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Try these 10 simple tips for a healthier 2017

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post “Try these 10 simple tips for a healthier 2017.”

You can also read it here.

Welcome to 2017! The New Year creates an opportunity to start fresh and set simple achievable goals for getting healthier and losing weight.

As a nutritionist and wellness advocate, I have never been a fan of rigid diets or all-or-nothing New Year’s resolutions that you cannot keep. Instead, I advocate making small actionable changes that you can incorporate into your day-to-day life which can be kept throughout the year.

Planning in advance, looking at the positive, making small changes when food shopping, eating out, and eating at home can make a big difference to your overall health and weigh loss efforts.

To make your life healthier, and even help you shed some unwanted pounds, below are 10 practical suggestions to help you improve your diet this year.

1. Mind your bowls.

Food portions are not the only things that have increased over the years — our plate sizes have too. And we eat more if our plates and bowls are bigger. It makes perfect sense. Consider your favorite breakfast cereal. A recommended serving size for a starch serving at breakfast would be around 1 cup. If you pour a 1-cup serving into a big bowl, it won’t look like much and you will most likely feel deprived. Try pouring it into a smaller bowl, perhaps even a bowl from your grandmother’s set, and it will look a lot better, and you may feel more satisfied. Perhaps because for a dieter, nothing is worse than staring at a half empty bowl or plate!

Even if your cereal is a healthy whole grain, if you eat too much, the calories add up quickly. And after experimenting with clients, most of us would easily pour 2-3 cups of cereal into our breakfast bowl, thinking we are eating a healthy cereal.

A client of mine lost 20 pounds, effortlessly, when switching to smaller plates and bowls. If we downsize our plate, we tend to eat less. Give it a try! This study found that halving plate size led to a 30 percent reduction in the amount of food consumed. I offer more portion-control tricks here and here.

2. Swap refined carbs for healthy fats.

Gone are the days where going fat-free is the healthiest option. Nix the big bagels and oversize muffins and enjoy some healthy fats. Enjoy a schmear of avocado on your whole grain toast, spread your favorite nut butter on a rice cake or two, sprinkle olive oil on your salad, and don’t feel guilty! And swapping carbs for healthy fats is also good for your heart.

3. Eat more, weigh less.

Good news if you are a volume lover. As I referred to them in my book, The Portion Teller Plan, volume eaters like a large portion of food. A solution: fill up on fruits and vegetables which tend to be low in calories (while also being super nutritious and chock full of vitamins and minerals.) Good options include berries, melons, citrus fruit, leafy greens and, cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower and broccoli. Enjoy a bowl of mixed berries at breakfast with your yogurt or oatmeal. Eat a large colorful salad every day composed of a variety of different vegetables. Just ask for the dressing on the side and hold the croutons. And as I often say, no one got fat eating too many carrots or bananas.

4. Shop from a list, don’t buy in bulk, and eat before heading to the grocery store.

What you bring into your house will ultimately determine what you eat, at least when you are eating home. So here are some shopping tips that can help you shop smart. Do not go food shopping on an empty stomach. Eat a healthy snack before heading out to the store and you will end up choosing healthier foods. I also suggest making a list of the foods you need and stick to the list. Finally, steer clear of jumbo portions; the bigger the package, the more most of us eat, even if we aren’t hungry.

5. Go meatless once in a while.

Incorporating plant based proteins including chickpeas, lentils, black beans, tofu and tempeh into your diet offer up many health benefits, ranging from weight loss to lower cholesterol and improved blood sugar. Beans and legumes are high in fiber and protein as well as vitamins and minerals such as folate, iron, and magnesium. And here’s another reason to swap red meat for legumes. According to a new study, beans and peas make people feel fuller after a meal than meat. Enjoy a split pea soup with a colorful salad or a bean-based veggie burger instead of a hamburger for a healthy meatless lunch. And at your favorite Chinese restaurant, order tofu with veggies and brown rice (with your favorite sauce on the side) instead of spare ribs with fried egg rolls. Your heart and your waist will be happy!

6. Think positive.

Rather than dwelling on the foods you cannot eat, focus on what you can eat. I tell my clients that there is no restaurant or cuisine that is completely off limits. You can always find something healthy on the menu. And you do not have to order off of the “diet” menu. For example, when going to an Italian restaurant, instead of dwelling on the fact that you shouldn’t eat garlic bread and fettuccine Alfredo, focus instead of what you can eat: start with an arugula and endive salad, minestrone soup, or grilled veggies and for a main dish, you can enjoy whole wheat pasta with veggies and fresh tomato sauce or grilled fish with sautéed spinach.

7. Roast your vegetables.

I love roasted veggies and enjoy them quite often. For a change from steamed veggies which are bland and boring for many of us, you can roast whatever veggies you have in your fridge—broccoli, cauliflower, onions, and red pepper and zucchini to name a few. For a healthy—and filling—starch option, you can also roast sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Just go easy on the oil and you won’t have to worry about the calories.

8. Write it down.

There is no better way to get a handle on what and how much you eat than by keeping food records. Don’t worry; you do not have to keep them forever. People who keep food records become more mindful of their mistakes are then able to make corrections. Food records help you see your patterns, both positive and negative ones. For example, are you nibbling mindlessly while watching TV, and how much are you really eating? By identifying your bad habits, you can easily substitute them for healthier ones. Today, more than ever, it is easy to keep food records as there are so many apps on your smartphone which you can use.

9. Want dessert? Serve yourself.

If you are trying to eat healthier, a new study found that serving yourself can help curb unhealthy indulgences. People who choose their own piece of cake and, cut it themselves, eat less of it. And, better yet, they may even end up not eating cake at all.

While serving yourself stops people from eating unhealthy foods, it didn’t stop them from eating healthy food, the study to be published later this year in the Journal of Marketing Research found. So next time you are at a dinner party and your host offers you a fruit salad, go for it, but when it comes to the cake and cookies, serve it yourself.

10. Stress less.

When we feel stressed, many of us turn to food. Comfort food, that is as opposed to healthy salads. While it may be easier said than done, worrying will not make our problems go away. To beat stress and worry, exercise regularly and develop a daily meditation practice. It is also ok to start small. And be sure not to stress about the exercise: choose an activity you love (my favorite is yoga and swimming) and schedule it on your calendar at a time that works for you so you don’t feel rushed. As for meditation, start with 5 minutes before bed and work up to a longer period slowly. For an added boost, exercise and meditation also improves your mood and your health.

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6 handy tips to help get you slimmer by summer

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post “6 handy tips to help you get you slimmer by summer”

You an also read it HERE.

With summertime right around the corner, as a nutritionist helping people shed unwanted pounds, I get calls from clients for simple tricks to lose weight, whether to be able to fit into last summer’s bathing suit or just be healthier.

Indeed, we have far too many overweight people who need to lose weight, not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that since 1980 worldwide rates of obesity have doubled, and in 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight. Yikes!

The key to losing weight — and keeping it off — is not following the diet de jour of the day. Rather, it is to be able to trim your portions and be mindful of how much you eat.

Having spent a good part of my career studying the link between portion sizes and obesity, it has become obvious to me that if we can learn to recognize how much food we should be eating (and then actually eat that amount), we would be much thinner, and would not need the wacky diets being promoted today. (After all, who want to walk around hungry and grumpy as Jeb Bush reported feeling when following The Paleo Diet?)

When people think of portion control, however, they often think of measuring cups and food scales, and then want to run the other way. However, I do not regularly recommend weighing food for the long term, especially because it is not practical. And because we eat out so often, where portion-control becomes all the more important, we need simple tools to help us guesstimate our food portions.

When I developed my Portion Teller program, I developed the “handy method” to help you guesstimate your portions: comparing your foods to different parts of your hand. It’s not a perfect comparison because everyone’s hand is a different size, but even if it’s not an exact science, it is very useful. And if your hand is larger than average, you can probably can eat more food than someone with a smaller hand.

Here are six handy tips to help you estimate just how much of your favorite foods you should be eating.

1. Cereal flakes

It is very easy to pour too much cereal into your favorite bowl. A tight fist is around a cup of cereal, which is an appropriate portion for most of us. Top the cereal with fat free milk and berries and your bowl will fill up fast.

2. Meat, poultry, or fish

Most restaurants serve us far too much meat, often giving us nearly an entire pound’s worth. The palm of your hand is around 3-4 oz. Eat no more than 1-2 palms’ worth of meat, fish, or chicken per meal. The trick is to fill up half of your plate with veggies.

3. Mixed nuts

Nuts make for a great snack. Because they are high in fat and calories, however, it is so important to watch your portion. If you eat shelled peanuts or pistachios, you can see the shells, thereby unconsciously getting you to eat less. Many of us, however, carelessly nibble on nuts and end up overeating without realizing. My recommendation is to spread one layer of nuts on your palm (around ¼ cup) and stop there! Don’t fall into the trap of just picking at nuts straight from the bag… because, before you know it, the entire bag will be empty.

4. Cheese

It is very easy to eat too much cheese, especially if you are at a cocktail party. We nibble on cheese with a glass of wine, and before we know it, we’ve eaten more than 1,000 calories. With my “Handy Method,” however, just grab two index fingers’ worth of cheese (approximately 2 ounces) and you are set. Just think of a peace sign! And remember, if you’ve eaten more cheese than you have fingers, you definitely overate.

5. Peanut butter

Who doesn’t love eating peanut butter straight from the jar?! It can be a dangerous practice, however, if you are trying to watch your calories. On my program, you can eat peanut butter and still lose weight. Just follow my “rules of thumb” for a healthy serving of peanut butter. Aim for three thumb tips’ worth of peanut butter which equals around one tablespoon (3 teaspoons).

6. Popcorn

When we think of popcorn, we often think of the movie theater — a typical food trap, with its bottomless bags of popcorn. A bag of popcorn at the movie theater often holds 20 cups, far too much food for one person. Many of us are watching a movie and absent-mindedly digging into our oversize bags grabbing piece after piece. Before we know it, we’ve eaten the entire bag.

If you want an idea of how much popcorn you’re eating, scoop out one rounded handful. That’s about 1/2 cup. Or, cup both your hands together, and scoop out a mound of popcorn. That’s a cup. A healthy popcorn serving contains 3 cups of popcorn. Hold the butter.

We’d love to hear from you if you have a “handy” tip or a favorite trick to help control your portions.

Follow Dr. Lisa Young on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drlisayoung

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Bloomberg’s Cap on Supersize Soda May Be Contagious

Below is my latest blog post for Huffington Post “Bloomberg’s cap on supersize soda may be contagious”.

You can also read it HERE.

As Mayor Bloomberg prepares to leave office, his controversial proposed cap on the size of sugar-sweetened drinks may be contagious. While we wait for the courts to determine whether or not a 16-ounce soda will be the default “large” at eating establishments such as fast food restaurants delis, and movie theaters, the United Arab Emigrates (UAE) has decided to ban supersize sodas.

According to Arabian Business:

The UAE has banned supersized fizzy drinks as part of a raft of new health measures announced by the government, as the Gulf state looks to reign in burgeoning obesity and lifestyle disease rates. The federal cabinet came to the decision following the second day of what it described as a “brain-storming” session at a Sir Bani Yas island, and comes on the back of a similar idea being introduced in New York City earlier this year by mayor Michael Bloomberg. According to a recent United Nations report, more than one third of the UAE’s population is classified as clinically obese, while a separate study said that 20 percent of adult Emirati citizens suffer from diabetes.

In Europe, James Quincy, the president of Coca-Cola Europe, acknowledged that many soda sizes are too large. Appearing on BBC, Quincy said that the size of some of the large cups that Coca-Cola is sold in “needs to change” and that “the bigger cups need to come down.” And the sizes of European portions, including soda, are not nearly as large as our portions.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, at a recent roundtable sponsored by the Museum of Food and Drink debating the proposed cap on sugary beverages, I debated the merits of Bloomberg’s proposal. As discussed in Food Navigator, one of the reasons I support the proposed portion cap is that the marketing of supersize sodas has become the norm. In the movie theater, for example, a 32-ounce quart size soda is labeled “small” and a 44-ounce soda is labeled “medium.” Since when is a quart of soda considered small? I also discussed that obesity rates have increased in parallel with growing soda sizes and that calorie labeling alone will not solve the problem. Consumers need an environment that encourages healthier choices. And the healthy choice must be the easy choice.

As I further discussed in the debate and previously wrote in the NY Daily News:

Large portions contribute to obesity because they obviously contain more calories than small portions: A small soda (16 ounces) at KFC contains 180 calories, while the Mega Jug (64 ounces) contains nearly 800 calories — and is more than one-third of an entire day’s recommended calories for some people … Bloomberg is not banning the sale of soda. Nor is he telling consumers that they can’t drink soda. Rather, he is calling attention to how much is a reasonable amount to drink at a time. Sixteen ounces is certainly more than reasonable — a full pint of sugar water. Instead of viewing this as a ban, let’s see it as an attempt to reset the norm for how much soda truly constitutes an appropriate portion.

You can listen to the entire debate complements of Heritage Radio Network.

I hope that the courts favor Bloomberg’s proposal and that when we visit a concession stand at a NYC movie theater later in 2014, the largest single-serve soda is 16 ounces as opposed to the 50-ounce size available now.

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Los Angeles Health Dept Partners With Restaurants to Offer Smaller Portions

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post “LA health department partners with restaurants to offer smaller portions.” You can also read it HERE.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health launched a healthy restaurants partnership, identifying restaurants that will serve smaller portion sizes and healthier meals for kids. The program, Choose Health L.A. Restaurants is part of an effort by the L.A. Department of Public Health to curb the obesity epidemic and empower residents of L.A. County to choose health and lead healthier lives.

Choose Health L.A. Restaurants will promote menu changes that encourage healthier food choices and smaller portion sizes. The program will also offer healthier meals for children that can foster a healthy weight. The program is part of the public health department’s continued efforts to reduce the obesity epidemic by educating and empowering L.A. County residents to “choose health.”

To be part of the Choose Health L.A. Restaurants program, restaurants must offer smaller food portions and offer healthier meals for children by including more fruits and vegetables and less fried food. The health department will post decals in the windows of participating restaurants and list the participating restaurants on an interactive map at ChooseHealthLA.com.

As reported in the L.A. Times,

The program is the latest effort to attack the obesity epidemic in Los Angeles County, where about 23 percent of residents are obese. The county has also been encouraging residents to eat less and to give up soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages… ‘It’s all part of a coordinated campaign to change norms,’ said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Department of Public Health.

Dr. Fielding also told the L.A. Times that “Small changes in what we eat every day, at every meal can make a huge difference in terms of not only our weight but our overall health.”

I could not agree more. As a nutritionist counseling overweight clients, making small changes to your diet by eating a little less, skipping fried foods and adding more vegetables to your meal can make a huge difference at the end of the day.

Choose Health L.A. Restaurants sounds like a terrific program to me and appears to be a win-win solution for all. Consumers living in L.A. County can still dine out, eat healthfully and have the option to purchase smaller portion sizes, which will offer fewer calories. Restaurants can increase revenue by selling healthier food options in smaller portions and help contribute to the health of its residents.

I can’t wait to see other public health departments and restaurants across the country adopt similar campaigns. Indeed, the NYC Health Department has launched a terrific public health campaign, “Cut Your Portions, Cut Your Risk,” with subway ads in an attempt to get New Yorkers to be mindful of portion sizes, along with proposing a cap on the size of sugary drinks. (Currently in court. Stay tuned.) I was involved and an active supporter of these campaigns.

In the meantime, here are a few things YOU can do to dine out healthfully:

1. Share oversized portions with your dinner companion.

2. Start your meal with a healthy salad (dressing on the side, of course) or a low-fat soup

3. Limit liquid calories such as soda. Drink water instead.

4. Choose grilled instead of fried foods.

5. Take a stand and request that your restaurant serve smaller portions.

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NYC to appeal appellate court ruling on sugary beverages.

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post “NYC to appeal ruling on sugary beverages.”

You can also read it HERE.

New York City became the first city to almost make supersize soda cups a thing of the past. But an appeals court issued a ruling on Tuesday that that the city’s health department exceeded its legal authority by trying to place a size limit on sugary beverages served in fast food restaurants and other eating establishments.

The proposed portion size cap was set to restrict the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces in food establishments, including fast-food chains, restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, delis, and street carts. It would have included the now-typical 20-ounce soda bottle from the corner deli and most oversized fountain drinks available in fast-food establishments and movie theaters.

The beverage industry called the measure unfair and ineffective.

The city has promised an appeal. Indeed, as the city points out in the headlines of its press release: Obesity Kills More Than 5,000 New Yorkers Annually; Sugary Beverages are Key Driver of the Obesity Epidemic.

Mayor Bloomberg issued the following statement in the release:

Since New York City’s ground-breaking limit on the portion size of sugary beverages was prevented from going into effect on March 12th, more than 2,000 New Yorkers have died from the effects of diabetes. Also during that time, the American Medical Association determined that obesity is a disease and the New England Journal of Medicine released a study showing the deadly, and irreversible, health impacts of obesity and Type 2 diabetes — both of which are disproportionately linked to sugary drink consumption. Today’s decision is a temporary setback, and we plan to appeal this decision as we continue the fight against the obesity epidemic.

I hope the city wins its appeal.

As a nutritionist and health activist, here are five reasons I support the mayor and city’s health department.

1. Sugar-sweetened beverages provide nothing but empty calories. Soda offers no nutrients and no health benefits. No one needs to drink more than a pint size of sugar water at one sitting.

2. The larger the cup, the more calories (and sugar) a drink contains. For example, while a small soda (16 ounces) at KFC contains 180 calories, the Mega Jug (64 ounces) contains nearly 800 calories — more than one-third of an entire day’s recommended calories for some people. It is no surprise that obesity and other diseases including diabetes have been linked with the consumption of soft drinks

3. While a 16-ounce soda was once considered large, today it is called small. It would be great if we can go back to more normal size cups. As I previously wrote, the portion sizes of soft drinks and other foods have grown considerably over time and so have our waistlines. The sizes of soft drinks have morphed into jugs and half-gallon containers large enough for a family of eight.

4. The portion size restriction is not a “ban” as many headlines call it. The city is not banning soda or telling consumers that they cannot drink soda. Rather, the portion size cap is calling attention to how much is considered a reasonable portion at one time.

5. And, finally, the 16 ounce size restriction is quite a reasonable size: It is A PINT size and double a standard Food and Drug Administration (FDA) serving size.

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Why current size labels can be deceptive

Below is my blog post for Huffington Post, “I’ll have a medium soda”–Why current size labels can be deceptive. You can also read it HERE.

As a nutrition researcher tracking portion sizes and labels manufacturers use to describe such sizes, I have seen food portions not only grow larger over the years, but the labels to describe foods and drinks have also changed.

For example, when McDonald’s opened in the 1950s, the company offered one size soda, which was 7 ounces; today’s 12 ounces is labeled a kid’s size and the 16-ounce is labeled small. Similarly, when Burger King opened, the company offered a 12-ounce small and a 16-ounce large soda. The 12-ounce is no longer sold and the 16-ounce comes as part of the value meal. Burger King’s small soda is now 20 ounces, the medium is 30 ounces, and the large is 40 ounces.

Does anyone pay attention to these label descriptors? And do they influence how much we really eat? Apparently yes, according to a new study published in Health Economics by Cornell University researchers David Just and Brian Wansink.

The study found that labeling a food as “regular” or “double size” affects how much consumers will eat, regardless of how big or small the portion size actually is.

The researchers served subjects two different portions of pasta in either a one cup-portion or a two-cup portion. For some of the subjects, the two different size portions were labeled “half-size” and “regular.” For the other subjects, the identically-sized portions were labeled “regular” and “double-size.” The labels for the first group of subjects indicated that the two-cup pasta portion was the regular size, while it was suggested to the second group of subjects that the one-cup pasta portion was the regular size.

The study concluded that varying the “regular” portions affected how much the subjects actually ate. Subjects ate more food when the portion was labeled “regular” than when it was labeled “double-size” despite the fact that the two sizes were actually the same size.

The subjects were also willing to pay more for a larger sounding portion size.

As reported in newsLI.com, “These varying concepts of ‘regular’ portions made all the difference in how much people would spend and subsequently eat,” said Just. “Participants ate much more when their portion was labeled ‘regular’ than when it was labeled ‘double-size.’ In fact, participants who thought their portion was ‘double-size’ left 10 times the food on their plate.”

How does this study affect those of us who typically eat out at eateries that offer foods and drinks in different sizes? The chart below shows the sizes of fast food soda portions at top fast-food chains.

McDonald’s

Kids 12 oz.
Small 16 oz.
Med 21 oz.
Large 32 oz.

Burger King

Value 16 oz.
Small 20 oz.
Medium 30 oz.
Large 40 oz.

KFC

Small 16 oz.
Medium 20 oz.
Large 30 oz.
Mega Jug 64 oz.

As you can see, the benign sounding “medium” soda is actually quite large. McDonald’s medium portion is 21 ounces (a pint and a half) and Burger King’s medium soda is 30 ounces (nearly a quart). But because these items are labeled medium, customers may consider themselves virtuous by not ordering the large, and may in fact order a medium order of fries to go with the soda.

My advice: Next time you visit an eating establishment that sells food in several sizes, I suggest ordering the small. Unless, you are visiting a Starbucks where the small is labeled tall.

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Why A Cap on Sugary Drinks May Work

Below is my latest blog post for Huffington Post “Why A Cap on Sugary Drinks May Work.”

You can also read it HERE.

The New York City portion cap on sugar-sweetened drinks was back in court earlier this week. I attended the appeals hearing held at the state appellate court. The NYC health department argued against the ruling by Judge Milton Tingling that blocked the cap on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces from being sold in food establishments including fast food establishments, delis, and other locations which get a letter grade. As reported in the New York Times, the lawyer for the city was met with skepticism from the justices of the First Department of the Appellate Division. It is unclear when a ruling will be issued.

As I previously blogged on The Huffington Post and the NY Daily News, I support the portion-size cap on sugary beverages. In a nutshell, portion size matters and can help in the fight against obesity. As I illustrated in my book The Portion Teller Plan, portion sizes of sodas have increased considerably over the years. Large portions may contribute to obesity because they contain more calories than small portions. While a small soda (16 ounces) at KFC contains 180 calories, the Mega Jug (64 ounces) contains nearly 800 calories. Larger portions also encourage us to consume more and to underestimate our intake. Soda, in particular, offers up no positive health benefits and is pure sugar.

Now, a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that soda size limits may help in the fight against obesity. The study found that limiting the sale of oversized sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages could affect 7.5 percent of Americans daily, have the greatest impact on overweight individuals, and would not discriminate against the poor.

As written in HealthDay:

The study found that about 60 percent of Americans consumed sugary drinks daily, but only 7.5 percent of them purchased “super-size” sugary drinks from an eatery on a given day. The rates, however, were somewhat higher for certain groups: 13.6 percent of overweight teens, 12.6 percent of overweight young adults aged 20 to 44 and 8.6 percent of overweight people in general. The investigators also found that low-income and high-income people were equally likely to buy large sugary drinks from restaurants, which challenges the criticism that a ban on the sale of these drinks at eateries discriminates against the poor.

I certainly do hope that the court considers this study when issuing a ruling. Obesity and diabetes are major public health problems in the city of New York as well as in other parts of the U.S., and limiting the sizes of sugar-sweetened drinks is certainly worth trying.

In the meantime, the NYC department of health launched a new ad campaign urging New Yorkers to pay attention to the high sugar content in energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and fruit-flavored drinks. While these drinks sound “healthy,” many have more sugar than soda. A 20-ounce lemonade, for example, contains 260 calories and 67 grams of sugar. Sugar-sweetened drinks have been associated with weight gain and and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

As the weather gets warmer and while we wait for a ruling from the appellate court, I urge us all to drink more water and pay attention to the sizes of our sugary beverages.

For more by Dr. Lisa Young, click here.

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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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Fighting Obesity in New York City One Cup at a Time

It has been a busy week in New York City surrounding discussions of Mayor Bloomberg’s portion-size restriction for sodas. Below is my blog post for Huffington Post on the topic. You can read it HERE.

I was pleased to participate in Mayor Bloomberg’s press event yesterday at Lucky’s Café on East 34th Street along with other public health activists. The mayor vowed that the city will appeal the ruling overturning the portion-size restriction for sugar-sweetened beverages that was set to go into effect. He also eloquently spoke about the health implications of consuming large sugary beverages for New Yorkers. The mayor mentioned that obesity is killing more than 5,000 New Yorkers annually and 100,000 people nationwide. Indeed, large portions of sugar-sweetened beverages are contributing to our obesity epidemic.

The proposed portion size cap was set to restrict the sale of sodas and other sugary drinks that are larger than 16 ounces in food establishments, including fast-food chains, restaurants, movie theaters, sports arenas, delis, and street carts. It would include the now-typical 20-ounce soda bottle from the corner deli and most oversized fountain drinks available in fast-food establishments and movie theaters. It would even include many “small” sodas served at such eateries.

The press release from Mayor Bloomberg’s office cites new research from the city showing a strong connection between the consumption of sugary beverages and obesity.

The release states that:

… neighborhoods with higher rates of consumption of sugary drinks tended to have higher obesity rates. Nine of the top 10 neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates city-wide were also the highest in sugary drink consumption. At the other end, the three least obese neighborhoods were also the lowest in sugary drink consumption.

From a nutritionist’s point of view, this makes perfect sense. Sugar-sweetened beverages are purely liquid calories, provide no nutrients, no health benefits, and contribute unnecessary calories to our diets. And, as I found in my research, portion sizes of soft drinks and other foods have grown considerably over time and so have our waistlines. The sizes of soft drinks have morphed into jugs and half-gallon containers large enough for a family of eight. In the 1950s, a Burger King “small” soda was 12 ounces and the “large” was 16 ounces. Today, its “small” is 20 ounces. In 1916, a Coca-Cola bottle was 6.5 ounces, and in the 1950s, a Coca-Cola ad advertised the 16-ounce size to be shared among 3 people. Today, many people complain that 16 ounces is too small. Indeed, our perception has shifted.

As I previously wrote here:

… the mayor of New York City is not banning the sale of soda. Nor is he telling consumers that they can’t drink soda. Rather, he is calling attention to how much should be considered a reasonable amount to drink at a time. And 16 ounces is certainly more than a reasonable — that is a pint-size worth of sugar water. I do not see the proposal as a ban, but rather as an attempt to reset the norm for how much drink constitutes an appropriate portion. This is a much needed proposal in an era of oversized portions.

I was pleased to offer my support to the city’s portion size restriction. As I indicated in the press release from the mayor’s office:

“I am in support of the portion-size restriction on sugar-sweetened beverages,” said Lisa Young, Adjunct Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. “Large portion sizes of sugar sweetened beverages are a major contributor to the obesity epidemic. Capping the size of sugar-sweetened beverages is an excellent way to fight obesity. Large portions of soda contain many calories and absolutely no nutrients. No one should be drinking a 64 ounce (half gallon) of soda. A 16-ounce soda (a pint size) is certainly large enough for one person.”

But consumers will only buy small portions if the price is right or if the large sizes disappear. The price is rarely right for small portions, however. Manufacturers rarely charge half price for a half portion, as it has to cover its costs. And the cost of food is cheaper than most other costs such as rent, labor, and supplies.

As I wrote in an opinion piece for the New York Daily News back in September after the proposal was approved by the Board of Health:

Large portions contribute to obesity because they obviously contain more calories than small portions: A small soda (16 ounces) at KFC contains 180 calories, while the Mega Jug (64 ounces) contains nearly 800 calories — and is more than one-third of an entire day’s recommended calories for some people. Bigger portions also encourage us to consume more and to thus underestimate how much we are really eating and drinking. And it is the destitute who are most frequently the victims of the ills that come with fast-food consumption.

Given the enormous health implications of obesity in New York and elsewhere, capping the portion sizes of liquid calories devoid of nutrients is a terrific place to start.
The city did indeed file an appeal of Judge Tingling’s ruling. It is unclear how long it will take before a decision is reached. While I do hope that the decision is made in favor of the city, regardless of the outcome, Mayor Bloomberg and the city accomplished a great deal. The proposal to limit supersize sugary beverages set the stage for a national discussion on the contribution of our food environment — in particular, large portions of sugary beverages — to the obesity epidemic. And, we can do something about it!

I do hope that while we are waiting, restaurants and other eating establishments follow Lucky Café’s lead and voluntarily offer smaller sodas. We as consumers should also pay closer attention to the sizes of our food portions. We should think twice before buying the larger size, even if we get twice as much for just an extra quarter. And, in the end, we must remember that portion size matters.

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