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Archive for October, 2011

Food Day

Today, and hopefully for years to come, October 24th, is Food Day. It is a national day of food awareness- to promote healthy eating and affordable, accessible food. It is sponsored by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit advocacy group that has led successful campaigns for food labeling, better nutrition, and safer food. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) are the Honorary Co-Chairs for Food Day 2011. Advisory board members include nutrition experts and public health activists Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, and Kelly Brownell.

Food Day is centered on six principles:

  1. Reduce diet-related disease by promoting safe, healthy foods
  2. Support sustainable farms & limit subsidies to big agribusiness
  3. Expand access to food and alleviate hunger
  4. Protect the environment and animals by reforming factory farms
  5. Promote health by curbing junk-food marketing to kids
  6. Support fair conditions for food and farm workers


In honor of Food Day, I will be giving a lecture on portion sizes and the obesity epidemic entitled Portion Sizes Continue to Increase: Issues and Policy Implications to students at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition in New York City.

There are so many ways YOU can get involved in Food Day. This is just the beginning of a movement to promote healthy eating, reduce disease, curb junk-food marketing, alleviate hunger, support sustainable farms, and more. Read more about Food Day and see how you can get involved and what you can do.

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Health halos

Fitness magazine, where I am an advisory board member, has a terrific article in its October issue entitled “The halo effect” written by my colleague Sally Kuzemchak, RD.

Consumers often eat MORE when a food is labeled low fat, organic, or even gluten free. In many cases, it is great to look for these labels when you are making your food purchases, but beware that you don’t end up eating a bigger portion, which is what happens so often.

Here are a few label traps to look out for:

ORGANIC. It is great to buy organic fruits and vegetables in many cases, especially when buying from “the dirty dozen” which includes fruits such as apples and strawberries. While organic apples are healthy, (and I’m not to worried about you overdosing on apples), it is important to be advised that organic junk food is still junk food! Buying organic cookies, cakes, and crackers should not give you license to overeat. And, I many cases, you will being a paying a premium for such foods.

GLUTEN FREE. Gluten free products are on the rise but not everyone needs to eat gluten free, and gluten free does not mean that a food is healthier. Gluten free diets are important for people with celiac disease or people who cannot tolerate gluten.  Gluten free cookies, however, are still cookies and these foods DO have calories. In fact, many gluten free products often have more calories than their non-gluten free counterparts. As my expert colleague Shelley Case, RD, author of Gluten-Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide says “Gluten-free doesn’t automatically equal healthy.”  And, as the journalist Michael Pollan succinctly wrote for a recent New York Times magazine article when asked about gluten free diets: “It’s hard to believe that the number of people suffering from these conditions has grown as fast as this product category. Gluten has become the bad nutrient of the moment…”

LOW FAT AND FAT FREE. According to research in the Journal of Marketing Research, subjects ate 30% MORE candy that was labeled low fat. This does not surprise me as I have so many clients who have fallen into that same trap. Somehow, when a food is labeled low-fat, we often forget that it still contains calories. Same with the fat-free label. I had a client who would eat an entire jumbo bag of licorice because he was enticed by its fat-free label. As I told Fitness magazine, some fat in the diet is good as it aids in satiety. This often means that you end up eating less overall. So, my motto for cookies and cakes is: often times, you are better off sticking with the real thing, enjoying it, and you end up eating less.

So, next time you grab for those organic or fat-free cookies, be mindful of your portion, and try not to overindulge.

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McDonald’s: Mexico versus US

I recently returned from lecturing at the annual Food Technology Summit and Expo held in Mexico City. I was speaking on the hidden costs of supersizing.  Portion sizes are a growing problem in Mexico as they are in the US; portion sizes have exploded there as well. It is no surprise that obesity rates are also very high in Mexico and resemble US obesity rates. Nearly 70% of Mexicans are either overweight or obese.

I was able to gather some nutrition and portion-size info from McDonald’s in Mexico and their menu looks much like ours (sigh!). Here is a summary:

  • Both McDonald’s in US and Mexico sell Big Macs and the Mexican Big Mac has around 30 calories more than the US version (569 calories in Mexico).
  • McDonald’s in Mexico offers a breakfast McMuffin a la Mexicana with 440 calories and 25 grams of fat.

  • Portions of French fries in the US are more caloric than those found in Mexico. The largest US size contains 500 calories while the largest size in found in McDonald’s in Mexico contains 410 calories.
  • Soda sizes are slightly larger in US McDonald’s than they are in Mexico but note the word slightly. In the US, the small, medium and large contain 150, 210, and 310 calories respectively. The Mexican soda portions contain 120, 200, and 280 calories respectively.
  • The McFlurry with OREO cookies in the US contains 580 calories–200 calories more than the Mexican version.
  • Like in the US, McDonald’s Mexico offers fried chicken nuggets in several sizes-4, 6, and 10 pieces.
  • McDonald’s Mexico offers a “Big Tasty” burger with over 800 calories! No wonder Mexicans are big!

Because so many Mexicans are overweight, diet food has become a craze there as well. Here is a photo from the frozen dietary dessert chain Tasti d lite, this one on Mazaryk Street in Mexico City.

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Teens underestimate calories!

New research from Harvard has reported that teenagers underestimate the number of calories in fast-food meals. Often by hundreds of calories! The research presented at the annual meeting of the Obesity Society found major errors in estimating calories in fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts and Wendy’s.

Here are some of the findings as reported by Nanci Hellmich in today’s USA Today.

• 80% of teens underestimated the calories in their meals.

• 30% of teens underestimated the amount by at least 500 calories.

• Teens who ordered 1,000-calorie meals underestimated the amount by an average of 350 calories.

• Those who ordered 1,500-calorie meals were off by 700 calories.

Take-home message: It is no surprise that teens underestimated the calories in fast food meals as these foods are SO high in calories and their portions are huge.   Next time you—or your kids—visit a fast-food place, or any restaurant for that matter, assume that the meals have more calories than you would think.


A few pointers:

  • Order a small size when possible. Good news: fast-food places give you choices.
  • Limit liquid calories including soda.
  • Get a single burger instead of a double or triple.
  • Choose grilled chicken instead of fried chicken.
  • Choose fast food only on occasion.
  • Teach your kids to cook and eat home more often.
  • Include more fresh fruits and veggies whenever possible
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