Monday, May 24, 2010

The Why

We know our portions, plates and waistlines have grown, and continue to do so. But, have you ever thought about why? Is it just that we like food more than we used to? Is it that we need more food than we used to? Is it that we have less self-control than we used to? Or is it maybe that we don’t know our food has changed? Well . . . some of the reasons why are less obvious than others—so we’ll focus on those.

Everyone who has even one cookbook is familiar with “The Joy of Cooking,” first published in 1931 and still one of this country's most published cookbooks. After studying 18 recipes from 1936 to today, researchers from Cornell University found that 14 of the 18 recipes had an increase in calories—and the difference wasn’t small. The overall calories in the recipes increased by 35 percent. The brownie recipe in the 1997 edition makes 16 brownies, while the identical recipe in the 1975 edition made 30 brownies. This means the 1997 brownie is almost twice as big, thus—more calories per serving. Translation: in case anyone’s missed it, our serving sizes have increased.

You probably don’t know that between 1984 and 1987, in just three years, the chocolate chip cookie recipe on the back of the NestlĂ©’s Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels package scaled down the number of cookies it makes from 100 to 60. Bigger cookies, more calories per cookie.

And, where do we put these bigger brownies and cookies? Well, on our bigger plates. The average dinner plate has increased in diameter roughly 40 percent since World War II. It stands to reason that if plates are bigger, portions grow bigger to fill them.

Now, to wash down those bigger cookies and brownies, we need a bigger soda. Since the 1960s sodas have grown from the single-serving size standard 6-½-ounce bottle to a 20-ounce bottle. At movie theaters and convenience stores the most popular size is now the 64-ounce fountain "Double Gulp."

But it’s not just serving sizes and portions that have increased—look at the long list of ingredients in common foods—like Graham Crackers. In 1829 the Reverend Sylvester Graham created the first Graham Cracker to promote “temperance in eating.” (Our first diet.) The main ingredient was unsifted, coarsely ground wheat flour with a high fiber content. Now, compare today’s Graham Crackers—note the partially hydrogenated oil (trans fats) and high fructose corn syrup—UNBLEACHED ENRICHED FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE {VITAMIN B1}, RIBOFLAVIN {VITAMIN B2}, FOLIC ACID), SUGAR, GRAHAM FLOUR (WHOLE GRAIN WHEAT FLOUR), SOYBEAN OIL AND/OR PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED COTTONSEED OIL, HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP, HONEY, LEAVENING (BAKING SODA AND/OR CALCIUM PHOSPHATE), SALT, ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, SOY LECITHIN - AN EMULSIFIER, CORNSTARCH. CONTAINS: WHEAT, SOY.

So, do you see this as progress? Maybe bigger isn’t necessarily better. Maybe less is more?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What Do You Believe? Where Does the Truth Lie?

Do you believe you have the power of self? That you can make decisions in your own long-term self interest? That you can be successful in your efforts related to making better nutritional choices? Here’s one—do you believe given enough information you can make healthy dietary choices for yourself and your family? What kind of information do you need to make those decisions? Is someone else making those decisions for you?

We ask a lot of questions. You might be surprised by the answers. Starting at the top, yes, we all have the power of self, we can all be responsible for making decisions in our long-term self interest—and we can be successful in making better nutritional choices. That was easy. Now it gets trickier.

Given enough information, “enough” being the key word, we can choose to make healthy dietary choices. But, there’s a lot of mis-information out there mixed in with good information that can make those choices murky.

Here’s an example—organic food. When you hear “organic” you probably think healthy, clean, nutritious, even low-cal. But think again. A recent study by the Cornell Food and Brand Lab found that when a food is labeled “organic” people tend to believe it is a better choice with fewer calories. It also found people tend to eat more of it for that very reason—yet in truth, it generally has the same calorie content as its non-organic counterpoint. Organic produce is grown in soil, like any other produce, so needs to be washed, just like any other produce—and the jury’s still out on whether it’s measurably more “nutrient-dense.” The point is we tend to believe what we want to be true. But is it?

A small bite of healthy skepticism can prove filling.

Now, to answer the last question we asked at the beginning—sometimes someone else actually is behind the choices you make, and they’re not always making those choices in your best interest. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to low-fat, low-calorie foods, and yes even organic foods, to make up for the fat they remove, and our tastes are programmed to crave that fat, and the sugar, and the salt. But, because of the package wording, we are driven to eat more of these “healthier” choices. We can actually end up consuming more calories from low-fat foods, because we eat more of them.

So, what do we do to move beyond packaging claims and mis-information? How do we take control of our choices? Read labels, and packaging, carefully. Read the ingredients and nutrition facts. Read the “health claims” with a true “grain of salt.” Compare ingredients and calories of low or reduced-fat products with their regular counterparts. Look at what’s been added. Look at the number of additives you can’t even pronounce. And, be mindful. Mindful of what you’re consuming, and mindful of what you might be “over-consuming.” And mindful of what your nutritional goals are—for yourself and your family.

Engage the “Power of Self.” Do you know a better way to address the growing epidemic of overweight and obesity—including childhood obesity?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Mice, Phosphates, Aging – and More

If you were a mouse, you might have reason to worry. You might find reason to worry even if you’re not a mouse.

Here’s why . . .

In a word: Phosphates. New research published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology finds that high levels of phosphates create toxic effects and accelerate signs of aging—in mice. They may also increase the number and severity of aging-related complications such as cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease and muscle and skin atrophy. And where do you find phosphates? Sodas, processed foods—and even diet soft drinks. In other words, what many of us consider our ‘daily staples.’

Now, it’s true that phosphorous is an essential mineral for human and animal life. It is fundamental to growth, maintenance, and repair of all body tissues and is necessary (along with calcium and magnesium) for proper growth and formation of bones. In addition, the body utilizes phosphorus in protein synthesis, carbohydrate metabolism, enzyme activation and as a component of nucleotides and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA). Maybe that’s “too much information,” but, too much phosphorous, such as the phosphates found in soda, can actually leech calcium from bone, leading to bone weakness and osteoporosis. And, yes, diet soda contains phosphates.

A 2008 study found a correlation between consuming diet soda and Metabolic Syndrome, a collection of risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes that include abdominal obesity, high cholesterol and blood glucose levels, and elevated blood pressure. The risk for metabolic syndrome was 34 percent higher among those who drank one can of diet soda a day, compared with those who drank none. A 2005 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, presenting eight years of research data, found for each can of diet soft drink consumed a day, a person’s risk of obesity went up 41 percent.

As for foods high in added phosphates, a few of the more common culprits include: ice cream, skim milk powder (often added to processed foods), biscuits, cookies and cakes from the supermarket, ketchup, mayonnaise, frozen and breaded fish, processed cheese, frozen pizza, hot dogs, and processed or deli meats. And, toothpaste. And, this is not a comprehensive list. Look for foods that list mineral salts, emulsifiers and lecithin as ingredients—and avoid them.

Phosphates occur naturally in many healthy foods, such as nuts, whole grains, legumes, brown rice, milk, and some leafy greens. And, as we pointed out, our bodies need phosphates. But do we need all the added phosphates in processed foods? Do we need the diet soda and associated risks? It’s not like we don’t have choices . . . right?