Yes, Virginia: There Are 10 Ways to Have Holidays Without Weight Gain

So many people, clients, patients, co-workers over the years, have told me they’ve just given up trying to lose weight during the holidays – that food-festival parties, get-togethers, celebrations and general mayhem that spans the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

What is about holidays that cause weight gain? If you know the contributing factors, you can make a plan. Here’s what you’re likely to deal with until New Years:

Workplace food court: The constant brigade of popcorn bins, chocolates, homemade cookies, cakes and sweets, all available all day long.

Drinking: We love eggnog, but it’s the most calorie-laden drink of any year – about 330 calories in a cup. Over-boozing has calories, too – and leads to mindless eating.

Stress-eating: time is short, obligations are long, stress triggers eating whatever is within arm’s reach!

More fooding, less moving: whenever you need a little more time to get things done, it’s easy to borrow from your workouts and walks. It’s also just when you need to burn some extra calories. Ow.

Happiness can be depressing! Everyone seems to be happy but you’re so-so. You’re not alone, either. It’s easy to think food is your BFF during the holidays, and it can be – if you choose the right friends.

Good News

You probably won’t gain much weight during the holidays! This review published last year found that average holiday weight gain in adults ranged from about 1-2 pounds in various studies, not the 5-7 pounds you may have heard about.
But what about you? If holiday weight gain has been YOUR typical, changing that is easier than you think. Take it on as a project and like every project, it needs a good plan. Plans may take some of the spontaneity out of eating, but you’re trading up – for peace of mind and body. That’s totally worth it.

Planning means that you start every day assessing the meals and eating occasions you’ll have and the foods you’re likely to encounter. What does the “no holiday weight gain” plan look like? Here are 10 strategies that put you on a path to enjoying holidays without weight gain:

1. Eat modestly, but don’t skip meals. You’ll just end up being hungry and over-scarfing.

2. Weave in some fiber: Aim for 3 pieces of fresh fruit daily. Aim for 2 cups of veggies, raw or cooked. Think you can’t?  You can – fill up one of those plastic take-out soup containers with cut veggies and it’s two cups right there.

3. Discriminate! Is it a regular store-bought something-or-other that’s loaded with empty calories or is it really tasty? Hold out for something really special. You’re worth it.

4. Never arrive hungry to a party:Eat some raw veggies or a piece of fruit before going to a party or social function. When the edge is off hunger, your focus is on social fun.

5. Go pro: Lean protein keeps you feeling satisfied, and helps prevent blood glucose levels from spiking then plummeting later. About 100-150 calories invested in options like turkey roll-ups, beef jerky, fat-free Greek yogurt, even a fat-free latte will pay off later.

6. Get functional: it’s a social function, so keep the priority on socializing rather than eating.

7. Be the last man (or woman) standing…in line: Always be among the last ones in line for the food. It’ll look a little less appetizing (probably a good thing) and there’s less time to have second portions.

8. Get out of Dodge: Lingering to the end encourages more nibbling.  Be social, sample what you want, then move along.

9. ONE – a singular sensation!  When you see something you want, have it. But one portion. One is the magic number, not a lonely number.  But read #10.

10. Get “hospital-sized”:  Not to eat, just to look at portion sizes. When you’re thinking of a high-calorie food, whether it’s mac and cheese or the Buche de Noel pictured at the top, it’s one “hospital-sized” portion. Keep it there and enjoy it. There will be another treat another day.

Why I Try To Be “Over 30” Every Day

Dee is an inspiration to me.  She has cerebral palsy and is confined to a motorized wheelchair. She has only minimal use of each hand, just enough to move her chair and use a phone if it’s placed into her hand. She’s not only cognitively intact, she’s pretty smart.

I’m lucky. I worked for 33 years with people with special needs, people like Dee.  It’s emotionally difficult work sometimes, but I always got more than I could ever give them. One powerful lesson they taught me was how lucky I was to be physically able-bodied.

She told me once she was fed up hearing what a nuisance people thought it was to take the stairs, walk the dog, or park farther away from your destination to get in a few extra steps. “They sit down all day long but they have a choice. I don’t. If I could walk I’d never want to sit down.”

When we think of chores, she thinks of abilities. Big wake-up call here.

Everyone Needs To Be Over 30

I speak not of years, but of minutes. Thirty minutes of physical activity for at least five days of the week is what’s recommended by the US Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. How much do we get? The feds survey this info regularly and the latest data show 1 in 4 of us get NO leisure physical activity at all. None. That’s self-reported data, and it may be higher, as people do tend to enhance the amount of physical activity they do.

Flipping the Script on Activity

Many of us cringe when we’re told to be more active. So how about baby steps? How about focusing on being less INACTIVE?

If it’s too overwhelming to go to a gym (I speak not of “joining” because that doesn’t ensure “going”) or if you have little leisure time, then it makes sense to build some activity into your day, a little bit here and there, whenever you can.

Enter the “Exercise Snack”

A food snack is something less than a meal. An exercise snack is something less than a workout. It can take many forms and be done pretty much anywhere. It doesn’t have a minimum time, it just requires moving – anyway you can, and anywhere you can. You don’t need to develop a twitch, just think of doing what some of my physically disabled patients would LOVE to do:

Deliver it.  Why email a memo to someone close by, when you can walk down the hall to speak with them? Follow-up with a memo for the record.

Think glass,  not bottle.  Have one glass of water at a time, rather than brining a bottle to your desk. When you want more, you’ll get up and get it.

DIY: Make a photocopy yourself, get the staples from the supply closet, give the home floor an extra quick vacuuming. It’ll get done your way and it’s another exercise snack.

TV? A 30-minute sitcom only has about 22-23 minutes of actual programming. That’s about 7 minutes of time – in 2 or 3-minute intervals – for exercise snacking.  Get the playing cards, charge your phone, lay out your clothes for the next day, or even fold a few clothes.

Tidy up!  Not a deep clean, just clear the coffee table, run the dishwasher, or hang that coat that’s been there since you got home.

Remember, these are exercise snacks, not workouts, so you’re done after a couple of minutes, but do them several times a day and you’re on your way top getting that 30 minutes. Better still, you’re preventing your metabolism from slowing down. Remember – it’s not about being more active – just less INACTIVE.

It’s an easier goal to achieve and these exercise snacks might lead to bigger things, like “exer-meals”. And if you need motivation, remember: Dee would happily trade places with you.

As for motivation, check this video out of a 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, taking her first steps by herself.  You’ll cheer her on as loudly as I did.  Then get up off your chair or the sofa — just because you can!

Holiday Eating: Everything in Moderation…Including Moderation!

Julia Child actually said that line, but I like it, and I LOVE Thanksgiving. It’s my favorite holiday, because it’s not about anything but having a meal with people you care about.

Thanksgiving is also often the year’s biggest – and the richest – meal for most people.  Think about it — even a standard Thanksgiving meal is rich, and “rich” is courteous foodie-speak for “loaded with fat and calories”:

• Turkey with plenty of gravy.

• Stuffing: nearly all recipes are rich with bread or rice and loaded with various fats.

• Potatoes (all colors): mashed, candied, marshmallowed, they get loads of butter and we love them.

• Vegetables and sides? They’re healthy, but on this day they come creamed, buttered, and casseroled, and serve as vehicles for calories, mostly fat ones.

• Desserts are a must. It’s not yes or no, but how many and how much of each?

Even if dessert is a must, weight gain doesn’t have to be.  Read on.

Deposit Some Calories in the Bank

If you’ve been going to the same place for the holidays or having the day at your place you know the basics of what will be served. You know it’ll be a big meal. That’s OK, but plan ahead for it and put “bank” some calories by undereating for a few days before the Big Meal with these tips:

Eat a lean, high-protein breakfast.  Swap the fried egg and bacon sandwich for a couple of hard-cooked eggs, whole grain toast, and fresh fruit. Or go for 8-10 oz. (that’s 1 or 2 of those individual cups) of fat-free Greek yogurt and berries.

Snacks? Keep them to fresh fruit or a small handful of nuts, or even some beef jerky (lots of protein there).

“Sensible” lunch and dinner?  That term always annoys me.  (Who eats a “nonsense” meal?) Here’s what it means: eat smart, eat mindfully, eat deliberately.  Keep added fats to a minimum, so skip anything deep-fried or that has gravy. Keep proteins lean (lean cuts of beef, chicken, fish), and load up on veggies – cooked or raw. Salads? Sure, but use a low-fat dressing or keep the oils to 1 tablespoon.

Desserts?  Let ’em wait for now, other than fresh fruit or fat-free Greek yogurt (I recommend that over regular yogurt because it’s higher in protein, to help you feel full and satisfied with fewer calories.)  Remember, you’re saving up for later.

Your Ace in the Hole

You’re busy, but make a 20-minute walk a priority each day. That’s another 100 or so calories you’ll “bank”. If you’re a gym-goer, this is not the time to slack off. Indeed, you’ll bust some stress in the process and give yourself a mood lift. No downside here.

Be thankful you CAN be active. Anyone physically disabled would tell us to shut up about being too busy to be active. To them, it would be the greatest gift possible. We already have it. Let’s be thankful and not waste the gift.

Do even a couple of these tips and you’ll likely save a few hundred calories each day that you can “spend” having a little more at the Big Meal. Net result: no weight gain!  Happy Day.  You’ve got this.

Believing Junk Is Even Worse Than Eating Junk

If you’re of a “certain age” you’ll remember “Vacupants.” You hook up a vacuum to the hole in the special “pants” and the fat melts off.  The idea was that it somehow “vacuumed” away the extra weight.

You might think this could never happen in the age of digital media but you’d be wrong.  It happens plenty, just differently.

The food, nutrition, and diet world is loaded with sensational and extreme headlines and promises.  We gravitate towards the sensational. The promise of a quick fix has a magical way of grabbing your attention and won’t let go.

It’s the modern-day version of the “snake-oil” sales pitch.  You’ve probably seen headlines touting:

• “Lose 10 pounds in 3 days without doing exercise or changing your diet!” (Similar to the Vacupants claim — see how much things have changed?)

• “Lose all the weight you want eating junk food!”

• “This miracle food speeds up metabolism!”

Most common now are diets that spout the total avoidance of a food or even entire food groups. Think about carb- and sugar-phobia that lumps empty-calorie foods together with great foods like beans and fresh fruit. Or the keto diets that demonize most carbs, including whole grains and most fruits and vegetables, and hold the state of ketosis on a pedestal. In truth, ketosis is something that should generally be prevented, not promoted.

Then there’s the scare-tactic approach:

  • “10 Foods You Should Never Eat”
  • “Your Body Can’t Process These 3 Foods”
  • “5 Foods That Cause Belly Fat”

“Absolute” Exploitation

These sensational promises, extreme claims, and headline-grabbers exploit people who are vulnerable, undereducated or just misinformed. Someone with a health issue, including someone trying to lose weight, is vulnerable, even desperate for a solution, making them easy prey for junk science purveyors.  Health issues are sensitive, lots of emotions are involved, making them vulnerable to quick-fixes, magic bullets, and instant cures – just the type of stuff that makes up fad dieting.

Educated people aren’t insulated either. “Vacupants” was marketed as a quick weight loss method.  Laugh if you must, I once had a patient, an educated woman, who admitted she’d bought this gizmo. No, they didn’t work. She’d have been better of if she’d put on some actual sweats and gone walking for half an hour a day instead.

We all like being told something that fits with our values or what we’d LIKE to be true.  Eating junk can be over in a flash but believing junk can continue for years.

10 Red Flags of Junk Science

Tufts University does a nice job of explaining these in detail, but this is the Cuttothechase version:
1. Promises of a quick fix. File “miracle foods” under this one, too.
2. Danger warnings of a single food.
3. Claims that sound to good to be true. Hint: they are too good to be true.
4. Simple conclusions from a complex study. Oversimplifying often indicates taking results out of context or omitting caveats.
5. Recommendations based on a single study. If it cannot be replicated, it’s probably bogus or at least cherry-picked. Pass.
6. Statements refuted by reputable health organizations. If they’re reputable, they require solid evidence. Key word: solid. If they pass on the claim, you should, too.
7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods. #ridiculous
8. Recommendations made to help sell a product or supplement. This doesn’t mean it’s junk, but if it’s good, check for lots of evidence and organizations that agree.
9. Research that is not peer reviewed. Big red flag for research that’s badly done.
10. Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups. There can be differences between genders, smokers vs. non-smokers, young and old age groups, the works.

Family Meals: You Don’t Have To Go Big, Just Go Home

Eating together as a family – however you define your family – has always been a good thing, but now it’s been shown to be a healthier thing, too. This September marks the 4th National Family Meals Month ™, a campaign started in 2015 by the non-profit Food Marketing Institute Foundation to encourage families to eat together more often.

And The Survey Says…

Here’s what a Nielson Harris poll, conducted last year, found about the campaign’s impact among consumers who saw it:

• 4 in 10 (42%) said they were cooking more meals at home.

• More than 3 in 10 are:

    • Making healthier food choices
    • Eating more fruits and vegetables
    • Eating together more as a family

As a nutrition professional, these are big wins. But the bennies don’t stop there. Read on.

This publication from the University of Florida reviewed the benefits of family meals and found:

• Family meals are happening more often. Now 7 in 10 kids eat with their families at least four times a week.

• Family meals strengthen family bonds and teach an appreciation of cultural, ethnic, and religious heritage.

• Teens said that talking/catching up, and spending time with family members was the BEST PART of family meals. Huge win for families and a huge opportunity.

Something that’s better for nutritional, physical, and mental health, improves social behaviors, and contributes to a family’s overall feeling of happiness is as close to a “magic bullet” as you’re going to find. They’re certainly cheaper than eating out or getting take-out. Do they take a little time to prepare? Yes, but show me something, ANYTHING, that does a better job of helping you and your family be healthier and happier and save you money. There isn’t anything better for a family than a meal eaten together. Period.

So What Are the Barriers To More Family Meals?

Despite all these benefits from family meals, they aren’t happening often enough. The top obstacles cited in the FMI survey:

• Scheduling issues – everyone is in different places at meal times.

• Too tired to cook. Takeout or eating out seems easier.

• Too time-consuming to make meals.

• Too many distractions: social media, TV, homework.

But… What’s For Dinner?

Have you noticed that this nutritionist has mentioned very little about things like calories, fats, and added sugars in this post? I’m actually less interested in what you serve than the fact that you’re eating together.

Get the family meal ritual down first. The research has shown that once more family meals start happening, the quality of the meal starts advancing: more fruits and vegetables, fewer empty calories, less sugar and saturated fat. Eat together at home and you’re probably on your way to a better meal.

One rule though: No technology at the table. Each member has a place at the table because they matter. Yes, family meals can be part of esteem-building also

Getting Help: A Few Tips

• Delegate: Older kids an share some meal prep duties. It’s good for initiate communication without being “face-to-face”. Make sure to thank them for their help, too. It reinforces that they’re appreciated.

• Convenience if OK: Bagged greens, frozen veggies, and yes, canned foods like beans and tomato sauce are nutritious and save time. I encourage them.

• Set it up: before work, set the table, get out any pots or pans you’ll need, and anything non-perishable. It really shaves valuable time later.

Dinner IN 30 Minutes? Try Dinner FOR 30 Minutes

Eat more slowly, do more talking. The food won’t go away and you’ll enjoy it more. If the kids are done eating sooner, then have them stay for the full 30 minutes to make conversation. Make it a family tradition and try doing it as often as you can, because #FamilyMealsMonth matters, and it matters all year long.

Could Losing Weight Make You Richer?

Well, yes and no. It won’t automatically add to your bank account, but according to this study you’ll probably spend less on health care. Reducing weight reduces health risks – and what they cost you.

The authors studied data between years 2001-2015 from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS), an annual survey that uses a nationally representative sample of adult civilians. They looked at the additional cost of being obese, compared to a non-obese person with the same condition.

They combined the costs for obesity-related illness from all “third-party payers”, including Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance plans, and patient “out-of-pocket” spending, other than for over-the-counter medicines. The results are worrisome – and costly.

Price Per Pound

Out of the 334,000 adults surveyed, 30%, or 99,000, had a body mass index (BMI) over 30, indicating obesity. This is no surprise, as other national surveys have shown similar percentages. This percentage would double if they had included people who were merely overweight, with BMI values between 25-29.9.

After adjusting for inflation to 2015 dollars, here’s the change in the percentage of medical costs associated with obesity:

• 2001: 6.13% of medical expenditures
• 2015: 7.91% of medical expenditures

That might not seem like a huge change, but it amounts to a 29% increase, compared to someone with the same condition who is not obese. Some states, such as Ohio and Wisconsin, fared even worse, with increases over 40%.
The cost of obesity isn’t just born by third-party payers. Consumers often have plans with high deductibles. If your visits require a co-pay, the more visits you need, the more money out-of-pocket costs you have. Consumers now average nearly 5% of their own medical costs to treat obesity, with consumers in many states far exceeding this percentage. The study also noted that 13% of prescription drug costs are to treat obesity

Weighing Down Your Earnings?

The authors quoted several studies that suggest associated a higher BMI with lower wages, but for women only, not men. Weight-related discrimination in the workplace has also been documented. Indeed, there is less chance of being hired because of weight. Then there are the issues of obesity-related health problems causing more missed days due to illness, more physician visits, more medication costs.

When you add it all up, shedding a few pounds starts to make financial sense, not just healthy sense. Who wouldn’t rather put that money to better use if they could – and you can.

Going Positive – a 5% solution

This study showed national averages but you’re not a population, you’re you. Everyone is different. You can’t change national numbers but you can impact your own. Losing 100 pounds is not necessary to be healthier and reduce obesity-related risks. This review of weight research studies documented that even losing 5% of your body weight will produce health benefits. Weigh 200 pounds? That means if you release 10 pounds you’re healthier. Hold that for a year and I’m your biggest cheerleader.

Take It Easy To Save More

I wouldn’t care if you made one small positive change to your diet or lifestyle each month. Just do what you can commit to and know it’s moving you in the right direction, health-wise, and money-wise. In fact, if you’re making changes you notice quickly, you’re probably making too drastic a change. OK to slow down, take a year to lose 12 pounds – a pound a month. If that gets you to the 5% solution, you’re already saving money on health care costs.

BTW — This is a pic of a huge California peach on a “smiling” dessert plate.  It WAS dessert, amazingly delicious all on its own.  

Direct & “Indirect” Food Additives: Issues Or Non-Issues?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement on food additives — the direct food additives like nitrates, and indirect ones, like plastic containers that come into contact with food. Their bottom line is that the FDA’s regulatory process doesn’t properly vet food additives and cannot assure us that all of these 10,000 “chemicals” [emphasis mine] are 100% safe.

I like the AAP – really I do – but in this case I wonder if they’re presenting a balanced view of the total body of science on food additives. For example, the statement references studies where additives are “linked” to conditions like impaired thyroid function and immune responses to vaccines, even increased risk for obesity. Yet, many of the referenced studies also admit that such “link” may not be one of cause-and-effect. Moreover, numerous studies not referenced validate the safety of these additives. Getting approval of a new food additive just isn’t easy – nor should it be.

Is ANYTHING 100% Safe?

Not likely, and that includes prescribed medications, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them when necessary. It would be easy to get suspicious of everything we eat: Are healthy foods like beans 100% safe for everyone?

It’s more useful to me and my patients to put this issue perspective, and to that end I think the AAP statement could have done that better. We DO have the most advanced food delivery system in the world and our FDA is a guide post for similar organizations in other countries.

The AAP’s issue with nitrates is one I don’t get, for example. Nitrates and “processed meats” are buzz words, true. But a food label saying “no nitrates added” doesn’t mean the meat has no nitrates. Celery powder is often a substitute, because celery is a source of natural nitrate, along with green beans, carrots, spinach and collards. Of course, celery powder is also a “food additive.”

If someone is eating processed meat frequently, I’d be more concerned with what it’s replacing in the diet, rather than nitrates per se. Let’s balance the diet and the nitrates become a non-issue.

The Big Picture

As a pediatric nutritionist for over 30 years, I’d love it if we lived in a world without a need for anything “additive”. But we don’t, and in some cases that’s a good thing. After all, food additives have provided some of the best public health interventions. I’m glad I don’t have to see children with neural tube defects anymore, now that folic acid – a food additive – is added to enriched grains. My own mother remembers her grandmother having a goiter and to this day she will only use iodized salt. No fancy sea salt, not even Kosher salt, for her. “You never had to see anyone with a goiter,” she says.

The AAP calls for the FDA to re-examine the regulatory process for approval of food additives, including those additives on the “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe) list. They also note that low-income children are at increased risk, as higher consumers of packaged foods.

Food Additives & Food Budgets

As for affordability, I like that the AAP recommends practitioners “develop a list of low-cost sources of fruits and vegetables.” I’ve worked my entire career with low income patients and helping patients stretch their food dollars goes hand-in-hand with good medical nutrition therapy. Nothing is nutritious until people eat it.

I don’t have the luxury of telling parents that their family’s health is at risk until the feds beef up their regulatory process. I also think there’s a lot that you can do at ANY income level to reduce exposure to additives. The AAP does give some recommendations in the interim, but frankly, they’re the same ones I’ve been giving to my patients on for years, just for general health:

• Make fresh fruits and veggies a big priority in the home eating environment. (Uh, it helps if parents eat them, too, and in front of the kids).

• When microwaving food, put it onto a plate or in a glass container instead of plastic. It just saves worrying about whether the container is microwave-safe to begin with. Also, no plastic wrap when microwaving. Too hot and the stuff melts. Ick.

• Forget the dishwasher for plastic containers. Just wash them by hand. Done.
Finally, if you’re doing these things anyway, then you’re also already minimizing your exposure to food additives. Then the feds can take all the time they want. You’re doing your job and that’s plenty safe.

 

 

 

CDC Report On Physical Activity: Some Good News (& Some Bad)

The good news?  We’re actually moving more!  This recent report from the CDC found that 23% of Americans are meeting physical activity recommendations established back in 2008. That’s even better than the goal set by Healthy People 2020 to have at least 1 in 5 Americans be “physically active”. We’ve exceeded the goal of 20% two years early, and since the CDC report is based on 2010-2015 data, probably even more Americans are active now.

The Bad News

If 23% are active, that means more than 3 in 4 Americans are sedentary. Even in Colorado, the most active state, only 1 in 3 adults met the activity guidelines, so 2 in 3 did not. A few other notables from the report:

• Women were less active than men in almost every state. Fewer than one in five (18.7%) women met the activity guidelines, but more than one in four men (27.2%) did.

• Working matters. If you’re unemployed, you’re less likely to be active. Nearly 29% of working men met the activity guidelines, for instance, but only 21% of non-working men did. Among working women, almost 21% met the guidelines, but only 14.6% of non-working women did. (Physical impairment to activity was not assessed.)

The Real Goal: We ALL need to be active

It’s easier than you think. Let’s be clear: you don’t have to join a gym, play a team sport, or be a competitive athlete. Please, I grew up totally incompetent at every sport that involved a ball. It’s about being more fit and staying fit, regardless of your age and weight, and there are many ways to get there.

Yes, your physical health will benefit, but the mood improvements may be even more motivating. Exercise gives you a mental lift, owing to the endorphins produced with moderate exercise. You don’t have to be a runner to get a “runner’s high”.

What constitutes being “physically active”?

The fed’s 2008 guidelines defined being “physically active” as follows:

• 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity AND

• Doing muscle-strengthening activities at least twice weekly.

What’s “moderate intensity” activity?

• Brisk walking is a perfect example of moderate intensity. Brisk walking of moderate intensity was found in this review to be about 100 steps per minute. Easy enough for anyone to measure. (Tip: kids love using the stopwatch on their phones for tracking stuff like this!)

• Try the “talk-sing” test. If you can talk during the activity, it’s probably moderate intensity. If you can sing, it’s pretty light. That’s your sign to pick up the pace.

The Cut-To-The-Chase-Nutrition Philosophy: 

JUST DO WHAT YOU CAN  DO

That 150 minutes a week (30-minutes a day for five days) may sound daunting, so break it up into 10-minute parcels. The best time to be active? When you WILL be active. No obsessions needed her, just move as often as you can, whenever you’re able.

Do it during your lunch hour for 10 minutes, then have lunch. Work up to a 30-minute walk on your lunch hour, then enjoy a healthy meal. Walking is the easiest and simplest, but it’s also effective.

Check with your doctor to make sure your body is ready to match your motivation. Safety first: don’t be a “weekend warrior” and do the whole 150 minutes in one day.

I always advocate being more active because I think I’m lucky to have the ability to do so. I’ve worked with people with physical disabilities for decades. They’d give anything to be active. I’m not wasting my physical abilities – and I still can’t catch a ball. Start SOMEWHERE, but start now, 10 minutes at a time.

Dark Chocolate: Does More = Less for BMI & Waist?

Readers of this column know I’m a lover of good dark chocolate. I make no secret of my interest in finding out all that’s good about the stuff. Here’s the latest:

This recent meta-analysis looked at the effects of eating dark chocolate on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference.

Why I Like This Study

• It included randomized controlled trials (RCTs) only. That means “cause-and-effect” results of an intervention. Large population studies can’t do that (no matter what the headlines imply).

• The studies in this meta-analysis all had to investigate cocoa’s or dark chocolate’s (DC) effect on body weight, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference .

• DC had to be specifically prescribed and compared with a placebo group that did not consume cocoa or DC

• Neatness counted. The authors of this meta-analysis looked only at studies with adults. No animals.

First the bad news: Glass half empty?

There was no significant effect of dark chocolate/cocoa supplementation on BMI, weight, or waist circumference. Bummer. Some studies found a difference, some did not, but when you pool all the studies together and treat them as one huge study, which is what a meta-analysis does, no significant difference in these parameters could be found.

If you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person, this sounds bad, but it really isn’t. DC hasn’t traditionally been known to be a weight-loss aide. Then again, read on…

Saving the best for last…

In studies that lasted longer, 4 to 8 weeks, and that included at least 30 grams of dark chocolate daily:

• There was a significant reduction in BMI and body weight.

• Waist circumference was reduced but only in doses of 45-60 grams daily.

Personally, 30-60 grams of dark chocolate daily would not pose difficulty for me, especially if I knew it would help my waist circumference. It’s means budgeting in about 150-300 calories, but it’s nice to know that there might be justification for moving dark chocolate from the “once-in-a-while treat” to “healthful way to spend discretionary calories.” If it motivates you to get on the treadmill for 30 minutes daily, so you can balance out that extra ounce of DC, so much the better. Hey, #Commitmentiseverything 😉

Here are a few of my latest fave bars.  They’re pricey, but good chocolate isn’t for gulping.  Learning to savor our food just adds to the enjoyment.

Lean Red Meat in a Mediterranean Diet? Oh, Yes You Can!

This post is a collaboration with Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner., on behalf of the Beef Checkoff, as part of my role as a member of the Beef Expert Bureau.

In my previous EdibleRx column, I discussed the PREDIMED study, a 2013 landmark multi-center trial that showed how following a Mediterranean diet could reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease, but that was recently retracted due to flawed methodology. The re-analyzed and republished data showed good, but less dramatic results, than when first published.

Among the hallmarks of a traditional Med diet, one that the typical Greek farmer ate, are the inclusion of olive oil as the preferred fat in cooking, lots of fish, fruits, vegetables, and minimal red meat. Oh, and the glass of red wine.
Red meat? That Mediterranean farmer didn’t eat much because not much was available. Cows were expensive and sheep worked better on the arid land, plus they gave wool and milk to make feta. All based on pragmatism, not fashion. Red meat (usually lamb) was a celebratory dish. My Greek grandfather loved roasting the lamb heads at Easter (knock it, but farmers waste nothing).

Better Med With Red

A new study asks the question: What would happen to cardiovascular risk factors if you ate a Med diet but compensated/replaced some (up to 18 oz/week) of the poultry with lean red meat, keeping consumption of fish, extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO), nuts, and the rest of the Med diet the same?

This study, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has some credibility.  It’s small, but well done, and it’s a “cross-over” design, so that every participant followed both the Med diet limited in red meat and the Med diet that included red meat (i.e. Med-Red) for 5 weeks each, with about a month in between each phase.
Following both Mediterranean-style diets produced lower total cholesterol levels, but here’s the difference:

• The Med-Red diet lowered total cholesterol significantly more than the Med diet limited in red meat.

• The Med-Red diet lowered LDL-cholesterol, but the Med diet limited in red meat did not.

Blood pressure improved in both groups, regardless of red meat intake. HDL-cholesterol, glucose levels, and insulin were similar and unchanged for both groups.

Revised Results = New Questions

• Is the advice to reduce red meat intake in a Med diet misguided?

• What about lean forms of deli meat (beef and pork)?

From this study, the answer would be “yes” to the first question, but the second cannot yet be answered because it hasn’t yet been tested. It’s possible that processed, lean deli meats (beef and pork) may be able to be included with similar results to the Med-Red diet. “To be continued…”

Interestingly, when I looked at the revised PREDIMED data, specifically the questionnaire that scored the adherence to the Med and control diets, at the 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year follow-up marks, there were no differences in consumption of red or processed meats between the Med diet groups and the control groups, even though the Med diet groups had a lower risk of stroke. Maybe it’s not the red meat that makes the difference here.

Limitations? ALL studies have them. This study was smaller and didn’t last as long as the PREDIMED study, which had a 5-year follow-up.

The study was funded partially by the Beef Checkoff and the Pork Checkoff, but before you make pre-judgements, it was also funded by the National Institute of Health’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center at Purdue University and NIH’s Institute of Health’s Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, all reputable organizations. Regardless, the funding organizations had “no role in the design or conduct of the study; collection, analysis, or interpretation of the data; or writing of the manuscript.” The study was fully peer-reviewed.

Cut-To-The-Chase Recommendations

• Stop worrying about “red meat” and focus more on leanness and freshness (i.e. unprocessed).

• Beef in particular has a lot to offer nutritionally, especially nutrients like zinc and iron, but also conjugated linoleic acid, B-vitamins, and more.

• Keep meat lean, keep portions real (4 or 5 ounces are enough, downing a 12-oz. portion doesn’t prove masculinity and your body can’t use all that protein at one meal anyway. Good news is that this study showed you can enjoy up to 18 ounces of lean red meat per week as part of this eating pattern and still see a positive impact on heart health)

• Make sure you have it with plenty of veggies and some whole grains, dressed with a drizzle of EVOO.

If you want a great lean beef recipe I made, check out my recipe for an easy, lean, tasty pot roast here, or for many more check out Beef-It’s What’s for Dinner and this infographic on the Med Diet. The site is loaded with great, heart-healthy recipes.