Wanna Eat Healthy? Get Your Nitrates!

Think nitrates in your food and eating healthy don’t go together? What’s this gorgeous spinach salad have to do with nitrates? Read on, but let’s start at the beginning.

You’re not going vegan but you want to eat better and you’ll start with baby steps, like I talked about in my previous post.  OK, and here are some popular intentions:

  • Try and eat more leafy green stuff.
  • Definitely cut the hot dogs, ham, bacon, the deli stuff, and “processed” meat, even if it’s lean.  Everyone knows that stuff is “bad” because it has nitrates, right?

Swapping out hot dogs and ham for spinach and beets (the new “in” veggie for 2019, as I mentioned here) would at least cut back on the nitrates, right?  Wrong. 

Where the Real Nitrates Are

Indeed, a bunch of healthy, nutrient-rich veggies like beets, spinach, celery, even iceberg lettuce and broccoli, have more nitrates than that hot dog you snuck in for lunch last week.  Check out this chart from a 2012 report of the nitrate content in foods.  Amounts are in “parts per million” (ppm):

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is mushrooms-417101_1280-2.jpg
More nitrates than a hot dog — & it’s healthy food!
  • Beets: 2797 ppm
  • Spinach: 2333 ppm
  • Celery: 1496
  • Mushrooms: 590 ppm
  • Broccoli: 394 ppm
  • Strawberries: 173 ppm
  • Cured sausage (hot dog), cooked: 32 ppm

Are Nitrates in Fruits and Veggies a Problem?

No, and not in other foods either, according to Melissa Joy Dobbins MS, RDN, CDE and known as The Guilt-Free® RD.   “This is a great example of how misinformation can create a “fear factor” when it comes to food. I think most people who are concerned about nitrates/nitrites would be surprised to learn that the majority of these nutrients in our diet are not from cured meats, but from plant foods, namely a variety of vegetables.”

Dobbins’ statement is evidence-based and reflects the conclusion of this 2015 meta-analysis of many studies on dietary nitrates, nitrites, and nitrosamines, which found nitrates associated with a decreased risk of gastric cancer.  The slight increased risk associated with increased nitrite intake was considered weak, and tended to come from weak or poorly-designed studies, which muddied their findings.  Even then, spinach still has more nitrites than cured sausage.

Nitrates & Their Cousins: Nitrites and Nitrosamines

Here are the basics you need to know about these:

  • Nitrates are naturally present in lots of different foods. 
  • Nitrites are also naturally present in foods but most are formed when bacteria in your saliva convert nitrates to nitrites. 
  • Nitrosamines are not naturally present in food but can form in food through several pathways.  Cooking at a high temperature, such as frying cured meat, or when an acid (like stomach acid) is present.  If there’s any concern, it’s with the formation of nitrosamines.  Even then, conversion from nitrite to nitrosamine can be inhibited or stopped by the addition of compounds like ascorbic acid, or “vitamin C”.  Seriously – check the ingredient label of many cured foods like hot dogs and you’ll find “ascorbic acid” is often present. 

“Nitrate-Free” Cured Meat?

There are cured meats labeled “no added nitrates.”  What they add instead is celery powder.  As you’ll see from the table above, celery is loaded with natural nitrate.  There’s no evidence that there’s any difference between the nitrate in celery powder and the nitrate added to “nitrated” cured meat. 

Celery: Fine wherever you find it

Nitrates: The Boil-Down

It’s ironic to know that someone eating a spinach salad is probably getting 10 times more nitrates than the person eating the ham sandwich, but Dobbins noted, “Does that mean we should be afraid of eating vegetables? No. It means we should look at the overall nutrients a food provides and try to consume more nutrient-rich foods and fewer empty-calorie foods.”

It may be that the folks who eat lots of cured meat may also have a less-healthy lifestyle overall.  They may be less likely to engage in regular physical activity, and less likely to eat a lot of veggies and fruits, and may drink more soda or eat more junk snacks.

Cut-To-The-Chase-Advice

Eat all the spinach, beets, mushrooms, celery and broccoli you can fit into your diet.  As for cured meat, I like Dobbins’ approach. Nitrates may not be an issue but balance still is, so don’t go crazy at a cold-cut buffet.  If you like cured meats, make them leaner cuts, like ham, instead of sausage.  And have that ham with lots of veggies – even high-nitrate ones like spinach and broccoli.  A meal loaded with nitrates can, and should, still be healthy.  0000000000000

Learn From a Baby About New Year’s Resolutions

Even a baby who hasn’t seen his/her first New Year can teach us something about making resolutions.  Babies may not think about their health, but this poll done in the UK found the top 3 resolutions for adults:

  1. Lose weight
  2. Get fitter
  3. Eat more healthy

Wisely, the poll also followed up with these people.  Nearly two out of three who made resolutions keep them and more than 4 in 10 broke a resolution within the first month.  Only 1 in 3 kept going for more than a month. 

Resolutions: They’re FOR the Year, so TAKE All Year

Imagine if a baby stopped trying to walk after falling?  Every single human would be immobile.  A broken resolution isn’t a failed resolution!  I wouldn’t even call it broken – just “in progress.”  The flip side is to expect 100% perfection 100% of the time, right from the start.  Ridiculous.  You get up, look at where you tripped up, and move on. 

This study found successful “resolvers” used more behavioral strategies, which, by nature, require more time, because behaviors change slowly.  Every road has a pothole or two, so if you encounter one on your journey, you’re typical and on schedule.  Keep it moving.

Ready, S.M.A.R.T., Go!  –Anytime

Learn from these guys

Never mind January 1, whenever you’re ready, the calendar will support it.  Just see a resolution as its own project.  Give it priority and treaty it with some respect.  This is you, after all.

S.M.A.R.T. is just an acronym for the components of successful goals and objectives, whether in the workplace or your personal space.   The letters have stood for different things over the years, but here’s where they stand now:

  • Specific: keep it simple, something you KNOW you can achieve. “I’m going to eat healthier” isn’t specific.  “I’m going to eat 1 cup of fruit and a cup of vegetables at least 3 days a week” is more specific.
  • Measurable: Note how far you walked, how many vegetables you ate, or whatever your specific objective is. Forget obsessing about every detail.  Again, simple is key here.
  • Achievable: Specific and achievable are two sides of the same coin.  THINK LIKE A BABY here.  Take baby steps!  Set a goal you think is achievable and then reduce the goal by 50% or more.    You can inch up later. 
  • Realistic: Meet yourself where you live.  If you can’t spare a whole hour a day for exercise – or if you’re not in shape yet for that – it’s OK.  I don’t care if you start walking for 5 minutes a day.  You’ll be at this the whole year and you’ll get where you need to go.  An easy goal is the best kind when you’re starting out. If you want to lose 10 pounds of body fat in 3 days, that’s specific but not realistic. 
  • Time-bound: TAKE THE WHOLE YEAR but set small time goals for the baby steps.  You’re building a habit here, and habits take time to become established. 

We want everything done immediately and easily sustained forever.  Let that concept go, because it’ll never happen – for anyone.  Most importantly, THAT’S OK. 

Baby steps & persistence!

Babies Have Vitamin “P”

Back to babies.  They’re loaded with vitamin P – persistence and patience!  Even better – they LOVE the journey and what they accomplish along the way!  Have you ever seen a baby’s expression when they crawl farther, learn to hold a spoon, or stand for the first time?   Give yourself a little credit for taking those baby steps.  They’re the best kind!

For 2019: Beets Go Big Keto’s “King” & “Ya Gotta Have A Gimmick!”

What kinds of diets do consumers want?  My previous post noted the top 3 diets – from a scientific standpoint – but nutritionists say consumers swap what’s safe and sound for what’s fast and flawed, preferring trendy diets like keto and intermittent fasting. 

Pollock Communications and Today’s Dietitian just released their annual survey of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs), this year totaling 1,342 respondents, who give their views of what’s tops to consumers. 

,Consumers’ fondness for flashy diets, like keto, is disappointing to RDNs like Dr. Joan Salge Blake, Associate Professor at Boston University and author of the textbook Nutrition and You.  She even says keto will have similar results in the marketplace with the drastic fat-free diets of the 90’s.  Back then, “We saw a plethora of non-fat cookies, (remember Snackwells??), ice cream, and candy products bulging in the supermarket aisles.”  Salge Blake predicts, “We are going to see Keto cookies, ice cream, and candy muscling out low-fat goodies down the supermarket aisles.” She reminds us that fat-free doesn’t mean calorie-free and too many calories of any type won’t help America’s waistline.  

Salge Blake concluded, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?   I think I know the ending.”

Consumers get it right – sometimes

You’ll see from the graphic above that consumers are liking some great foods!  Fermented foods are tops – again.  Good news for yogurt, kefir, kimchi (pictured), tempeh, and other foods that have the great anti-inflammatory properties fermentation often brings.

Other veterans to the list are:

Kimchi: a fermented food that’s tops for 2019
  • Avocados
  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Coconut products
  • Ancient grains (think farro and amaranth, among many others)
  • Exotic fruits (like lychees, horned melons, and dragon fruits)

The Newbies

Consumers are “beet”-ing a path to this delicious veggie and high time.  Beets are packed with both nutrients and flavor.  They’re also naturally high in nitrates, which can give a little boost  to exercise endurance. 

Blueberries, a newcomer?  Who’d have thought they’d ever been off the list?  Low in calories and among the best sources of antioxidants, I’d like to see people popping these somewhere into a meal or snack as often as possible.  Fresh or frozen, they’re fantastic. 

Disappointingly, kale got bumped from the #10 spot and replaced by plant-based “milks”.  The “halo” these beverages have is unfounded and kind of ironic, given that there is also consumer preference for “clean eating”, yet these beverages are pretty low in nutritional content, usually have little or no protein, none of the bevy of nutrients natural to real milk, and the only nutrients they do have are usually added. 

Ironically, there is very little of the identifying food in these drinks.  Only 3 or 4 almonds, for instance, are in a glass of almond milk.  Pretty expensive!  The foods these beverages are derived from are fantastic.  Eat almonds, rice, oats, and walnuts.  But milk is a far better beverage for nutrition.  One exception: soy beverages.  Soybeans are high in protein and for my patients who are allergic to milk or are vegan, it’s the closest equivalent.

Amy Myrdal Miller, RDN, president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting and a member of the elite food organization Les Dames d’Escoffier, has mixed feelings about the survey’s results.  “I love seeing fermented foods at the top of the list. Fermentation creates so many powerful flavor molecules, which can lead to greater enjoyment of foods. But I hate seeing non-dairy milks. Cow’s milk provides so many essential nutrients in a natural, delicious form.”    

Keep in mind, this survey is what RDNs see as the top trends for 2019. Trends aren’t always positive! Facts aren’t always driving consumers’ decisions. Perceived truths are often the drivers, and there is no shortage of myths and misinformation about food and nutrition in the popular media.  

As for that other trendy diet consumers liked, intermittent fasting, isn’t that just a formal way of what we used to call, skipping a meal?

To sum up, here’s the complete list of

  1. Fermented foods, like yogurt
  2. Avocado
  3. Seeds
  4. Ancient Grains
  5. Exotic fruit, like acai, golden berries
  6. Blueberries
  7. Beets
  8. Nuts
  9. Coconut products

Now, make your 2019 about #factsnotfears!

The Top 3 Diets: Why Do They Always Win?

WINNERS AGAIN – according to US News’ annual ranking of diets, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the Flexitarian diet were the best diets of 2018. They’re likely top be the best of 2019, too, since they’ve been tops forsome time now.  This is NOT news to thoseof us in the field – they’re widely accepted as terrific examples of healthfuleating styles.

These diets are notable for two things:

  • The science about their healthfulness, and
  • They all push plant foods: fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts

What else I love about them?  They don’t push out any foods.   You can include anything; the only issue is how much and how often.  My kind of eating style, because it’s realistic. 

DASH to delicious!

DASH details:

So, what’s different about them? 

-Low-fat and fat-free dairy are featured

-Add AT LEAST one fruit or vegetable to each meal, but preferably more.

-WALK!  Just a little, about 15 minutes after lunch or dinner (do it anytime you can, but aim for at least 30 minutes a day).

Mmmmediterranean!

Mediterranean Momentum:

  • Olive oil is the fat for cooking and salads.  Canola is also good, but butter is rare. 
  • It’s nuts. Almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios are typical.  An ounce several times a week.  What’s an ounce?  Small handful – think “nibble” not ”shovel”. 
  • Something fishy? Yup.  Twice a week, and make it fatty – think salmon more than sole. (Hint for economy: canned salmon is a superfood and by comparison to fresh, it’s super-economical). 
  • Low in red meat – BUT, for red meat lovers, you CAN eat red meat on this diet and there’s good research to say so.  I have the details here.
Approaches vegetarian, but room for all

Flexitarian Features: 

  • Includes more vegetarian meals, especially plant-based proteins. 
  • Dairy and eggs? Both OK!  The diet just emphasizes including the plant-proteins, as well.
  • Meat?  Nota feature, but more of an, “it’s OK sometimes, too” approach. 
  • It’s not about strict anything, or it wouldn’t be “flex”.  You’re in charge about how far to take it.

Together is better

If there’s a downside to the Med diet, it’s the low-calcium content.  The 2015 US Dietary Guidelinesfor Americans endorsed both the Med diet and the DASH diet as excellent eatingstyles, but they acknowledged that the Med diet didn’t fully meet calcium needs.  The majority of people have diets deficientin calcium – the reason calcium is a “nutrient of concern”.  What to do?

Breaking New Research: The “MedDairy Diet.” 

An Australian study, just published, looked at the cardiovascular health markers of a Med diet, supplemented with four servings of dairy — one serving of low-fat milk; 40-120 grams hard or semisoft cheese; 200 grams low-fat Greek yogurt or 200 grams tzatziki dip.  Here’s what they discovered about the Med-Dairy diet’s effects:

The Med-Dairy diet improved cardiovascular health markers:

  • LOWERED blood pressure (both the top and bottom numbers)
  • LOWERED triglycerides
  • RAISED HDL-cholesterol levels (the good kind of cholesterol)

Talk about an example of “We’re better when we work together”! 

What I especially liked about this study was that it included full-fat cheese, a favorite of many, and it actually included a fair amount of it – about 1.5 to 4 ounces daily, depending on calorie needs. 

But RED meat…?

Yes, you can still have lean, unprocessed red meat on a MedDiet.  Indeed, this Purdue University study, blinded to even the investigators, found that eating up to 18 ounces of leanred meat was not only OK, but it was MORE effective than a Med diet thatlimited lean red meat to only 7 ounces per week.  Red meat lover?  You’re OK, within the context of a Med diet.

As for the WORST-rated diets?  Those that are super-trendy, alsosuper-restrictive (Keto, Dukan, and Whole-30 lead this pack).  Entire food groups excluded, rigid rules, demonizedfoods, and little science to support them – a red flag.  Don’t hate them, but give them a big hug andlet them go. 

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.