November 30, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Healthier Comfort Foods

As it becomes colder, I tend to crave high-calorie comfort foods like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, creamy soups, and cakes.

Can you suggest some nutritious ways of making them?


-- Sarah S.
Buffalo, NY


Absolutely. The key is to recreate these dishes in healthier, lower-calorie ways.

When it comes to mac and cheese, try whole wheat pasta. The higher fiber content will help you feel fuller faster.

If you find the change too sudden, make your dish half whole wheat pasta and half regular pasta.

When making the cheese sauce, use 1% milk, rather than whole. Also, cut the amount of butter asked for in the recipe by half.

To give the sauce extra thickness, add some cornstarch.

I also suggest using reduced-fat cheddar cheese (I highly recommend the Cabot brand) and then sprinkling some parmesan cheese at the end for extra taste that doesn't add too many calories.

When all is said and done, you will have saved yourself hundreds of calories and quite a bit of saturated fat. Best part? Your tastebuds will be just as pleased.

For homemade mashed potatoes, leave the skins on. Again, this provides a boost of fiber.

Then, replace the butter and milk in the recipe with olive oil (replace the suggested amount of butter with half as much olive oil.)

I have also made some delicious mashed potatoes by substituting whole milk with either 1% milk, plain soy milk, or unsweetened soy milk.

For creamy, lower-calorie soups, I suggest using corn starch or stale French bread as a thickener.

Using stale bread in this context is quite foreign to people in the United States, but very common in many European countries.

This will give soups hearty volume without tacking on saturated fat or an abundance of calories.

Another tip? Try a touch of Silk soy creamer (in its original flavor.)

And so we come to cake.

The best advice I can give you there is never to have an entire cake (or even half of one) sitting in your kitchen counter. It's too easy to cut a tiny slice, followed by another, and another, and another.

When it comes to choices, though, opt for a lower-calorie cake like angel's food cake first.

Top it off with the fresh fruit of your choice and up to 4 tablespoons of Reddi Whip (that adds, at most, 30 calories and 1 gram of sugar) and you have a slice of cake -- with fixins! -- that clocks in at less than 250 calories!

Hope this helps.

November 29, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Mock Meats

From a nutritional standpoint, what do you think of fake meats like Tofurkey or Boca [soy-based] burgers?

Seems like they are a kind of vegetarian junk food.


-- Christine (last name unknown)

Via the blog


Soy burgers, hot dogs, and turkeys are a great way to add protein to a meal while keeping excess calories, saturated fat and cholesterol at bay.

I personally love to throw in some soy beef crumbles into my chili recipe for a burst of meaty texture.

When I want to indulge in some vegan comfort food, Boca's meatless chicken nuggets hit the spot.

The main concern with these types of foods is their high sodium levels.

Remember, the more processed a food, the higher its sodium content (one exception to this rule is smoked fish, which is not processed, but simply has a high amount of salt added on.)

So, yes, it is fairly accurate to think of these foods as "vegetarian junk food" in the sense that they should not be daily staples. There are far more nutritious choices out there.

Granted, not all mock meat offerings are very high in sodium.

One Boca Burger patty, for instance, contains 280 milligrams and just 70 calories.

If you are enjoying it with some steamed broccoli and a baked potato, the entire meal should not surpass the 450 or 500 milligram mark.

Other brands, however, can offer as much as 450 or 500 milligrams of sodium in just one patty.

As always, be sure to check the label. You want to choose varieties offering no more than 300 milligrams of sodium.

It is also worth pointing out that many "fauxburgers" are made from a mix of soy and wheat gluten, providing some of them with as much as 4.5 grams of fiber per patty. Certainly a nice bonus!

In the same way that an omnivore should not eat hamburgers on a daily basis, a similar principle can be applied to meatless alternatives.

Enjoying them once or twice a week is not a problem, but the bulk of the diet should not come from the frozen foods section.

Numbers Game: Answer

A 24-ounce limited edition Jack in the Box eggnog shake contains 1,450 calories, 225 percent of the daily saturated fat recommended limit, and 3 grams of trans fat.

(NOTE: Trans fat recommendations are set at 0 grams per day.)

If this "special edition" shake is available after December 31, they should change its name to "The Resolution Breaker."

To put it in perspective, this beverage has more calories than an entire 12-inch Domino's cheese pizza (with regular -- not thin -- crust)!

And if you thought the 3 grams of trans fat were bad, check out some of the other options on Jack in the Box's menu.

A 10-piece order of mini churros delivers a jaw-dropping (and heart-stopping?) SEVEN grams of trans fat!

An order of French Fries from the children's menu may seem innocent with its 220 calories, but it also delivers 3.5 grams of trans fat.

So, dear president-elect Obama, how about igniting heart-healthy change with a national trans fat ban?

November 28, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Carob

Can you tell me what, exactly, carob is?

I bought the wrong bag of trail mix by accident today and it has almonds, raisins, cashews, and carob.

The taste is okay. I just don't know what I'm eating!

-- Ray Amila
New York, NY

Although carob is a popular vegan substitute for milk chocolate, it is actually a legume!

It is made from the pulp of the pods of an evergreen tree indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea region (although it is now grown in many parts of the world.)

In some countries, like Israel, it is common to dunk the pods in hot water for about thirty seconds (just enough to soften them) and chew on them as a snack.

In the United States, carob pods are usually roasted, ground into powder, and then used to make things like carob chips (which can then go into vegan cookies, or used as toppings for vegan ice cream.)

I should note, though, that not ALL carob products are vegan. Some carob manufacturers add milk solids to them, so always be sure to read the ingredient label.

Some people seek out carob because it is naturally caffeine-free.

Others like it because it is a cocoa powder substitute that offers a good dose of calcium.

Two tablespoons of carob powder, for instance, provides almost a tenth of the mineral's daily recommended intake (that same amount of cocoa powder only provides one percent.)

So don't worry, you're not eating some sort of Frankenfood!

You Ask, I Answer: Cocoa Butter

I recently went vegan.

The other day I was reading chocolate bars' ingredient labels and didn't know if cocoa butter was an animal by-product or not.
Can you help?

-- Laura Brenty
Chicago, IL

Sure!

Cocoa butter is 100 percent vegan -- it is a purely vegetable-based fat naturally found in cocoa beans.

Vegan chocolate is very easy to come by -- a lot of the big drugstores, like Walgreen's, carry it!

To make sure it is completely dairy-free, be on the lookout for milk solids and/or whey-based ingredients.

By the way, one of my favorite brands of vegan chocolate -- actually, one of my favorite brands of ALL chocolate -- is Endangered Species (pictured alongside this post.)

November 27, 2008

In The News: Lean Times, Leaner Burger

Starting Monday, the double cheeseburger will disappear from McDonald's dollar menu.

It's not that customers don't love it -- it's actually the chain's best-selling $1 item!

In its place? The same burger with just one slice of cheese, a different name, and a slightly heftier price tag.

The McDouble -- the end result of McDonald's strategy to increase profits after the cost of commodities like wheat skyrocketed over the past year -- is set to debut in 14,000 McDonald's restaurants on December 1.

Retailing for $1.19, this new version offers 50 fewer calories (390) and 25 percent less saturated fat (8.5 grams, or roughly 42% of the recommended daily limit) than its predecessor.

You Ask, I Answer: Food Labeling/Marinades

Having just tossed a jar of marinated mushrooms with shrimp for dinner, I wonder [the following:]

Does the "10 calories per serving" [figure] include both the marinade and the mushrooms, or just the mushrooms?

Would the answer be the same for all marinated foods and fruits in juice/syrup?


-- Luis [last name unknown]
Fort Knox, KY

Whatever caloric -- and nutrient -- values appear on a food label apply to the sum of every ingredient in that product.

Unless the label has two separate columns (say, one labeled "mushrooms" and another titled "mushrooms and marinade"), you can assume the provided figures apply to both the mushrooms and the marinade.

Since these mushrooms clock in at just 10 calories per serving, I am assuming the marinade is fat-free and made up mostly of vinegar and spices.

Anyway, the same principle applies to fruits canned in heavy syrup -- the values on that label are very different from those of peaches packed in water.

You often see the two-column food label with:

Cereal (one column lists values for the cereal, the other figures in a certain amount of non-fat milk)

Quick-cooking grains with accompanying flavor pouches (one column lists values for the grain, the other -- usually VERY high in sodium -- provides nutrition information once the flavor packet is factored in.)

And, most recently, with...

Some 20 ounce soda bottles and "single portion" chips (one column lists "a serving," the other lists values for the entire container.)

November 26, 2008

Quick & Healthy Recipes: Vegan Sweet Potato Mash

Here’s a super quick, tasty, and healthy recipe perfect for Thanksgiving dinner!

I made this last year for my guests and it received wonderful reviews.

YIELDS: 5 servings

INGREDIENTS

4 medium sweet potatoes
½ cup orange juice (ideally freshly squeezed from two whole oranges; if not, a brand like Tropicana will work just fine)
½ tsp. kosher salt
¼ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. nutmeg
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

INSTRUCTIONS

Rinse sweet potatoes and cut into medium to large cubes. Leave the skins on!

Steam until soft (approximately 30 – 40 minutes. You can also boil them, but steaming retains more nutrients)

Transfer steamed sweet potatoes to a medium bowl and mash with fork.

In a pot over medium heat, mix together the sweet potato mash with the orange juice, salt, and spices.

Once well mixed, transfer to bowl, top with extra virgin olive oil.

Mix lightly with spatula. Enjoy!

NUTRITION INFORMATION (per serving):

190 calories
1.4 grams saturated fat

273 milligrams sodium

3 grams fiber


Excellent source of: Vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, potassium, monounsaturated fat

You Ask, I Answer: Doughnuts

Is there any [nutritional] difference between regular doughnuts and cake doughnuts?

-- Melissa Yeats

Boston, MA


Yes.

Cake doughnuts usually contain 30 to 50 percent more total -- and saturated! -- fat than regular (yeast-based) doughnuts.

As a result, these cake-like pastries usually provide anywhere from 50 to 100 more calories than their yeast-based counterparts.

This reminds me -- don't feel too safe ordering Dunkin' Donuts munchkins. Some of them pack quite a punch.

Example? Four glazed chocolate cake munchkins add up to 300 calories.

That same amount of jelly-filled yeast-based munchkins provides a more reasonable 192 calories.

November 25, 2008

Numbers Game: Happy Heart Attack... Er, Holidays

A 24-ounce limited edition Jack in the Box eggnog shake contains _____ calories, _____ percent of the daily saturated fat recommended limit, and ____ grams of trans fat.

(NOTE: Trans fat recommendations are set at 0 grams per day.)

a) 1,290/170/1.8
b) 1,700/140/2.1

c) 1,450/225/3
d) 1,380/195/3.9


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

You Ask, I Answer: Ice Milk

Have you heard of, or know much about, ice milk?

I think Weight Watchers promotes it.


-- Katie P.
(Location unknown)


Ice milk is the outdated term for what we now call "low fat ice cream."

The name change occurred as a result of new FDA labeling laws in 1994.

Four years later, milk underwent similar changes, with 2% officially changing its name to "reduced-fat" and 1% being renamed "low-fat."

I don't understand why Weight Watchers would specifically suggest participants seek out ice milk, since that term is literally extinct.

November 24, 2008

In The News: Another One Bites the Dust... Yay!

Those of you who watched my YouTube video on appetite suppressants know how much I loathe them.

So, as you may imagine, I was pleased as punch to find out today that multi-national giant Unilever has canceled negotiations with Hoodia supplier Phytopharm to use the plant extract in Slimfast products, despite plunking down $25 million in research and developments costs over the last four years.

Unilever's official statement is very PR-friendly: "the extract would not meet our safety and efficacy standards."

In other words -- the whole thing is bunk and they want nothing to do with it. Good!

By the way, Hoodia was one of the "magic indredients" in TrimSpa. We all know how THAT ended.

For those of you unfamiliar with Hoodia, it is a plant native to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, which Natives have supposedly eaten for centuries to keep hunger at bay while on long treks.

The "magic" apparently occurs due to a molecule in the plant known as P57, which allegedly shuts off appetite by targeting the hypothalamus.

Mind you, there is absolutely no evidence that Hoodia works. All we have are anecdotal accounts (generously provided by companies selling the product, of course.)

It's also silly to assume that processed parts of a plant, either in powder or capsule form, yield the same results as consuming it in unadulterated ways.

That's like someone hawking fruit juice concentrates in pill form and claiming they offer the same health benefits as a piece of raw fruit.

Even if Hoodia did work, appetite suppresants are the worst thing you can do for long-term weight loss.

They don't teach new behaviors and can have risky side-effects (remember, the term "appetite suppresant" is a euphemism for "amphetamines.")

How about a pill that makes consumers immune to diet scams, frauds, and "magic bullets"?

Numbers Game: Answer

According to the latest Federal Trade Commission figures, food and beverage companies spent a total of $ 492 million in 2006 to advertise soda to children between the ages of 2 and 17.

That is a higher advertising budget than Apple Computers'!

Candy and gum advertising in 2006, you ask? Oh, in the $500 - $550 million range.


Meanwhile, the Five A Day campaign, which promoted eating five servings of vegetables on a daily basis, spent slightly less than $10 million in advertising the year before.

We are all susceptible to marketing, especially children. If something looks "cool," they will want it.

Yes, that even applies to healthy foods. Remember the Dancing Raisins from the 1980s?

I sure do -- it seemed every commercial break from Captain Planet had those raisins in it! If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I have provided an image with this post.

The clay-animated spots clearly worked. The California Raisin Board credits that campaign for increasing raisin sales by ten percent.

November 23, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: BRAT Diet

How legitimate is the BRAT (banana, rice, applesauce, toast) diet for relieving diarrhea?

-- Celia (last name withheld)

New York, NY


The actual reasoning behind the BRAT "diet" is legitimate.

The idea is that, when consumed for approximately four consecutive days, these foods help thicken stools, thereby assuring a speedy recovery.

Although thousands of pediatricians still recommend it to parents whose children are going through gastrointestinal distress, I don't find adherence to BRAT to be of such critical importance.

When someone is sick, nutrition plays a very important role. This means getting as many nutrients as possible.

The BRAT diet falls short for me because it is very low in protein, zinc, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals.

Besides, other foods can be just as effective at treating diarrhea -- particularly oat-based products.

Remember, oat bran contains soluble fiber (the type that, apart from helping lower cholesterol levels, thickens stools.)

Plain non-fat yogurt -- particularly if it contains live and active cultures -- is another great food for battling these symptoms.

I don't think anyone should be restricted to the four foods suggested by the BRAT diet.

I lean more towards incorporating them, along with other choices low fat and insoluble fiber (i.e.: oat-based cereals, grilled chicken breast, plain non-fat yogurt, tofu, egg whites, etc.)

November 22, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Ostrich Eggs

Do ostrich eggs offer the same nutrients as eggs laid by hens?

-- Joelle Numberg

(city withheld), AZ


Let me guess -- this question was inspired by this week's Top Chef episode?

For those of you who don't watch that wonderful Bravo reality show, contestants were asked to reinvent classic American dishes, and one not-too-methodical participant decided to make a quiche with ostrich eggs despite never having cooked with them.

This move led to her elimination at the end of the episode.

So, apart from destroying reality show contestants' runs, what else do ostrich eggs offer?

The main selling point is that they are significantly lower in cholesterol -- and a bit lower in saturated fat -- than their chicken counterparts.

Keep in mind that one ostrich egg is equal to two dozen of the chicken variety, so you must always remember to divide.

The 2,000 calories contained on a single ostrich egg isn't at all outrageous when you divide by 24 and get 83 calories -- a mere six more calories than your standard chicken egg.

Vitamin and mineral composition is nearly identical, although ostrich eggs offer lower levels of vitamin A and slightly more magnesium.

November 21, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Aflatoxins

I'm concerned about aflatoxin risk associated with consuming nut butters.

Is there legitimate cause for concern?


Are aflatoxins only present in peanut butter, but not almond, cashew or other nut butters?


-- Tom T.

Boston, MA


For those of you not familiar with aflatoxins, allow me to introduce you. You might not want to shake hands, though.

Aflatoxins are highly poisonous varieties of mycotoxins. In biochemical jargon, we are talking about the metabolic byproduct of a particular fungus.

It just so happens that this fungus has a tendency to grow on certain crops -- especially corn and peanuts.

Like any good fungus, it thrives in damp, warm environments.

Hence, if such conditions present themselves at any point of the transit or storage of these crops you can bet there will be fungal growth -- and high aflatoxin levels.

Yeah, not so ideal.

Apart from providing a funky flavor, aflatoxins can cause a variety of liver disorders, as well as significantly increase liver cancer risk when consumed in high amounts..

No need to start peanut panic just yet, though.

Most countries, particularly the "developed" nations (I put that in quotations because I find that term to be so outdated and elitist) have set limits on just how many parts per billion of aflatoxins can be permitted in crops entering their food supply.

So, if a particular peanut crop registers as too high, it will certainly not end up in your peanut butter.

In the United States, the National Peanut Administrative Committee has taken this issue very seriously. There is no worse PR for a food than intoxication risks.

There is now a certain pesticide that prevents this fungus from ever growing. If you are buying organic, you can not count on that particular barrier.

Again, though, aflatoxins are carefully monitored, so you truly have no reason to worry.

To answer your second question: yes, peanut butter is the only nut butter to contain aflatoxins, but not the only nut. Walnuts and pecans also register teeny, tiny, insignificant amounts.

PS: I know a peanut is technically a legume and not a nut. For simplicity purposes, though, it's a nut. Capiche?

November 20, 2008

Numbers Game: Drinking Money

According to the latest Federal Trade Commission figures, food and beverage companies spent a total of $ ______ million in 2006 advertising soda to children between the ages of 2 and 17.

a) 298

b) 492

c) 364
d) 601


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

November 19, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Olive Oil Potato Chips

What are your thoughts on potato chips fried in olive oil?

I saw some at the store and wondered if you thought they were a better snack than regular potato chips.

What oil are regular potato chips fried in, anyway?


-- Richard Faenza

Los Angeles, CA


Most commercial potato chips are fried in cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, or peanut oil.

The reason behind that is simple -- they have high smoke points. This means they can be heated at a higher temperature than other oils without their flavor being affected. Music to a cook's ears!

Regardless of the type of oil potato chips are cooked in, you usually get 10 grams of fat per 1 ounce serving.

Potato chips fried in olive oil aren't as great as they may sound.

Sure, olive oil contains a higher percentage of monounsaturated fat than cottonseed oil, but you should not be looking to potato chips to increase your heart-healthy fat intake.

Besides, from a caloric standpoint, they are identical to any other potato chip.

If you enjoy the taste of these chips, enjoy them as a treat.

Don't, however, think of them as a "healthy" potato chip alternative. Extreme heat takes away a good percentage of olive oil's antioxidant and healthful properties.

This is not to say olive oil transforms into a "bad" oil, but rather that using olive oil for deep frying is not a heart-healthy move.

If you are looking to incorporate more monounsaturated fats into your diet, I would much rather you chomp on some peanuts, add some avocados to your sandwich, or simply dress your salad with olive oil.

November 18, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

A half cup of canned peach slices in heavy syrup contains approximately 4.5 teaspoons of added sugar.

Yikes.

Not only does that tack on 72 completely worthless calories, it also offers one more teaspoon of added sugar than a glazed Dunkin' Donuts concoction.

As for the 10% of the potassium daily value offered in half a cup of natural peach slices? It decreases by half in its canned form.

Vitamin C levels are also slashed by 50 percent when peaches undergo this kind of processing.

November 17, 2008

In The News: Eat Food, Not Vitamins

I fear how some members of the mainstream media will report on the latest finding from the Physicians Health Study that "Vitamin C or E pills do not help prevent cancer in men."

I certainly hope I don't come across any "why oranges may not be as healthy as you might think," teasers on any news shows.

I am actually quite glad these well-publicized studies are arriving at these firm conclusions.

They make it absolutely clear that simply isolating nutrients in pill form and downing them with a glass of water every morning has very little to do with disease risk reduction.

In fact, this is precisely why dietitians have been recommending the consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains for decades.

It is not just one vitamin or mineral that helps lower disease risk.

Rather, it is the interaction and interplay between vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, and other compounds in food that provide health benefits. An orange is much more than vitamin C in a refreshing package.

Don't expect the multivitamin companies to let you in on that tidbit anytime soon.

November 16, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Food Allergies

I have been feeling sluggish and bloated for almost 6 weeks now.

One of my friends thinks it is probably a food allergy, either corn, wheat, or soy.

Do you agree?


-- (Name withheld)

(Location withheld)


Not really.

Let's first begin with some basic definitions.

A food allergy means your body is developing antibodies in response to specific food proteins.

This is different from a food intolerance, which has to do with the body's inability to break down certain substances, often resulting in gastrointestinal distress.

While wheat and soy allergies are common, corn allergies are not.

Additionally, corn allergies trigger symptoms like wheezing, sneezing, and swelling of the throat and face almost immediately. They go far beyond simply feeling "sluggish."

Keep in mind, too, that feeling sluggish and bloated are not necessarily allergic reactions.

Feeling sluggish can be a result of many other things -- stress, iron-deficiency anemia, not consuming sufficient calories, etc.

It concerns me that there is so much self-monitoring happening with allergies. To truly know what is going on, you need to see a specialist who has experience with food allergies.

Otherwise, you run the risk of misdiagnosing or overlooking a more important issue.

November 15, 2008

Numbers Game: How Sweet Can It Get?

A half cup of canned peach slices in heavy syrup contains approximately ______ teaspoons of added sugar.

a) 3.5
b) 2.75
c) 4.5
d) 2.25

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

November 14, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Alfalfa Sprouts

Are alfalfa sprouts full of nutrients?

I was leafing through a book about juicing yesterday and the author claimed alfalfa sprouts offer more nutrients than oranges, spinach, and blueberries.


True?


-- Morgan (last name withheld)

Boston, MA


Absolutely false.

Although alfalfa sprouts contain an ample variety of nutrients, they exist in minimal -- practically non-existent -- amounts (a half cup contains roughly one to two percent of the daily value of most vitamins and minerals.)

They aren't even a good source of fiber!

The nutrient these sprouts offer the most of is Vitamin K -- and that's at a decent, but by no means amazing, 13 percent per half cup serving.

A lot of alkaline enthusiasts hail alfalfa sprouts almost as the fountain of youth, although I have no clue what that opinion could possibly be based on.

Alfalfa sprouts, much like a straight "C" student, don't stand out as particularly great or horrible. They just.... are.

The Dirty Details

The latest issue of Details magazine features a short health piece titled "How Hard Can You Play", in which readers are informed of just how much of a good time they can potentially have with popular vices before guaranteeing themselves a nasty hangover.

Included in this piece is the following question:

"How do you bounce back from a hard night out?"

Here is the first part of the answer:

"Heather Sachs Blattman, a dietitian in New York, suggests combating the dehydration and impaired metabolism... by eating a meal rich in fiber, protein, and antioxidants.... and drinking lots of fluids, preferably with electrolytes. 'Vitamin Water's Revive is great to get you back in balance,' she says."

Eyeroll, please! Of course she does.

What I happen to know -- that Details does not tell you -- is that Ms. Sachs Blattman is the in-house dietitian for Glacéau, the company that just happens to make Vitamin Water.

My my, what a coincidence!

Advertisements -- and shameless plugs -- are truly everywhere.

And, no, you don't need Vitamin Water to bounce back from a "hard night out."

Water will do the trick just fine. While you're at it, munch on a medium banana to get plenty of potassium (one of the main electrolytes in sports drinks.)

November 13, 2008

You Ask, I Answer/Perfect Pickings: Cereal

I love cereal and eat it almost every morning but I often feel like the ones I eat are probably too sugary or not very substantial.

Can you recommend a cereal or two that you consider healthy and nutritious?


-- Jenna Kozel

Washington, DC


Since the cereal market is so vast, I find it easier to recommend particular nutrient values and ingredients to look for in these products.

The first thing to take note of is the serving size.

Many brands of granola, for instance, use a quarter cup as their serving size, which is absolutely laughable.

A lot of cereals, meanwhile, list their serving size as a half cup.

If you have a measuring cup at home, please pour enough cereal into it to fill it to the brim. Yes, that tiny amount is what many companies use as a "serving." Unreal!

What I recommend you do as early as tomorrow morning is pour the amount of cereal you normally eat into a bowl.

Then, use a measuring cup to determine the exact amount of cereal in that bowl.

Keep that figure as a reference each time you read a cereal's nutrition label, as it will help you make smarter choices when shopping.

Let's say you eat 1.5 cups of cereal every morning.

If a cereal using half cup servings delivers 150 calories per serving, while another using 1 cup servings offers 200, you now know which is the better choice for you (in this case, the latter would add 300 calories to your day, while the first one would add up to 450.)

You also want to pay attention to fiber content.

I recommend anywhere from 4 to 7 grams of fiber per serving.

Again, since the average person eats more than one serving of cereal in one sitting, I don't think it's necessary to track down cereals offering fiber in the double digits.

Sugar values are also important. I consider up to 5 or 6 grams per serving to be reasonable (that equals a teaspoon and a half). The lower, the better.

Be careful with cereals containing raisins or other fruit, as the naturally-occurring fruit sugars "unfairly" drive up sugar numbers.

Twelve grams of sugar per serving from a cereal with marshmallows offers less nutrition than twelve grams of sugar from a cereal that contains raisins (which provide antioxidants and phytonutrients.)

If you enjoy raisins in your cereal, you -- and your wallet -- are better off buying raisins separately and adding them yourself.

Finally, take a look at the ingredient list. You want to this to be short and, ideally, be absent of refined grains (i.e.: enriched wheat flour.)

When in doubt, look for the Whole Grains Council Stamp.

You Ask, I Answer: Stevia

What's your take on Stevia versus other no-calorie sweeteners (Splenda, etc)?

I generally use Splenda, but started to use stevia since it is supposed to be more 'natural' and 'unprocessed."


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


I would rank Stevia as the most controversial no-calorie sweetener.

Although it is plant-derived (thereby less artificial than Splenda, aspartame, or saccharin) and has been used in some countries (like Japan) for almost two decades, the United States was never open to it, citing concerns over rather shoddy animal studies showing apparent mutagenic properties of some components of the sweetener.

It was banned in 1991, and when that ban was lifted three years later, the Food & Drug Administration refused to grant it GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status as a food additive, thereby only making it legal if sold as a supplement. Confused yet?

I -- and many others -- suspect this had more to do with political motives than actual health concerns.

Consider the fact that patented (hint: profitable) artificial sweeteners faced fewer legal roadblocks.

Adding to that, once two multi-national bigshot corporations like Coca Cola and Cargill jointly developed -- and patented -- a Stevia-based sweetener (Truvia), the FDA had no problem granting them a green light.

Although I don't use it myself, I don't have a problem with someone sweetening their morning coffee with a teaspoon or two of Stevia.

What I want to point out about all these zero-calorie sweeteners, though, is that people are misguided if they think using them in place of sugar is an efficient weight-loss and overall health strategy.

No one becomes overweight or obese as a result of the tablespoon of sugar they add to their morning coffee every day (two packets of sugar only contribute 32 calories.)

It is the sodas, cookies, candies, muffins, and chocolate bars that are loaded with empty calories (in the form of sugar) that are more problematic. Although sodas are available in zero-calorie varieties, such is not the case with baked goods and other sweets.

And, so, we once again come back to the concept of general eating patterns -- and total calories -- being at the core of health and weight goals.

Using a non-caloric sweetener in coffee does not offset consuming too many calories throughout the day.

November 12, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

An average 6-piece inside-out 'uramaki' sushi roll (rice on the outside, nori on the inside, as pictured at right) at a Japanese restaurant in the United States contains 1 cup of rice.

(Note: 1 serving of rice = 1/2 cup)

This is a perfect example of a relatively healthy, low-calorie Asian meal undergoing a monstrous caloric metamorphosis upon arriving to the United States.

In Japan, the vast majority of sushi is eaten nigiri style (this is where rice is compacted into a small rectangle underneath each piece of fish) or maki style (nori/seaweed on the outside of each piece.)

It's also significant that maki rolls are approximately a half or a third of the size of inside out varieties common on this side of the Pacific Ocean.

This figure means that 6 pieces of an inside-out roll pack in slightly less than 200 calories from the rice alone.

Order two of those puppies and you are up to 4 servings of grains, per USDA pyramid standards.

Another calorie shocker? Spicy rolls contain anywhere from 100 to 150 moe calories than their traditional counterparts -- the special sauce is basically mayonnaise with a kick.

November 11, 2008

No Wonder Potatoes Have A Bad Reputation

Arby's is offering a new side item on their menu -- loaded potato bites (pictured at left).

Uh oh, the term "loaded" is generally code for "artery and waist busting."

This is no exception.

These "yummy pieces of fluffy potato, deep fried and loaded with cheddar cheese and bits of bacon" are accompanied with a ranch sour cream dipping sauce.

A large side order (10 pieces) adds 707 calories, 14 grams of saturated fat (almost three quarters of a day's worth), and 1,600 milligrams of sodium (two thirds of a day's worth) to your tray.

The ranch dip, meanwhile, contributes an additional 158 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, and 277 milligrams of sodium.

This is calorically equal to two orders of large fries at McDonald's.

November 10, 2008

Red, White, and Blue -- And Good For You

With patriotic spirits soaring over the past few days, I thought it would be perfect timing to discuss U.S. Mills' cereal and instant oatmeal products -- easy and very tasty ways to increase your whole grain and fiber intake.

Three quarters of a cup of Uncle Sam's original cereal offers 10 grams of fiber (all derived from the ingredients, not added on for fortification), 7 grams of protein, and 0.5 grams of sugar in a 190 calorie package.

I do wish, however, that this cereal included ground flaxseed (as opposed to whole) for even more of a nutrition boost.

In any case, throw in some sliced bananas, add your milk of choice (dairy, soy, rice, etc.) and you have a filling, wholesome breakfast.

Their instant oatmeal with non-genetically modified soymilk, meanwhile, makes for a wonderfully convenient vegan breakfast.

Simply add water and enjoy...

160 calories
50 milligrams of sodium
(that's 220 fewer milligrams than the same amount of Quaker instant flavored oatmeal)
5 grams of fiber
6 grams -- a mere teaspoon and a half -- of added sugar (50% less than Quaker flavored oatmeals)
7 grams of protein

... per packet.

In The News: Sweet Detention

An article in yesterday's New York Times reports on the nutritional metamorphosis taking place in several hundred school districts across the country.

A California law that passed in 2005 and went into effect last July set "strict new state nutrition standards for public schools, [requiring] that snacks sold during the school day [including at bake sales] contain no more than 35 percent sugar by weight and derive no more than 35 percent of their calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of their calories from saturated fat."

Some schools are taking this further and applying it to birthday celebrations in the classroom.

"In Guilford, CT, the school district’s health advisory committee has decided that birthday parties belong at home. At A. W. Cox Elementary, birthdays are celebrated with an extra 15 minutes of recess, special pencils or a “birthday book club” with commemorative inserts."

I applaud these innovative concepts.

While there is nothing wrong with celebrating a birthday at school with cupcakes, I find it critical to instill in children that it is possible to enjoy these moments without highly caloric food.

After all, it is precisely this behavior that is later replicated in adulthood and can become problematic.

I am consistently surprised by the amount of people who will eat a slice of cake handed to them at an office birthday celebration even if they are not hungry or in the mood for cake.

It can be very difficult to undo the "you always eat a slice of cake at a birthday party" reflex when it is perpetuated several times a year from preschool on.

At the same time, a few of the images and anecdotes shared in this story worry me.

First, the mention that "Piedmont High School [in Piedmont, CA] banned homemade brownies and cookies" from bake sales.

Does this mean commercial varieties are allowed? If so, what is the logic behind that? I would much rather have a cookie simply made with flour, butter, sugar, and vanilla than one out of a box listing 20 ingredients.

If the lack of information about included ingredients (and amounts) is troublesome, why not cut up each brownie square into two triangular halves and sell them that way?

Lastly, am I supposed to believe that whatever else is being sold at these bake sales is somehow healthier than a brownie or a cookie? A lemon square or oatmeal raisin cookie can have just as many calories, sugar, and saturated fat.

Then we have a photograph of teacher Anna X. L. Wong of Berkeley, CA, reviewing “good foods” versus “bad foods” with her kindergarteners.

In the photograph, we can see that candy, cake, bubblegum, ice cream, and soda fall in the "bad" category, while a variety of fruits and vegetables make the "good" column.

I am not arguing that candy, ice cream, and soda are healthy (although I do think that labeling bubblegum as bad is ridiculous), but I really hate the overly simplistic good food/bad food dichotomy.

I find that it often leads to obsessive thinking, guilt, and can inaccurately be perceived as "foods that should never be eaten."

I would find it much more helpful if kids learned about foods from a consumption model ("foods to eat every day/once a week/only occassionally.")

What confuses me most is that many of these schools so intent on banning homemade baked goods for "health concerns" still allow sugary sports drinks and vitamin-enhanced drinks (which often contain just as much sugar as soda) to be stocked in their vending machines.

I guess it's hard to turn down those companies when they offer to build you a football field, huh?

Very interested in hearing your thoughts.

You Ask, I Answer: Pickling

I know most pickles have a high sodium content, but I'm wondering if the vinegar and processing destroys the nutrients in the veggies.

I know cucumbers don't have a whole lot going for them, but pickled green beans are yummy.


Do they have the same nutrients as unpickled green beans?


-- Jennifer Armstrong
Via the blog


This question doesn't have a clear cut answer.

Although storing vegetables in a jar of vinegar results in some nutrient losses, the amount actually lost is dependent on how long the vegetables sit in the pickling solution for.

The first nutrients to go are the water-soluble vitamins (vitamin C and the B complex).

However, unless these green beans are sitting in the solution for months, you are still getting a percentage of those vitamins.

The fat soluble vitamins (in green beans' case, K and A) remain untouched, as do the present minerals (phosphorus, potassium, manganese) and fiber.

November 9, 2008

Numbers Game: Rice 'n Roll

An average 6-piece inside-out sushi roll (rice on the outside, nori on the inside, as pictured at left) at a Japanese restaurant in the United States contains _________ of rice.

(Note: 1 serving of rice = 1/2 cup)

a) 1/3 cup
b) 1/2 cup
c) 1 cup
d) 1.5 cups

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

November 8, 2008

FNCE 2008/Say What?: The Sweet Stuff Hits A Sour Note

In a perfect example of "reaching," The Sugar Association's booth at the 2008 American Dietetic Association Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo offered a variety of pamphlets, including one titled "Sugar's Healing Powers."

"There is no doubt that 'sugar' tastes good and, therefore in our guilt-ridden society, it is commonly assumed that 'sugar must not be good for us," the awkwardly written information sheet begins.

"Nothing could be further from the truth -- sugar is one of Mother Nature's most miraculous creations," it continues.

The argument here is that as far back as 1700 BC, sugar has been used to treat wounds.

The document quotes three studies -- all concluding that sugar exerts antibacterial effects on wounds and promotes faster healing.

Technically true, but how is that relevant in a society where the problem is the massive amounts of sugar people are putting down their throats?

Furthermore, what is the purpose of mentioning sugar's wound healing properties in hospital settings at a nutrition conference?

In another bizarre move, The Sugar Association provided some recipes (with the comma-less grammatically incorrect title "a little sugar can make healthy nutritious foods taste better") that left me perplexed.

Here is a perfect example -- adding sugar to a breakfast shake made of orange juice concentrate, milk, and a banana. Huh??

I am by no means a "sugar is the devil" advocate, but suggesting the addition of sugar to already sweet fruits and promoting its wound healing powers to nutrition professionals seems like a misguided PR move.

Their tagline ("Make an informed choice. Choose pure natural sugar -- 15 calories per teaspoon,") also does not sit well with me.

While putting a teaspoon or three of sugar into your coffee every morning (or enjoying an ice cream cone every Saturday night) is by no means a problem, sugar is calorically identical to other caloric sweeteners.

They ALL offer 14 - 16 calories per tablespoon.

I am not exactly sure what "informed choice" consumers are making by adding two teaspoons of sugar -- rather than that same amount of honey -- to a cup of tea.

I don't even understand why The Sugar Association is present at a nutrition conference to begin with.

You Ask, I Answer: Baguette Portion Sizes

Do you know what a 2 ounce slice of baguette looks like?

Panera Bread Company lists its whole-grain, artisan baguette at 130 calories for 2 ounces.

Not carrying my kitchen scale around town with me makes this less helpful than they might imagine.

-- Elizabeth (last name withheld)
(City unknown), MI

I love this question, because it shows just how hard it can be to estimate portion sizes when they don't match our standard frame of reference (in this case, that would be sliced bread.)

The best way to gauge baguette portion sizes is by keeping in mind that your average whole baguette clocks in at somewhere between 8 and 9 ounces.

So, simply eyeball your baguette portion.

If it would take approximately four identical pieces to make a whole baguette, then you have roughly two ounces in front of you.

November 7, 2008

Numbers Game: Answer

A pepperoni pizza off the Uno Chicago Grill's kids' menu contains 800 calories, 2,060 milligrams of sodium, and 18 grams of saturated fat.

(NOTE: The "12 and under" population this menu is intended for should consume no more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium and 17 grams of saturated fat a day.)

Keep in mind that a sedentary 8 year old boy should not be getting more than 1,400 calories a day.

A sedentary 11 year old, meanwhile, should not surpass the 2,000 calorie mark.


And those sodium and saturated fat numbers are staggering -- even for adults!

PS: If a kids' menu sundae is in the cards for dessert, that's an additional 840 calories and 18 grams of saturated fat.

November 6, 2008

FNCE 2008: Out of Towners

Some of the booths at this year's American Dietetic Association Food & Nutrition Conference and Expo struck me as very out of place:

Slimshots: A vanilla-flavored appetite suppresant. Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady) istheir spokesperson. Appetite suppresants at a food conference?

Corn Refiners Association: Despite current ADA president Martin Yaddrick's statement that "The American Dietetic Association had no involvement with the recent Corn Refiners Association advertisements. ADA did not review or approve the ad in question, nor any wording in it; nor did ADA have advance knowledge of the advertisement,” the people behind this campaign were present at FNCE with all sorts of literature claiming high fructose corn syrup is just dandy.

GNC and Vitamin Shoppe: Although these stores sell legitimate vitamins and minerals, they also hawk supplements (which are unregulated) that often succumb to nutrition quackery in their advertising.

Coca Cola: I am completely at a loss as to how carbonated water with high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners belongs at a nutrition conference. Sprinkling corn fiber into it does not make it "healthy."

Thoughts?

Survey Results: Label Detectives

The latest Small Bites survey asked visitors to identify particular ingredients they consciously try to avoid when purchasing food.

Partially hydrogenated oil (44%) and high fructose corn syrup (43%) led the pack, while artificial dyes seemed troublesome to less visitors (9%).

MSG, meanwhile, received 24% of votes.

Three percent of respondents weren't fazed by any of those ingredients, while 38% do not feel comfortable consuming any of them.

The #1 enemy on that list is certainly partially hydrogenated oil.

There is clear evidence showing the harmful effects it has on lipid profiles and, consequently, heart disease risk.

The high fructose corn syrup situation goes beyond nutrition. Although it contributes as many calories to food as sugar (16 calories per teaspoon), its environmental effects are far worse.

Additionally, because it is such a cheap ingredient, companies liberally include it in a variety of processed foods, in turn increasing total calories.

It also doesn't help that it is in everything from bread to Gatorade to pasta sauce.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the more of these ingredients you see on a nutrition label, the more processed -- and less nutritious -- a given product is.

You Ask, I Answer: Gary Null

What are your thoughts on Gary Null?

My cousin thinks he is the absolute best source of nutrition information, but a lot of what he says (like cleansing the body through coffee enemas) sounds misinformed to me.


-- (Name withheld)
New York, NY


Suggesting coffee enemas to "detox" is indeed misinformed.

First, direct your cousin to this wonderful summary of Mr. Null from Quackwatch.org.

Second, enroll him/her into a nutrition 101 course at a reputable institution so he/she can get a glimpse of what nutrition is really about.

It's amazing -- and downright infuriating -- how many people lacking proper credentials can make a fortune in the nutrition field by making irresponsible and absolutely baseless claims, saturating the airwaves with shoddy infomercials, and shamelessly duping the public with nonsensical products and publications.

The fact that Mr. Null hawks everything from books to DVDs to anti-aging wrinkle creams to "green foods powders" to his own juicer should raise a red flag (as should his claim that HIV doesn't cause AIDS.)

Two thumbs down in my book. If I had ten thumbs, I would give him ten thumbs down in a heartbeat.

Having the letters "PhD" after your name is completely meaningless to me if you can't back it up with basic scientific knowledge.

Some people comically -- and feebly -- try to defend his work by saying, "if he wasn't credible, then why does he sell so many books?"

Popularity does not indicate substance or respectability. It simply means you are good at marketing your product.

November 5, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Vinegar

Does vinegar have any positive or negative affects on the body?

--Lori (last name withheld)

Ottawa, ON


Although vinegar is a great low-calorie (roughly 14 calories per tablespoon) flavoring agent, it doesn't offer significant amounts of any nutrient.

Some fasts and detox plans claim that downing a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before each meal helps reduce cravings and speed up fat loss.

I have absolutely no idea how they came to such a conclusion, though, given that there is nothing in the scientific literature demonstrating that vinegar has specific fat-loss properties.

There has been some preliminary research on vinegar's effect on blood sugar levels of diabetics, but nothing that would warrant the suggestion of making vinegar a daily staple.

There is no reason to avoid it, either -- there are no harmful effects from consuming it in moderate amounts (i.e.: a tablespoon in salad dressing).

That said, going overboard and drinking multiple tablespoons in an attempt to speed up the metabolism is not only futile -- it can also cause tooth enamel damage.

November 4, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Mushrooms

From a nutrition standpoint, are all varieties of mushrooms pretty much the same?

Sometimes I see portobello mushroom steak as a vegetarian option at restaurants.

Is it higher in protein than other types?


-- Linda Ahern
Santa Ana, CA

All mushrooms are good low-calorie sources of potassium, phosphorus, and two B vitamins (riboflavin and niacin.)

A cup of chopped mushrooms also offers approximately ten percent of the selenium daily value (although oyster mushrooms come up short in this mineral.)

Portobello mushrooms are not higher in protein than other varieties.

A five-ounce serving only delivers 5 grams of protein (that same amount of tofu offers 15 grams; five ounces of seitan contribute 30 grams; half a cup of black beans adds up to 10 grams.)

Portobello mushroom "steak" as a vegetarian option on a restaurant menu strikes me as rather uninspired, particularly when it is the only meat-free choice.

I can't tell you how many times I have been at events where that is the sole vegetarian dish, and it is literally nothing but a huge, grilled portobello mushroom inside a hamburger bun. Snore!

Many chefs love it, though, because it's very easy to prepare.

November 3, 2008

Numbers Game: "R" Rated Pizza

A pepperoni pizza off the Uno Chicago Grill's kids' menu contains _______ calories, _________ milligrams of sodium, and _____ grams of saturated fat.

(NOTE: The "12 and under" population this menu is intended for should consume no more than 2,000 milligrams of sodium and 17 grams of saturated fat a day.)

a) 800/2,060/18
b) 1,200/1,420/14

c) 650/1,900/10

d) 900/2,300/15


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

The Skinny on Appetite Suppressants

The latest Small Bites YouTube video concerns the multi-million dollar appetite suppressant industry.

These supposed magical pills are marketed everywhere (most have a higher advertising budget than individual fruit and vegetable boards), promising effortless weight loss.

Despite the fact that some of these supplements are simply scaled down versions of amphetamines and others have absolutely no scientific evidence demonstrating their effectiveness, consumers continue to seek out these products in hopes of shedding pounds by simply popping a pill.

I explain why appetite suppressants are a big waste of money -- and suggest one productive place that cash can go.

video

November 2, 2008

In The News: Wall Street, Farm Subsidies, and Our Health

The Los Angeles Times published a nifty article tying in the current economic situation, the horrendous farm subsidies ("for the last 60 years or so, the government has subsidized the production of commodity crops -- corn, wheat, rice and soybeans -- that are ingredients in many high-calorie foods... to receive the subsidies, farmers must refrain from growing any fruits and vegetables,") and nutrition.

The article also highlights a study published last year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, which tracked the prices of 372 foods and beverages sold in the Seattle area for a two year period (2004 - 2006.)

The conclusion? "The average price increase was 7.9%... [but] foods most dense in calories had dropped by an average of 1.8%, [while] prices of the lowest-calorie foods had gone up by an average of 19.5%."

As discouraging as that may seem, here is my by-no-means-exhaustive list of affordable and nutritious foods you can rely on (whenever applicable, buy generic):

Bananas
Raisins
Apples

Plain yogurt (non-fat or low-fat)
Plain quick-cooking oats
Whole wheat bread
Natural peanut butter
Brown rice (cook in large batches and refrigerate)
Ground flaxseed (a two pounds bag costs between $4 and $5 and will last you months)
Canned beans (I suppose dry beans are the true money saver, but canned beans are inexpensive and a wonderful source of lean protein)
Potatoes (the key is to keep the skin on and cook them with little added fat)
Sweet potatoes
Garlic (an inexpensive way to add flavor)
Frozen spinach
Frozen broccoli
Eggs
Canned tuna (ideally chunk light and packed in water, to preserve the Omega 3's and slightly cut down on mercury levels)

November 1, 2008

You Ask, I Answer: Carb Loading

With the New York City marathon happening tomorrow, I thought this would be a good time to ask you this.

What is "carb loading"? I know runners do it before a race, but how does it work, and why do they do it?

-- Alice Hanover
New York, NY


Carb loading is about optimizing glycogen stores in muscle tissue (glycogen is the biochemistry way of saying "stored energy.")

Depleting these stores and then providing the body with an extreme amount of carbohydrates makes an enzyme known as glycogen synthase store the incoming carbohydrate (which is converted to glucose and then, ultimately, glycogen) very effectively.

Think of this as equivalent to a master suitcase packer who can fit in one suitcase what most people would need three for!

Why do this? Well, the higher the glycogen stores, the longer athletes can last in extended aerobic exercises (that is why long-distance runners -- as opposed to bodybuilders -- practice this.)

Carb loading can double the amount of glycogen stored in muscle tissue, so it can potentially provide marathon participants with significant advantage, provided it is done correctly.

There are two ways to do this (both methods take place over the course of seven days prior to the athletic event.)

The traditional way (developed in the 1960s) had athletes sharply decreasing their carbohydrate intake to Stage 1 Atkins levels (no more than 30 grams of carbohydrates -- what you find in a slice of bread -- a day) while vigorously training for three days.

FYI: Putting a long-distance runner on a low-carb regimen is pretty much the most cruel thing you can do.

The next three days, carbohydrate intake would skyrocket to approximately 80% of calories while physical activity continually decreased.

On the seventh day (the day before the race), carbohydrate intake would remain extremely high and physical activity was not to be performed.

Newer methods are less extreme.

For the first three days, athletes consume roughly 60 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Once that stage is complete, they take in approximately 80% of their calories from carbohydrates for the next three days.

In this method, exercise is on a constant decline (from very intense in Day 1 to absolutely none in Day 6.)

Since carb loading asks for high amounts of carbohydrates, this is one of the few times you will hear Registered Dietitians recommend low-fiber foods.

This serves two purposes -- it allows athletes to fill up less quickly and also prevents stomach complications (80 percent of calories from high-fiber foods could get rather uncomfortable.)

An Appetizer A Day Can Bring Problems Your Way

Don't let the term "starters" or "appetizers" lure you into a false sense of security.

Sometimes, these items are just as caloric -- if not higher -- than entrees.

Consider some of the following examples from Chili's restaurant.

The buffalo wings appetizer (containing 9 pieces) adds up to 1,170 calories, 15 grams (75% of a day's worth) of saturated fat, and 4,130 milligrams (two days' worth) of sodium.

In the mood for classic nachos? Then I hope you are okay with ordering 1,450 calories, 57 grams (almost three days' worth!) of saturated fat, and 2,730 milligrams (over a day's worth) of sodium.

Oh, you want those with beef? That will be 1,740 calories, 65 grams of saturated fat, and 3,700 milligrams of sodium.

The Texas cheese fries appetizer, meanwhile, clocks in at 2,070 calories, 73 grams of saturated fat (almost FOUR days' worth) and 3,730 milligrams of sodium.

Even if shared, these are nutritional bombs.

Let's say the Texas cheese fries are split by a table of three.

Assuming each person gets an equal share of food, that's 720 calories, 25 grams of saturated fat (more than a day's worth) and half a day's worth of sodium a piece!

Combine that with a sandwich or a ribs-centered entree (averaging 1,000 calories without the side of fries) and you have a day's worth of calories.

Your best bet at this chain? First, swap an appetizer for a soup.

A cup of Southwestern vegetable soup contains 110 calories, the broccoli cheese variety clocks in at 160 calories, and a cup of baked potato soup adds up to 220 calories.

While not low in sodium, none offer more than 650 milligrams of sodium (that's almost 85% less sodium than some of the monstruosities I previously pointed out.)

And stay away from any menu item labeled as bottomless. Eating 800 calories of corn chips before your meal comes out isn't as impossible as you may think!

When it comes to your entree, stick to grilled fish dishes, pita sandwiches (no more than 500 calories) or grilled chicken sandwiches.

If you're in the mood for anything else (burgers, ribs, fried chicken platters), satisfy your craving by splitting your meal with a friend. You'll save some money -- and anywhere from 600 to 950 calories!