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Archive for May, 2013

Buyer Beware: Five Ways to Steer Clear of Health Haloes

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post “Buyer Beware: Five Ways to Steer Clear of Health Halos.”

You can also read it HERE.

New research soon to be published in the International Journal of Obesity by researchers at University of Ulster in Northern Ireland found that subjects eat more when food is labeled with a term perceived as healthy such as “reduced fat.”

Nearly 200 adult subjects were presented with pairs of foods, one food labeled with a “healthy”-sounding term such as “reduced fat” and the other food a regular brand item. The pairs of items had the same number of calories per 100-gram portions. Foods studied were reduced-fat and luxury coleslaw, semi-skimmed milk and Sprite, and Frosties and Special K cereals.

The subjects served themselves a larger portion of the healthy-sounding foods. This translates into the fact that they actually ate more calories from the products perceived as healthy. The subjects also underestimated how many calories were in these portions.

I have seen this phenomenon quite a bit in my private practice. Clients often think that if a food is labeled with a healthy-sounding term, they can eat more. For example, just because cookies are labeled reduced-fat, organic or gluten-free, people often think that somehow the calories do not count. But after all, cookies are cookies, regardless of whether they are reduced-fat, organic, gluten-free, or labeled some other way. And usually, when products are labeled as “reduced-fat,” manufacturers compensate by adding sugar. When products often marketed for diabetics are labeled as sugar-free, they may contain added fats or sodium.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that very often marketing is at play here. As reported in Reuters:

“Foods are marketed as being healthier for a reason, because food producers believe, and they correctly believe, that those labels will influence us to eat their products and perhaps eat more of their products,” said Dr. Cliodhna Foley Nolan the director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood, a government agency in Ireland.

The takeaway message: Don’t be fooled by food label traps. Here are several ways to avoid such pitfalls.

1. Read food labels. Look at the calories per serving along with the other nutrients, such as fat, sodium, and sugar. The order of ingredients matters, too. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If the first few ingredient contain unhealthy ingredients, regardless of the promise made on label, I’d suggest limiting this product or skipping it entirely.

2. Pay attention to your serving size. Be mindful as to how much you actually eat. For example, if you must indulge in a cookie, go for one cookie instead of two cookies, regardless of how they are labeled. Reduced-fat, sugar-free, or gluten-free cookies still have calories. Reduced-fat or reduced-sugar coleslaw, for example, may still have the same number of calories as the regular version. And the more you eat, the more calories you will be taking in. It is that simple.

3. Eat more whole food. This includes unprocessed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables — which do not have food labels touting these products as healthy, low-fat, reduced-fat, gluten-free, or some other “healthy”-sounding term.

4. Cook more. By preparing your own food, you are able to know exactly what ingredients, and how much of each, is going into the final product.

5. Avoid “diet” food. Oftentimes, diet foods such as baked goods labeled low-fat, reduced-calorie, or fat-free do not taste great. And you may end up eating more to compensate for the mediocre taste. My advice: Stick to the real thing, and eat a smaller portion of a food you really enjoy.

Finally, always remember that there is no free lunch.

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Fast food still unhealthy: What to do

Below is my latest blog post for Huffington Post.

You can also read it HERE.

Fast food is known to be high in fat, sugar and salt, and frequent consumption of fast-food may contribute to a diet of poor quality, which may raise a user’s risk for overweight and chronic diseases that are diet-related (e.g., heart disease and hypertension). Indeed, when Morgan Spurlock embarked on a 30-day experiment to eat all his meals at McDonald’s, he gained 25 pounds, and his physicians were concerned with his health.

French fries and burgers are loaded with fat and salt, and oversized sodas and other sugary drinks are full of sugar. And most traditional fast-food items are loaded with calories.

With so much attention on the relationship between obesity and eating out, has the fast-food industry improved their offerings over the years? It seems that the choices today are not that much healthier, a new study says. According to the researchers, the nutritional quality of fast-food items has improved only modestly over 14 years.

The research, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, analyzed menus from eight top fast-food restaurant chains: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Arby’s, Jack in the Box and Dairy Queen. Menus were compared from 1997/1998 with 2009/2010. According to HealthDay:

Menu scores did not change for fruit, whole fruit, total vegetables, dark green and orange vegetables, legumes, total grains, whole grains, and oils. The good news was that scores improved for meat, saturated fat, and calories from solid fats and added sugars. On the other hand, scores for milk/dairy and sodium got worse. The overall nutritional quality score of 48 associated with these eight restaurants fell below that of the average American diet.

What I have found with my own research on fast-food portion sizes, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is that while fast food establishments are offering some healthier items, they continue to add new larger-sized items. And large sizes just about always means more calories! As I wrote for HuffPost,

Portion sizes have continued to increase through the first decade of the 21st century. Top fast-food and restaurant chains continue to introduce new large-size portions. Food companies are introducing bigger burgers, burritos, pizzas, and sandwiches. Some of these single-serving items (meaning, they are marketed for one person) contain more than 1,000 calories. For example, Wendy’s Baconator Triple burger contains approximately 1,300 calories and Burger King Triple Whopper contains 1,140 calories.

In this new study, while modest improvements were observed in the fast-food offerings over the years, the authors stated that there is much more that can be done, especially since fast food is so ubiquitous in the diet. The authors noted that more than 25 percent of American adults eat fast food at least two times a week.

While we can hope that the food industry offer up healthier options soon, here is what you can do in the meantime if you still want to indulge in fast food.

  1. Choose a “single” burger over a double or triple.
  2. Choose a chicken dish over a meat dish. When faced with a choice between a burger or a grilled chicken salad or sandwich, I would suggest opting for the chicken.
  3. Skip the French fries. Or, if you must, opt for the “small.”
  4. Choose water instead of soda. You will save lots of calories and unneeded sugar. Water trumps diet soda as well!
  5. Add a salad to your meal.
  6. For dessert, choose whole fruit over pie. Purchase an apple instead of apple pie, for example.
  7. Eat slowly. Chew your food well. And, enjoy the company you are with.
  8. And, finally, eat fast food sparingly.
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Restaurant survival guide

Below is my blog post  Restaurant survival guide: 10 tips for healthful dining for Huffington Post. You can also read it HERE.

Restaurant survival guide: 10 tips for healthful dining

Being a nutritionist in New York City, with so many good restaurants on almost every block, so many clients that I counsel eat out more often than they eat at home. Whether dinner parties, business meetings, or just catching up with friends, eating out has become one of our favorite activities. While I always recommend that it is good to cook (or learn to cook) and eat home on occasion, so much of my time is spent coaching clients on how to eat out healthfully in restaurants.

It is possible to eat out and consume upward of 2000 calories in just one meal. However, it is also entirely possible not to break your calorie budget and to eat healthfully while eating out. The key is to be mindful of your food choices and to choose wisely. Here are my top tips for dining out healthfully.

1. Mind your portions. Portions have grown tremendously over the years and it is most noticeable in restaurants. As I wrote in my book, The Portion Teller Plan, many steaks often contain a pound of meat (yes that is 16 oz!), overflowing pasta bowls often hold 3 or more cups, and some sandwiches contain over 1000 calories. However, you do NOT need to eat an entire dish yourself. YOU can practice portion control by splitting an entrée in half and share with your dining partner, wrapping up leftovers, or ordering appetizer portions.

2. Order a salad or vegetable soup to start. Instead of eating the entire bread basket which we often do when we sit down in the restaurant and wait for our main dish to arrive, order a healthy appetizer. A salad with mixed vegetables (order dressing on the side) or a vegetable-based soup is a great way to start a meal. The veggies are fairly low in calories and will fill you up as they are rich in fiber (not to mention healthy).

3. Order dishes grilled, broiled or baked. How a meal is prepared is so important to determining the healthfulness—and calorie count—of the meal. Try to stick with baked chicken or grilled fish, for example. Steer clear of fried dishes such as deep fried chicken.

4. Choose red sauce over cream sauce. We all love eating at our favorite Italian restaurant and we may want to enjoy an occasional bowl of pasta. Besides minding our portions, it is also important to choose the right sauce. Marinara or tomato sauce is relatively low in fat and calories as compared to a cream sauce.

5. Order primavera. Adding vegetables to your pasta dish (or any other dish you can) is a great way to make your portion look larger, boost vitamins, minerals, and fiber content, and help you to feel more satisfied without providing unneeded calories.

6. Order “on the side.” When ordering a salad or fish dish which may appear to be healthy, if the dish contains tons of dressing and sauce, you may be getting hundreds of added calories without even realizing. To avoid this, ask for dressings and sauces on the side. I do not think it is practical to eat everything bland and steamed with no sauce at all. However, if you order your favorite sauce or dressing on the side, you get to control how much you add on and you get a taste of the flavor you like.

7. Skip the soda and sugary drinks. Sodas and other sugary beverages add unnecessary calories to your meal. Opt for water or flavored seltzers instead.

8. Think ONE. If you want to indulge in an occasional glass of wine, think ONE. One drink on occasion is OK for most of us, but as I tell my clients, it is important not to drink several drinks daily. Not only does a lot of alcohol provide unneeded calories (as well as potential health risks), it tends to lower your inhibitions and you may end up overeating without realizing it.

9. Share dessert. It is ok to enjoy an occasional piece of pie for dessert but I suggest sharing it with your dinner companions. One great idea is to order your favorite “treat’ dessert while also ordering a fresh fruit platter. This way you can split both. The fruit adds volume so that you don’t feel deprived ordering just a few bites of pastry or pie.

10. Skip the WHITE (unless it is cauliflower). It is best to skip the white bread products which are refined and devoid of fiber and other important nutrients. Order brown rice instead of white rice, whole wheat pasta or soba noodles instead of white pasta, and limit the white bread and crackers on the table.

And, finally, remember that French fries count as a treat, and not as a vegetable.

Enjoy.

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