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And The Survey Says: COVID-19 Changed How We See, Eat, & View Food

During “This Challenging Time” may people’s usual food concerns gave way to more immediate priorities: stocking up on staples like proteins, milk, canned goods and the like.  (Count me in – I bake our bread and I’m one of those who found it hard to find yeast and flour.)   Right after sheltering-in-place (SIP) began, our attention went towards all things comfort: in our food, our home, our down time, everything.

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) conducted their 2020 Food & Health Survey of adults, ages 18-80, in mid-April, during the pandemic.  More than 8 out of 10 of us changed how we ate and prepared food in response to COVID-19.  People under 35 made the most changes – but not all changes were good ones.

Here are other survey highlights about how we see food and health right now:

We’re eating better – or not

More than 1 in 5 say they’re eating healthier, but there’s another group, about 1 in 7, who felt they were making less healthy choices.

We’re cookin’!

About 3 in 5, were doing more cooking at home.  Not a surprise, since most restaurants were closed.  Grocery stores continued selling their prepared foods at a pretty good clip, however, so cooking at home still was still able to be avoided by some.

You can bet that people working from home and now forced to produce 3 meals a day, probably relied more on help from the prepared foods section of the supermarkets.  Supermarket sales in almost all sections of the store were way up.

Got kids?  You got snacking!

More than 3 in 5 (41%) parents with minor children were snacking more than they normally did, vs less than 3 in 10 parents with grown children.  With more kids at home all day, it figures that there will be more snacking going on, and parents serving snacks are probably more likely to join them. Even so, about 1 in 4 said they were now snacking multiple times each day.

What worries us more about food now? 

  • More than half had concerns about eating food away from home or eating food prepared outside the home. Roughly half of survey respondents were at least somewhat concerned about either eating away from home or food prepared away from home (take-out, restaurant deliveries, etc.).  This was somewhat more so for African-American and Hispanic consumers than for whites.
  • Put into simple language, people want to know if the person/persons who made this dish I brought home were careful about proper food safety when they made it.
  • “Food handling/food preparation related to risk of COVID-19” had never been asked in this annual survey, but it became the number 1 concern for consumers, knocking off the top 4 food safety concerns of 2019. On the home front, we’re also washing our fruits and vegetables more.

What worries us less?

  • Food-borne illnesses from bacteria.
  • Chemicals, carcinogens, and pesticides in food.

These were still concerns, but issues related to COVID-19 knocked them off most people’s “top concern” list.  It’s consistent with the huge increase in purchases of items like canned and frozen vegetables – foods that people know are safe and have a long shelf life.

Health vs. Weight: Which Matters to People More?

Health mattered a little more than weight but not much.  Most participants valued both equally, but women and overweight persons put slightly more priority on weight.

More “style” in our eating!

A consistent trend the past few years is following some form of eating style.  Nearly 3 in 5 persons reported trying some type of diet or eating style.  Top reason: to try and lose weight.

Top eating style for 2020?  Intermittent fasting.  It bumped last year’s “clean eating” from first place.  Keto/high fat dieting was third.

The survey offered hope, though. “Nearly 6 in 10 place more emphasis on their overall health now in comparison to how they made decisions a decade ago.”  Healthier weight will follow – another “two-fer”!

Cut-To-The-Chase Takeaway

We CAN and DO make changes to how we eat – if we’re motivated.  Let’s not lose sight of that.  Instead of our motivation coming from fear, let it be wanting to feel better. And knowing we deserve that.

7 Nutrition Myths These Dietitians Are Busting

When people learn I’m a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), they almost immediately start venting their frustrations about food issues. “Every day it’s another thing you can’t do or eat.  One day a food is good for you, the next day it’s bad for you.”  Since confused consumers make no changes, I always try to bust their myths and misinformation.

While consumers may be confused about food fads, RDNs are not.  They’re fed up with them.  They’re trained to spot hype, fads, and myths around a blind corner and it annoys them to no end. I asked some RDNs who have particularly good communications skills to tell me which popular nutrition fads really grind at them.  Here’s what they said:

Carbo-phobia!

Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, said straight up, “I wish people would stop thinking carbs are the devil.”  She’s had it with a near universal demonizing of these essential macros. 

Sure, most people eat too much added sugar, but she’s right that all carbs seem to be lumped together, whether it’s whole wheat bread or soda.  “Today it’s keto, yesterday it was Paleo, so many others before,” she said.  “I’m tired of all the iterations of high-protein, restricted carbs.”

Plant “Milk” Deserves No Halo

Nutritionally, plant-based diary alternatives just can’t hold a candle to the nutrition in real milk, according to Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, FADN, professor of nutrition at Boston University and the host of the hit health and wellness podcast, SpotOn! In addition to being a dynamite protein source, “Cow’s milk is chock full of vitamin D, calcium, and potassium, three nutrients that many Americans are falling short of in their diets.”  Dairy alternatives only have these nutrients if they’re added, and they often aren’t.  Unfortunately, says Salge Blake, “plant-based milks may also contain added sugars, adding calories and no additional nutrition to your glass.” 

Salge Blake also sees the affordability of real milk as a win-win.  “When it comes to your wallet, plant-based milks can be at least twice the price of cow’s milk.  For the nutrients and the money per gulp, you can’t beat low fat or skim dairy milk.”  If you’re allergic or vegan, soy is the closest alternative.  Be prepared to pay though.

Stop Kicking The Canned Foods!

Shari Steinbach, MS, RDN, spent years working directly with consumers as a retail dietitian in supermarkets, is fed up with canned foods getting dissed when they offer so many advantages:

  • Sustainability: “90% of cans are recycled and they can be recycled indefinitely.” Linings are safe, with 90% containing none of the controversial BPA.
  • Convenience: They have a long shelf life and that helps prevent wasted food and wasted food dollars.
  • Nutrition: “You can cut 40% of the sodium in canned beans and veggies just by rinsing and draining them,” Steinbach says. Since 9 in 10 people don’t eat enough vegetables, “Canned beans and tomatoes count,” towards scoring enough of this critical food group, and are a, “convenient, nutritious way to balance your diet.”

Want her recipe for quick, veggie-loaded, chili using canned ingredients?  “Here’s a favorite simple chili recipe that I made this week”:

  1. Brown 1 pound of lean ground beef;
  2. Drain and add 2 cans of chili-seasoned beans and 2 cans of undrained diced tomatoes.
  3. Season to taste with cumin or chili powder. “Serve with a green salad and whole grain crackers. Enjoy!”

Don’t Panic If It’s Not Organic

That’s advice from Leslie Bonci, MS, RDN Owner of Active Eating Advice, who is fed up with food elitism.  I see her point.  I spent decades working with low-income families who will never be able to afford organic food.  They shouldn’t worry.  They can still put delicious, nutritious food on the table. 

“What do we even mean when we say clean?” Bonci says, because “clean eating” has no definition.  That leaves every definition up to whomever is spewing it and that’s a perfect recipe for consumer confusion, fear, and doubt.  Instead, Bonci favors creating “an enabled table where foods of all price points have a place.”

White Foods Are Bright Foods!

Liz Ward, MS, RDN, Author of Better is the New Perfect is bugged by all the attention given to putting “only the most colorful fruits and vegetables on your plate.”  Forget colors, she says.  “Instead of worrying about what types of produce are “best,” simply include the types you like, no matter how pale,” Ward advises.  Besides, white, brown, and tan produce, such as mushrooms, cauliflower, potatoes, and bananas, are just as worthy as their brighter counterparts,” are loaded with nutrition.

“And while we’re at it, can we stop shaming starchy vegetables, such as corn, potatoes and peas? They are packed with nutrition and starch is a form of energy.”  It’s true, these foods are hugely important to so many food cultures and have sustained people for thousands of years.  Empty calories they most certainly are not. 

One Diet DOESN’T For Everyone?  Seriously?

“The nutrition belief that I hope goes to its final resting place in 2020 is that a single diet plan, or way of eating, is right for everyone,” declares food anthropologist and nutrition communications consultant Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN.  Looking ahead, Flipse feels personalized nutrition, not fad dieting, holds the most promise in the years ahead.  

Leah McGrath, MS, RDN, corporate dietitian for Ingles Supermarkets, couldn’t agree more.  “It seems like every year we have a new ‘hot’ diet,” she says.  “However, just like our fingerprints,  we should want to and  deserve to individualize our eating plans.” 

Flipse continued, “The one thing we’ve learned from the decades of fad diet trends we’ve endured is that none of them have delivered on what they promised because they have all overlooked our metabolic differences.”  They also tend to be extreme, which is probably why people burn out on them. 

Flipse admits that we still lack the scientific tools to allow us to tailor nutrition to each person’s needs.  Unfortunately, when consumer demand gets ahead of the science, charlatans see an opportunity to market all kinds of pseudo-scientific gimmicks.

Plant-Based Doesn’t Mean Plants-ONLY

This one is mine.  I’ve written about it before and everyone in 2019 seemed to be jumping on this bandwagon.  Thing is, there’s no universal definition of “plant-based!” 

What it DOESN’T mean is vegan.  Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t automatically guarantee your diet is balanced or healthful, either.  Living on soda and chips is a fully “plant-based”, vegan diet.  And it ain’t balanced.  A huge salad with 10 different veggies, some nuts, and crumbled feta or parmesan cheese or a couple of ounces of beef or salmon is not vegan – but it IS plant-based.  Flipse put it best, “I tell people if 50% or more of what they eat is plants, then they have a ‘plant-based’ diet.”

Like Diversity? So Does Your Gut: FOUR Eating Styles to Help Out

I can’t count the times people have said to me, “this is the way everyone should be eating.” RIDICULOUS. The world is round. And there IS more than one eating style that’s good for your health.

This study looked at four eating styles known for their healthfulness: 

• The Healthy Eating Index 2010 (HEI 2010), is based on the 2010 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It focuses on fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods and lean meats and other proteins.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is MED-diet-ideal.jpg
“Alternative” Mediterranean diet:
Less credit for red & processed meat

• The Alternative Healthy Eating Index (aHEI), based on HEI-2010 but de-emphasizes meat and dairy foods.

• The Alternative Mediterranean Diet (aMED) focuses specifically on markers of inflammation and cardiovascular health. Its score does not consider dairy intake or potatoes and gives credit for less consumption of red and processed meats.

• Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH diet), developed to reduce hypertension with diet, it encourages plenty of fruits, vegetables and low-fat/fat-free dairy foods but nothing is excluded.

The researchers wanted to compare each eating style’s impact on the gut and the diversity of healthy gut bacteria.

Drum Roll…The Results Showed…

If you REALLY build it,
the good gut bugs will come

ALL four eating styles benefitted the gut – and in mostly similar ways The authors found the results showed “strikingly consistent patterns.”  People with higher scores on all four eating styles had less “bad” bacteria – the ones associated with inflammatory diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, even colon cancer. 

Interestingly, the HEI-2010 – the more moderate of the eating styles studied and the one based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, was the only one of the four eating styles associated with lower amounts of harmful Escherichia-Shigella and Enterobacter, two species associated with diet-related conditions linked to systemic inflammation.

Higher scores on all the eating indices were also associated with a greater richness of beneficial fiber-fermenting bacteria in the gut.

For gut-geeks like myself, this study is incredibly interesting.  To consumers and “normal” people, here’s what it really means:

  • A healthy diet rules.  But not a single healthy diet.
  • There are at least four ways up the mountain to a healthy eating style.
  • It’s more about what you include than what you exclude!  Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains help grow the most beneficial bacteria, because they’re loaded with fermentable fiber. 

Why I like this study

  • It looks at diverse eating styles and their impact on gut diversity.  That is, how these eating styles positively or negatively impact our gut bacteria. 
  • The study used subjects with diverse ethnicities: Japanese American, Latino, Native Hawaiian, and African American, who were part of the Multiethnic Cohort Study
  • These were also senior citizens, average age: 69 years.

The study was long: subjects were enrolled between 1993-1996 and their gut bacteria were studied as of 2013-2015.

Study Weaknesses: 

All studies have limitations, but this one has fewer than most. Most observational studies like this look only at initial dietary intake and then analyze outcomes a decade or more later, not knowing if diets changed during the interim.  This study took dietary intake at the enrollment and also during a return visit in 2013-2015, at which time the subjecfts also provided a stool sample.

Cut-To-The-Chase Recommendations

The least “restrictive” of these four eating styles is a split between DASH and the regular HEI.  They don’t exclude anything, emphasize balance and are probably the easiest to follow. Best of all, they produce good gut health. 

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!