January 31, 2008

Say What?: Pica, The New Hot Trend

Ugh. And so we have the first stupid trend of the year -- chewable ice!

Am I in a parallel universe? Hasn't ice ALWAYS been chewable? Or are they talking about long-lasting gum chewability? I digress.

Despite warnings from the American Dental Association that this practice (commonly known as a condition named 'pica') can have a detrimental effect on teeth (and the medical community linking compulsive ice chewing with iron deficiency), ice manufacturers are eager to get everyone munching on frozen water cubes.

According to the Wall Street Journal, "ice-machine makers are competing to make the best chewable ice, with names like Chewblet, Nugget Ice and Pearl Ice. One manufacturer calls the ice-loving South the "Chew Belt."

Was this supposed to be published in The Onion?

In The News: The Big Fish Exposé

Last week's report on the alarmingly high mercury content of tuna sushi served in various New York City restaurants made consumer and industry ears perk up.

Remember, "a chain of five stores in New York, Gourmet Garage, sold tuna that in the New York Times test had mercury concentrations above one part per million, the Food and Drug Administration’s “action level,” at which the fish can be taken off the market."

Consumers are undoubtedly taking the issue seriously.

"At Eli’s Manhattan, on New York’s Upper East Side, sales of tuna sushi were down 30 percent in the past week," the New York Times reports in this follow-up article.

Now the Environmental Protection Agency is stepping in and beginning to test the mercury levels of the 20 most consumed fish in the New York City area.

I'm looking forward to reading the results.

In the meantime, please do not view discard something as wonderful healthy as seafood as high-mercury poison.

The real "red flag" is raised with large fish (that accumulate mercury in their system through consuming smaller fish).

Smaller species such as salmon, tilapia, flounder, sardines, and sole are among the lowest in mercury.

Remember, too, that mollusks and crustaceans such as shrimp, scallops, prawns, and crab are healthy low-mercury options.

January 30, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Jelly

Nutritionally speaking, what is the "best" jelly to pair with my natural peanut butter?

I buy Smucker's "Simply Fruit" blackberry because it seems to have less sugar and a reasonable amount of calories (40 per Tbsp.).

Are all jellies considered discretionary calories, though?

-- Ali (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Great question!

Jellies indeed fall into the discretionary "fats, sugars, and condiments" category.

Scary condiment sidenote -- current government guidelines make it perfectly legitimate for a school to claim the ketchup it serves with its fries as the "vegetable of the day".

Now that we're all done cringing and looking repulsed, let's return to Ali's question.

If you go by MyPyramid, jelly falls in the narrow tip at the top reserved for foods that are nutritionally insignificant.

It makes sense. After all, jelly is basically sugar.

It is not a source of fiber, vitamins, or minerals (unless these are added synthetically), so it does not compare to the members of the "fruit" group.

Additionally, the standard amount of jelly people eat in a day (a tablespoon or two) isn't enough to contribute much to the diet.

This is not to say all jellies are the same.

Avoid ones with high fructose corn syrup.

Instead, reach for low-sugar varieties.

I'm not a big fan of the Smuckers Simply Fruit line of products because I find their name to be misleading.

One would think a jar of Simply Fruit apricot jelly contains nothing but mashed apricots, for example.

Not so. This line is made from a combination of fruit syrups and lemon juice concentrates.

I would instead recommend their low-sugar varieties that clock in at 25 calories and a mere 5 grams of sugar per tablespoon (that's roughly as much sugar as a small pack of sugar at a coffeeshop).

Sugar-free jellies are also an option, but there's something about the thought of fruit and Splenda getting intimate with each other that gives me the willies.

I personally do not like jelly, so from a taste standpoint, I am going on assumptions and not actual experiences.

To make your sandwich even healthier, drop the "J" and add another "B" -- tried and true sliced bananas!

January 29, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Fruit Juice/Sugar

Thanks for answering my first question on fruit juice and sugar content.

So if you're drinking 3 or 4 big glasses of some kind of fruit juice instead of 3 or 4 sodas a day you [are] still taking in empty calories and large amounts of sugar like with the soda, right?

So if you need something to drink while surfing the Internet or just watching TV fruit juice wouldn't be the best improvement over soda.

What about PowerAid or something like
that, would it be better than both soda and bottled fruit juice? Or should we really only be reaching for a water bottle to actually get any kind of improvement?

-- Andrew Carney
Spokane, WA

Yes, four glasses of conventional fruit juice are pretty much equal to 3 or 4 sodas.

I say "pretty much" and not "exactly equal to" because although calorie content is not too difference, fruit juice does not contain phosphoric acid, (which can leech calcium from your bones) and in many occassions does provide naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals not present in soda.

That being said, consider that four cups (a cup being eight ounces) of juice a day can add as much as 640 calories to your day!

That's a LOT of extra calories a day -- more than a Big Mac!

If you were to change nothing about your eating but lower your juice intake from four cups of juice to two cups of juice, you would lose 15 - 20 pounds over the course of a year.

Replacing soda with juice isn't the best swap. PowerAid, meanwhile, is still basically empty calories.

This is not to say you should never have juice.

I don't know how large your glasses are, but let's assume each glass you pour is about 8 ounces. I would have no more than 2 a day (keep in mind, that is still 320 calories); ideally, one.

What can you do instead? Water is one solution, but there are other more flavorful alternatives, if that is what you seek:

Canada Dry flavored seltzer water

Hint Water

Sugar-free (or low-sugar) teas like Teany, Teas' Tea, or Honest Tea.

Numbers Game: Ignorance is Not Always Bliss

An 2007 Internet survey of 20,000 adults in the United States by the National Lipid Association found that ______ percent were able to identify the desired values for total cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol and triglycerides.

a) 10
b) 3
c) 5
d) 7.5

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Saturday for the answer -- and the correct values!

January 28, 2008

You "Ask", I Answer: Evaporated Cane Juice

[Evaporated cane juice] has the same energy content [as sugar] but its glycemic index is lower, meaning it won't spike your blood sugar as much. It is healthier.

-- Paul (last name unknown)

Via the blog

The glycemic index is the Paris Hilton of nutrition -- it gets way more press and attention than it really deserves.

Firstly, the difference between sugar and evaporated cane juice's glycemic index number isn't too drastically different.

Besides, relying on the glycemic index to determine what foods are healthy (the lower the number, "the better") is not entirely accurate.

If you go by that criteria, potato chips (with a GI number of 51) are a better food than watermelon (72), unsweetened oatmeal (58), lentils (52), or kidney beans (52).

The glycemic index is an important tool for people living with diabetes, whose blood sugar needs to be meticulously controlled.

However, it should not be used to determine healthy vs. unhealthy foods.

Turn It On: Your Reactions to Too Young To Be So Fat

Small Bites reader Richard had this to say about Corina's case:

"[She] was on vacation with her mother and cousin in a casino and [the two] were left alone [to eat lunch] (with the filming crew i guess) while the mom was gambling.

She eats fried chicken with fried fish and a lot of dessert. I found it disgusting that the crew left the girl eat that [when] they knew she had a morbid weight problem. Just for the show I guess."

The scene Richard refers to is particularly memorable because the complexity of factors behind Corina's obesity are on full display.

We see the loneliness she experiences, her denial about her weight problem, her self-resignation, and the sad truth that there doesn't appear to be anyone around to teach and help guide her when it comes to making decisions about what she eats.

At the same time, Corina seems to only be interested in the quick fix (liposuction) and does not appear very open to "slow and steady" approaches.

I don't see anything wrong with the crew not intervening. They are not counselors or dietitians. They are simply there to document Corina's reality.

Turn It On: Too Young To Be So Fat

A busier week than I predicted didn't allow me to catch up on my recorded shows until last night, including Wednesday night's "Too Young To Be So Fat" on TLC.

The documentary, part of the "My Shocking Story" series, follows three obese teenagers.

Dexter is 16 and weighs 340 pounds.

Corina is 13 and weighs 230 pounds (she is three times the size of an average 13 year old girl).

Garrett is 14 and weighs almost 400 pounds.

Dexter and Garrett both enroll in the Academy of the Sierras, the world's only boarding school for obese teenagers.

Integrated with a regular academic curriculum covering science, history, and art are weight maintenance and eating behavior classes, recreational sports, counseling sessions, and a daily pre-breakfast 3 mile walk.

At the academy, students are put on a low-fat (20 grams a day) 1,200 calorie diet.

Five weeks later, Dexter and Garrett's BMIs decrease by twenty and thirty percent, respectively.

In that relatively short time periods, they learned the basics of eating healthy and smart. Even better, they both enjoy the taste of healthier snacks.

Corina, meanwhile, is aiming to be one of the youngest liposuction patients in the world.

However, she needs to boost her blood iron levels to reduce post-surgery complications.

As the show progresses, we find that despite supplementing her diet with iron pills and multivitamins, Corina's bloodwork does not provide the required safety net.

As a result, she is unable to undergo liposuction.

WHAT I LIKED: The show demonstrated that the only path to successful weight loss and maintenance is a gradual change in dietary habits and patterns.

It goes without saying that this change must also include less calories and more physical activity, but it was through portion awareness, tasty food, and enjoyment of healthy food that Dexter and Garrett successfully started shedding pounds.

A few scenes at the Academy of the Sierras made it clear that at this institution, food is not an enemy. It is a friend that hasn't been discovered.

Students are not made to feel guilty about eating, nor are they told to avoid food groups altogether. Instead, they are given skills to help them navigate the food landscape and make healthy choices.

The show acknowledges that a deep emotional void lies at the root of all three subjects' obesity. I appreciated this picture of obesity as a mind-body-spirit triad.

In fact, all three teenagers' weights began to skyrocket soon after an emotionally traumatic event (coincidentally, all three cases involved divorce or the abandonment of a parent at an early age).

In Corina's case, this facet of her obesity is fully explored.

Her mother works night and sleeps in the morning, allowing the two of them approximately two hours a day of interaction.

In turn, Corina's eating goes unmonitored.

One particularly painful segment follows Corina, her mother, and her cousin as they take a short vacation to a nearby casino.

While Corina's mother is off at the slot machines for hours, Corina and her cousin head off to the buffet.

We then see Corina, who in previous confessionals states she puts effort into eating right and losing weight but it just "doesn't work for her", pile on fried chicken, fried fish, and macaroni and cheese onto her plate.

That is then followed by slices of cake and cookies.

It is clear that what Corina needs is not liposuction but a therapist and dietitian to help unravel her motivations and behaviors.

One unforgettable scene has her eating grilled steak and salad, a meal she says she has never had. Corina literally gags on a cherry tomato (first time she's ever tried one) and says her meal is disgusting!

WHAT I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO SEE MORE OF: The confines of a one-hour (44 minutes without commercials) documentary tracking the lives of three separate people make it difficult to truly dig into any given "storyline."

Although we delve into Corina's psyche, some of the other teenagers are left in the dark.

In Dexter's case, we see a short in which, during parents' weekend at his school, he feels comfortable and secure enough to express his frustration with his father's overly high expectations in a family counseling session.

As far as Garrett is concerned, he admits to turning to food as an emotional refuge, but we never see him altering -- or attempting to alter -- these coping skills.

The ending of the documentary was rather abrupt.

A "six months later" followup segment would have been a treat, particularly since I was interested in all three teenagers' stories.

I was particularly intrigued to know if Corina made an effort to change her diet after she was rejected as a liposuction patient.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN LEFT OUT: A scene showing Garrett's grandmother visiting the Sierra Academy hinted at the teenager's truancy problems as well as issues with obeying authority.

This seemed out of place because, prior to this, Garrett was portrayed as a motivated willing participant who enjoyed his time there.

IN CONCLUSION: "Too Young To Be So Fat" takes a multi-layered look at obesity and demonstrates that a combination of healthier eating, behavior modification, and psychological counseling provides the most effective results.

Two thumbs up to TLC!

The King of Junk

Behold one of the newest dessert offerings at Burger King -- the Sundae Shake (because ordering one or the other is no longer sufficient?)

The lack of a large size initially struck me as a socially conscious move from the fast food chain.

I quickly crashed back to Earth when I glanced at the nutrition figures and realized the small and medium sizes already inflict plenty of damage.

Order a small and slurp down 680 calories, 15 grams (75% of a day's worth) of saturated fat, 480 milligrams of sodium (slightly more than what a small side of their fries offers), and 95 grams (almost 24 teaspoons) of added sugar.

Ask for a medium and you'll be getting 960 calories, 20 grams (an entire day's worth) of saturated fat, 720 milligrams of sodium (almost as much as an order of large fries), and 138 grams (34.5 teaspoons) of added sugar.

The syrup alone adds 27 grams and 47 grams of sugar to the small and medium sizes, respectively.

January 27, 2008

In The News: Big, Burly Vegan

The Wall Street Journal recently featured 247-pound Kansas City Chiefs football player Tony Gonzalez.

The interesting/"different" angle? Gonzalez is practically vegan (remember, this means no animal flesh and no byproducts, such as eggs, dairy, and honey).

I say "practically" because the article mentions him eating salmon and chicken once a week. Those are his only two non-vegan foods, though.

I also refer you to Marion Nestle's brief (but excellent) commentary on this article.

Over on her blog, she writes:

"Why anyone is surprised that people can do well on vegetarian and vegan diets is beyond me.

Plant foods have plenty of protein and calories if you eat enough of them.

If he is following a strict vegan diet–no animal products at all–he will need to find a source of vitamin B12 (it’s made by bacteria and incorporated into animal tissues), but supplements work just fine. I just don’t see this as any big deal.

Many different dietary patterns promote health and this one can too.

I suppose people will attribute any missed block or dropped pass to his diet, but cheeseburgers are not essential nutrients.

In The News: Exotically Expensive

The Center for Science in the Public Interests' Nutrition Action newsletter is one of my favorite publications.

I received the January/February issue in the mail yesterday and wanted to share a "right on!" tidbit on exotic juices from a larger feature article on health claims and juice.

The article begins by asking, "want to make a million dollars?"

It then instructs readers to "find an exotic fruit," "turn it into juice," "attribute extraordinary healing powers" to it, and then "get Whole Foods to carry it and charge what the market will bear."

This last point is expanded upon even further.

"Don't be shy. Start with four or five times what regular juices go for," they advise.

The article makes the excellent point that the antioxidants and phytochemicals billed so highly in these juices can be found in those of more conventional (and less expensive!) fruits'.

Yes, I am aware that acai juice contains the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit.

That alone, however, is not necessarily a testament to it being "healthier" or "better".

CSPI took a look at the research backing up these products and found that with both acai and goji berry juice, "not a single study published has looked at whether people who drink it are any healthier than people who don't."

As far as pomegranate juice is concerned, they refer to a preliminary study done by the University of California in Los Angeles in which 46 men consumed 8 ounces of pomegranate juice for three years.

End result? 38 of them had their PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels -- rising levels "can indicate a growing tumor" -- slowed down.

However, the folks at CSPI are quick to point out that "the study didn't include a placebo group." Oops!

The article does not mention noni juice, another supposedly miraculous beverage that supposedly helps with everything from impotence to arthritis to Alzheimer's, if you believe the press releases.

No need to fork over $40 for a 32 ounce bottle, though, since no studies have shown any health benefits from drinking noni juice.

Besides, I remember trying noni juice several years back and thinking I had accidentally poured myself a glass of red wine vinegar. It's absolutely repulsive.

If it is health benefits you seek, you're better off biting into a real piece of fruit (anything from a peach to a blueberry to a kiwi or even a handful of goji berries -- your choice!) than downing most store-bought juices.

No matter how exotic, many contain added sugars.

And, while some foods are certainly healthier than others (and offer unique combinations of key nutrients), I don't believe in the concept of "miracle" foods.

You Ask, I Answer: Sugar/Fruit Juices

I was recently drinking some of Welch's "100% White Grape Juice" (from concentrate unfortunately) and it boldly states "No Sugar Added" on the bottle.

The nutrition facts label on the back states that there are 50g of sugar in the 10oz bottle!

They mention that it's all natural fruit sugars but I was wondering, does your body react to the sugar in this bottle of
grape juice the same way it would in, say, a tall (12oz) Starbucks Vanilla Bean Frappuccino (44g sugar)?

Is the sugar in my "healthy" grape juice having the same effect on my body as the sugar in the Starbucks "treat"?

-- Andrew Carney
Spokane, WA

Our bodies react the same way to fructose (the sugar in fruit) and sucrose ("table sugar").

Why, then, you might be wondering, is a Starbucks frappuccino with whipped cream "bad" while a banana is "good"?

It really has to do with what those two options offer besides sugar.

In the frappuccino case, you are getting quite a bit of saturated fat from the whipped cream (half a day’s worth!) as well as a pretty significant amount of empty calories (324, to be exact).

The banana -- or any whole fruit for that matter -- provides fiber (which helps keep blood sugar levels steady), phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals (one of them being potassium, which the US diet is rather low in).

It goes without saying that the Starbucks concoction offers a significantly higher amount of sugar than a fruit.

Fruit juices are tricky because the "no sugar added" marketing is very misleading.

As you know, fruits contain naturally-occurring fructose.

A juice made with juice concentrate (basically the result of fruit sugar being boiled down to a thicker consistency) doesn't have additional sucrose (table sugar), hence the "valid" claim that your grape juice has "no added sugar".

However, unlike with an actual piece of fruit, you aren't taking in fiber.

This means that a cup of juice raises your blood sugar at a faster level than a piece of fruit and doesn’t provide as many health benefits.

One way to get around that is by having your juice with a good source of fiber like almonds, whole grain crackers, whole wheat bread, or a food bar like Clif Nectar or Lara.

Keep in mind, though, that this results in you taking in more calories than if you just ate an actual fruit.

A cup of Welch's No Sugar Added grape juice and one ounce of almonds (about 21 of them) adds up to 324 calories and 3.3 grams of fiber.

A medium sized apple gives you that EXACT amount of fiber in a 78 calorie package.

This is why the term "all natural" should not be perceived as a synonym for "healthy or "nutritious".

As far I'm concerned, fruit juice is much closer to the "soda" end of the beverage spectrum than the "glass of water" end.

January 26, 2008

The Great Chameleon

A comfort food classic like pasta and meatballs might make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it won't be as well received by your internal organs.

The saturated-fat laden meatballs, in particular, deliver significant calories in their own right.

Say hello to the power of soy.

Nate's soy meatballs come in three different delicious flavors and perfectly emulate the taste of meatballs in a lower calorie (and saturated fat) package.

Consider the following:

Three Purdue frozen turkey meatballs contain 135 calories, 7.5 grams of fat, 2.6 grams of saturated fat, and 390 milligrams of sodium.

Three Mama Lucia frozen chicken meatballs add up to 210 calories, 17.3 grams of fat, 7.5 grams of saturated fat (almost half a day's worth!) and 480 milligrams of sodium.

Meanwhile, three of Nate's vegetarian meatballs provide 90 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, and 340 milligrams of sodium. They also pack in a solid nine grams of protein.

Throw some into your next pasta dish and prepared to be surprised by the versatility of the little bean that could.

January 25, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

A single-serve pouch of Capri Sun juice contains 7 teaspoons of added sugar.

It, like all other children's juice drinks, is sugar water (with vitamins thrown in as a desperate attempt to "healthify" it).

That said, the folks at the advertising department sure try their hardest to spin the lunchbox-ready drink as a wholesome beverage.

According to the company's website, "[Capri Sun] an excellent source of protective Antioxidant Vitamins C and E to help support a healthy immune system. And with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives—CAPRI SUN is better than ever."

While the presence of vitamins C and E is real, this does not mean Capri Sun should automically be considered healthy or nutritious.

These two nutrients are not naturally occurring in any of the ingredients; rather, they are synthetically added, in the same way that they can be sprinkled onto bacon or ice cream, if necessary.

It is possible to fulfill all the criteria highlighted by that press-kit-friendly ready description of CapriSun and still be empty calories in the form of sugar water.

Capri Sun also offers four flavors in its "100% juice" line. Color me confused.

The ingredients of those juices -- just like the conventional flavors -- are juice concentrates.

In other words, take fruit juice and boil it down to a sweet, almost syrup-like concoction.

That means no fiber and very low remaining amounts of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals.

The best way to get all the health benefits of a fruit is to eat a piece of an actual one or to use an expensive juicer like Vitamix, which uses every part of the fruit to make the drink.

From a nutrition standpoint, Capri Sun and the overwhelming majority of its competitors are nothing more than fruit-flavored, flat Coke.

You Ask, I Answer: Food Storage and Plastic

I have a question about food preservation.

I've been trying to cut down on the amount of plastic storage I use, but since I like to make my own stocks and soups and stews from scratch, I do a lot of freezing.

Is storing frozen food in plastic as bad as storing refrigerated or room temperature food in plastic?

I also freeze vegetables when they are fresh and plentiful, and I don't know any other way to save corn on the cob except in plastic bags. I'd have to take out a second mortgage to buy enough Pyrex storage containers...

-- Jennifer Armstrong
Saratoga Springs, NY

The often-mentioned problem with storing food in plastic containers comes up when microwaving, not freezing.

Microwaving food in a plastic container leads to some potentially toxic substances leaking into your meal, particularly if it is liquidy and/or high in fat.

I am sure you have seen “microwave safe” plastic containers in stores.

These have been tested by the Food & Drug Administration and have met certain chemical requirements rendering them non-toxic.

Many people, though, are still wary of using them.

While microwaving leftovers in a non microwave-safe container is absolutely not recommended, doing so in “authorized” containers is up to you and your comfort level.

Number three plastics (vinyl/PVC) are definitely ones to avoid when it comes to any type of food storage.

They are also environmental disasters, as they can not be recycled and end up taking space in landfills.

If you’re looking for a safer plastic option, I suggest Ziploc Freezer Guard bags. They are made of number four plastic, which, from a health standpoint, does not appear to be problematic.

If you are looking for plastic alternatives, though, try non-porous materials like glass or stainless steel. For freezing purposes, be sure to get glass containers that are freezer-safe to prevent cracking or shattering.

You "Ask", I Answer: 100 Calorie Snacks

Blue Diamond makes a 100-calorie-bag of natural almonds -- I believe they are unsalted (therefore low sodium) and they're delicious.

Snackmasters Turkey Jerky also comes in an 80 calorie bag. It's all-natural & free of nitrates, preservatives, & MSG and 14g of protein (will a little bit of iron).

It's not an everyday food, but it's very convenient to carry around in a purse or gymbag.
Also, South Beach Diet Woven Wheat crackers (only 3 ingredients... can't be that bad?) and they have a decent amount of fiber.

-- Anonymous
(via the blog)

Thank you (whoever you may be) for sharing this with our readers.

The Blue Diamond 100-calorie packs you mention are a great suggestion, especially since it's easy to eat a lot of high-calorie nuts in one sitting.

The article you are commenting on focused on traditional sweet and savory snacks like cookies and chips,
which are the most prevalent -- and heavily marketed -- portion-controlled products, which is why these more healthy 100-calorie treats were not mentioned.

The only one you mention I am not a fan of is the jerky.

The 80-calorie turkey one you mention, for instance, provides a whooping 580 milligrams (a quarter of a day's worth) of sodium, an excessive amount for an 80 calorie serving!

January 24, 2008

The 100 Calorie Conundrum

Now that paying close attention to portion sizes -- and, specifically, downsizing -- has become a mainstream weight-loss trend, food companies are consistenly launching a variety of sweet and salty snack fare in "on the go" 100-calorie bags.

Sounds like the perfect solution, right? Now you can enjoy Chips Ahoy, Doritos, Oreos, and even Hostess cupcakes in 100-calorie servings.

While enjoying a treat and knowing exactly how many calories it contributed to your day is a much better way of practicing calorie control than digging into a large bag and "guesstimating" how much you're eating, these calories should still be considered "bonus" ones.

After all, these products do not deliver much of a nutritional punch.

Does everything we eat have to be a five-star health food? Absolutely not. Treats have a place in every diet.

Remember, one of my main philosophies is that food should be enjoyed. Once it becomes a rigid, boring, tasteless punishment, you're down the wrong path.

However, I was recently talking to a friend who told me how much she loves 100-calorie packs.

So much so, she revealed, that she has three a day -- one as a morning snack, one as an afternoon snack, and one before going to bed.

Yes, she knows I am writing about her. I have her full permission to do so.

The problem isn't her caloric intake. After all, it was through these 100-calorie packs that she was able to immediately eliminate 350 calories from her diet.

However, these 300 calories are basically empty -- they aren't contributing much to her nutrient intake.

I recommended she integrate one 100-calorie pack treat to her day (I specifically suggested she have it after dinner as en end-of-day goodie).

The other 200 calories should instead come from more nutritious snacks like a piece of fruit (an easy way to get a serving!), a cup of edamame, a food bar, or a cup of yogurt (not laden with sugar, of course).

This way, at least two snacks are providing fiber, phytochemicals, healthy fats, and high-quality protein.

By the way, if you're going to partake in pre-packaged 100-calorie snacks as a treat, I recommend the Chips Ahoy thin crisps -- they're quite tasty and have excellent texture.

January 23, 2008

Would You Like Some Pizza On Your Fiber?

Despite living in New York City -- home of the much-talked-about Brooklyn pizza -- where I am two or three blocks away from a "by the slice" mom and pop pizza place at any given moment, I am a fan of my homemade pizzas.

I like tailoring the sauce to my own tastes, mixing in plenty of roasted garlic, oregano, pepper, and basil, and creating a wonderful aromatic blend.

Given my interest in nutrition and love of whole grains, my pizzas are always made with ready-made Rustic Crust Old World organic Great Grains whole grain pizza crusts.

The crispy, delicious flatbread is made entirely of whole grains and has a subtle olive flavor that adds to its appeal.

An entire pizza crust -- which can easily feed two or three -- boasts an amazing 35 grams of fiber and absolutely no added sugars, trans fats, or genetically modified ingredients.

Next time you're in the mood for some pizza, kiss the phone goodbye and say hello to your oven.

With a Small Bites approved organic Rustic Crust Old World Great Grains readymade pizza crust, some sauce, and cheese, you're a mere 10 minutes away from a delicious, healthy meal.

Numbers Game: Does the Island of Capri Export Sugar?

A single-serve pouch of Capri Sun juice contains _____ teaspoons of added sugar.

a) 2

b) 3.5

c) 5

d) 7

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

In The News: Tricky Tuna

How coincidental.

Slightly over 24 hours ago I posted a link to an online calculator that helps you determine how much mercury you are taking in when consuming certain fish.

Now, an article in The New York Times reveals that abnormally high levels of mercury have been found in tuna sushi.

"Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency," renowned journalist Marian Burros reports.

In fact, fresh tuna sushi appears to contain a higher level of mercury than its canned counterpart, which is already high in the toxic mineral.

This is one situation in which higher-priced sushi isn't worth the extra dollars.

"More expensive tuna usually contains more mercury because it is more likely to come from a larger species, which accumulates mercury from the fish it eats."

Excessive intake of mercury can result in skin rashes, speech impairment, and temporary memory loss.

It is especially dangerous to pregnant women, who can detrimentally effect the neurological development of their future children.

This increased mercury content in our waters is partially due to the government not enforcing stricter policies against coal burning plants emitting toxic minerals into the air, which ultimately end up in our waters.

In fact, the coal lobby is such a powerful presence that initial proposals to set a limit on mercury emissions were discarded from the Clean Air Act.

January 22, 2008

Quick and Healthy Recipe: Tofu Scramble

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. I ask, though, that you cast aside any tofu misconceptions and give this recipe a try.

If, upon tasting it, you decide it's not your thing, feel free to remove it from your cookbook.

I must say that even the staunchest of meat eaters have asked for seconds of this particular dinner dish that is super healthy and easy to make.

The following recipe serves two.

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup onions (your pick), chopped

1/2 cup red peppers, finely chopped

1/2 green peppers, finely chopped

1 cup broccoli, blanched, finely chopped
1 package Sunergia tofu (pictured at right; recommended flavors: peanut ginger, Indian masala, and spicy thai), crumbled.
Salt, to taste

Pepper, to taste

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium sized pot over a medium-high flame.

Sautee the garlic and onion. Stir well until all pieces get even, slight golden, color.

Sautee the peppers and broccoli for three to four minutes, stirring frequently.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir for another minute.

Add the crumbled tofu. Raise the flame to high and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently.

That's it!

I recommend accompanying it with a half of brown rice or a Dr. Praeger's sweet potato pancake.

Tofu Scramble Nutrition Info (per serving):

325 calories
15.5 grams fat

2.1 grams saturated fat

0 grams trans fat

400 milligrams sodium

9.5 grams fiber
26.2 grams protein

A cup of brown rice adds 108 calories, 1 gram of fat, 1.8 grams of fiber, and 2.5 grams of protein.

A Dr. Praeger's sweet potato pancake contributes an additional 80 calories, 2 grams of fat, 140 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein.

In The News: The Moment of Truth

New York City is at the forefront of nutrition public health issues once again.

After calling for a ban on trans fats for cooking and baking, the city's Board of Health unanimously voted to have all chain restaurants post calorie information on menu boards.

Two thumbs up.

Up until now, the only requirement of chain restaurants -- which have standardized menu options with consistent nutrition information -- was that they list nutrition information for their products in any way they saw fit.

Not surprisingly, many restaurants implemented this in very erroneous ways.

McDonald's, for example, stuck nutrition labels on the packaging of their sandwiches, burgers, and fries.

In other words, consumers are not informed about any nutrition information until after they have ordered and paid for their food. Useless!

No one is going to look at the calories in their Big Mac and, shocked by the numbers, decide to order something else instead.

Information needs to be communicated to the consumer BEFORE they order.

The National Restaurant Association, of course, is dead set against this new verdict.

They claim this will make menus look too cluttered.

Really? Adding a few more numbers next to, or below, a menu item does not seem like a recipe for layout disaster.

They also argue nutrition information is already available to the general public on each restaurant's website.

True, but not everyone has access to the Internet. And, besides, are they expecting consumers to memorize calorie figures for a myriad of menu items. Or, even less realistically, carry multiple printouts with them?

As for the claim that people are not going to change their mind as a result of seeing calories -- I strongly disagree.

That line of reasoning assumes that every person visiting a fast food restaurant is oblivious to his or her caloric intake.

Not so. Many people stop by these restaurants out of convenience, often times on their way to, or back from, a road trip.

It's very likely, actually, that they only visit these establishments under these conditions. For all we know, they are regularly healthy eaters who really don't have much of a choice at that moment.

Should they, or anyone else for that matter, be denied information that can help them make a smarter choice?

And then there's Starbucks.

I think a lot of people will be surprised to learn that a Venti frappuccino at Starbucks with whipped cream clocks in at over 500 calories. Or that the coffee chain's blueberry muffin contains 430 calories.

How anyone can think that informing consumers of calories in prospective meals is detrimental beats me.

No one is denying, banning, or limiting food. It is still a free country, where people can order as they please.

However, at a time when two thirds of adults are overweight, we can no longer afford to leave people in the dark.

What do you think?

January 21, 2008

THE Handy Dandy Calculator

The issue of mercury contamination in our aquatic food supply is a consistently hot topic in nutrition.

Unfortunately, it is often marred by wishy-washy recommendations and unclear figures.

Lucky for us, the folks at Got Mercury offer a great tool.

Punch in your weight, select the seafood of choice from the drop-down menu, plug in the amount you think you will eat in a given week, and find out how high -- or low -- your mercury intake is.

It bears saying that the benefits of eating fish and mollusks far outweigh the risks.

For the most part, those needing to be mindful of their intake are people who scarf down canned tuna every day (not as uncommon as you might think) and pregnant women.

High amounts of mercury can be dangerous to the developing fetus (particularly its nervous system, ocular development, and kidneys) and the expecting mother.

Still, knowledge never hurts, and if seafood is a staple of your diet, it is worth paying the site a visit.

January 20, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

A standard pad thai entreé at a restaurant contains 1,350 calories.

Woah -- that's equivalent to six slices of a 12 inch Domino's cheese pizza.

Although the obscenely large portions of pad thai usually doled out at restaurants are behind this obscene figure, the main culprit is the large amounts of oil that go into making the dish.

As delicious as Thai cuisine is, options range from healthy to heinous.

Accompanying pad thai in the "tread carefully" category are spring rolls (deep-fried and offering very little nutrition), soups made with coconut milk (on average providing 450 calories and a day's worth of saturated fat), entrees made with curry (the presence of coconut milk quickly adds calories and saturated fat), and meat dishes labeled "crispy" (think additional fat and calories).

Fortunately, Thai restaurants also offer several healthy and delicious options.

Summer rolls are my favorite appetizer. Wrapped in a soy paper sheet and filled with carrots, basil, grilled tofu and chopped peanuts, they are a refreshing low-calorie treat.

Chicken or tofu satay (basically grilled and skewered) is another smart appetizer choice. However, watch the accompanying peanut dipping sauce, as it is higher in calories than other varieties.

When it comes to entrees, look for grilled, baked, or steamed chicken, shrimp, fish, or tofu with vegetables.

Any of the above in their stir-fry versions is still better than any sort of curry, but will definitely contain more oil than the choices just mentioned.

If the dish comes in a sauce, ask the waiter or waitress to order it "light on sauce". This could save you as much as 500 milligrams of sodium and 150 calories.

If your dish comes with a rice, ask for brown -- extra fiber always helps.

Even conventional white rice is a healthier choice than the fried counterpart, which contains 250 calories per cup!

Good-For-You Gourmet

The thought of pasta ultra high in fiber conjures up unpleasant memories of trying chalky soy pasta (AKA hay) for the first time during the 2003 Atkins craze.

These days, all my pasta dishes at home are made with whole wheat varieties.

While the high fiber is a plus (a cup provides a butt-kicking seven grams), I genuinely enjoy the more substantial taste and texture they provide.

Upon first hearing about Fiber Gourmet (a lower-calorie, higher-fiber pasta), I was skeptical.

I was fully prepared to see "isolated soy protein" among the ingredient list.

Color me surprised. No wheat alternatives, no sugar alcohols.

The whole wheat noodles are made of whole wheat flour, modified wheat starch, and wheat gluten.

The standard Fiber Gourmet noodles are comprised of durum semolina flour, modified wheat starch, and wheat gluten.

Niacin, iron, thamine, riboflavin, and folic acid are added as they normally are to non-whole grain products.

A look at the nutrition facts reveals that two ounces of uncooked Fiber Gourmet noodles -- which yield one cup when cooked -- provide:

130 calories
1 gram fat

120 milligrams sodium

20 grams fiber

7 grams protein

Not only are we talking very high fiber, we are also talking lower-calorie (a standard cup of egg noodles provides 210 calories).


The back of the bag briefly explains Fiber Gourmet's process:

"Through our patent-pending technology, we are able to add high amounts of dietary fiber, while keeping the same taste and texture of standard pasta."

My hat goes off to the folks at Fiber Gourmet -- their products passed several taste tests.

I figured I should not be the only evaluator, since my interest in, and passion for, nutrition and healthy foods might mentally program me to automatically give high marks to a high-fiber product.

So, I turned to more conventional palates in my social circle. Every single one approved.

Since this is a product very high in fiber, I would not recommend eating two cups in one sitting, particularly if your diet is normally low in fiber.

As great as fiber is, the "too much of a good thing" concept applies.

Apart from gastrointestinal discomfort (particularly, again, if intake suddenly increases), an overload of fiber interferes with the uptake of certain minerals, including calcium and iron.

This is best consumed as a side dish (think no more than one cup when cooked) to accompany a meal. A half cup, for instance, packs in 10 grams of fiber in a mere 60 calorie package.

Alternatively, when making a large batch of conventional pasta, you can throw in some Fiber Gourmet noodles to up the fiber content in a pinch.

Interested? Head over to the company's site to place an order. It's definitely a Small Bites approved purchase.

You can also stop by their blog to catch up on product development and sales updates and read answers to consumers' questions.

More Bitter than Sweet

In my opinion, there isn't a better treat than ice cream. The creamy texture, the rich flavors, slowly savoring every bite.

Unfortunately, the era of the single ice cream scoop in a cone or cup appears to be long gone.

The country's largest ice cream chains are instead unveiling mammoth-sized sundaes and shakes with mind-blowing amounts of calories, saturated fat, and sugar.

Case in point: Baskin Robbins.

Two of its four new limited edition products -- a chocolate-covered strawberry sundae (pictured at right) and a chocolate chip truffle shake -- are scarily decadent.

The strawberry sundae clocks in at 790 calories, 23 grams (115% of the daily limit) of saturated fat, 410 milligrams of sodium, and 104 grams (26 teaspoons) of sugar.

A medium chocolate chip truffle shake contributes 970 calories, 24 grams (120% of the daily limit) of saturated fat , 1 gram of trans fat (the recommended intake is zero) , 450 milligrams of sodium (20% of the daily limit), and 108 grams (27 teaspoons) of sugar.

These two still don't compare to the atrocity that is a Baskin Robbin's Reese's Peanut Butter shake. The figures below are for a medium!

1,340 calories
92 grams fat (141% of the recommended value)

33 grams of saturated fat (165% of the daily limit)

830 milligrams of sodium (40% of the daily limit)

91 grams of sugar (23 teaspoons)

That's as many calories as SIX scoops of ice cream!

So what's an ice cream fiend to do? At Baskin Robbins, definitely stick to a single scoop.

With each one weighing in at 4 ounces (half a cup), you'll definitely satisfy your craving.

A scoop of standard ice cream contains 260 calories and 40 percent of a day's saturated fat.

Keep the latter figure in mind as you go about the rest of your day and choose vegetable-based meals low in saturated fat (remember, this fat is found in meat and full/reduced-fat dairy).

Since a scoop is also quite high in sugar (6 teaspoons a piece), I'd recommend making this your only sweet treat of the day.

Their non-fat vanilla frozen yogurt is a tasty alternative. It's still quite heavy on the sugar (at 31 grams, it's practically equivalent to a can of Coke), but a scoop contains 150 calories.

Similarly, sherbets are the highest in sugar (34 grams per scoop), but each scoop only adds 2 grams of fat and 160 calories to your day.

Getting your scoop in a cup is a another quick way to reduce potential extra calories (a waffle cone alone contains 90).

January 18, 2008

Say What?: Russian Air Force Diet

Just when I thought I knew most of the crazy fad diets out there, I stumble across a week-long one awkwardly named The Russian Air Force Diet.

The good news? You can condiment your meals with unlimited amounts of ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, vinegar, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and herbs

The completely bad -- and ludicrous -- news? The only things you can have for breakfast throughout these seven days are black coffee and a slice of toast (or two soda crackers).

Lunch can only consist of a small serving of protein (think a can of tuna, two scrambled eggs, or a small chicken breast), and dinner is restricted to a slightly larger protein serving and a salad.

I'm not quite sure if this is a diet or a sociopolitical experiment.

Here is a recommended menu:

Day 1

  • Breakfast - Coffee
  • Lunch - 2 eggs and 1 tomato
  • Dinner - 7 ounces red meat + green salad

    Day 2
  • Breakfast - Coffee and toast or water cracker
  • Lunch - 7 ounces red meat + green salad
  • Dinner - 5 ounces of ham and 1 cup of yoghurt

    Day 3
  • Breakfast - coffee and toast or water cracker
  • Lunch - Green salad and 1 tomato and 1 orange
  • Dinner - 3 ounces of ham, fruit salad, 2 eggs

    Day 4
  • Breakfast - Coffee and toast or water cracker
  • Lunch - 5 ounces gruyer cheese, 1 egg, 1 carrot
  • Dinner - Fruit salad and 1 cup of yoghurt

    Day 5
  • Breakfast - 5 ounces ham and 1 cup carrots
  • Lunch - 7 ounces broiled fish and 1 tomato
  • Dinner - 8 ounces of red meat

    Day 6
  • Breakfast - Coffee and toast or water cracker
  • Lunch - 1/4 chicken based and 1 orange
  • Dinner - 2 eggs and 1 raw carrot

    Day 7
  • Breakfast - Coffee and toast or water cracker
  • Lunch - 7 ounces red meat and 1 orange
  • Dinner - Anything you weant up to 500 calories
  • It goes without saying that this is yet another nutrient-deprived very low calorie diet.

    You will shed weight due to your caloric intake plummeting to such low levels!

    Apart from feeling very hungry, you will also be tired throughout the day and severely lacking fiber, vitamin E, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals.

    I certainly wouldn't feel comfortable with anyone operating an airplane while on this diet.

    Numbers Game: Oodles of Noodles

    A standard pad thai entreé at a restaurant contains ________ calories.

    a) 1,500
    b) 1,350
    c) 1,075
    d) 890

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

    January 17, 2008

    You Ask, I Answer: Calories

    If our weight is just about calories, why does it matter how much fiber we eat or whether we snack on cookies or carrots?

    -- Lauren (last name withheld)
    New York, NY

    Although weight management mostly involves calories, the concept of nutrition goes way beyond that.

    Weight management falls under the umbrella of nutrition because it is part of a healthy lifestyle, since overweight status is linked to higher risks of developing a variety of diseases and conditions.

    The goal of nutrition is to help people make smart food choices that help contribute to a healthy state of being.

    This is precisely why I have problems with very low calorie diets (such as Argentine doctor Maximo Ravenna's)
    -- they aren't about making smart food choices.

    Instead, they rely on extremely rigid rules that make people prisoners of what is supposed to be something pleasurable -- food!

    In any case, if you calculate that you need to consume 1500 calories a day for a month to lose 'x' amount of weight, you could technically eat 1500 calories of anything.

    However, keep in mind that while one cup of ice cream will contribute 500 calories, you can also get that same number by eating larger amounts of lower-calorie food (or the teeny ice cream cone pictured at left).

    That, really, is one of the techniques and strategies one learns as a dietitian -- how to help people achieve their weight-loss and weight-management goals without going hungry or having to only subsist on six different foods.

    You are also forgetting the most important point of all -- your health!

    Eating 1500 calories worth of ice cream, pizza, and French fries might fulfill your energy needs, but you would be deprived of key nutrients, negatively affecting your health.

    You could eat less calories and lose weight all while consuming unhealthy trans fats and missing out on vitamins, minerals, and fiber. What's the point?

    Anemia, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and other nutrition-related conditions can affect anyone who does not keep healthy eating patterns, overweight or not.

    You Ask, I Answer: Evaporated Cane Juice

    It seems like a lot of organic products use evaporated cane juice instead of sugar. Why is this?

    Since it's evaporated, does that mean it has less calories than [standard table] sugar?

    -- Chris Steward

    Portland, OR

    There are two reasons I attribute to the use of evaporated cane juice in food products -- marketing and veganism.

    Despite the fact that all forms of sugar are calorically equal (one teaspoon, or four grams' worth, equal 16 calories), many people erroneously think less-processed varieties -- such as evaporated cane juice -- are healthier, lower in sugar, or lower in calories.

    It's not surprising, then, to see such ingredients in products sold at higher-end stores like Whole Foods or smaller boutique supermarkets.

    Food companies, regardless of their size, ultimately want -- and need -- to make profit.

    Someone who normally would not buy conventional cookies (i.e.: Chips Ahoy) might be tempted to pick up a box of chocolate chip ones made with evaporated cane juice, stoneground wheat flour, and hemp seeds.

    They are essentially getting the same sugar and white flour. The alternative names and addition of a funky seed is nothing more than clever marketing.

    Many vegans specifically seek out less-processed forms of sugar
    since, unlike with standard table sugar, the production process skips the step of filtration (via animal bone char).

    January 16, 2008

    In The "News": USDA Food Pyramid

    Thank you to reader Antonella Montagna for sending me this wonderful piece from The Onion.

    The message couldn't be clearer...

    January 15, 2008

    Numbers Game: Answer

    A standard large popcorn and large soda combo at the nation's largest multiplex theaters provides 1,900 calories, 275 percent of the daily saturated fat limit, and 13 tablespoons of added sugar.

    Yikes! That's a day's worth of calories for the average adult.

    The popcorn alone is calorically equivalent to THREE Big Mac's.

    What's truly a shame is that movie popcorn tends to give the whole grain an unfairly bad reputation.

    When air popped and sprinkled with a little salt, popcorn is a healthy, low-calorie snack.

    Why, then, is the stuff in the oversized buckets such a nutrition disaster?
    It's all about the oil it is popped in.

    The large majority of movie theaters use coconut oil, which is chock-full of unhealthy saturated fat.

    This is the fat that raises total and LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol.

    The practice of then drenching this popcorn in liquid butter also does not help.

    Theater managers be damned, I like to bring my own healthy snacks to movies (yes, I throw out all my wrappers on my way out).

    Some good ones? A small bag of trail mix, a food bar (i.e.: Lara, Clif Nectar, gnu, Pure), an apple, whole grain crackers, and your best weapon against mindless snacking -- gum!

    You Ask, I Answer: Serving Sizes (Part 2)

    I have some follow-up questions.

    Does one piece of low moisture mozzarella string cheese count towards a protein? Two tablespoons of peanut butter: is that one serving?

    I am using My Calorie Counter to help me track all this but they max me out at 50 grams of protein per day. I'm always hungry and have NO problem meeting my protein intake in grams, but I’m not sure about the servings.

    My big thing is I don't like most veggies or fish. I do like celery, carrots, corn, cucumbers, spinach lettuce, romaine lettuce and trying to make sure I get all my "servings per day in" has been difficult.

    -- Jessica Hubbs
    Louisville, KY

    The concept that appears to be getting lost here is that most foods are a combination of various nutrients.

    Whole grains, for example, offer carbohydrates and protein. Low-fat milk offers fat, carbohydrates, and protein. Cheese offers fat and protein.

    If we are talking USDA (MyPyramid) standards, string cheese counts as dairy.

    If you were using the exchange system -- mostly used for meal planning with diabetes patients -- cheese would count as a meat.

    Remember, there is no “protein” group in the USDA pyramid.

    In any case, one piece of string cheese clocks in at about 7 grams of protein... so it can be equated to one ounce of meat.

    That is not the same as a serving, since it takes three ounces of meat to constitute one serving.

    If your head is spinning, you are not alone. The USDA has received plenty of flack for developing a system that can be intimidating and ultimately frustrates people.

    As far as peanut butter, that technically DOES belong in the "meat/meat alternatives" group. Two tablespoons account for one serving.

    If you are given a gram goal (ie: 50 grams of protein), focus on that, rather than the servings. Unless you are familiar with USDA's figures, you will find yourself completely confused.

    In terms of your vegetable "quota", keep in mind that one serving of cooked vegetables is a mere half cup.

    Meanwhile, one medium-sized piece of fruit accounts for one serving of that group. If you are talking berries, just half a cup equals one serving.

    It really isn't that much food if you spread it throughout the day.

    A banana in the morning and an apple as a late-night snack knocks off the fruit servings.

    Then, dip half a cup of cucumbers (1 serving) in hummus for an afternoon snack, and throw in half a cup of carrots and half a cup of steamed spinach into a stirfry and you’ve got three vegetable servings in a flash.

    Turn It On: Too Young To Be Fat

    The Learning Channel will be showing My Shocking Story: Too Young To Be Fat on Wednesday, January 23 at 8 PM (and replaying it at 11 PM).

    A summary from their website reads:

    "16-year-old Dexter Washington weighs 340lbs. He attends the Academy of the Sierras, probably the only year-round boarding high school for morbidly obese kids in the world. We film Dexter's emotional change as he confronts why he has eaten excessively."

    I'm very interested in learning more about this high school, as well as seeing what angle this documentary pursues.

    Write yourself a reminder note, tune in, and stop by on January 24 for my review.