May 31, 2008

Cous Cous, Flaxseed, and Soy... Oh My!

Hodgson Mill offers a wide breadth of healthy products -- from ground flaxseed to whole wheat pastas to whole grain pancake and waffle mixes.

I fully trust that anything they advertise as "whole grain," truly is.

No sneaking in refined flours or tacking on isolated fibers to bulk up values on their food label.

One of my favorite Hodgson Mill offerings is the whole wheat cous cous with soy crisps and milled flaxseed.

It takes less than ten minutes -- and no cooking skills whatsoever, simply boiling water and stirring for 5 seconds -- to get it from the box to your table.

The best part? Each serving provides 6 grams of fiber, 16 grams of protein, 0 milligrams of sodium, and a terrific 450 milligrams of ALA Omega-3 fatty acids in a 230 calorie package.

The ingredient list is beautifully simple. Whole wheat cous cous, soy crisps, and milled flaxseed. That's it.

I love having it as a side dish topped with a sauteed-in-olive-oil mix of garlic, onion, and peppers.

Another tasty idea is to use it as a base for a refreshing summer salad -- simply toss in raisins, chickpeas, diced carrots, red and green pepper strips, and chopped fresh cilantro.

A triumphant trio indeed.

May 30, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Soy

I have heard some forms of soy (i.e.: the fermented kinds) are more healthy than others.

I have also heard tofu is basically a processed product "cut" with the equivalent of plaster of Paris.

Soy and soy-based products are tooted by the supposed health conscious community as wonder foods, and i think people are often misinformed in regards to soy products being healthy.

For instance: those faux chicken patties. How can something so processed be healthy?

Wouldn’t a person be better off choosing an organic grain-fed chicken breast over something of this nature? likewise, organic soymilk [unsweetened of course] vs organic milk??

And what about soy estrogens???

-- Brooke Green
Brooklyn, NY

Thank you for bringing up the issue of “wonder foods.”

Although certain foods are more nutritious than others (quinoa surpasses white bread, for example,) I think it is dangerous to label anything as a “wonder food.”

Such a term inaccurately suggests such foods can be eaten in unlimited amounts.

Remember -- all calories, regardless of the source, add up.

Extra virgin olive oil certainly has its health benefits, but drowning a salad in 4 tablespoons of it adds 500 calories.

Anyhow, the key with soy -- like with any other food -- is to mainly consume it as minimally processed as possible.

This applies to other foods as well. Take potatoes as an example. It is obviously better to consume them baked and with their skin than out of a Pringles tube.

So, tempeh (fermented tofu) and edamame offer more nutrition than a processed soy product that could very well contain added sugars, excess sodium, and trans fat.

This can also be equated to whole grains.

Some people think a whole grain cookie is automatically healthier than a standard cookie. Not necessarily.

If the whole grain cookie has twice the calories, sugar, and trans fat of the standard cookie, the whole grain benefit is thwarted.

I consider the issue of faux chicken patties versus organic chicken breasts to be more about personal ethics than nutrition.

I think many people choosing faux meats do so out of a personal decision to not eat meat, rather than from a “what is less processed?" angle.

Keep in mind, though, that many times meat-based frozen products are nutritionally inferior to soy-based ones.

As far as tofu is concerned -- it is one thing to eat "tofu hot dogs" (which are highly processed and thereby high in sodium and chock full of preservatives,) but cubes of regular tofu (pictured, right) thrown into a vegetable stir fry is a great way for vegetarians to get protein, calcium, and Omega-3 fatty acids.

As for the soy-based estrogens, the only people who should be concerned are women living with breast cancer who consume four or more servings of soy on a daily basis.

Otherwise, there is absolutely no research showing that one or two daily servings of soy in a healthy individual poses any sort of health risk.

I don't recommend gobbling down oodles of soy every day because it contributes quite a bit of Omega 6 fatty acids to the diet (which in itself is not bad, but the typical US diet provides way too much of it and not enough Omega 3's -- nowhere near the ideal ratio.)

You Ask, I Answer/In The News: Heart Disease

In the May 28, 2008 Willamette Week Murmurs column there's a story about a man doing 25 months in state prison for assault.

He's suing Multnomah County and a Philadelphia-based food distributor for serving food he says led to a near-fatal heart fibrillation.

He claims he was subjected to “criminal inhumanity” in 2007 at the county’s Inverness Jail, where he says food did not comply with the low-fat diet prescribed by his cardiologist.

Do you think this lawsuit has any merit?

-- David Brown
Kalispell, MT

Very coincidental timing! A friend sent me a link to that story 15 minutes before I received your question.

I was very intrigued and planned on sharing it here.

I have looked for more details on this case but have been unable to get anything beyond a short paragraph with the most basic information.

(NOTE: I called the Sheriff's Office and left a message with Deputy Travis Gullberg, who handles press inquiries. Let's see if I hear anything!)

What would help me determine the "merit" of this lawsuit is this man's cardiac health upon being admitted to prison.

If he already had heart disease, it is important that he follow a prescribed low-fat diet plan in order to help reverse some of the damage.

If there is no diagnosis of heart disease in his past, it will certainly be a very hard case to win.

Of course, there are other legal issues here (i.e.: was the jail notified of his special diet needs by his cardiologist?) but this will be an interesting case to keep an eye on.

You Ask, I Answer: Oats

I've been trying to add more soluble fibre to my diet but I can't STAND oatmeal.

Am I losing out on any of the properties of the oats by toasting them and having them as part of a home made granola, as opposed to as oatmeal?

-- "J" (last name unknown)
Via the blog

First of all, I commend you for taking a smart and practical approach to healthy eating.

J has incorporated a very important nutriton lesson -- if a healthy food's traditional way of preparation and consumption doesn't quite match up with your palate, think outside the box!

To answer your question, J, you are not missing out on the health benefits of oats by toasting them. This process does not leech out any nutrients.

If anything, doing so enhances them by bringing out their delicious nutty flavor and providing a very appealing crunch.

And, since all you do is spread the oats in a single layer on a baking pan and pop them in the oven for 10 minutes (at approximately 350 degrees Fahrenheit), you are not adding extra calories in the form of oil or butter.

If you feel more comfortable using your stovetop, by the way, you can also toast the oats in a skillet over a medium flame until they turn a slight brown color and you smell a nutty aroma.

Keep in mind that granola is very calorically dense, so be sure to keep an eye on your portion sizes.

See how you like adding toasted oats to soups, yogurt, and salads.

May 29, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Potato Consumption

While a baked potato with the skin left on is a healthy choice, the question is: how do the majority of North Americans eat their potatoes?

-- Kate (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Great question.

Here is what the most recent figures from the United States Department of Agriculture reveal.

In 2002, the "average American" consumed 126 lbs. of potatoes.

Of these 126 lbs., approximately 24 came exclusively from potato chips (the average American consumed 6 lbs. of potato chips in 2002; it takes 4 pounds of potatoes to make 1 pound of potato chips).

Frozen potatoes (mainly french fries) totaled 61 pounds.

Some simple addition reveals that french fries and potato chips make up two thirds of total average potato consumption!

Not exactly the picture of health.

We are still missing some vital information, though.

Although baked potatoes offer a good deal of nutrition (Harvard's School of Public Health Chair Walter Willett's claim that potatoes and candy bars are basically nutritionally identical is ludicruous), this survey does not tell us how people are eating them.

Mainly, how many calories they are being topped with. A pad of butter? Three tablespoons?

What we certainly know is that such a high consumption of French fries doesn't spell out good news for our waistlines.

While a nutritious side dish consisting of medium baked potato topped with a tablespoon of olive oil (that's quite a bit!) adds up to 280 calories, a large order of fries at McDonald's contributes 570.

Checking in with Oprah

I recently told you about Oprah's 21-day vegan cleanse (which, apart from obviously shunning all animal-derived foods, also bans sugar, gluten, alcohol, and caffeine).

The talk show queen is blogging on her site and updating everyone on her progress.

Day 1 was fairly easy to traverse.

You certainly can't knock it as an unhealthy eating pattern.

That day alone includes standouts like oatmeal, blueberries, strawberries, wild rice, a baked potato, and olive oil.

As wonderfully whole as all those foods are, I have some concerns.

Despite providing sufficient calories (roughly 1,600), fiber, and protein, the total amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and calcium do not meet requirements.

Additionally, such a heavy reliance on nuts (they are eaten at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack) really drives up the Omega-6 fatty acid content.

This is slightly troublesome because, apart from some walnuts at breakfast and olive oil as salad dressing, Omega-3 intake isn't that high.

Remember, the Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio plays an important role in our health.

I would personally add flaxseed to breakfast and replace the pinenuts in the dinner salad with nori (or some other sort of seaweed, naturally rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.)

By the next day, things get interesting -- and a little unrealistic. Oprah and her exec producers (also doing this diet with her) get their very own vegan chef!

And, alas, I'm back to my original gripes with this entire "cleanse."

When you start banning multiple food groups and not allowing yourself to have gluten (the most bizarre part of this plan; there is no reason to give up gluten unless you have an intolerance to it) or sugar, you'll find that unless you are very experienced around a kitchen and alternative ingredients -- or hire a personal chef -- it is not easy to maintain a dietary lifestyle that is interesting, practical, healthy, and balanced.

For Oprah and her colleagues to go the personal chef route is a bit of a copout. They should attempt to do this on the average income of an adult in the United States.

Take this example -- on day two, Oprah and her fellow cleansers wake up to strawberry rhubarb wheat-free crepes.

Do you think that on a random Wednesday morning you'll find yourself concocting such a recipe in your kitchen at 7 AM? I doubt it.

A successful eating plan is not only nutritious and tasty, it also has to be convenient. What's so wrong about some whole or sprouted grain toast with peanut butter?

Or a bowl of whole grain cereal (slightly sweetened, say a measly 3 grams of sugar per serving) with soymilk and raisins?

In yesterday's blog entry
, Oprah hints at another problem with these overly strict regimens (let me make something very clear: it is one thing to be vegan, but a whole other thing to be a vegan who abstains from sugar, coffee, alcohol, and gluten) -- they can render you defenseless outside the four walls of your home.

Oprah mentions flying to Las Vegas later this week and being slightly nervous about her choices.

I hope she prepares herself for an eye-opening experience.

Forget vegan-friendly, Vegas is barely vegetarian-friendly.

Even something as standard and semi fast food-ish as a veggie burger is hard to come by. The only place where I felt healthy cooking was a priority was the spa at the Venetian Hotel.

Otherwise, bring your own snacks!

I found today's entry to be cause for concern:

"I hit a wall today. Literally had to stand in my closet and bound the walls, the cabinets, the floor for a few minutes and take some deep breaths."

A well-planned, balanced, practical eating plan should not have you feeling like this on day four.

This is why I very much oppose overnight radical shifts. Not only is there no physiological benefit to banning things left and right from one day to the next, it also conjures up issues of self-flagellation and unnecessary deprivation that often accompany a lot of weight loss plans.

It particularly upsets me because it sends very erroneous messages: healthy eating is a chore, it involves giving up pleasures, it pushes your body to the limit.


The path to healthy eating and smart choices is not always going to be smooth and easy -- it is perfectly common and understandable to have the occassional setback -- and extreme approaches such as this "cleanse" certainly don't help.

It's a shame that someone as influential and looked up to as Oprah isn't using her show as a platform to show that wellness and health can be achieved without personal chefs, swearing off foods, or feeling like the world is caving in on you.

Anyhow, Oprah has two more weeks to go. I'll be sure to follow her progress and keep you all in the loop.

You Ask, I Answer: Saturated Fat

So is 30 to 35 percent total fat from calories a moderate-fat diet and above 35 percent a high-fat diet?

How much fat, as a percentage of total calories, do you think is safe to consume?

What do you see as the safe upper limit for total fat intake?

How much saturated fat can one consume with out risking clogged arteries?

-- David Brown

Kalispell, MT

Since we are talking about ranges, there is room for fluidity.

Here is how I break it down.

Anything below 15 percent of total calories from fat falls under the “very low fat” category.

I classify the range between 15 and 30 percent of total calories from fat as "low-fat" (with, say, 16 percent being closer to “very low in fat” and 29 being very close to “moderate”).

The 30 – 40 range is "moderate", and anything above 40 is "high".

What makes your question much more complex, though, is that fat is by no means a simple nutrient.

I can not simply throw out a figure and say, “Consume 35 percent of calories from fat” without giving additional detail.

For example, make most of those fats mono and polyunsaturated, aim for an Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio no higher than 5:1, and avoid artificial trans fats (some animal meats naturally contain trans fats, which I am not worried about).

If someone's “35 percent of total calories from fat” is mainly comprised of trans fats, I would certainly not describe it as healthy intake.

That same percentage consisting of mainly mono and polyunsaturated fats, however, would get two thumbs up.

This shouldn't come as a big shock to regular readers of this blog.

Besides, does anybody seriously think four strips of bacon or a quarter cup of half and half are healthier than a grilled wild salmon steak or half an avocado?

As for your safe upper limit question: you won't find a technical "Upper Limit" (how much of a nutrient it takes to have detrimental, rather than beneficial, health effects) for saturated fat.

However, the 10 percent figure (which, as I will explain a little later in more detail, basically recommends that people consume no more than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat) serves as an Upper Limit.

Thereby, intakes of, say, 40 percent have not shown to be beneficial to health.

One main problem with mainstream talk about nutrition is that it oversimplifies nutrients, especially fats and carbohydrates.

After all, a carb is not a carb is not a carb. Oatmeal, bananas, and baked potatoes are very different from donuts and Jolly Ranchers.

The first three provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. The last two are virtually empty calories.

This is why I strongly oppose blanket statements like, "carbs are bad." Really?

You mean to tell me that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are no different than a cupcake?

It is also important to place nutrients in the right context.

Sports nutritionists and exercise physiologists agree, based on evidence-based research, that easily digestible carbohydrates that would normally not be outright recommended as highly nutritious (ie: white rice) can serve an important purpose after a strenuous workout.

Forego carbs after a very intense, long workout and glycogen stores are not fully restored. This is problematic, as it may result in the breakdown of muscle.

As for how much saturated fat someone can consume without risking clogged arteries, you have to, once again, frame it in the appropriate context.

I stand by the “make no more than ten percent of your total calories saturated fat” rule, but keep in mind this is over a period of time.

Let’s assume you eat 2,500 calories a day.

Ten percent of 2500 calories = 250 calories.

Divide 250 calories by 9 (the amount of calories per gram of fat) and you get 27.7.

So, you should get no more than 28 grams of saturated fat a day.

Does this mean that downing 40 grams at a birthday dinner is going to send you into coronary hell? Not at all.

What matters, as I always like to mention, are general patterns.

If you generally stay within that 10 percent figure, your risk is lowered.

If, however, the norm is 30 percent (in this case, 83 grams of saturated fat a day) for five, ten, or fifteen years, you will very likely run into problems.

May 28, 2008

Numbers Game: Fiber Figures

A correlation study by Gross et al. published in the May 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that the average per capita total carbohydrate intake in the United States consisted of ______ grams per day in 1909 and ______ grams per day in 1997.

Fiber intake, meanwhile, was ______ lower in 1997.

a) 500/500/40

b) 500/300/15

c) 500/250/50

d) 500/200/25

(NOTE: Other studies show that carbohydrate intake has remained steady since 1997, but since this particular study tabulated numbers until 1997, we'll leave it at that).

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

Nutrition Highs and Lows

People regularly throw out the terms “low-fat”, “low-carb”, “high fiber” and “reduced sugar” liberally -- and often times inaccurately.

Although the terms “high” and “low”can be subjective (a 15-story building in Manhattan is relatively low compared to the surrounding skyscrapers), they are mostly defined by clear-cut boundaries in the world of nutrition.

When in doubt, here is a handy guide.

If you’re talking fats, a “very low fat diet” gets no more than 15 percent of total calories from fat.

A traditional low-fat diet, meanwhile, consists of no more than 30 percent of calories from fat.

Keep in mind this is a rather wide spectrum.

In reality, 16 to 25 percent is truly considered “low fat”. By the time you get to the 25 – 30 percent range, you are crossing into more moderate territory.

Hence, the latest mainstream recommendations for 30 – 35 percent of calories from fat can not be casted off as “low-fat” dogma.

The heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet, for instance -- which no one would ever describe as “low fat” due to the prevalence of olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish -- consists of approximately 30 - 35 percent of calories from fat.

It is worth pointing out that the Mediterranean Diet is high in monounsaturated fat and very low in saturated fats.

Mainstream dietitians have no qualms in recommending daily intake of heart-healthy foods like almonds, walnuts, olive oil, salmon, avocado, and flaxseed.

Although there is no true definition of what a “low carb” diet is, two numbers keep popping up in the literature.

Many clinical research trials define “low carb” as no more than 60 grams of carbohydrates per day.

More intense low-carb advocates, however, bring the number down to no more than 30 grams a day (as much as one large apple or one standard slice of bread.)

Food labels also have to abide by certain protocols (established by the Food & Drug Association) to make “high” and “low” claims.

In order for a product to be labeled “low fat”, for instance, it must contain no more than 3 grams of fat per serving.

The term “reduced calories” can only be used on a product that provides at least 25 percent fewer calories than the regular variety.

Similarly, any product describing itself as "reduced" sugar must offer at least 25 percent less sugar than the regular variety.

The statement “high in fiber” may only be used on products offering at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.

As for the term “good source of fiber” – you need at least 2.9 grams per serving to qualify.

Lastly, another interesting one: “light” can be used to describe a product that offers either at least 50% less fat, 33% less calories, or 50% less sodium than the regular variety

Give Birth, Lose Weight!

The latest issue of Us Weekly features Christina Aguilera's amazing 40-pound weight loss in just 4 months!

Something smell fishy? It should.

For starters, her "before" photo isn't exactly due to one too many Big Macs.

And the "40 pounds" figure is slightly misleading.

Find out more in Small Bites' latest YouTube video!

May 27, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Starvation Mode

I found your site from Google looking for info on the alleged philosophy of your body going into "starvation mode" if it doesn't get enough calories.

I thought I remember seeing a tv special with Dr. Oz de-bunking this.

[He experimented on] a small number of people from Europe [and] found that it's NOT TRUE.

What say you?

-- Laura Lafata
Miami Beach, FL

I am not familiar of any experiment Dr. Oz conducted to debunk this, especially since it is not a myth.

It is a real, documented physiological state.

Here's what I do know in relation to Dr. Oz and "starvation mode."

A quick glance through You On A Diet: The Owner’s Manual for Waist Management (the book he co-authored with Dr. Michael Roizen) reveals the following passage:

“During the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, people eat only after sunset, so they consume all their calories at night. Should they lose weight?

Anecdotal evidence, gathered by doctors watching residents working all-night shifts, indicates that people who eat all their 2,000 daily calories in one meal gain more weight than those who space those calories over three meals.

Why? Because the one-timers are kicking in their starvation mode, making their bodies want to store fat rather than burn it.”

And then there’s this:

“Eat throughout the day so that you're constantly satisfied. The less you eat, the more likely you are to sink into starvation mode and make your body want to store fat.”

So, if anything, Dr. Oz abides by the “starvation mode” concept – as he should!

If we’re talking “across the board numbers,” any meal plan contributing less than 1,200 calories a day puts you in the “starvation mode” category (meaning that our bodies protect fat stores by slowing down the weight-loss process as much as possible).

If these low caloric amounts are continued for a long time, the body continues to resist by saving adipose tissue (fat) and instead sacrificing muscle tissue.

That is NOT good news.

Ultimately, metabolism is compromised (sometimes permanently) and returning to a healthy caloric intake results in weight gain.

This is why it is important to lose weight in a healthy way, not only by getting sufficient nutrients, but also by working with, rather than against, our metabolism.

You Oat To Know

One of my co-workers recently asked me what the difference was -- from a nutritional standpoint -- between steel-cut oats, quick-cooking oats, and instant oatmeal.

There isn’t any!

They are all a nutritious whole grain offering soluble fiber (the kind that has been linked to a reduction in total and LDL cholesterol levels).

(Quick review: insoluble fiber -- found entirely in whole wheat products and partially in fruits, vegetables, and legumes -- speeds up the transit of foods in the digestive system.)

The difference between these varieties of oats and oatmeal ultimately comes down to processing techniques.

Whereas steel-cut oats are -- ready for a shocker? -- cut by rotating steel blades into tiny groats, instant oatmeal is flattened into flakes.

If you look at their respective nutrition labels, you’ll notice that steel-cut oats appear to contain more fiber than their quick cooking counterparts.

However, this is simply due to different serving sizes.

It's akin to a one-ounce slice of whole wheat bread containing 3 grams of fiber and a 1.5 ounce slice providing 4.5 grams. The larger slice may appear to be a "better source" of fiber, but ounce by ounce the two are equal.

What you absolutely must keep in mind when buying instant oatmeal is what has been added.

You can’t go wrong by buying plain (unsweetened, no salt added) oatmeal and jazzing it up yourself with fruits, nuts, seeds, yogurt, etc.

The problems begin when you buy flavored varieties than add sodium and up to 4 or 5 teaspoons of sugar (and about 100 extra calories) to this delicious whole grain.

Instant oatmeal is one of my recommended pantry staples, mainly due to its quick preparation time.

I also recommend adding uncooked instant oatmeal (or uncooked ready-to-eat oat bran) to a yogurt and fruit bowl if you're not a fan of traditional oatmeal.

You Ask, I Answer: Saturated Fat (Part Two)

You said, "I fail to understand why Taubes and his supporters practically worship saturated fat but completely fail to mention the health benefits of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids." In the above you attribute extreme viewpoints to your opponents to discredit their opinions. Really now!

We who don't believe saturated fats constitute a health hazard do not worship or ignore fats. We simply try to put them in their proper dietary perspective.

In the case of saturated fats, they have been maligned for forty years by public health, the food manufacturing industry, government agencies, vegetarian activists, the American Dietetic Association, and virtually every major health promotion organization in existence. This is a fact. This is not my opinion. Saturated fats are, in truth, beneficial.

The body converts carbohydrates to saturated fats to burn for energy.

Animals of all sorts make saturated fats in their bodies to burn for energy and to use for building cell structure.

-- David Brown
Kalispell, MT

The accusation that I am "attribut[ing] extreme viewpoints to [my] opponents to discredit their opinions" is ironic considering that Gary Taubes uses that tactic often.

I have never heard him acknowledge that most of the nutrition community is NOT pushing low-fat diets.

It is one thing to have diet books (NOT written by Registered Dietitians) saying low-fat is best, but they do not represent the nutrition community.

I do not agree with Taubes' views, but where on my blog do you see me urging people to shun fats?

I'm also not sure how the "food manufacuring industry" has been maligning saturated fats. Many food products offer it in substantial amounts.

If anything, don't you find it interesting that so many different entities (the government, 'vegetarian activists', food companies) with varying interests all agree on limiting saturated fats?

I also want to answer a few of your statements.

"The body converts carbohydrates to saturated fats to burn for energy."

No. Carbohydrates are converted to glucose.

Again, Taubes and his supporters need to think outside the box and realize that many dietitians (and myself, as a future Registered Dietitian) are NOT suggesting replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates, but rather with healthier fats.

"Animals of all sorts make saturated fats in their bodies... used for building cell structure."

That's cholesterol you are thinking about, not saturated fat.

Unlike with trans fats, no one is being asked to cut out saturated fats from their diet; simply to limit them to a certain amount.

Very simply -- put them in a proper perspective.

May 26, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Saturated Fat

You mentioned that saturated fat is the "bad" fat and this definitely is the common understanding these days.

Have you read any conflicting evidence about this?

After reading the first half of Gary Taubes'
Good Calories, Bad Calories I came to the conclusion that saturated fat really isn't a big deal unless you're in the extreme heart disease risk category, which, at 27 and with normal cholesterol levels, I don't think I am.

And, while I don't agree with Taubes' anti-carb approach, I found his evidence about regarding the fat-cholesterol link (and how research was so highly influenced by politics, guesswork, and some key personalities) very interesting, and moderately convincing.

It seems that cholesterol levels are only veeery minimally affected by saturated fat in one's diet.

I'm wondering how you feel about this aspect of his argument, or if you've seen other people calling the evilness of saturated fat into question recently.

I thought I had it all figured out, but this is the one thing I'm still not sure about.

Thanks so much.

-- Meredith (last name unknown)
Via the blog

Gary Taubes is certainly not the first -- or only -- person to question the saturated fat/heart disease connection.

Although some studies date as far back as the 1950s, Mr. Robert C. Atkins brought the research out of the scientific community and into the mainstream.

He -- along with his proteges -- claimed that eating endless amounts of steaks, butter, and bacon actually led to healthier lipid profiles than low-fat, high-carb diets.

And so we come back to the issue of flawed logic. Let me explain.

Like Atkins, Taubes and his ilk approach this scenario from a very narrow "black or white" perspective.

Firstly, they are quick to judge detractors as low-fat advocates.

This is grossly inaccurate. For instance, I strongly disagree with Taubes, but a quick browse through this blog makes it clear I do not advocate low-fat diets.

Instead, I believe that an adequate amount of the right fats is crucial for our health.

I fail to understand why Taubes and his supporters practically worship saturated fat but completely fail to mention the health benefits of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

They aren't saying "fat is healthy; make sure to include almonds, olive oil, and wild salmon in your diet!" Instead, they pretty much push red meat and bacon.

Mind you, current guidelines do not call for a complete elimination of saturated fat from the diet; they simply suggest no more than 20 grams a day (assuming a daily intake of 2,000 calories).

Many dietitians -- myself included -- recommend a low intake of saturated fat, but simultaneously urge people to seek out the healthy fats found primarily in salmon, olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed, and avocados.

Although there are some professionals who advocate very low-fat diets -- Dean Ornish comes to mind -- many of the dietitians I know do not support skimping on healthy fats.

Now, when you compare a high-fat (in this case, saturated fat) low-carb diet to a high-carb (conveniently, high in refined carbohydrate), low-fat diet, the high-fat diet will lead to a better lipid profile (triglycerides, for instance, are related to refined carbohydrate intake, not dietary fat).

This, however, is misleading.

It's akin to only comparing bronze (diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in fat) and silver (diet high in fat, albeit saturated, but low in refined carbohydrates) and claiming silver to be the most expensive metal.

Yes, the most expensive of the two.

But, bring in platinum (a diet low in saturated fat but high in mono unsaturated fats and whole grains) and suddenly silver doesn't look quite as amazing.

I would like Gary Taubes to compare two high-fat diets (one high in saturated fats, one high in mono and polyunsaturated fats) and conclude, with a straight face, that the saturated fat-rich one is the healthiest.

There are literally hundreds of human clinical research studies showing a correlation between saturated fat intake and heightened coronary heart disease risk.

One interesting one was published in the July 2005 edition of the British Medical Journal.

Turns out that, in 1991, the Polish government stopped subsidising foods high in saturated fat.

Eleven years later, "deaths from coronary heart disease had dropped by over a third in the 45-64 age group - a 38 per cent drop for men and 42% for women."

During this time, saturated fat consumption fell by 7 percent, and -- more importantly -- polyunsaturated fat consumption increased by 57 percent!

We again come back to the notion that the key is not in reducing total fat intake, but in replacing saturated fats with healthier varieties.

Taubes happily bashes anyone recommending a low-fat diet, but what are his arguments against replacing saturated fats with Omega-3 fatty acids (a type of polyunsaturated fat) for improved lipid profiles?

Moving on to red meat, there is also a good deal of research showing that colon cancer risk is indeed affected by red meat consumption (this 2006 meta-analysis from the Pakistan Journal of Nutrition summarizes some major findings well).

A great Italian study by Talvani et al in 2000 also looked at red meat intake and cancer risk.

I recall Mr. Taubes scoffing and referring to all this evidence as "questionable" when he was on Charlie Rose several years ago.

How he came to that conclusion I do not know.

In my mind, sanctifying saturated fat and telling people to eat it liberally is irresponsible.

By the way, this idea that advice to eat less red meat is some sort of conspiracy relating to politics is rather laughable since, as Marion Nestle brilliantly explains in Food Politics, the national beef association threw a major hissy fit when Dietary Guidelines originally urged the public to simply "consume less red meat".

They were quickly changed to "choose lean cuts of meat," so as to not offend the powerful beef lobby.

We come back, as always, to the issue of moderation.

Have a slice of Swiss cheese here and there or pour a splash of whole milk into your morning coffee if it makes you happy; just don't make saturated fats the main players of your diet.

Weekend Fun: Trying the Cleanse

Here is a fun Memorial Day "bonus" video from the YouTube Small Bites Nutrition channel.

Everything starts off as fun and games.

That is, until I sip from my "Master Cleanse" glass...

Watch the video here or enjoy it right below this sentence!

May 25, 2008

In The News: Revising the Food Pyramid

The folks over at the Harvard School of Public Health -- led by Walter Willett -- don't think the traditional USDA food pyramid (officially known as MyPyramid) doles out the best advice.

So, they proactively designed their own version -- The Healthy Eating Pyramid.

You can see a nicely drawn PDF version by clicking on the link above.

I prefer this version over the USDA's, but have a few critiques.

Although I like the inclusion of "daily exercise and weight control" at the base, I would prefer that section be titled "daily exercise and portion control."

Additionally, the "healthy fats/oils" category should place more of an emphasis on fats higher in Omega-3 (i.e: olive oil, walnuts, flaxseed) and less on ones offering very high Omega-6 levels (ie: soy and corn).

As I have discussed in the past, an improper Omega 6:Omega 3 ratio has its share of health implications.

Lastly, I strongly disagree with the inclusion of potatoes in the "eat sparingly" pyramid tip (accompanied by red meat, refined grains, sugary snacks, and salt).

It is one thing to eat potatoes in their nutritionally void skinless, deep fried version.

However, a baked potato, eaten with its skin, is a great source of fiber, potassium, vitamin C, folate, and magnesium.

Clearly, current obesity and diabetes rates can not be blamed on the ingestion of healthily prepared potatoes.

Your thoughts?

May 24, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

Forty percent of adults in the United States consume a grand total of ZERO whole grain servings every day.

Not the most encouraging of statistics.

Although whole grains are increasingly more available, I suspect this has to do with a lack of education and knowledge.

Many people, for instance, think multigrain bread is a whole grain. It's not.

Additionally, the overwhelming majority of new whole grain products come in the shape of sugary cookies or cereals "made with whole grains," which can mean that as little as 5% of the total wheat flour used is whole.

Not the best approach.

If your whole grain consumption isn't up to par, here are some ideas.

-- Whether at home or at a restaurant, opt for brown rice. Kitchen-phobes have no excuse. Many companies now offer brown rice that cooks in 10 minutes in the microwave. Nutritionally, it is equal to regular, longer-cooking varieties.

-- Enjoy whole wheat pasta, like DeCecco whole wheat fusilli (pictured at right). If you are brand new to it, make your dishes with half regular pasta and half whole wheat.

-- Eat whole grain bread (at least 3 grams of fiber per slice and 'whole wheat flour' as the first ingredient).

-- Experiment with alternative grains like quinoa and whole wheat couscous (they cook the exact same way as rice. All you need is a pot and water).

-- Add barley to your soups.

-- Start your morning with plain oatmeal (sweeten it up with fruits; add fiber and protein with walnuts or almonds)

-- Make sure your morning cereal is whole grain (again, look for whole wheat or oat flour as the main ingredient).

-- Snack on popcorn (air pop it or make it at home in a pot with a little bit of olive oil).

-- Make waffles and pancakes with whole grain mixes. If you buy frozen varieties, make sure they are whole grain.

Remember, whole grains offer more health benefits than non-whole grains with extra added fiber.

If you need more assistance, check out the Whole Grains Council's amazing and extensive list of whole grain products. It's the perfect supermarket assistant!

May 23, 2008

O No!

The issue of detoxing with dietary cleanses has been a hot topic on Small Bites over the past few days.

In what is an interesting coincidence, Oprah Winfrey has begun a 21-day vegan cleanse inspired by Quantum Wellness author Kathy Freston.

Freston, a self-described spiritual advisor (with no nutrition credentials), suggests this cleanse as a way to begin a "spiritual makeover".

Freston's belief is that spiritual enlightenment includes a diet free of all animal products.

Alright, full disclosure time: I have not eaten red meat, poultry, or pork since 1998.

That decision was made after being informed of what I considered to be cruel treatment and welfare of animals who later become food.

There was also the issue of the environmental toll resulting from raising animals for human consumption.

So, while I can certainly appreciate the ideas of awareness and enlightenment, I am put off by attaching a 21-day vegan "cleanse" to the concept of a spiritual makeover.

Going vegan for 3 weeks is not a cure for low self-esteem, anxiety, fear, or loneliness.

Furthermore, if this is about enlightenment and the use of animals as food, why does this cleanse also ban (UGH, UGH, UGH) sugar, caffeine, gluten, and alcohol?

Any plan that asks you to ban, forbid, or do away with certain foods or food groups overnight is a recipe for disaster.

If anything, such abrupt changes will leave you more irritable, moody, and cranky than Kumbayah.

Think of it this way. If you suddenly decided you wanted to start swimming, would you go for 50 laps your first time around? I don't think so.

Anyhow, Oprah started the cleanse this week and will update readers via her blog.

I will follow this closely and comment on anything that stands out to me.

Later today, I will take one of Oprah's sample days and see what we come up with from a caloric and nutrient standpoint.

May 21, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Fasts/"Detox" Cleanses

I’m getting into a rather heated argument here at work with my coworker who swears by Stanley Burrough's Master Cleanse.

He says it provides mental clarity and gets him "back on track" whilst cleaning out his system.

Admittedly, I've tried it before and went off after the 5th day due to headaches, extreme bitchiness, etc, etc. I also felt like my tooth enamel was being eroded due to all the citric acid.

I've read your blog entry on the topic, and was hoping you could go into more detail regarding liquid cleanses/fasts.

When are they healthy? When are they not?

Does cayenne pepper actually bind to the toxins/whatnot in your intestines and do anything beneficial?

Does the master cleanse actually make your body go into a starvation mode? What are the side effects of this?

Why is this "cleanse" still such a hot topic?! Why hasn’t it successfully been filed under crap to never try?

Are there any REAL physiological benefits?? What about juice fasts??

-- Brooke Green
Brooklyn, NY

Great questions! Let’s take them one at a time.

Fasts – of any kind – are not healthy in general.

This is especially true if they fall below 1,200 calories, are all liquid, restrict you to a handful of foods or only one food group, or simply do not enable you to get enough nutrients.

There is no logical reason, from a health standpoint, to go on a fast of any kind.

Even if someone were on a steady diet of Doritos, ice cream, and soda for months and suddenly wanted to “start fresh”, all they would have to do is replace those foods with healthier ones.

There is no need to stop eating or have only liquids in order to “cleanse” the body.

When you consider that these fasts are deficient in practically every nutrient, it is ironic that it is often “health conscious” people who go on them.

Cayenne pepper does not “bind” to toxins or perform any sort of miracle. If anyone tells you otherwise, direct them to the nearest bank so they can deposit a big, fat reality check.

I suspect your co-worker isn't experiencing the benefits of a "cleanse," but rather the power of the placebo effect.

We already have built-in “detoxing” organs, the kidneys and liver. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t urinate (one significant way in which we excrete, among other things, toxins).

If you want to keep things moving through the digestive system and take away some stress from those organs, getting sufficient insoluble fiber and hydration are two important steps you can take.

Many cleanses – including the Master Cleanse – cause your body to go into starvation mode.

When you are on these "plans", the majority of weight lost comes from water and muscle (so yes, you lose weight, but it is not permanent; even worse, your metabolism slows down, thereby slowing down your body's calorie-burning rate.)

The Master Cleanse always pops up as a "trendy" diet because people are thrilled with the idea of a quick fix. Also, scare tactics work.

Many cleanse companies tell stories of “years of fecal matter” being stuck to your intestinal walls. Get rid of these, they say, and lose ten pounds in just days!

Creative, but untrue.

However, these “facts” often fester in people's minds, enticing them to fork over money for these silly “fixes.”

Juice fasts are just as unhealthy and useless. You are talking about no protein, no fat, no calcium, no zinc, etc.

Remember, the different “food groups” offer specific nutrients. Fruits contain many vitamins, but they lack protein, heart-healthy fats, calcium, iron, etc, etc.

Additionally, high intakes of fructose -- the natural sugar in fruit -- are linked with intestinal distress in many people. NOT fun.

With that said, I fully and wholeheartedly recommend the Andy Bellatti cleanse.

No pills, no powders, no counting carbs. Simply purge all ridiculous and unhealthy weight-loss tactics out of your mind. It's a very refreshing experience!

Survey Results: Nutrition Labels, Part Deux

The latest Small Bites survey asked readers what values they paid most attention to when reading food labels.

The most important figure on a label relates to calories per serving -- at least that's how seventy-five percent of respondents voted.

The ingredients list (32%), fiber content (30%), and serving size (29%) also received a good deal of votes.

While saturated fat was considered important by 23% of readers, total fat content received a significant 40% of votes.

I'm not too sure why this is the case.

Fat content in and of itself doesn't tell us much about the food that we can't already gauge by taking a look at calories per serving (since fat contributes 9 calories per gram, foods with higher fat contents provide more calories than lower-fat ones).

If you only look at total fat values, wonderfully healthy foods like guacamole or walnuts appear no different than brownies or ice cream sandwiches.

When it comes to fat content, saturated fat (and trans fat, although once food companies were mandated to display trans fat figures on their products they miraculously found new trans-fat-free formulas for their products) is the value to keep your eye on.

Remember, high intakes of saturated fat are linked to higher risks of heart disease and a decrease in HDL (or "good") cholesterol.

Guacamole, though, is mostly composed of monounsaturated fats (the kind that help lower LDL -- or "bad" -- cholesterol).

This is why fat content -- without a more specific breakdown -- isn't an appropriate factor to base food purchases on (unless, as previously mentioned, you are trying to gauge calories).

I was surprised to see that vitamin and mineral values are largely considered irrelevant. Only 5 percent of respondents consider vitamin content to be important, and a measly 4 percent feel that way about mineral figures.

A huge thank you to those of you who took a minute to participate!

Please leave comments and thoughts on the results in the "comments" section.

May 20, 2008

The Hard Facts on Baskin-Robbins' Soft Serve

Baskin-Robbins is expanding its ice cream experience weeks before the official start of summer.

Say hello to their very own soft serve!

Don't let the name fool you; this swirly vanilla concoction has no interest in helping you indulge your sweet tooth without overloading on calories.

For starters, a regular (not kiddie-sized, not large) soft serve cone provides 280 calories, 35% of a day's worth of saturated fat, and 9 teaspoons of sugar.

Certainly not a harmless treat.

The real disaster, however, comes if you order Baskin Robbins' new 31 Below soft serve sundaes ("vanilla Soft Serve blended with your favorite candies, cookies and toppings for a delectable dessert.")

Take, for instance, the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup 31 Below treat: a combination of vanilla soft serve, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Reese's Peanut Butter Sauce.

At its smallest, it offers 950 calories, 105% of a day's worth of saturated fat, and 21.5 teaspoons of sugar.

Choose a large (which, by the way, is advertised for a single person; there is no mention of it being "shareable") and once you've taken your last bite you will have consumed 1800 calories, 195% of a day's worth of saturated fat, almost half a day's worth of sodium (!), and 40 teaspoons of sugar!

And that's not even as bad as it gets.

A large fudge brownie 31 Below, for instance, clocks in at 1900 calories and 58 teaspoons of sugar.

We come back to the eternal question -- WHY?

Is there really a necessity to create a dessert that offers an entire day's worth of calories and 600% of the maximum added sugar allowance?

Your best bet is to tap into your inner child and order a kiddie size soft serve vanilla cone (don't be shy, it is just as big as McDonald's standard vanilla cone).

At 140 calories, 18% of a day's worth of saturated fat, and less than 5 teaspoons of sugar, it's an occassional summer treat that, despite the presence of "corn syrup solids" and multiple stabilizers, is cool with me.

You Ask, I Answer: Calorie Cycling

Some blogs I read recommend "calorie cycling" for people who are losing weight (at a healthy, moderate pace, accompanied by lifestyle changes, etc).

Supposedly, if you alternate eating at the bottom and the top of your calorie range, your metabolism is better maintained and you don't plateau or enter starvation mode.

Any truth to this?

-- Carrie (last name unknown)

Fremont, CA

Calorie cycling -- also known as calorie shifting -- is popular among bodybuilders, especially in the days before a competition.

I don't particularly find it very effective with the rest of the population looking to shed some weight.

For one, it is very rare that someone is eating the exact same amount of calories every day, even when following a meal plan created by a dietitian (there is usually a 100 - 200 calorie window).

Therefore, it can be argued that there is always a fluctuation in caloric intake (especially in meal plans that allow a "cheat meal" or "cheat day.")

Secondly, the number of calories burned each day also varies.

If you are following a meal plan and exercising four days a week, your net caloric intake is not the same every day (i.e.: you may consume 1,600 calories one day and burn an additional 200 in your workout, whereas another day you may consume 1,550 and not exercise).

Lastly, I find that calorie shifting adds more numbers and stress to what is already an adjustment for many people.

Worrying about eating 1,300 calories today and 1,800 tomorrow (even though, as luck would have it, that birthday dinner is today) isn't worth the trouble.

Besides, there is plenty of proof that people successfully lose weight in a healthy way by sticking to a certain (small) caloric range over a period of time.

As far as starvation goes -- that is reserved for caloric intakes falling below 1,200 calories a day.

Cutting down a 2,500 calorie diet (that has led to weight gain) into an 1,800 calorie one will never result in starvation.

Celebrities -- They're Just Like Us! They Follow Senseless Fad Diets!

During a long wait at the doctor's office today I picked up a recent issue of Us Weekly.

Lo and behold, I came across this weight-loss piece.

Turns out that former dancer Tracy Anderson -- who now trains Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow; the three are pictured alongside this post -- has created a "perfectly healthy" (her words, not mine) diet plan that promises a net loss of 20 pounds in just 6 weeks.

Anderson claims that "signature strategy" helps women achieve the "teeny-tiny dancer type" body so many of them desire.

Allow me to pull out my huge red flag.

Anything that promises readers to achieve a dancer's physique should make your BS detectors light up.

Talk about unrealistic expectations! Dancers achieve their bodies through years of intense training.

Let's not forget, too, that the dance world has very high rates of eating disorders. That figure is not just about eating grilled salmon and steamed veggies for dinner every night.

Someone carrying 50 extra pounds on their frame who does not exercise regularly should not be promised such an unrealistic result.

Oh, but wait, that's right -- Anderson claims to have independently tested 100 women (what a conveniently round number!) over the past 5 years.

Therefore she must know what she's talking about, right? Wrong.

Her "signature strategy" is nothing more than an alarmingly drastic caloric reduction (which we'll get to in a bit).

The plan strictly forbids processed foods, dairy, and spices. Red flag number TWO.

Anderson, who as far as I know is not a registered dietitian and has not studied nutrition, claims that dairy and spices result in bloating and upset the digestive system, thereby resulting in fat storage.

If she DID study nutrition, where did she get her degree? Bizarro University?

Spices are wonderfully healthy -- they offer a variety of nutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.

Furthermore, there is absolutely no evidence linking spices to bloating or fat storage.

As for dairy, unless someone is lactose intolerant, I don't see any reason for avoiding it, particularly fat-free dairy, which is a wonderful source of protein and calcium.

The second week of the plan mostly eliminates snacks, leaving dieters with three paltry meals.

One Wednesday, for instance, suggests:


1 cup nonfat rice milk
1 poached egg


1 slice whole wheat toast
2 strips veggie bacon
1/2 cup tomatoes
1/2 cup spinach


3 - 5 oz. grilled seabass
1/2 cup steamed spinach

That adds up to approximately 850 calories! Well, yeah, you're bound to lose weight when you basically starve yourself.

Whatever happened to that "perfectly healthy" quote? This is anything but.

As far as I'm concerned, anyone telling you to eat sushi rolls without soy sauce needs to have their head checked (not to mention, why is sushi part of a plan that only allows whole grains?).

I know people do not turn to Us Weekly for the latest in health and nutrition research, but there needs to be some accountability here.

A meal plan such as this one -- very low in calories and nutrients -- should not be glamorized. This is basically a semi-starvation diet with two big celebrity names attached.

The three meals listed above contribute approximately 10 grams of fiber -- less than half a day's worth!

That day's worth of food only offers one serving of whole grains, very little vitamin E, not enough potassium, very little calcium, no Omega-3's.... I could go on and on.

As much as it often irritates me, I can accept the fact that celebrity mags will never shed the weight-loss pieces (they entice a lot of readers at the newsstand), but is too much to ask that they turn to respectable sources, like Registered Dietitians?

Or, at the very least, do 2 minutes of fact checking on whatever meal plan is being offered?

Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand were right -- ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

May 19, 2008

Numbers Game: Wholly Ignored

______ percent of adults in the United States consume a grand total of ZERO whole grain servings every day.

a) 31
b) 19
c) 40
d) 24

Leave your guess in the "comments" section and come back on Friday for the answer (and tips on how to effortless increase your whole grain consumption).

May 15, 2008

On Behalf of Shrimp

Last Summer I blogged about my disappointment at an episode of Bravo's Top Chef competition reality show in which contestants' only guideline for creating a heart-healthy dish was making it "low in cholesterol."

This led to the usage of meats low in cholesterol but high in saturated fat.

Ironically, saturated fat is more detrimental to blood cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol.

One contestant was specifically chastised for using lobster -- a higher-cholesterol food containing Omega-3 fatty acids and almost no saturated fat -- while others were praised for using red meats lower in cholesterol but chock full of saturated fat.

I just finished watching this week's episode of Top Chef (currently in its fourth season) and am experiencing a major case of déjà vu.

This time around, the seven remaining contestants were asked to create healthy meals for Chicago's police officers, who often turn to unhealthy fast food dishes for lunch.

The chefs had complete freedom to make whatever dish struck their fancy as long as it contained one whole grain, one lean protein, one fruit, and one vegetable.

Great so far.

Then, on the heels of host Padma Lakshmi talking about this country's battle with obesity and diabetes, they threw in an additional seemingly random rule about dishes being "low carb" and "low sugar."

Huh? A low-carb dish that must include whole grains?

Adding to the "tacked on" feeling of that rule is the fact that when it came to judging, carbohydrate content was not an issue (and it shouldn't be; high fiber is more important than low carb in my book).

I digress.

Spaztic contestant Andrew D'Ambrosi -- who made a poorly reviewed salmon maki roll substituting raw parsnips and pinenuts for rice -- spent a large portion of this episode obnoxiously bragging about the 2 years he spent studying nutrition.

In one scene, he is seen recommending to a fellow "cheftestant" that she not use shrimp since they are high in cholesterol and, therefore, do not fulfill the "healthy" requirement of the challenge.

Andrew, back to nutrition school for you!

Let's put this to rest once and for all. Shrimp are healthy.

Yes, they are higher in cholesterol than other aquatic animals, but dietary cholesterol is less related to blood cholesterol than saturated fat.

Here's the better news -- three ounces of shrimp only provide 0.2 grams of saturated fat. That's a mere 1% of the recommended daily maximum limit.

It also doesn't hurt that those three ounces pack in 18 grams of protein, 300 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acids, 48% of the selenium requirement, 21% of the Vitamin B12 requirement, and 15% of a day's worth of iron... all in an 84 calorie package!

I am not calling for shrimp to be a daily staple, but don't cast them aside because of their cholesterol profile.

Maybe next time I'll post a Chris Crocker inspired "Leave shrimp alone!" video...

In The News: What's Next? Genetically Modified Bananas With Extra Potassium?

Desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures.

Currently experiencing a lull in revenue, coffee giant Starbucks jumps on the energy drink bandwagon 5 years after everyone else.

That's right -- you can now amp any Starbucks beverage -- hot or iced -- by simply saying "plus energy" at the end of your order (dare you to order a "grande sugarfree vanilla decaf carameal macchiatto with breve plus energy" without stopping to take a breath!).

The "plus energy" concoction -- created by Starbucks' "research and development team, a group of culinary experts, food scientists and product designers" -- includes the usual suspects: ginseng, guarana, taurine, L-carnitine, and B vitamins.

FYI: Guarana is a berry native to South America containing four times as much caffeine as coffee beans. It's extremely popular in Brazil, where it is mainly consumed as a soda, in both regular and diet varieties.

Is all this really necessary in a coffee-based drink? I vote "no."

Why are "energy mixes" billed as the only solution for a drop in energy levels? Is healthy eating and getting enough shut eye not "cool" enough?

And why are we increasingly encouraging people to walk around like the Energizer bunny on crack?

May 14, 2008

Perfect Pickings: Sliced Bread (Calling Them As I See Them!)

Earlier today I received a comment from a reader named Mel, who shared how difficult it is to find a "truly whole-grain bread that does not have high fructose corn syrup."

I empathize.

So, let's cut down your time in the bread aisle and name names.

The following "approved" breads have at least 3 grams of fiber, are 100% whole grain, and contain NO high fructose corn syrup.

Please note this is by no means a definitive list, as it does not include lesser-known brands.

A random sampling from a New York City supermarket led to these results.

Small Bites Approved Breads:

* All varieties of Food For Life Ezekiel 4:9 Flourless Sprouted Grain Breads
* Arnold 100% Natural Whole Wheat Bread
* Arnold Natural Flax/Fiber Bread
* Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural 100% Whole Wheat Bread
* Pepperidge Farm 100% Natural 9-Grain Bread
* Pepperidge Farm Golden Harvest Grains
* Sara Lee 100% Whole Wheat Bread
* Vermont Bread Company Soft Whole Wheat Bread

Names Can Be Deceiving...

* Arnold 12-Grain Bread (contains High Fructose Corn syrup and white flour)
* Arnold Double Fiber Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
* Arnold Healthy Multigrain Bread (contains white flour)
* Arnold Hearty Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
* Arnold Whole Grain Health Nut (contains High Fructose corn syrup, only 2 grams of fiber per slice, and contain white flour)
* Dutch Country Stroehmann 100% Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup and only 2 grams of fiber per slice)
* Healthy Life Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
* Pepperidge Farm Farmhouse Soft 100% Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup)
* Wonder Bread 100% Stoneground Whole Wheat Bread (contains High Fructose Corn Syrup and only 2 grams of fiber per slice)

When in doubt, always read the label!

May 13, 2008

Perfect Pickings: Sliced Bread

You would think something as simple as nutritious bread would be easy to pick out.

Guess again.

The sliced bread market brings in approximately $18 billion a year, meaning consumers must sort through a maze of brands, health claims, and expensive marketing campaigns.

Alas, Perfect Pickings is here to save the day!

As far as calories are concerned, commercial sliced breads range anywhere from 60 to 120 calories per serving.

These figures mainly depend on the thickness and weight of a particular brand’s slices.

Some clock in at 1 ounce, while another weigh in at an ounce and a half. Some lower-calorie “light breads”, though, constitute a single serving as two slices.

Most standard commercial breads, though, are very similar when compared ounce to ounce.

Don't focus too much on calories -- the differences aren’t that significant, and there are more important values to consider.

Sodium amounts are also fairly consistent across the board, ranging from 120 to 190 milligrams per slice (unless you specifically buy low-sodium varieties or sprouted grain breads, which contain no sodium).

Fiber is the main figure to be on the lookout for. Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Don’t be fooled by varieties consisting of 9, 12, or 15 grains. It is very possible all 15 grains are refined and stripped of their fiber.

You must check the nutrition facts and ingredient list to ensure you are getting a whole grain product.

If “whole wheat flour” is not the first ingredient and each slice provides less than 3 grams of fiber, you are eating white bread (you can thank the addition of molasses for that brown color) with seeds sprinkled on top.

If you see “enriched wheat flour” as the first ingredient, you are not buying whole grain bread. “Enriched wheat flour” is a nice way of saying “white, fiberless flour.”

Keep in mind that Although pure rye bread – popular in Scandinavia – is a whole grain food, the overwhelming majority of rye breads in the United States contain a significant amount of white flour.

Another tricky tidbit – careful with low-calorie “light” breads.

Many boast a fiber content of 5 or 6 grams per serving, but this is mainly due to the addition of cellulose or soy fiber.

Although they operate like insoluble fiber (by helping everything move quickly and smoothly through the digestive system), they do not provide the same health benefits as fiber derived from whole grains.

I recommend avoiding varieties containing high-fructose corn syrup (bread requires a pinch of sugar to soften texture, but HFCS skeeves me out).

Mission: (Semi) Impossible!

A Mighty Tiger's Weak Roar

You can't accuse the folks at Gatorade of resting on their laurels.

However, their new products often leave me furrowing my brow and asking, "Why?".

No, I take that back. I shake my head, grunt, and THEN ask "Why?"

Case in point -- the new Gatorade Tiger, inspired by hotshot golfer Tiger Woods.

According to the beverage's press release, Tiger embodies "mental strength, physical power, and technical perfection."

What these three qualities have to do with drinking a sports drink beats me. I think Tiger's success is better attributed to a unique mixture of hard work, genetics, ambition, and practice?

Anyhow, Gatorade executives heart Tiger so much that they formulated this drink especially for him. Tiger even underwent sweat analysis testing at the Gatorade laboratory facilities.

I would also spend countless hours sweating profusely for a bunch of scientists if I was pocketing a cool $100 million for this five-year development deal like Tiger did.

In any case, this is the same mostly unnecessary product repackaged for a new campaign.

Oh, I'm sorry, Gatorade Tiger has 25 percent more electrolytes. Wow, then it MUST be better, right?

Not quite.

This simply means that a 16 ounce, 100-calorie bottle contains 270 milligrams of sodium (more than a one-ounce serving of Lay's potato chips) and a negligent 80 milligrams of potassium (remember, the daily requirement is set at 4,000).

Let's not forget the 28 grams (7 teaspoons) of added sugar.

Sugar water with salt -- Tiger Woods' secret!

May 12, 2008

Speaking With...: Mike Levinson

This posting is dedicated to all my male readers.

I'm not playing favorites, but certainly paying homage to the miniscule amount of male Registered Dietitians in the United States.

Just how miniscule? Only 2.5 percent of the approximately 60,000 RD’s in this country are men!

Remember, whereas anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, Registered Dietitians are accredited by the American Dietetic Association.

Aspiring RD's like myself must complete a series of required academic courses as well as a 900-hour clinical internship, and then show they can walk the walk by passing a national exam.

If that isn't enough, they also must complete 75 hours of professional education every 5 years in order to retain the credential.

So, imagine my excitement when I first heard of RD Mike Levinson's new book, Buff Dad, three weeks ago.

Sure, there are plenty of male physicians, anthropologists, physicists, cardiologists, and quacks (oh, I don't know, some guy named Kevin) dipping their toes into the nutrition waters, but it is rare to see a book penned by a male Registered Dietitian.

Buff Dad is a "4-week fitness game plan" tailored for men (fathers or not) looking to tone up and slim down.

Part of it comes from experience.

Despite being an amateur bodybuilder and avid athlete, Levinson -- who holds a bachelors degree of science in nutrition and exercise science from the Univ of Texas and completed his Dietetic Internship at California State University of Long Beach -- gained 50 pounds in two years after his wife had their first child.

The plan outlined in Buff Dad is what Levinson used to, as he puts it, go from a "puffy dad" to a "buff daddy"!

What sets this apart from many other "diet" books is that Levinson instills some valuable lessons on healthy lifelong habits, including portion control, not swearing off any foods entirely, implementing exercise, and enjoying a diet that includes all food groups.

Additionally, Levinson's recommendations can be followed for life. No special supplements, exotic ingredients, or bizarre non-sensical rules.

Unlike many other nutrition and fitness books aimed at men, the ultimate goal here is not to bulk up and reach Vin Diesel-like proportions. The focus is on healthy eating, toning up, and looking YOUR personal best, not that of advertisers'.

Buff Dad's central "theme" surrounds the male sex hormone, testosterone.

"Testosterone is the key to gaining that lean muscle and burning stubborn body fat," says Levinson.

In the book, he urges readers to include certain testosterone-boosting "powerfoods" on a daily basis, including tried and true classics like beans, poultry, and eggs, as well as some surprising ones -- broccoli, brussels sprouts, and garlic.

"Testosterone is shown to help men improve muscles mass and decrease body fat. The more muscle mass you can add to your body, the higher your metabolism which means you burn more calories and fat throughout the day," he explains.

Levinson believes that a steady intake of these foods, in combination with a consistent workout plan (also detailed in the book), helps tone up and boost metabolism.

"Food is the most powerful fuel and drug to help athletes and people who want to get in shape and be healthy," Levinson says.

Small Bites landed an interview with this buff dad (and author). Our exchange follows.

How does this plan fit into a vegetarian lifestyle? I specifically ask since lean beef and poultry are two of the top ten testosterone "powerfoods".

There are many vegetable-based testosterone foods which a vegetarian can include.

[For example], lacto-ovo vegetarians [those who consume dairy and egg products] can eat eggs and egg whites.

The most important factor [, though,] is to follow the diet plan and make sure to eat small meals throughout the day and watch portion sizes.

Are there any foods that decrease testosterone levels? This kind of ties in to the first question, because I'm thinking along the lines of soy and phytoestrogens. Would a diet high in soy foods (ie: having soymilk, tofu, soy crisps, and soy burgers as daily staples) be detrimental?

A diet high in soy based products could actually increase the production of estrogen in the body. High estrogen levels could potentially increase a man's chances of getting gynocamastia (breast tissue “man-boobs”) and also increase risk of breast cancer.

[But] I think including some tofu, soy beans and other soy based products is fine, and encouraged, especially if someone is a vegetarian. They need that protein to build muscle mass and further to increase metabolism [in order to] burn more fat.

The plan recommends 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercises three times a week, and 30 minute of cardio another 3 days of the week. If someone were pressed for time, could they do 30 minutes of cardio the same day/session as their 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercises, or is that going to have counter effects?

Yes they can- exercise is cumulative, which means [that] as long as you do three times a week of weight training to build lean tissue and three to four days a week of cardio to burn body fat and increase stamina and cardio health, that is fine.

I recommend doing some form of exercise at least five days a week so doing cardio and then weight training on the same day is fine but I believe another day or two of walking or biking or some form of cardio is a must.

The book mentions low-fat diets as detrimental for men since they lower testosterone levels. However, low-fat peanut butter and fat-free yogurt are listed as suggested foods. Are these recommendations based on lower-fat varieties contributing less total calories?

Yes- I believe in a well balanced diet and try to avoid higher fat (saturated) yogurts- these are not that good for you because of the higher saturated milk fat.

As for peanut butter- I believe it is a wonderful food but high in calories because of the fat content so trying to get just a little less fat translates to lower calories.

I do not believe in low fat and high carb diets and in this day- you could potentially eat a virtually fat free diet (the 1980s and 1990s) and not see results.

From a training perspective, what are some of the most common mistakes you see men make at the gym?

Some common mistakes men make at the gym or [when] working out at home is doing the same body part (i.e. abs or biceps or chest) everyday and not working other muscle groups.

Also working the same muscle everyday or every other day does not allow that particular muscle to rest and recuperate.

A total body workout with minimum amount of time is ideal and the standard now.

What would you say to a man who comes to you, is about 50 pounds overweight, wants to get his health and fitness back, but has no idea where to start?

Buy Buff Dad and get started on the program. It will be an easy way to get in shape without buying expensive machines or exotic foods.

Thank you once again to Mike Levinson for his time.

If you are interested in learning more, visit him at the Buff Dad website.