If your career has anything to do with food, you are probably experienced at fielding questions and comments from others when you're at dinner parties, restaurants, and basically anyplace that involves eating and people.
Nutrition is a hot topic, and one that we can't escape. Thousands of books, websites and blogs are fixated on it. Why? Perhaps the reason is because there is no way around eating -- we all have to do it. While we can make conscious decisions as to whether or not we exercise, do yoga, meditate, cook, and manage stress, eating is not a decision that's up to us -- it's vital to our health, and most importantly, our ability to sustain life.
The questions I hear most often when out with friends or complete strangers are: "How does my plate look?" and "What can I do to lose weight?" My favorite is: "It looks like you just eat vegetables all day." Well, I do love vegetables, but it's not all I eat, and -- gasp -- sometimes I put cheese on my broccoli and every once in a while I'll have some ice cream or a few pieces of pizza. Moderation, I believe, is the key to optimal nutrition. Giving everything up has never made sense to me, but there are five things that I will never let touch my lips.
They sound so tempting, don't they? All the flavor and satisfaction but without all the fat -- who could refuse? In actuality, however, you're paying for that choice. This fits into the category of what I like to call "foods that don't make sense." The best way to illustrate this is by looking at reduced fat peanut butter. When manufacturers take fat out of peanut butter, they simply reduce the overall amount of peanuts (the healthy fat source) and replace it with sugar. Since sugar has only four calories per gram (as opposed to fat, which has nine) and does not contain any fat, the overall product is reduced of both calories and fat. Here's the problem: The original product (containing only peanuts) was much healthier than the altered product for two main reasons. It contained a healthy monounsaturated fat, and it did not influence blood sugar increases or insulin production. Sugar has been associated with increased inflammation, increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, and may effect our ability to lose weight or maintain weight loss. If we just stuck with the fat (i.e., the peanuts), we'd be better able to control Type 2 diabetes risk, reduce our risk for cardiovascular disease and control our weight (due to the high amount of calories in high-sugar foods). Knowing how to accurately read labels is important when choosing between regular or reduced-fat foods. My advice: Go back to the basics and stick with foods that are unaltered from the original state. Peanut butter should have one ingredient -- peanuts.
Last month, I wrote a two-part series devoted to egg consumption in the United States. I specifically documented the confusing, and often misinterpreted, labeling system on our egg cartons and how these labels related to the truth about what you, the consumer, were actually getting. Eggs, however, are just the tip of the food chain iceberg when it comes to debate regarding how our animals are fed. While I gave up red meat and chicken years ago, I still enjoy eggs, fish and some dairy, and the first thing I look at when I am purchasing these items is what the animals ate. A 2010 study in the Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed (as opposed to corn-fed) beef was higher in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as precursors for Vitamin A and E. Additionally, grass-fed beef was found to be lower in overall fat than it's corn-fed cousins. Another public health concern relates to antibiotics in our food sources and how they affect our resistance to antibiotics for illness. A 2012 study out of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that several antibiotics banned by the FDA in 2005 were still in use. Further, a 2011 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that organic poultry farms had significantly fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria than their non-organic conventional counterparts. For me, I've decided to get my own chickens and, in addition to a natural feed, they'll roam on my land forging, for bugs, grubs, worms and grass, just like they're supposed to. Chicken ownership is growing in popularity. If you want to inquire about chicken ownership, start with your local city council to see if there are any resources or restrictions where you live. If owning chickens isn't for you, consider purchasing fresh eggs from a local farm.
More people are making an effort to improve their diet and are enticed by the idea of a "healthy" treat that looks and feels like ice cream but isn't. Enter the frozen yogurt craze. They're popping up everywhere, and some provide us with something the older establishments didn't -- a chance to serve ourselves. Thumbs up for the fro-yo industry, thumbs down for our waistlines. First, the yogurt options may not be much better than ice cream. They may be loaded with calories, fat, and sugar. The biggest problem with these establishments is the enormous bowl that is handed to you when you walk in the door. When an individual has an opportunity to serve him/herself, especially when provided with a large serving bowl, portion control may be completely disregarded. Not to mention the high-calorie toppings that can be added without limit. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that the size of a bowl impacts the amount of food served and consequently eaten. The participants in the study were nutrition experts who subconsciously served themselves 31 percent more when given a larger bowl and 14.5 percent more when using a larger serving spoon. When entering a frozen yogurt shop with a large bowl and an automatic serving machine anyone, even a dietitian, is more likely to pour more yogurt and toppings. At the end of the day, one serving of ice cream is a better choice than the three servings of frozen yogurt.
Incorporating adequate amounts of fiber into our diets is important for many reasons. A 2012 study in the journal Nutrition found that high-fiber diets were associated with decreased total blood cholesterol, prevention of constipation and diverticulitis, increased satiety, and increased weight loss. Basically, in the world of nutrition, fiber is king. While fiber is naturally present in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, many consumers are bypassing the whole food options and going straight for the ever-so-popular fiber bar. It's convenient, it's tasty, it gives you lots of fiber and oh, by the way, it can also be nothing more than a candy bar in disguise. Here's the catch -- a fiber bar provides a lot of sugar with very few beneficial nutrients. The fiber is usually added in, allowing the manufacturer to advertise the product as a high fiber source, but these options are not always a healthy food choice. A popular brand of fiber bars lists the following as some of the ingredients: sweet chocolate chips with coffee, high maltose corn syrup, sugar, honey, palm kernel oil, and fructose. These are the same ingredients found in many popular candy bars. Want to get all the benefits of fiber without all the extra sugar and calories? Grab an apple; it's cheaper and travels just as nicely in a purse or gym bag.
There is nothing that I enjoy more than a freshly brewed cup of coffee to jump start my day. Fortunately for me and the other coffee lovers out there, many research studies have associated regular coffee consumption with a variety of health benefits. Particularly, a 2012 study in in the New England Journal of Medicine found that drinking coffee may reduce a person's risk of dying. The study included more than 400,000 participants ages of 50 to 71. The researchers found that those who drank coffee regularly were less likely to die from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or infections. Although black coffee has proven to have a variety of impressive health benefits, adding extra ingredients to the mug can outweigh the advantages derived from the coffee bean -- and the ingredient options are many! Walk into any popular coffee shop and immediately you'll be hit with a tremendous amount of drink combinations to satisfy every taste bud. Different sizes, temperature options, colors, flavors and strengths are all just waiting behind the barista taking our order. The majority of these extras, however, are nothing more than high-fat milk products or sugary syrups. In other words, specialty coffee drinks are loaded with empty calories that may contribute to weight gain over time. To put things into perspective, a large, flavored latte contains 300-plus calories, whereas a large plain coffee contains a whopping five calories. Add in just 1/2 cup of skim milk and you're still under 50 calories. It does not take a mathematician to calculate that the additional 300 calories from your morning latte may end up providing a bigger number on the scale. If you're going to go with a specialty item, stick with skim cow's, almond or soy milk, avoid sugar-laden sweeteners, and don't overdo the size of the cup.
Brigid Titgemeier, B.S. contributed to this blog.
For more by Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D., click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.
Follow Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KRISTINKIRKPAT