Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Side of the Box Holds More Value than the Front!!

I was recently having a great conversation with my "little brother" - 22 months littler - about whole grains. We were chatting about all the crap that the food industry dishes out to us to confuse us or coax us into buying a product with the claim of better health via a known "good-for-you" nutrient, such as fiber. Recently even I was deceived by the "front of the box" because I wasn't fully educated as it related to the "side of the box", specifically fiber claims. There is a bevy of advertising out there claiming the health benefits of the fiber content of a food product: granola bars, cereal, yogurt, even ice cream! Ice cream and yogurt with fiber? Give me a break!

I subscribe to a great monthly newsletter called Nutrition Action Healthletter. I've received it for some time, but last year it gained further credibility with me when a seasoned and locally well-respected registered dietitian that I studied under recommended it as well. Also recently, Nutrition Action has done a few exposes on artificial sweeteners, food additives and most recently, "fake" fibers, as I will call them. And to my surprise, I had been had! Polydextrose, maltodextrin and inulin are a few of the chemically modified starches and substances that are being added to foods. They can be classified as fiber because the modifications made to them prevent our bodies from absorbing them. Interestingly, because they're not whole grain fibers or fibers from real foods, the research that proves fiber can aid in weight loss, lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of certain cancers, like colon cancer, doesn't apply to these additives. The manufacturers certainly want us to think their fake-fiber-containing-products carry all the health benefits of whole grains, however. I had purchased Thomas's English Muffins containing inulin as the added fiber, and one of the higher fiber cereals with the same claim, containing polydextrose and chicory root extract, I believe, as the additional fiber sources. Bummer!

Personally, for my husband and I, I want our nutrients to come from whole foods whenever possible, not fake-anything. And the only way to ensure this is to read the label. The front of the box and all of it's claims are where the "flash & glass" are. But it's the side of the box - not just the "Nutrient Facts" required of food manufacturers - but the ingredients list, where the truth lies. I look for products with the fewest ingredients, and those with which I'm familiar. And I don't subscribe to the adage I hear from so many: "it's so confusing" (waaaah!), "I don't understand or know what any of those ingredients/chemicals are" (waaaah, again!). Well, if you can drive a car, use your ATM at the checkout and operate a cell phone, I'm sure you can find a computer and Google the words, ingredients or terms you don't know. I carry a list with me a the grocery and pencil and check off my list as I go through. If I come across an ingredient I don't know, I write it down. Or if I bought the product, I have it with me, and I look it up when I get home. It's not that hard, it just requires a little diligence, but only once! You end up learning, and not becoming an excuse-laden victim.

So, kudos to both my brother and I, for being humble enough to admit we'd been had, but smart enough (even though he's smarter than I am) to continue to dig and learn about what's healthiest for our families. And his growing family has more at steak than my immediate two person and cat family, as his little one year son, Jack, needs to grow up a healthy little boy so he can take care of his aunt as she ages! (Check him out at his "Jack Attack" blog - he's adorable!)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

BF's 13 Virtues, Good Nutrition, & the Masses

Benjamin Franklin's 13 Virtues to live by. Ever heard of them? Most probably have not, and I for one, am not the type to be enamoured by this, specifically because they are steeped in history and a history buff I am not! However, they do pose a thorough but crisp list of adjectives that, being very self-critical, self-analytic and self-aware, are, in of themselves, a complete section within my personal goals. Here are the 13 Virtues by which Ben Franklin tried to live: (1-8 are Personal Virtues and 9-13 are Social Virtues)

  1. Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

  2. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

  3. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

  4. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

  5. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

  6. Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

  7. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

  8. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

  9. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

  10. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

  11. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

  12. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another's peace or reputation.

  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates. (Socratic Humility (with help from Plato): What is most important in managing change is to know when (and what, if possible) you do not know and to keep an open mind. In effect, remain a bit humble and always examine your own revered truths. Conversely, a wise person also knows what she/he does know. As you can see, the two dicta are inter-related. If one is to continue the process of examination, then one must also be humble, in the Socratic sense. In other words, if you think that you know more than you do, then examination is not going to occur. Examination requires a certain level of Socratic humility, i.e., knowing when one does not know.))

I love studying human behavior. Why people do what they do, say what they say, think what they think and act the way they do intrigues me. What are the underlying feelings that cause these actions? - right, wrong or socially appropriate. And by socially appropriate, who determines this? The masses? Typically, because we live in a world of great mass - there are 6.7 billion people in the world -about 3 hundred million of them are in the United States! To live as a society, I supposed we have to conform to what is presented to represent the masses, and act in such a way that it doesn't separate or alienate us from the masses. Conformity. What is interesting to me is how all of this is connected to our health (or poor health, as a society), although I'd love to rant about how it's connected to our general social structure!

Let's talk health for the masses. Breaking it down into two basic categories: the good and the bad. There are things that contribute to good health and things that contribute to poor health. And I'm talking basic things like eating healthy and in moderate quantity, versus debating the efficacy of the Jenny Craig over Weight Watchers over Atkins, or the 10 Minute Trainer over the PX90 system (both exercise trends, only one of which is credible, in my humble opinion!). The basic components of the guidelines for good health "for the masses" (this term is starting to tick me off, by the way) would be:

  1. Eat healthy & in moderation
  2. Exercise - incorporate planned, structured physical activity into your daily life
  3. Rest - get enough quality sleep

This is very basic, very simple and I don't know many who would argue that these three things are solid basic components of healthy living and are based in science. The problem lies in our individual definitions and interpretations of each of these items, specifically eating healthy and exercise. (And frankly, if we did that, then # 3 - Rest, might not be bastardized as well with prescription sleep aids! ) We all have our own definition of what healthy eating and what exercise are - and frankly, the "definition" held by the masses is so lackadaisical...ugh! Eating healthy to some is choosing Chick-fil-A over McDonalds, and planned physical activity may be accomplished by walking at a measly 2.0 mile per hour to the mailbox and back. Wala! I'm healthy, right. Good grief!! Science can't seem to wiggle it's way to the front of the line as a priority for decision making, let alone for basing packaged communication to the masses. Perhaps science-based information doesn't fit the mold for the masses, therefore "we" dumb it down, generalize it and bastardize it so it fits the masses and retains some glimpse of what used to be virginal, factual information. And this misrepresentation actually seems to hit us from two distinct sources:

  • Government. The government has good intentions and good information, but appears afraid to dictate or prescribe guidelines that are "too strict" for fear of non-compliance
  • Industry. Capitalism rules. We live in America, and that's one of the things we are known for. Industry's, specifically the food industry's, main mission is to profit; and the way to profit is with a "hook" - which molds and mushes basic science up into something that may include a smidgen of science, but is mostly hype - a quick fix, a pill, a miracle cure.

So, what do Ben Franklin's 13 Virtues, good health and conforming to the masses have to do with each other? A lot!

But first, let's talk about Ben. It amazes and inspires me that so long ago, humans were so smart - smarter in many ways than they are today, simply because ego & bureaucracy had not yet become the monsters that I perceive they are today. Of Ben's Virtues, there are a few that fit directly into our perfect personal health portfolio for nutrition (exercise to come later).

Temperance, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Moderation, Industry, Cleanliness and Humility can help us enhance how we eat and look at food in our lives.

(I continue to elude that when someone says "I eat healthy", I smirk on the inside. I can't help it! As I write this, I think specifically of those people - and actually feel sorry for them. )

  • Temperance-eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation. "Eat not to dullness" could translate as what we know of big heavy meals and the sedative effect. It could also refer to keeping some interest and joy in our meals, as they do tend to be social. By definition, temperance means moderation in action, though or feeling; a habitual moderation in the indulgence of appetites or passions; moderation in or abstinence from the use of alcoholic beverages. By George, I think we have it! Self-discipline is easier enunciated than executed, however. We have the idea, but it appears difficult to execute. I'll reference another blog here (check it out: The Art of Manliness) where the author does an excellent job of defining temperance and our societies out of control relationship with food and drink. I love how he uses fit chef's as an example of someone who relishes the quality of the food, and where the first few bites are savored with no need or desire to gorge themselves. Once again, quality over quantity might help us curb our insatiable appetite.
  • Order: let all things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. I apply this to the concept (and necessity) of planning. Especially with all of the excuses I've heard, specifically from busy moms, as to why they do the drive through. And for every excuse, I personally know someone who takes the time, or should I say makes the investment in their families health, and plans their week so they can pack the lunches, the cooler bags or the snack packs, so the infamous drive through is not in their weekly plan. Planning is order, order is success. Knowing what is coming up makes healthy eating possible and predictable. Frankly (and I think Ben meant it this way - I'm just applying it to a specific subject), this is the answer to most of life's overwhelming issues - an investment (time, thought) in planning produces predictable results, which reduces stress, disorganization and errors in just about any area. But then again, there are people who thrive in disorganization and chaos - and they're probably the one's in line at McDonalds or Chick-fil-a.

  • Resolution: resolve to perform what you ought, perform without fail what you resolve. Here's the one that needs support - commitment and staying power to a goal or intention seem difficult in our society. I admire people who say: "I'm going to avoid desserts over 200 calories for a month" and then do it. Unfortunately, there are those (like me) who have trouble sticking with it - and I can come up with every excuse in the book to break it. Human motivation is interesting. This is an area where 3rd party support has become a very profitable industry - Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, registered dietitians - all providing support at a cost - all helping to ensure we keep our resolutions. I don't have a quick answer for enhancing our resolution to eat right. My initial belief was the more people learn the basic science behind real, whole food and all the good it can do to benefit your body, as opposed to over-manufactured, processed or refined "food-like stuff" and all the bad it does to your body, resolution to clean up one's diet would come naturally. I'm not sure if this concept really doesn't work, or if the education is truly lacking. Those that just love Chick-fil-a (not that I'm discounting it) can rationalize that it's one of the healthier, lower calorie fast food options - not a sandwich over 500 calories! While that's one way of looking at it, I personally, immediately, think of that white bread bun, in what type of oil the chicken is grilled in, and that the fries may be cooked in a trans-fatty acid. Three strikes in my book and I'll stop at Publix and grab a yogurt and an apple if I'm that desperate. "Resolve to perform what you ought" - making the resolution is the easy part; "Perform without fail what you resolve"- this is the tough part. Labor on!

  • Frugality: make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; waste nothing. When related to nutrition, I immediately see how doing good to others or yourself is making solid nutritional choices SOAKED IN SCIENCE versus propaganda (such as snippets from minuscule studies out of Prevention Magazine, the latest infomercial, or what you blindly think is right because that's the way you or your family "always did it"). Frugality is buying a high quality olive oil because you KNOW it's high quality, not just because it's $3.00 a bottle more than the one next to it. Frugality is knowing that the expense of poor health down the road is much higher than the current cost of time for planning and preparing (or pre-preparing) meals, educating yourself on whole foods, learning to read the ingredient list versus the pretty pink bubble on the outside of package that says "low sugar" or "reduces cholesterol". My husband always says about the "dollar menu": "save that buck and bank it toward your emergency room copay when you have your first heart attack as a result of that greasy burger you thought was such a deal". Morbid, but probably true. From a financial sense, Order lends itself to fulfilling the frugality goal. Planning meals and creating a shopping list from that plan will save money. You'll be able to utilize coupons, plan left overs for future quick meals, etc. It's wonderful how two good personal goals can be so interrelated and productive! And I still battle on to prove that you can eat healthy on a budget. Quality ingredients may (and I mean MAY) cost more sometimes, but by reducing the quantity to correct portion sizes, the average American family will see no net increase in the cost of eating healthy, and perhaps a decrease, because all than junk and those $6.00 boxes of cereal are still costly.

  • Moderation: avoid extremes; forebear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. More is better. Quantity over quality. This is the American Way! Translated, however, I think if we all dig in and really look at our insatiable appetite for everything, not just too much of the wrong kind of food, the revelation is that the more we take in, the greater our desire. Obtaining more doesn't appease the desire to have more, but rather, it actually increases the desire for more - a vicious cycle! Related to nutrition, society seems to come up with some darn good excuses for why we are unhealthy and obese/overweight - versus owning up that we eat too much of the wrong things - wow! - that sums it up! Seriously, though, this relates back to Temperance, where restraint is the goal. If we restrain ourselves from the urge to consume mass quantities and replace it with the goal of eating correct portions of high quality, the end result just may be a more satisfied feeling. I know that when my husband and I do go out for dinner, other than an occasional trip to trip Hooters for the novelty, we select high quality restaurants where we can predict the quality of the food. We typically split an entree because of the average portion size, and we relish in the preparation, variation of flavor and presentation - it's an event! It's most likely less expensive than that average trip to Chili's or Bennigans (which I maintain are fast food in a sit down box), more healthy and oh so much more pleasurable! Well, maybe without the wine it's equal to or less expensive than the trip to the chain restaurant - (here I go on Frugality again!) - those types of restaurant entice you to eat more...appetizer, salad, entree, dessert - once again, that insatiable appetite...more, more, more. Next time, go for quality over quantity. You'll be able to taste and eventually feel the difference in your health.

To close out this rather long thought, I have to give kudos to the years of past where the people were as smart, if not smarter than those today. Interesting...same problems, different century! (or decade?)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Oils - Good Fats & Bad Fats

Oils: the last true food category within the Pyramid. I love (truly love, not sarcastically love) how we have FINALLY clarified this category by it's title.

Oils are fats that are liquid at room temperature, and most of which are good for you - good fats! Fruit (olive, avocado), nut (almond, walnut), and seed (sunflower) oils, plus those from fish sources are all types of fat that are good for you, and virtually all are liquid at room temperature. Good fats include monounsaturated (MUFAs) and polyunsatured fats (PUFAs). And just how good are MUFAs and PUFAs? Well, first, the beter of the two are MUFAs, although MUFAs and PUFAs typically reside together in most oils, along with some saturated fats. MUFAs, have all the hydrogen they can hold on their chemical chains, and can actually increase your HDLs and decrease your LDLs, which as we learned in my "Congratulations hubby" blog, is a good thing! We want our HDLs high (H - for "we want it High"), and our LDLs low (L- for "lousy"). PUFA's are fatty acids that are missing two or more hydrogen pairs on their chemical chains. They can lower total cholesterol and LDLs, which is good, but they can also lower HDLs, and we want them to be higher. Types of oils that you can use that have a low percentage of saturated fat and a higher percentage of MUFAs to PUFAs are Canola Oil, Safflower Oil and Olive Oil.

The bad fats would be those that are solid at room temperature, such as Crisco or lard, and can come from animal sources as well as vegetable sources. Full fat and even low fat dairy, including cheese, are also sources of saturated fats.

Vegetable Oil that has hydrogen added under chemical preparation becomes a trans fat, which is solid at room temperature and considered a very bad saturated fat - worse than a naturally occurring saturated fat, such as those from animal sources*. And now that consumers are getting savvy about looking for trans fats on label by searching for those infamous words: "partially hydrogenated _____ oil", the food industry has "elevated" their game, and now has a new weapon in shelf preservation that doesn't carry the "partially-hydrogenated" label; rather, they are now using full hydrogenation of oils which is more like a saturated fat and is not a trans fat. Therefore, you should still avoid it, but trans fats (partially hydrogenated) remain the worst choice.

Science-based evidence proves that a diet high in saturated and trans fats (more than 35% of calories from these types of fat) increases risks for unhealthy levels of blood cholesterol, and therefore cardiovascular disease.

So, depending on your calorie intake, the government recommends between 20-35% of calories from fat/oil, which is 5-6 teaspoons, daily, with less than 10% of total calories from saturated fats. I just seriously wonder how many of us get most of our oil from good fat sources versus bad?

In my home, I actually have to add nut, seed, etc. oils to our diet to get us up to our average of 20-30% of our calories from oils. When you eat healthy, you "get to choose" where the sources come from, versus having to limit them from and within your diet - how fun! fun to get to choose! And honestly, we simply don't miss saturated fat. I use a good EVOO where many might use butter. The quality of the flavor of a good EVOO is unsurpassed - almost like a good wine. In salads, on wilted spinach and on some cruciferous vegetables, I'll drizzle a more potent nut or seed oil like Walnut, Avocado or Truffle Oil, respectively. I LOVE the flavor of Truffle Oils (specifically from O & Co. in San Francisco) on broccoli, brussel sprouts & cauliflower. It's 4 am as I write this - but it makes me salivate to think of that caramelized flavor of the vegetable and the smokey Truffle Oil! The one or two (maybe two) times per week that we include red meat in our diet, I select the leanest cut of fillet I can find, and in the correct portion size, and if at all possible, grass-fed and pasture raised. That's about as bad as it gets. We don't use mayonnaise (my husband hates that "white creamy stuff"), margarine, or eat fatty meats - and no, we don't miss it. It may have taken some period of adjustment, because we didn't always think this way and our taste buds didn't always have this preference, but we do think this way now - and actually get crinkly foreheads when we have to think of eating mayo, butter or anything that looks or sounds like lard. I remember hearing once that you can set a can of Crisco or lard out on a shelf in your garage and it can stay there for 100 years - it won't change, and not even the cockroaches will touch it. Ugh! Then, recently I learned a little mental trick or visual aid to further gross me out against saturated fats. This came from one of the instructors I work with from my local county extension office. One of the educators describes "fat", specifically how much saturated fat you take in, this way: "For each 4 grams of saturated fat, think about taking a teaspoon and scooping it out of a can of Crisco and eating it." Excuse me while I barf! Think about it - look at the saturated fat content in that bag of potato chips or jar of mayo, or the package of butter cookies - some may have 12+ grams of saturated fat in one serving - trade that teaspoon of lard for tablespoon and get ready! See, it doesn't take much more than a visual to turn you off of what's bad for you and onto what's good for you!

*There is a trend that has been emerging for several years now that is as refreshing as a meadow breeze - particularly a meadow that has cows grazing in it for the duration of their flesh-building lives. Grass-fed cows have lower levels of bad, saturated fats and higher levels of a good fat called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. Grass-fed beef used to be the only way cattle were raised and fed, much like how free-roaming western buffalo are still today. Now, however, cows may see grassy pasture for a tiny spec of their lives before they're herded into factory farms and grain fed the rest of their lives. I highly recommend Michael Pollan's book: The Omnivore's Dilemma - very good reading.