July 31, 2008

Survey Results: Economical Eating

The most recent Small Bites survey asked visitors to classify eating healthy on a budget as:

"Possible and easy" (27%)
"Challenging, but doable" (58%)

"Very hard" (13%)

"Impossible" (1%)

I am very happy to see that a solid 85% of voters consider it to at least be “doable.”

The truth is, healthy eating (which I defined as “balanced, nutritious, and meeting most nutrient daily values”) does not need to be a wallet-buster.

Let’s clarify a few issues.

1. Healthy eating does not need to be organic.

If you can afford organic, go for it. If your budget doesn't allow for it, that doesn't mean you can't have a perfectly healthy and balanced diet.

Whole wheat pasta will always contain at least 5 grams of fiber per serving, organic or not, and both organic and conventional peanuts are a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

Besides, as far as our bodies are concerned, there is no difference between an organic and conventional 400-calorie chocolate chip cookie.

2. Healthy eating does not need to be exotic.

Every few months some new “miracle” fruit comes along.

I am sure you are familiar with the process by now.

It is usually from another continent and, after being profiled in the mass media, is quickly turned into a juice drink packed in a beautifully shaped glass bottle (displaying a brand name with an accented vowel) that retails for a ridiculous price.

Here's the thing: ALL fruits are healthy.

Yes, some offer more nutrients than others, but there is no such thing as a fruit that is unhealthy or should be avoided.

Similarly, I don't like to label any food as a "miracle" or "superior" one.

Besides, acai berries are exotic in the United States, but as run of the mill as apples are to us in their native Brazil.

3. Nature is cheaper than major food companies.

Instead of tortilla chips with flaxseeds (which aren’t even grounded up, meaning you aren’t absorbing any lignans,) buy ground flaxseed and sprinkle it onto different foods.

A standard bag of ground flaxseed retails for $5 (almost as much as gourmet tortilla chips) and lasts for months if you only use up a tablespoon each day -- which is plenty.

Remember, what drives up food costs isn't so much nutrition as it is convenience.

A six-pack of single-serving applesauce containers may be convenient, but for that same amount of money you can buy enough apples to make five times that much applesauce.

I specifically mention apples because they can sit in a fruit bowl for days before they start to rot.

They are portable, delicious, and you don't need any utensils to eat them. Talk about convenient!

A Luna bar may be convenient, but so is packing a small Ziploc bag of peanuts and raisins to snack on later in the day (the latter is also significantly cheaper.)

4. Sometimes a big name isn't a good deal.

Many foods (canned beans, plain oatmeal, raisins, and frozen vegetables) are equally nutritious whether they are made by a generic or well-known brand.

5. Speaking of beans...

... they are a wonderful and inexpensive way to get protein and fiber.

Use them for vegetarian chilis, bean salads, or even to make your own hummus at home (it’s simple – just blend together chickpeas, tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt!).

In conclusion...

Junk food is very financially accessible, but so are many nutritious foods.

PS: I'm interested in reading YOUR tips for eating healthy when money is tight. Post away!

July 30, 2008

Quick & Healthy Recipes: Avocado Smoothie

I'm fairly certain I could have an avocado once a day for the rest of my life and never tire of the delicious nutty-flavored fruit.

Some people enjoy the taste of an avocado but not the texture, so this smoothie is a great way to get a no-mush fix packed with nutrients and healthy fats!

YIELD: 1 smoothie


1/2 cup ice cubes
1/2 cup skim or soy milk (plain or unsweetened)
1/2 cup halved strawberries
1/2 cup blueberries
1/2 Hass avocado
1 Tablespoon wheat germ
1 Tablespoon oat bran
2 teaspoons ground flaxseed

NOTE: For a less thick smoothie, add extra milk or water, depending on your specific caloric preference.


Combine all ingredients in blender. Blend for 20 - 30 seconds.


381 calories
18 g fat (2 grams saturated fat)
15 grams fiber
3 grams added sugar (if made with plain soy milk)
11 grams protein

Excellent Source of: Monounsaturated fats, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid.

Good Source of: Copper, folate, potassium

You Ask, I Answer: Monoglycerides & Diglycerides

What are monoglycerides and diglycerides?

I've seen them on food labels but don't know what they are or why they are in some foods.

-- Lisa (last name withheld)

Brooklyn, NY

Ah, yes. Nothing makes you want to reach for a dictionary more than reading a food label.

Monoglycerides and diglycerides are related to triglycerides (three fatty acid molecules bound to a glycerol molecule) -- the basic unit of all dietary fats.

They consist of either one or two fatty acid molecules bound to a glycerol molecule and are mainly used as emulsifiers, thickeners, and binders in a variety of different foods.

Although they can be obtained from triglycerides, they are very easy to create synthetically.

"Non-natural" peanut butters, for instance, contain mono and/or diglycerides in order to prevent the oil from separating from the more paste-like crushed peanuts.

You will also often see them present in margarines and low-fat butter replacements.

They pose no health risks -- or benefits.

July 29, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

According to recent estimates, 30.6 percent of adults in the United States are classified as obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or higher,) while only 3.2 percent of the adult population in Japan falls into that category.

With that in mind, here's an interesting fact:

Average caloric consumption in the US clocks in at 3,770 calories a day, whereas the average Japanese citizen takes in 2,770 calories a day.

Quite a striking difference, wouldn't you say?

By the way, I have seen lots of sloppy reporting in regards to Japan's obesity rate.

Many articles point out that Japan's reputation as a healthy nation is undeserved, since one third of their adults are obese.

Not quite.

It just so happens that Japan and The United States use different parameters to define obesity.

In the USA, one is categorized as obese if their Body Mass Index totals 30 or more.

"Overweight," meanwhile, is used to describe BMIs ranging from 25.0 to 29.9

Japan, however, considers a BMI of 25 to mark the onset of obesity.

To fall into the "overweight" category in the land of the rising sun, one's BMI needs to be between 23.0 and 24.9.

Theories of the Japanese having a distinct genetic makeup that makes them less likely to be obese are flimsy, since adopting the typical US diet -- with its excessive caloric load -- leads to weight gain in this population as well.

In The News: Obesity & Genetics

I’m slightly weary of how the mainstream media will present the latest findings in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinoloy & Metabolism.

To summarize, researchers at University College in London and the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, discovered that children with the FTO gene – a gene associated with obesity -- “are less likely to have their appetite ‘switched off’ by eating.”

Furthermore, “previous studies have shown that adults with two copies of the FTO gene are on average 3kg [6.6 lbs] heavier, and individuals with a single copy are on average 1.5kg [3.3 lbs] heavier, than those without the gene.”

What is important to keep in mind with this study and others similar to it is that the presence of this gene simply indicates “susceptability to overeating.”

In other words, making smart food choices is crucial, no matter what your genetic makeup. A predisposition should not be turned into a self-fulfilling life sentence.

I hope you are starting to see how a lot of the topics discussed on this blog feed into each other (pardon the pun.)

Think about the following.

It’s a known fact that when supersize portions are placed in front of us, we are likely to eat until the last bite simply because the food is there, inches away from our hands, eyes, and mouth.

Restaurant entrées containing upwards of 2,000 calories are not unheard of these days.

Place that factor within the framework of someone with an altered hunger mechanism and I'm sure you see the problem: they are even more likely to finish their plate, whether it packs in 800 or 3,000 calories.

Individual choices do play an important role, though. Regardless of their genetic predisposition, anyone can choose to accompany their meal with a 150 calorie side dish of brown rice or a 400 calorie side dish of onion rings.

Genes in and of themselves do not make anyone obese. It is the combination of dietary patterns and behaviors along with these genetic conditions that ultimately determine the outcome.

After all, our genes are the same now as 50 years ago, when obesity rates in the United States were approximately 65% lower than they are today.

Here's hoping an overeager newscaster won't soon be stating, "Why some people just can't help being obese! All that and more tonight at eleven."

July 28, 2008

Does Sugar Make Children Hyper?

It's certainly a question on many parents' minds.

Can little Adam's or tiny Claudia's hyper behavior at the next birthday party be subdued by only letting him or her have a half -- rather than whole -- slice of cake?

In the latest video on the Small Bites YouTube channel, I tackle this question head on.

Curious to know the answer? Watch and find out!

July 27, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Guar Gum

What is guar gum?

I see it listed as an ingredient in a lot of foods and something about it sounds really artificial and unhealthy.

-- Vanessa (name withheld)

Kansas City, MO

There is actually nothing "sketchy" about guar gum.

It is the end result of grinding up the endosperm of the guar plant (pictured at left,) which grows exclusively in certain regions of India and Pakistan between July and December.

Guar gum serves a variety of food processing purposes, including thickening, emulsifying, and binding.

Some of its "greatest hits" include preventing ice crystals from forming in ice cream and mimicking the consistency and texture of gluten (wheat protein) in gluten-free products.

The reason why you see it pop up so often is because it is easy to manipulate and very low in cost -- a food manufacturer's dream!

There is absolutely nothing about it to fear, and no reason to seek "guar gum free" foods.

July 26, 2008

Numbers Game: A World of Difference

According to recent estimates, 30.6 percent of adults in the United States are classified as obese (Body Mass Index of 30 or higher,) while only 3.2 percent of the adult population in Japan falls into that category.

With that in mind, here's an interesting fact:

Average caloric consumption in the US clocks in at __________ calories a day, whereas the average Japanese citizen takes in ___________ calories a day.

(Sources: World Health Organization, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Health Data)

a) 3,040/2,600
b) 3,770/2,770
c) 4,500/2,100
d) 3,520/2,900

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

You Ask, I Answer: "Negative Calorie" Foods

What do you think of negative calorie foods?

Can someone lose weight if they eat well over their recommended calories of just negative calorie food?

-- Anonymous
Via the blog

I don’t believe “negative calorie foods” (foods that, some folks like to think/desperately wish, contain less calories than our bodies use to digest them) exist.

Have you ever seen a list of supposed “negative calorie foods?”

You'll find a handful of vegetables (i.e.: asparagus, cucumbers) and fruits (i.e.: strawberries, blueberries.)

Forget "negative calories," these simply happen to be foods so low in calories that they can be eaten in fairly large quantities without much of an effect on your weight.

It’s not that cucumbers result in a caloric deficit, it’s more that it takes TEN cups of sliced cucumbers to reach the 160 calorie mark (it takes just HALF a cup of Haagen Dazs to consume that same amount.)

Bottom line -- every food contains calories. Yes, even iceberg lettuce (a basically non-existent 8 calories per cup, but they are there.)

These diet gimmicks are the creation of slick business people looking to tap into what I call the "desperate" demographic. These are people willing to believe ANYTHING that doesn’t call for a slow and steady change in their eating patterns or more structured/careful thinking about what they are eating.

Also, my dear "anonymous," there is no “recommended caloric amount” of negative calorie foods.

The key to losing weight is to cut down on caloric intake (and if you can increase physical activity simultaneously, particularly with weight-resistant exercises, you’re down an excellent path.)

Doing so in a healthy, tasty, permanent way that leaves you feeling satisfied while meeting your nutritional requirements isn't always quite so easy, which is one reason why this blog was created.

July 25, 2008

Say What?: You Say "Wholesome," I Say "Really?"

The Slim-Fast Foods Company describes itself as being “committed to the development of wholesome and balanced nutritional products to aid in weight management and improved health.”

An interesting description, to say the least, given the ingredient list for their 120-calorie chocolate peanut nougat snack bar:

Maltitol Syrup, Milk Chocolate Flavored Coating (Sugar, Partially Hydrogenated Palm Kernel And Palm Oil, Cocoa (Processed With Alkali), Sugar, Roasted Peanuts (Peanuts, Peanut Oil), Sweetened Condensed Skim Milk (Skim Milk, Sugar), Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Palm Kernel And Soybean), Whey Protein Isolate, Gum Arabic, Malted Milk (Extracts Of Wheat Flour And Malt Barley, Milk, Salt, Sodium Bicarbonate), Nonfat Milk, Salt, Egg Whites, Artificial Flavor, Caramel Color, Soy Lecithin, Maltodextrin, Tbhq And Citric Acid, Vitamins And Minerals (Calcium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Ferric Orthophosphate, Vitamin E Acetate, Ascorbic Acid, Vitamin E Acetate, Niacinamide, Calcium Pantothenate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrocholoride, Riboflavin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Folic Acid, Biotin, Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12).

How a product with partially hydrogenated oils and maltitol syrup (the syrup of a sugar alcohol!) as its first ingredient can be described as 'wholesome' beats me.

You might as well eat a small chocolate bar and pop a multivitamin.

Why not have a handful (160 calories’ worth) of peanuts instead?

It's just as convenient and portable a snack as one of these bars, and doesn't contribute added sugars or partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) to your day.

Added bonus if you choose peanuts? Heart-healthy monounsaturated fats!

By the way, the "40% less sugar" banner on the box of these bars is the result of replacing half the sugar with maltitol (the sugar alcohol most likely to cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Yum!)

Craving chocolate but looking to control calories? Have a 100-calorie chocolate bar, sans sugar alcohols. Savor it, enjoy it, and go about your day.

July 24, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: B Vitamins & Mental Health

What do you think about those TrueHope EMPower vitamins that make all kinds of claims about aiding mental health?

I know B-complexes aid mental functioning, but is all of that really even bioavailable?

-- Anonymous
Via the blog

What do I think? I think it is an extremely disturbing -- and dangerous -- product.

TrueHope advertises itself as “bringing hope, healing, and health through the research, development, and promotion of high effective nutritional supplements designed to correct mood disorders and other nutrient-depleted conditions.”

In essence, they claim that mental conditions caused by chemical imbalances (such as bipolar disorder and depression) can be cured by popping what is, in essence, a daily multivitamin.

This claim is based on "evidence" from very shoddy trials.

In fact, there are a grand total of three, none of which are randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials (check out this Wikipedia link for "clinical trial 101" reading.)

Anyhow, their "mood-corrective" formula contains very high (sometimes above the upper tolerable intake) doses of a multitude of vitamins and minerals, plus a handful of other ingredients like grape seed extract and methionine.

One particularly disturbing included ingredient is vanadium, a trace mineral that people with bipolar disorder have been shown to actually have high levels of.

I am at a complete loss as to why this is present in EMPower.

Although it is true that the B vitamins play a role in mental function, that is very different from mood disorders.

The idea that B vitamins help with bipolar disorder is equivalent to someone claiming that since Vitamin C supports immune system function, megadoses could be effective in curing someone of AIDS.

If anyone ever attempts to tell you they can correct a mental disorder caused by a chemical imbalance through vitamins and minerals, be sure to run in the opposite direction and stay far, far away.

By the way, this product has been extremely controversial in its native Canada, where psychiatry and mental health organizations have warned patients of the dangers of relying on a combination of vitamins and minerals to control their mood disorders.

It has also been alleged that these pills "were supposedly designed to stop pigs from chewing each other's tails."

In The News: LA Lays Down The Law

Controversy is cooking in California, where a new law was passed that "prevents fast-food chains from opening new restaurants in a 32-square-mile area [of South Los Angeles] for one year, with the possibility of two six-month extensions."

This particular area of Los Angeles -- formerly, and commonly, known as South-Central Los Angeles -- has the highest obese rates in its county.

In fact, the latest figures place 30% of adults in South Los Angeles as obese, whereas 20.9% of adults in that respective county fall into that same category.

Diabetes figure are also higher in Southern LA (11.7%) than the rest of the county (8.1%).

It's worth nothing that this particular piece of policy defines a fast-food restaurant as "any establishment which dispenses food for consumption on or off the premises, and which has the following characteristics: a limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or heated quickly, no table orders and food served in disposable wrapping or containers."

A few points of interest:

Some lawmakers have called into question the "limited menu" aspect of the definition, explaining that many fast food restaurants expand their menus as time goes on.

Additionally, "fast-food casual" restaurants, such as Subway or Pastagina, that do not have heat lamps or drive-through windows and prepare fresh food to order" are exempt.

While I think this is a step in the right direction, I am interested in seeing how effective this will be towards improving the health of residents.

There are still literally hundreds of fast food chains in the area, and, perhaps more disturbingly, "the area has far fewer grocery stores than other parts of town."

This is always a dilemma in the public health and nutrition fields -- how do you encourage people to improve their eating habits when they are so used to -- and dependent on -- a quick fix?

My proposal?

First, strike a deal with these fast-food restaurants that would entail them offering their healthier items at a reduced cost for a week, so as to encourage consumers to try them out.

Then, offer free nutrition workshops at local community centers with an emphasis on healthy, low-cost, quick recipes.

A lot of this dependence on fast food stems from convenience, a lack of nutrition education, affordability, and lack of alternative options.

That is not some armchair theory, it is what I can recall from my own experience.

Upon completing my undergraduate degree a few years ago, I lived in Washington Heights, a New York City neighborhood that has a high percent of low-income residents.

The local supermarkets had terrible produce, and healthier convenience foods were nowhere to be found (i.e.: low-sodium varieties of canned foods, whole wheat crackers, baby carrots, etc.)

The restaurants within a half mile radius of my building? All fast food.

If I was ever not in the mood to cook, my only options were fried chicken, Chinese takeout, or McDonald's.

The situation in South Los Angeles is the same.

Hopefully this community will be given resources -- specifically nutrition education, healthier restaurants, and supermarkets with decent offerings.

Thank you to Sandy R. for bringing this article to my attention.

July 23, 2008

Numbers Game: Answers

Over at PF Chang's China Bistro, an appetizer portion of spare ribs contains 1,386 calories, while the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert ("six layers of rich chocolate cake frosted with semi-sweet chocolate chips and raspberry sauce,") adds up to 2,237 calories.

This is precisely why calories should be posted on chain restaurant menus across the country.

If someone were to put that slice of cake in front of me (I consider myself to be pretty good at eyeballing calories in a dish) and ask me to wager a guess, I wouldn't go past the 1600 calorie mark.

As for the spare ribs appetizer -- that caloric value would already be hefty for an entree, let alone an appetizer.

It absolutely blows my mind to think that in the oh-so-rare event that two people went to PF Chang's and shared this appetizer and dessert combination they would be taking in slightly over 1,800 calories a piece!

It would at least help if the PF Chang Menu would "suggest" sharing the Great Wall of Chocolate with three..... four... SIX other people!

I don't have a problem with someone wanting a slice of chocolate cake for dessert when they're out at a restaurant, but whatever happened to offering a standard 300 or 400 calorie slice?

If anything, such outrageous portions and values only reinforce the idea that "dessert is bad."

July 22, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Lactose Intolerance/Barbara Kingsolver

In Barbara Kingsolver's book Animal Vegetable Miracle I believe she pretty much lays out factual evidence saying that after the age of 4 many people are unable to properly digest milk.

Apparently there’s a gene gets turned off that makes people unable to drink it. Just saying you might want to check that source.

-- “Randzig”

Via the blog

Before I get to your actual question, I want to say that I recently picked up Animal Vegetable Miracle and was very much turned off by Ms. Kingsolvers’ holier-than-thou finger-pointing and preaching.

Half the time I was reading the book, I wanted to say, "I get it, you're better than me!"

In case you haven’t read the book, it’s basically the account of her and her family’s move to a West Virginia farm for a year, where they eat solely local, seasonal, organic foods from their own farm (or those of nearby farmers’.)

Parts of it feel like an ultra-cheesy “Full House” episode. Everyone is happy, peaceful, and content at all times. Really? So the cure for teen angst is organic lettuce?

Look, it’s one thing to want to teach people about the difference between a minimally processed diet and one laden with added sugars and artificial flavorings and colorings, but I have a very strong aversion to some people who use their organic/local lifestyle as a pass to be self-righteous.

It’s a real pity, because the book offers some interesting insights on agrobusiness and the politics of farming, but it gets lost in the author's obnoxious tone.

I am of the opinion that the best way to impart nutrition knowledge is through simply stating facts that speak for themselves.

Telling people, like she does, that simply “eating healthy” is not enough (in her mind, you have to eat local, seasonal, AND organic) is pure smugness.

Why not encourage people making gradual transitions into healthy eating rather than telling them they just aren't good enough?

It's also quite an insult to assume that everyone can afford to eat only local, seasonal, and organic food.

We are unfortunately living in a time when organic food costs more than non-organic food. It's a frustrating turn of events, but that's reality in 2008 in the United States.

And the reality also is that some people are not going to pay an additional charge for organic food. I can't say I blame them. And I'm certainly not going to tell them, "well, it's great you're eating fruit instead of ice cream every night, but it's not organic, and it's shipped from a non-neighboring state. Tisk tisk!"

In Ms. Kingsolver’s mind, the only “morally correct” way to live is by eating what the land offers. Which means, if you live in Maine and buy bananas, you’re doing Mother Earth a disservice.

Or, if you are vegan and eat tempeh despite there being no soybeans near where you live, you aren't utilizing your natureal resources. Ugh.

Ms. Kingsolver also had my eyes rolling uncontrollably when she attempts to "justify" slaughtering of chickens to her vegetarian daughter by saying that vegetarians kill plants.

I'm surprised Ms. Kingsolver, who studied biology, can make such an inane statement.

Maybe she has forgotten that animals have neurons (which transmit pain) and plants do not?

In any case, Ms. Kingsolver’s argument about lactose intolerance is not very well thought out.

In fact, evolutionists recently discovered that the ability to digest lactose, among certain populations, is lasting well into adulthood.

I am not saying lactose intolerance does not exist – it absolutely does.

However, there are also millions of adults throughout the world who can eat dairy products, including milk, with no difficulties.

You Ask, I Answer: Dairy

What are your thoughts on milk?

Specifically about the fact that the dairy industry has convinced millions of people, thanks to a very expensive campaign, that milk is the best source of calcium and vitamin D?

There are other ways to get calcium, including broccoli and other greens, so why does milk always show up as the best source?

Humans are also the only species to drink milk as adults. Don't you find that odd? Doesn't the fact that millions of people are allergic to milk mean that it's unhealthy?

Also, I read that there is an addictive component in milk (I think casein?) that keeps people coming back for more, including babies.

Am I healthy if I don't drink milk? What if I do?

-- (Name withheld)

Brooklyn, NY

Quite a lot of questions. Let's take them piece by piece.

My thoughts on a milk? It is a beverage that, depending on the variety, can be a healthy or not-so-healthy choice.

A glass of skim or low fat milk with your breakfast? Great source of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin, and protein.

An extra large latte with half and half? All you're really getting is a boatload of calories and saturated fat (half and half contains very little protein and calcium.)

Is the milk lobby a powerful presence in Washington? You betcha. Why else do you think the "dairy" group in the food pyramid is now called the "milk" group.

That is one change I am very unhappy about, as it takes away attention from other healthy options like yogurt, and cottage cheese.

That said, dairy products truly are a good source of calcium. Not only is the quantity of said mineral rather high, it is also among the most absorbable.

As for vitamin D -- it is not naturally present in milk, but is rather there as a result of fortification. Cereals, orange juice, and soy drinks are also fortified with just as much Vitamin D, so I do not consider dairy to be the "go to" food for the sunshine vitamin.

Besides, a glass of milk provides approximately one tenth of the daily Vitamin D requirement, so the best way to get the sunshine vitamin is to soak up about 20 minutes of sunlight a day and, in my opinion, pop a supplement.

Can you get sufficient calcium without dairy? Absolutely. Nowadays, with calcium-fortified juices and soy products, there is no reason for the word "vegan" to mean "calcium deprived."

There are also a variety of non-dairy foods that naturally contain calcium: tofu, tempeh, and soybeans among them.

Keep in mind that some leafy green vegetables (spinach, beet greens, and rhubarb) contain oxalates, which bind to calcium and greatly reduce its absorption.

If you're looking to get some calcium from vegetables, opt for collard greens, bok choy, and kale.

Seaweed also happens to be a great non-dairy source of calcium.

As for the argument that humans are the only species to drink milk as adults (and therefore some sort of natural aberration), it's one of those leaps of logic that makes absolutely no sense to me.

Other animals don't have the choice to drink milk as adults.

After a certain time, their mother's milk supply is gone, and they certainly don't have supermarkets to shop at, or other species to cuddle up to and start suckling from.

The "humans are the only animals to drink milk as adults" argument isn't even true.

I can tell you from personal experience that if I pour cow's milk into a bowl, my cat will happily drink it without any prodding on my part.

Human allergies with milk have nothing to do with its status as "healthy" or "unhealthy" food. Many people are allergic to peanuts and shrimp, two very healthy foods.

As for there being an addictive substance in milk, I haven't seen that mentioned anywhere in the literature. The reason why babies "keep coming back for more" is because their mothers are feeding it to them.

I firmly stand in the middle of this issue. I believe a perfectly healthy diet can be milk-free just as I believe that milk can be a nutritious beverage.

Personally, I am partial to organic milk from grass-fed cows.

For the record, I have no issues with pasteurized milk. I don't see any reason to start seeking out raw milk (remember, we don't need digestive enzymes from food, so the fact that these enzymes are killed when milk is pasteurized means nothing.)

What I find horribly messed up is that the milk from a cow that eats nothing but grass and is not pumped up with any Franken-hormones (the ONLY milk available at one point in time) is now a "luxury" high-cost product. Ugh.

July 21, 2008

Speak Up, New Yorkers

Friday marked the deadline for all fast-food chains in New York City to post calorie information on their menus.

Here are the few I've seen so far:

At Au Bon Pain, prepared sandwiches have calorie information posted next to each selection. If you're creating your own, though, you're slightly left in the dark.

For instance, all toppings (ranging from cucumber rounds to blue cheese crumbles) are listed as "0 - 210 calorie." A more effective idea would be to break down toppings into 3 categories (say, 0 - 50 calories, 60 - 150, and then 150+)

Chipotle is also a victim of its own "let the customer make their own meal." The menu lists beverages as ranging from 0 to 250 calories. Additionally, calorie counts for a burrito appear as a 300-calorie range.

Starbucks, meanwhile, has done a great job of labeling its baked goods and coffee drinks with the appropriate calories.

New York City readers -- what are your thoughts on the calorie postings? Have any of them surprised you and/or affected your purchases?

July 20, 2008

In The News: A Different Kind of Beer Buzz

Forget Redbull and Monster energy drinks. Mixing Red Bull and vodka at the club? Soooo 5 years ago.

The latest fad consists of canned alcoholic energy drinks. In the past year alone, one such drink -- Miller's Sparks -- "delivered strong full-year double-digit growth."

This is particularly puzzling to me since one sip of the cloyingly sweet and artificial fizzy concoction was enough to make me grimace and shudder.

In their latest issue, Time Magazine profiles a newcomer to the scene: Joose -- a malted energy drink that packs as much caffeine as a cup of coffee and almost twice the alcohol content of a can of Budweiser.

Artificial repulsiveness aside, one problem with these hybrid caffeine and alcohol beverages is that they "trick [the] brain into believing you're not as drunk as you are."

By the way, one 16-ounce can of Sparks adds up to 350 calories.

July 19, 2008

Numbers Game: Belly Busting Bistro

Over at PF Chang's China Bistro, an appetizer portion of spare ribs contains _____ calories, while the Great Wall of Chocolate dessert ("six layers of rich chocolate cake frosted with semi-sweet chocolate chips and raspberry sauce," pictured at right) adds up to _______ calories.

a) 972/1,760

b) 1,251/1,854
c) 1,762/1,603

d) 1,386/2,237

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

July 18, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Dairy Alternatives/Rice Milk

I found recently that cows milk and I don't get on, which is a pity since I love cheese.

Anyway, I've been avoiding cheese while I try to lose weight.

I have also switched from cow's milk to rice milk, but I'm not sure if rice milk has more fat or calories, and I'm finding the labeling on my cartons a little confusing.

Is rice milk okay, or should I be looking to other alternatives? (I'm not a big fan of the soy milk flavor).

-- Ryan Nelson
Brighton, England

Lactose intolerance can occur in varying degrees.

Being unable to digest cow’s milk does not necessarily mean cheese and yogurts should also be off-limits.

A slice of hard cheese – such as Swiss – offers a tenth of the lactose in a glass of milk. The active cultures in some yogurts, meanwhile, can also help avoid digestive problems.

Let’s assume, though, that your intolerance to lactose is such that even the tiniest amount in any dairy product offsets problems.

In that case, I don’t consider rice milk an equal alternative to cow’s milk.

Whereas soy milk is a good source of protein and is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, the same does not hold for rice milk.

Consider the following:

A cup (8 fluid ounces) of skim milk contains 91 calories, 8.7 grams of protein, and 30% of the daily calcium requirement.

A cup of reduced-fat (2%) milk adds up to 123 calories, 8.1 grams of protein, and 28.5% of a day’s calcium needs.

A cup of rice milk? 120 calories, 1 gram of protein, and just 2% of the daily calcium requirement.

In your case, I would recommend Lactaid products (which I believe are sold under the name Milkaid in the UK) – whether it’s actual Lactaid milk or having a Lactaid pill prior to consuming dairy.

You Ask, I Answer: Nighttime Snacking/Digestion

My mom believes that eating right before bed is unhealthy and causes weight gain.

I don't believe that it causes weight gain because as you stress, what matters is how many calories are consumed [in one day], not when [you eat them].

But, is [eating right before bed] unhealthy? My mom thinks [so, because she says] our digestive system needs to "sleep".

I always "need" to snack before bed (I think it's more of a psychological thing), but keep my portions in check.

She seems to think that fruit is "lighter" as opposed to bread which is "heavier" and harder on our bodies. Is it okay for me to have "heavy" foods like bread/cereal before I sleep as long as its within my caloric needs?

-- (Name Withheld)
Kaoshiung, Taiwan

One issue that can occur if you go to bed soon after eating is acid reflux, or heartburn (a condition in which stomach acid creeps up into the esophagus).

Other than that, there isn't anything inherently unhealthy about having a slice of bread or a bowl of cereal an hour or so before going to bed as long as it isn’t a caloric overload.

Heavy foods should be avoided before going to bed so as to not cause indigestion, so either fruit or cereal are smart options. I do not consider cereal or bread to be heavy, especially not if you’re just having a cup of a whole grain cereal low in added sugar.

Keep in mind that even though we go to sleep, our organs do not.

Full digestion of a meal, for instance, takes anywhere from 18 to 48 hours. So, our digestive tract works all day, every day.

July 17, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Battle of the "Diets"

Andy, are you going to blog about [the study that concluded that a low-carb diet was more successful at helping subjects achieve weight loss and healthier blood cholesterol profiles than Mediterranean or low-fat ones]?

-- Anonymous

Via the blog

I was most certainly planning on commenting on this study, mainly because of some very distracting flaws I noticed.

Let's begin with some basic information.

The study -- partially funded by the Robert and Veronica Atkins foundation (potential bias, anyone?) -- took place over 2 years, during which 85% of the 322 participants stuck with their respectively assigned diets (low-fat, Mediterranean, and low-carb.)

Now with some of my "uh, wait a minute" impressions.

Firstly, when it came to weight loss, low-carb beat out low-fat by 4 pounds (10.3 lbs vs 6.3 lbs), but edged out a Mediterranean Diet (which includes higher carbohydrate consumption) only by 0.3 lbs.

And although the low-carb diet resulted in the best blood cholesterol profiles, it's important to note that for this study, researchers "urged [the] dieters [on the low-carb diet] to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein."

In other words, although the low-carbers had the highest saturated fat intake out of the three groups, the majority of their fats came from plant sources.

There isn't anything groundbreaking here. Anyone keeping up with nutrition research knows that mono and polyunsaturated fats are recommended for heart health.

Hence, this study calls into question the belief so many low-carb fanatics like Gary Taubes fervently hold on to -- that saturated fat is the best for blood cholesterol levels.

The study specifically mentions that the blood cholesterol levels of the low-carbers is due largely to the consumption of monounsaturated fats.

Besides, I always wondered why low-carb enthusiasts even bother bragging about improved cholesterol profiles on their diets when, two seconds later, they turn around and say that the cholesterol-heart disease link is a lie and the result of "bad science." Which is it?

The study wasn't entirely a "low carb diets RULE!" piece, either.

For instance, the Mediterranean Diet -- which was highest in fiber -- proved to be the most effective at managing blood glucose levels.

Yet again, this goes against traditional low-carb beliefs (and, once again, those Gary Taubes loves to pontificate) that the research on fiber is "inconclusive at best" and that there is no need to have it in the diet.

Before anyone jumps down my throat about whether or not I read Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes himself said at his New York University talk in March of this year that he didn't think high-fiber grains were any healthier than refined ones.

Speaking of fiber, I noticed that the low-fat group was only asked to consume "low-fat grains."

This struck me as odd, mainly because it is hard to find grains high in fat -- they are all low-fat.

Additionally, it's hard to overlook some bias.

The study does not urge low-fat dieters to consume the healthiest grains (whole grains), yet specifically requests that low-carb dieters eat the healthiest fats.

I also found it strange that for the majority of this study the low-carb group was consuming 120 grams of carbs a day. This is definitely higher than the much lower levels recommended by most low-carb advocates.

Atkins, for instance, usually calls for no more than 100 grams of carbohydrates per day during the maintenance phase.

Finally, take a look at the numbers and you see that although the low-carb group was not calorie-restricted, their caloric intake was lower compared to their pre-study diet.

So, as always, we are talking about weight loss as a result of reduced caloric intake.

Mac and Cheese Grows (And Shapes!) Up

After years of being labeled an unhealthy kids' food, mac and cheese is receiving a glamorous, adult-friendly makeover from two fairly new companies -- Road's End Organics and Fiber Gourmet.

Road's End Organics offers a delectable vegan and organic whole wheat elbow macaroni "Mac and Chreese" (yes, that is 'cheese' with an extra 'r') that is also free of soy and nuts.

The sauce gets most of its flavor from nutritional yeast, a popular vegan alternative to cheese.

The best part? Each serving (half the box) adds up to:

340 calories
0 grams of saturated fat
400 milligrams of sodium
8 grams of fiber

14 grams of protein

25% of the Vitamin B12 Daily Value (I mention this since we are referring to a vegan product)

This passed not only my taste test with flying colors, but also those of traditional Mac 'n Cheese eaters (some of which asked me, "Are you SURE this isn't real cheese?")

That is quite a feat, considering I used unsweetened soymilk as a base for the "cheese" sauce. If you are not of the vegan persuasion, you can certainly use cow's milk if you so choose -- preferably skim or 2%.

Fiber Gourmet meanwhile, is keeping the dairy in mac and cheese but adding fiber in plentiful amounts.

One serving (1 cup) of their new kosher-friendly, free-of-artificial-colors Mac and Cheese product contains a whooping 18 grams of fiber!

A few things worth noting:

First of all, the fiber comes from -- yay! -- actual food (modified wheat starch and wheat gluten, to be exact) rather than synthetic dust.

Secondly, the folks at Fiber Gourmet have done an amazing job of creating a high-fiber pasta with top-notch taste and texture.

There isn't the slightest hint of graininess, nor does the pasta quickly congeal into a great big ball of mush like those awful low-carb soy pastas that were the rage for all of eight seconds in 2003. Are we SURE that wasn't really fussilli shaped cardboard?

Because the fiber content is so high, I would recommend having half a cup in one sitting (as a tasty side dish that delivers a reasonable 330 milligrams of sodium, more than respectable 9 grams of fiber, and only 90 calories!), especially if your current diet is not very high in fiber (in which case, too much too soon causes an intestinal revolt).

Also, keep in mind that children's fiber needs are different from adults. For children ages 3 to 16, fiber needs are determined by taking the child's age and adding 5 to it.

Hence, the 18 grams of fiber in each serving is too much for a 9 year old.

With pre-teens, for instance, I would suggest mixing half a cup of Fiber Gourmet's mac and cheese with another half cup of a "regular" variety.

In any case, this is a wonderful way to boost fiber intake in a tasty, low-calorie way.

Mac and cheese. It's not just for kids anymore.

July 16, 2008

In The News: The Case for Calories (Part Two!)

Calories sure are a hot commodity this week.

Marion Nestle's new question and answer column in The San Francisco Chronicle even identifies them as "the most pressing nutrition issue today."

As she so simply puts it, "Eat too many calories for the number you use, and on come the pounds. Food tempts us everywhere, even in places like business supply stores, bookstores and libraries. It comes in larger and larger portions. And we are expected to snack all day long. "

Clearly, policy makers also agree.

After all, fast food chain menus in New York City are displaying calories, not carbohydrate or fat grams.

You Ask, I Answer: Soy Frozen Desserts

What’s your opinion on soy frozen desserts, like Turtle Mountain Purely Decadent Dairy Free Ice Cream?

Are they any healthier than real ice cream?

-- Anonymous

Via the blog

Although many people view soy desserts as “healthy”, this isn’t always the case.

As far as the Purely Decadent brand you mention is concerned, it is definitely lower in saturated fat (about 65% lower) and higher in fiber (chicory root extract boosts the fiber content to 5 grams per serving) than most standard dairy premium ice creams.

However, the sugar content is the exact same as that of Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen Dazs -- approximately 22 grams (or 5 teaspoons' worth) per serving.

Calorically speaking, a half cup serving of Purely Decadent's chocolate flavor clocks in at 210, slightly lower than Haagen Dazs' 270 calories and Ben & Jerry's 260.

However, dairy ice cream varieties, like Edy’s, offer 150 calories and 15 grams of sugar per half cup serving (the "light" version adds up to a mere 120 calories per cup.)

My main rule with ice cream is that consumers should choose it based on taste preferences, not health.

If the ice cream you happen to like is high in calories and saturated fat, be mindful of your portions or, even better, have it only at the ice cream parlor (rather than in your freezer.)

If Purely Decadent is your treat of choice (I can understand why, all varieties are delicious!), savor and enjoy, but for all intents and purposes, when it comes to how much (and often) you eat, treat it like real ice cream.

In The News: Nutritional Sensationalism

“Tofu ‘may raise risk of dementia,” BBC’s headline cries out.

Well, read further and you discover that’s a bit of a stretch.

A recent study published in the journal Dementias and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders discovered that “high tofu consumption - at least once a day - was associated with worse memory, particularly among [men and women over the age of 68.]”

It’s worth pointing out that this study only had 719 participants, all of whom lived in the urban and rural regions of Java, Indonesia.

In other words, this isn’t the type of research study that pulls too much weight.

According to the research, “phytoestrogens - in high quantity - may actually heighten the risk of dementia” among adults over the age of 65.

More specifically, it is believed that “phytoestrogens tend to promote growth among cells, not necessarily a good thing in the ageing brain.”

Very well.

But then we get to this jewel:

“A third theory is that damage is caused not by the tofu, but by formaldehyde, which is sometimes used in Indonesia as a preservative.”

I have read the study, which specifically mentions that formaldehyde “can induce oxidative damage to fontal cortex and hippocampal tissue.”

Interestingly, damage to the the frontal cortex manifests as the classic Alzheimer’s action of performing an action repeatedly several times, as well as a deterioration in complex reasoning.

Hippocampal tissue, meanwhile, is damaged by Alzheimer’s disease.

I really dislike the way the media presents these studies because they leave out crucial details and often times unfairly demonize a food that doesn’t deserve such a horrid reputation.

Even the lead researcher Professor Eef Hogervorst raises the "Don't be too tough on tofu" flag.

“[She] stressed that there was no suggestion that eating tofu in moderation posed a problem.”

Lastly, the overwhelming majority of research of nutrition and dementia points to plant-based diets rich in phytonutrients and whole grains to be the most effective at reducing risk.

Numbers Game: Answer

One medium sweet potato offers 37 percent of the daily vitamin C requirement and 438 percent of the daily vitamin A requirement.

This very well exemplifies why I don't think everyone needs to be downing multivitamins every single day. Foods offer vitamins and minerals in plentiful amounts!

This single food (in its mere 105-calorie package which also packs 4 grams of fiber) contains not only the above mentioned nutrients, but also a fair share of
manganese (28%), copper (16%), potassium (15%), vitamin B6 (9%), and magnesium (8%).

Part of the problem with the overly broad protein/fat/carbohydrate categorizing of foods so prevalent in the media is that nutrients get overlooked.

Ask a random person on the street to name three popular diets and they'll quickly spit them out. Then inquire if they can name 3 sources of vitamin C (other than oranges) and you'll probably be met with an "Ummm..." and an answer ending with a question mark, rather than a period.

It also doesn't help that multivitamin companies have convinced millions of people that they are either deficient in many nutrients or don't need to worry about them as long as they pop that pill.

July 15, 2008

In The News: A Case for Calories

Oh, what a great morning!

The weather is absolutely beautiful in New York City and I wake up to a story from Time Magazine in which Harvard School of Public Health Chair Walter Willett (pictured at left) reminds us what matters most when it comes to weight gain and weight loss -- calories!

I have never been a fan of the scapegoating targeted at specific nutrients.

I do not think eating fat causes people to become fat, nor do I think carbohydrates are sent up on an express elevator from hell.

This is why, if you are a reader of Small Bites, you know that the recipes I share are not "low fat" or "low carb."

"From many kinds of studies conducted over years, we are quite confident now that a calorie from fat will cause a similar amount of weight gain as a calorie from carbohydrate," Willett affirms.

And, no, he isn't pulling this theory out of thin air; there are plenty of studies showing that diet composition isn't as important as caloric intake in determining weight.

"The best way to get to the bottom line is to look at long-term studies where we randomize people to a high-fat/low-carb diet or to a low-fat/high-carb diet and follow them for at least a year or more.

That kind of study takes into account the possibility that one kind of diet provides more satiety; so, over the long run you would see more weight loss on that diet.

But those studies — half a dozen or more such studies have been done — show quite clearly that the percentage of calories from fat has very little effect on long-term weight loss."

What Dr. Willett does stress is that the quality of fats and carbohydrates are important (i.e.: whole grains, monounsaturated fats, and Omega-3 fatty acids are nutritionally superior to refined grains, saturated fats, and trans fats).

Let's cap this off with another great quote: "We've now looked at over 250,000 men and women for up to 30 years, and we [also] haven't seen that the percentage of calories from fat or from carbohydrates in your diet makes any difference in relation to heart attacks, various cancers, or stroke."

Let the Gary Taubes fanclub hatemail begin...

In The News: California Dreamin' Becomes A Reality

A spirited high five to California (with a special mention to Assemblyman Tony Mendoza of Los Angeles) for being thisclose to banning trans fats throughout the entire state.

Not surprisingly, "restaurant groups have offered a lukewarm response."

Some further details:

Mendoza's bill would require restaurants, hospitals and facilities with food-preparation areas to remove oils, shortenings and margarines with trans fats by Jan. 1, 2010."

Bakers get an extra year so as to have sufficient time to find suitable substitutes for pastries, breads, and other goods.

I particularly love this caveat: "
The bill exempts public school cafeterias, which must be trans-fat free under a law that takes effect January 1."

Some legislators are clutching at their pearlstrings and attempting to make the feeble argument that this law takes away consumers' freedom.

How, exactly? Trans-fat-free baked goods taste exactly the same as those containing trans fats.

It's not as if muffins, bagels, and donuts will cease to exist.

Besides, let's remember that partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) are a relatively new invention. They were not in the food supply in the 1940s, yet baked goods were produced on a daily basis.

Although the elimination of trans fats is progress, remember that a trans-fat-free donut has just as many calories and sugar as one with trans fats.

This is by no means a green light to consume baked goods in higher quantities.

You Ask, I Answer: Vital Cookies

I found this Canadian cookie company, and I have to say, I am completely addicted to their whole oat and cranberry cookies.

Two cookies (26 g, they're pretty small) [add up to] 120 calories, 5 g of fat (0.5 g saturated), 80 mg sodium, 17 g carbohydrates with 2 g of fiber and 2 g of protein.

Are these cookies worth how excited I am over them, or are they just as terrible as other cookies?

-- Kate Redfern

(Location Unknown)

The exciting thing here isn't so much the figures you mention in your question (yes, you could potentially do worse, but this isn't precisely a health food), but the fact that you feel satisfied eating just two 60-calorie cookies!

The problem with cookies isn't that some varieties offer 500 calories in that same size (in this case, 26 grams, which is slightly less than one ounce,) it's the fact that people have a very hard time just having one... or two... or three... or six.

I must say -- it is quite refreshing to know that a 120 calorie package of cookies is available for sale. Figures it's not a product made in the US of A.

Anytime I walk into a deli in New York City and jonesing for a cookie I am faced with frisbee sized concoctions (closer to 100 grams!) that pack 400 - 500 calories a pop.

Keep in mind, I am not disappointed that these cookies aren't offering more nutrition. Nor do I think you should be seeking out "healthier cookies."

I don't think every single morsel of food we eat needs to be rich in phytoestrogens, high in fiber, and devoid of added sugars.

If these cookies are a treat in a mostly healthy and well-rounded diet, go ahead and enjoy them!

July 14, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Book Recommendations

Is there a current diet/cookbook you can recommend for health and weight loss?

-- Greg (last name withheld)

(City withheld), IA

I don’t like the term “diet book,” so let’s make this a list of cookbooks and "health books", shall we?

Books that teach actual nutrition principles and lifelong healthy eating patterns are more useful than the latest diet fad telling you to clear your cupboards of anything with sugar and spend the first two weeks on “phase/wave” one, where you basically spend 14 days craving all the foods you are now FORBIDDEN to even have a single bite of.

Anyhow, What To Eat by Marion Nestle is a great book for anyone looking to delve deeper into the food industry and how marketing and advertisement play a huge role in what we are eating.

Don't be confused by the title -- this book does not tell you what to eat to lose weight. However, it helps you separate marketing hype from reality, a very useful skill to have when navigating the extensive supermarket aisles.

Lisa Young’s The Portion Teller is a fascinating read. Not only does it highlight the increasing “portion distortion” epidemic that has increased caloric intake over the past few decades, it also communicates a pleasant message. If you’re looking to lose weight, don’t think so much about WHAT you’re eating, but how much of it!

I have mentioned Buff Dad on this website before (click here to read my interview with author Mike Levinson). I appreciate its "no nonsense" approach rooted in nutrition science as well as its particular tailoring to men (too many weight loss books specifically target a female demographic).

Linda Arpino, MA, RD, CDN, released a wonderful book titled Eat Fit, Be Fit: Health and Weight Management Solutions (pictured right.) It explains nutrition concepts simply yet thoroughly, and provides over 250 healthy -- and very tasty -- recipes.

I also think Eat This, Not That by the Men's Health team is a great guide to have handy when it comes to eating fast food. It can help you replace a 1,200 calorie lunch with one containing 500 fewer calories!

July 12, 2008

Numbers Game: A Sweet Deal

One medium sweet potato offers ______ percent of the daily vitamin C requirement and ___ percent of the daily vitamin A requirement.

a) 25, 110

b) 72, 204

c) 37, 438

d) 20, 98

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

July 11, 2008

Quick & Healthy Recipes: Light & Crunchy Salad

I made up this recipe last night based on ingredients I came across in my refrigerator and pantry.

The result -- a perfect summer salad chock full of taste and nutrition.

It makes for a great barbecue side dish!

The following recipe serves 4:


8 cups mesclun mix
1 avocado, sliced
1 15.5 oz can of chickpeas (preferably low-sodium)
½ cup red onions, diced
1 cup red pepper, diced
1 cup green pepper, diced
¼ cilantro, chiffoned

DRESSING (Lemon Oregano Vinaigrette) INGREDIENTS:

4TBSP extra virgin olive oil
1.5 TBSP balsamic vinegar
2 TBSP fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 TBSP oregano
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste


Mix salad ingredients in large bowl.
Pour dressing over salad ingredients.


363 calories
25 grams fat (19 grams monounsaturated, 1.5 grams saturated, 4.5 grams polyunsaturated)
200 milligrams sodium
12 grams fiber
8 grams protein

Excellent Source of: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, iron, fiber, folate vitamin B6, manganese

Good Source of: potassium, phosphorus, magnesium

Summer Eatin'

The latest video posted on the Small Bites YouTube channel offers tips and advice for a healthy and nutritious summer.

Is mayo a microbiological bad guy? What's a tasty and refreshing replacement for ice cream? Are you preparing your salad in such a way to ensure maximum absorption of nutrients?

Find out more in this short video, where I also introduce you to a key player of the Small Bites team!

July 10, 2008

When One Cookie Is More Than Enough

Marion Nestle posted some eye-popping information on her superb blog today.

In today's Dining Out section, The New York Times dedicated plenty of column inches to the history of the chocolate chip cookie, and topped it off with a decadent Toll-house cookie recipe.

Dr. Nestle dissected said recipe and calculated that each cookie (5 inches in diameter, no less) adds up to 500 calories. Eek!

FYI -- you would need to eat 10 Chips Ahoy cookies to reach that caloric amount.

Dr. Nestle also shares this historical tidbit:

"If you want to understand the vast change in the food environment that has taken place in the last 30 years, take a look at an old (1964 or 1975) edition of the Joy of Cooking. Its recipe for chocolate chip cookies calls for almost exactly half the ingredients of the one in the Times but makes 45 cookies."

Unless you exercise extreme restraint and self-control, chances are that whatever cookie you grab -- regardless of size -- you will eat in its entirety.

Let's face it -- no matter what the caloric content of a baked good, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who will only eat half of it.

My rule of thumb? Any cookie half the size of a standard CD can be eaten solo. Anything larger should fall into the "share with a friend" category.

You Ask, I Answer: Calcium Supplements

I take a pill that [contains] 600 mg Calcium and 400 IU vitamin D.

I'm a 26 year old female. Is this a good decision?

-- Anonymous
Via the blog

If you find that your diet does not provide sufficient calcium, then supplementing it is certainly a good decision.

Having Vitamin D in the same pill as calcium is particularly smart, as this helps facilitate absorption.

However, 600 milligrams is too much for the body to absorb at once. I recommend a supplement containing no more than 500 milligrams.

Also, be sure to check your supplement’s bottle for the amount of “elemental calcium” – this tells you how much of the calcium in the supplement is “up for grabs.”

Some not-so-trustworthy companies advertise themselves as offering large amounts, but read the fine print and you'll see that each pill doesn't offer that much absorbable calcium.

July 9, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Vitamin E

[In your multivitamin posting you mentioned excessive Vitamin E being harmful]. What kind of harm [specifically]?

I've been taking 1/2 a teaspoon full of wheat germ every day for the past 6 months or so.

Should I be worried? Scale it down a bit?

-- Anonymous
Via the blog

Although Vitamin E is an antioxidant, large amounts have been found to increase heart disease risk and act as pro-oxidants.

That said, let's put all this information into numbers.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin E is 10 milligrams per day. Negative health consequences are seen with megadoses of 180 milligrams or more a day. That figure may sound absurdly high, but you will find supplements offering that amount.

Which brings me to another point -- you will often see Vitamin E listed in International Units.

When dealing with synthetic forms of the vitamin (supplements), you convert from IUs to milligrams by multiplying the IU value times 0.45. So, 180 milligrams is equal to 400 IUs.

Onto your other question.

Half a teaspoon of wheat germ contains approximately 0.4 milligrams, so it is by no means cause for concern.

I would suggest having an entire tablespoon each day -- it covers 20% of your daily requirement.

In The News: Battling With Leptin

The Wall Street Journal is reporting the findings of a recent Columbia University Medical Center brain scan study which found that "when humans (and rodents) lose 10% or more of their body weight, [a hormone known as] leptin falls rapidly and sets off a cascade of physiological changes that act to put weight back on. Skeletal muscles work more efficiently, thyroid and other hormones are reduced -- all so the body burns 15% to 20% fewer calories, enough to put back 25 pounds or more a year."

This partially helps to explain why crash diets never work long-term. They are such a sudden shock to the body that our metabolism starts working against – rather than with – the weight loss.

This also makes the case for long-term approaches to weight loss that implement behavior modification and a slow but steady overhaul of eating habits and dietary patterns.

The important of physical activity is also front and center here, since all forms -- and especially weight-bearing exercises -- prevent basal metabolic rate from slowing down.

As lead author Michael Rosenbaum states, "Anybody who has lost weight and kept it off will tell you that they have to keep battling. They have essentially reinvented themselves."

Thank you to Fred Tripp for forwarding me this article.

Numbers Game: Answer

Nutrition plays an important role in three of the Top 3 causes of death in the United States.

Those three being -- in order -- heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Looking at the entire top ten, nutrition is a risk increaser or decreaser -- depending on what you're doing -- for half of it (diabetes comes in at #6 and kidney disease takes the #9 spot.)

Although I suspect the majority of the population is aware of the link between food and health, nutrition is too often taken seriously only when a problem is well underway (after a heart attack, once diabetes has been diagnosed, etc.)

In simple terms, a lot of this comes back to education. More specifically, the lack thereof.

When I say "education," I am not referring to socioeconomic status or Ivy League diplomas. I am actually talking about a public education system that largely ignores a little something known as "life skills."

There are two subjects that should be part of every high school curriculum (not only in this country, but around the world): personal financing (so people know what to do -- and NOT do -- with their money when they start earning it) and nutrition.

I don't expect a room of tenth graders to understand carbohydrate metabolism or explain the causes of sarcopenia among the elderly.

But how about teaching them the tools to choose a healthier meal at McDonald's? Helping them understand why Oreos don't make for a good breakfast? Letting teenage girls know that having nothing but a medium frozen yogurt all day is not a healthy way to lose weight?

Otherwise, we're just going to be in an eternal game of catch up with diseases and conditions that are years in the making.

Image: Nutrition Matters, a free newsletter distributed in Toronto, Canada (produced by the Toronto Public Health Department and written by Registeed Dietitians.)

July 8, 2008

Survey Results: Multivitamins

The latest Small Bites survey found that 45% of respondents pop a multivitamin every day, while 31% feel no need to supplement their diet with an "all in one" pill.

An additional 17% reported taking multivitamins not on a daily basis, and 5% are only concerned with getting specific vitamins and minerals in pill form.

Although vitamin supplementation has its place (i.e.: Vitamin D for almost everyone, several key nutrients for the elderly and people on very low calorie diets, Vitamin B-12 for some vegans, folate for women planning to get pregnant, etc.) it can also lull many people into a fall sense of security.

I recall a conversation with someone who told me he didn't feel the need to eat fruits or vegetables since she was getting every single vitamin and mineral in pill form every day.

Not quite. Many people forget that:

1) No multivitamin offers 100% of every nutrient. Calcium, for instance, takes up a lot of space, so any pill offering an entire day's worth (1,000 milligrams) would be too big. Besides, the body can only assimilate 500 milligrams of calcium at one given time, so a single dose of 1,000 milligrams is ineffective.

2) Since multivitamins fall into the "supplement" category, they are not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration. In other words, the label may say 100% of 23 vitamins and minerals, but no entity is making sure such a statement is accurate.

3) Multivitamins do not offer the hundreds of phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These phytonutrients play important roles in health promotion and help certain vitamins and minerals operate efficiently in the body. Oranges, for instance, aren't just about Vitamin C; they also provide flavonoids that help with blood sugar and cholesterol regulation.

4) Intake does not equal absorption. Synthetic forms of vitamins and minerals are less bioavailable than their naturally occurring brothers and sisters. According to estimates, absorption of most nutrients in multivitamins does not go above the 50% mark.

5) More is not always better. Some multivitamins contain excessive amounts of Vitamin E, which have been show to cause more harm than good.

6) Nutrition and health go beyond simply getting enough vitamins and minerals. Calories, added sugars, saturated and trans fats, and fiber are just as worthy of attention. Getting a day's worth of a handful of vitamins and minerals isn't that spectacular if you aren't consuming enough fiber and eating an overabundance of calories.

I don't think standard multivitamins as insurance for a balanced and adequate diet are cause for alarm, but anybody looking to get optimal nutrition should really look to food first (Vitamin D is the only nutrient I think everybody should be supplementing in their diet).