provides 340 calories, 14 grams of fat, and 400 milligrams of sodium. Tasty? Yes. Diet friendly? Not necessarily.

Don't Judge An Egg By Its Color

Have you ever wondered why you can purchase eggs in white or brown varieties?

More importantly, did you give any thought to why brown eggs are slightly more expensive than their paler counterparts?

The theories are rampant. "White eggs have been dyed," some people conjure. "Brown eggs are more natural and wholesome," others explain. Some people equate brown eggs with organic wholesomeness and pick up a dozen instinctively, not even considering taking twelve white ones home.

Alas, as in life, preferences based solely on color are short-sighted and based on nothing but assumption.

The REAL reason why some eggs are white and others are brown? It all depends on the color of the chicken that hatches them! Simple as that. Nutritionally, they are identical.

Fun fact: Araucana chickens -- indigenous to northern Chile -- have a bluish tint to their feathers and -- you guessed it! -- lay blue eggs. Martha Stewart actually raises some at her farm in Westport, CT.

What about the price factor, though? Brown eggs are always just a tad bit more expensive than white ones.

Puzzling question, simple answer. It all comes down to the simple laws of economics. Brown chickens are larger than their white counterparts, so they require more food. Hence, their eggs sell at a slightly higher price.

November 1, 2007

Numbers Game: Stuffed As a Turkey

In a recent Men's Health article, Registered Dietitian Cheryl Hartsough revealed that the average person consumes an additional _______ - ______ calories a day, every day, between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

a) 230 - 440
b) 360 - 610

c) 460 - 900

d) 510 - 980

Unbuckle your belt and leave your guess in the "comments" section. Come back on Sunday for the answer!

In the News: Just Retire, Already!

McDonald's McRib (boneless pork drowned in barbeque sauce) sandwich has had two "farewell tours" since its inception in 1981.

Much like Barbra Streisand and Jay-Z, though, the retirement was soon followed by a comeback -- its most recent (number three!) taking place a few weeks back.

Unfortunately, the McRib's nutritional figures aren't much cause for celebration. Each sandwich provides:

490 calories
25 grams total fat (38% of the recommendation for a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet)

8 grams saturated fat (40% of the maximum established limit for everyone)

1,040 milligrams sodium (45% of the maximum established limit for everyone)

Despite those big numbers, the McRib falls way short on its fiber contribution -- a mere two grams.

Be sure to visit Fast Food Facts' physical deconstruction of a McRib for some stomach-turning images!