10 Portable, Easy, Real Beach Foods

Nothing says summer like the beach. I’ve only lived close enough to walk to the beach for two years, but the Navy may need to drag me away–kicking and screaming–if and when the time comes.  The beach conjures up fun childhood memories and it continues to be my happy place making new memories with my family. Stress seems to ebb a little more after each breaking wave. Sibling sisters even seem to invoke an unspoken truce. It’s downright magical…once you get there. But that hour-plus of prep to get out the door to the beach with kids is brutal, am I right?

Swimsuits on. Sunscreen applied. Shoes found (and donned). Cooler packed. Towels in hand. Chairs in tow. It can feel like you are hauling half your house with you! (And then there’s the hour of messy, uncontainable, sandy clean up that ensues after you return home…but that’s hours later; let’s not think about that now or we will never again leave the comfort of our A/C.)

If you’re like me, by the time you finally get settled in the sand, someone’s hungry. If I’m honest, it might be a sign we’ve brought too much?! But swimming also seems to make my kids ravenous. So–for the love of the beach and all that is peaceful–you can’t cut back on the food you bring! You must bring enough to stay through a meal (or two) to make all the work worthwhile.

Because we’re lucky enough to hit the beach once a week rather than once a year, my family can’t afford to eat junk each time we go. I’m sure no one needs help choosing the typical, portable, convenient foods (i.e., sandwiches, chips of any kind). We eat those sometimes. But even for an RD, it takes forethought and extra effort to come up with easy, real food options that are wholesome and easily portable. It’s a little more limiting when you try to make them lower carb and/or gluten free, if needed, as well. And then you have to also consider how to avoid a sandy mess in general, and whether you will need plates and utensils (neither is preferable) or any napkins (that may inadvertently blow away…after all, nature’s sink is at your disposal anyway). These are a lot of criteria for a meal!

That’s why I’ve gathered some of my favorite portable, easy, real food recipes to turn your beach (or boating) adventure into a nutritious and delicious meal away from home. I’ve also enlisted the help of some RD bloggers who have shared a few of their best portable foods. Simply click on the photos for the links to the recipes.

As I like to say, the number one way to eat mindfully is to plan ahead what you will eat. The same is true at the beach–a little planning goes a long way and I feel it’s time worth spent. I make double batches of some of my recipes below for a meal or snack at home and bring the leftovers to the beach. Some items, like the chicken or artichoke quiche bites, you can even freeze for another time. I also love getting my kids to help me with the easy food prep, such as cutting up fruits and veggies, which frees up some of my time (to sometimes make my favorite refreshing beach drink, Mojitos My Way, or ginger Kombucha mixed with vodka, seltzer and a lemon wedge. Ahhh.)

We can’t always bring our “A” game to the beach. We are going there to relax, after all. But even if all the food you bring to the beach can’t be homemade real food, try packing just one or two of these real-food options in your cooler next time to step up your beach food game. And then also refer to “Plan B” below for some store-bought real foods to round out your beach meals and snacks.

And no matter what, don’t forget to enjoy the serenity of the sea while it lasts or until you run out of food, whichever comes first!

Your “A” Game: Easy, Real Foods for the Beach

Classic Deviled Eggs Served with Baby Dill Pickles

 

 

 

 

 

Spiced, Roasted Chick Peas: 5 Ways

 

Contributed by Amy Gorin, RD

 

 

 

Roasted Eggplant Hummus Served with Sliced Bell Peppers and Carrots

 

Contributed by Katie Cavuto, RD

 

 



Skewered Caprese Salad
Seven-Layer Dip (Half Recipe) Served with Organic Corn Chips
Oven-Baked Chicken Wings (Gluten Free)
Spicy Meat and Potato Patties Wrapped in Lettuce

 

Contributed by Roxana Begum, PhD, RD

 

 

Artichoke Quiche Bites with Sweet Potato Crust
Sliced Fresh Melon Wrapped with Prosciutto, if desired. (No recipe)
Chewy, No Bake Granola Bars

 

Contributed by Maria Westburg Adams, MS, MPH, RD

Plan B: Easier Store-Bought Real Food for the Beach

Sometimes there’s no time to fix homemade foods before heading to the beach. Or maybe you just need a break from cooking. If time is short, don’t let that stop you from reaching for real foods at the beach. Try these easy store-bought options:

  • Veggie trays
  • Fruit trays
  • Fresh fruit (grapes and cherries require little prep)
  • Hummus and baby carrots
  • Sliced cheese (Cheddar, Brie, etc.) and apple slices (gala don’t brown as quickly)
  • Olives (they come in ready-to-eat pouches or single-serve packages)
  • Nuts
  • Nuts and Dark Chocolate (Trader Joe’s has single packs)

Plan Your Own Meals, Please: Here’s Why and How

I am frequently asked to make meal plans. It seems like a reasonable request. And I really want to help you eat better. But fundamentally, I just can’t bring myself to do them. Here’s why. And read on to find out how I’d rather help you–step by step–learn to eat mindfully.

Here’s Why I Don’t Do Meal Plans:

  1. What I eat may not be what you like to eat. As a result, meal plans are not simply a matter of me writing down for you what I eat; it can be a very overwhelming, time-consuming prospect to build individualized meal plans. There are sensitivities, intolerances, and allergies. There are so many real foods, so many different cuisines and flavors, some of which you may not like. Even if I interview you and figure out what some of your preferences are, I’m sure we will forget to mention some that end up in your meal plan, rendering it ineffective.  Plus you simply may not have the desire, time or inclination to make and eat what I have planned for you on a particular day. Which leads me to the next point…
  2. You won’t follow a meal plan. This is not a judgment; try as you might, you can’t. Meal plans are temporary. So many factors affect your meals, such as your location, mood, the company you’re keeping at meal time, or the time it takes to cook the meals. Inevitably it’s a waste of time to create meal plans. (And did I mention it takes a lot of time?) And when you can’t follow them, it creates shame and blame. You possibly blame me, or even worse, yourself; either way you feel like a failure. Thus, meal plans are definitely not a positive and productive use of your time or mine. So, what is a productive use of our time? Mindful eating…
  3. Meal plans don’t teach you how to eat mindfully for life. The number one way to learn to eat mindfully is to plan what you will eat ahead of time. That’s the goal right? Anyone can help you lose weight. I want to teach you how to change your behaviors and stick with it. If I’ve done the work of planning your meals, there is a point when you will come to the end of the meal plans (or throw them out the window mid-week) and still not know (or care) what and how to eat. If I do it for you, it’s not mindful, it’s meaningless.

So, all this begs the question: how do you make your own meaningful meal plans and learn to eat mindfully? I’ll take you through the steps I take weekly–sometimes begrudgingly, I’ll admit!

Yes, I don’t always want to sit down and do this. And truthfully, sometimes I don’t. But when I don’t, I’m scrambling during the week to provide healthy meals. And let’s face it, when you’re scrambling, you’re lucky if the meals provided are healthy.

So, do yourself and your family a favor, take 20 minutes and crank out these simple steps. It gets easier and quicker the more you build up your collection of real-food recipes. Check out my recipes to get you started. And check back frequently, I add a few new recipes each week! You can also find me on Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest where I showcase easy, real food.

Here’s How To Make a Simple Weekly Meal Plan:

  1. Start with planning only dinners. This keeps it simple, especially if you’re just beginning to meal plan. Plus research shows eating together as a family, as many evenings as schedules allow, is beneficial in many ways beyond health.
  2. Plan the easiest meals for the busiest nights of the week. At the beginning of the week, look at your calendar and decide which evenings you need easy, low maintenance dinners. The days you work late, or your kids have evening activities, choose real-food, slow-cooker recipes, plan for leftovers, or buy a rotisserie chicken and just cook simple vegetable side dishes.
  3. Look at recipes or ideas online to gather varying ideas for dinner. I usually try to choose a variety of meat entrees to rotate for the week. Chicken, beef, pork, fish or seafood, vegetarian, for example. Seek out real-food options as much as possible. Once your family accepts a recipe, it’s perfectly okay if you rotate through some of the same recipes every week or two. You don’t have to win any culinary awards for creativity.
  4. Round out the meal with a vegetable or two to prepare alongside the meat. If the main dish involves a marinade or something more time consuming, I usually keep the vegetables simple, such as roasted or grilled vegetables. If the main dish is simple, sometimes I’ll spend more time on the side dish, such as creamed spinach or grilled vegetable caponata. I always try to use what’s in season and vary the color of my veggies, too; it looks pretty and is a simple way to vary the nutrients.
  5. Complete each meal with a simple salad. This “autopilot” side dish comes together in 5 minutes and provides extra texture and nutrients, and fills the plate (and hence your belly) without adding refined carbs and/or excess calories. 
  6. Keep it flexible. I make myself a “flexible” weekly meal plan that includes about 4 to 5 meals for which I’ve purchased the ingredients. Assuming I don’t have evening commitments, I decide each day which meal I want to eat because I am allowing myself to be “in the mood” for what I feel like eating or making–give or take only a few days (to avoid waste).
  7. Have a leftover night. By Thursday or Friday, I’m tired of cooking. Yes, I get tired of cooking, too! So, whatever main dish meats we haven’t eaten as lunches, we pool together for a “leftover night.” Then I sort of “take orders” of what each of my kids wants, like a waitress! (It’s the closest I get to being a short-order cook because I will not prepare separate, typical kid foods.) If there aren’t leftover side dishes, I add an easy vegetable, maybe even frozen green beans or broccoli, and/or a salad. Definitely no culinary awards to be had here, but I feel pretty darn good about not wasting food–and about not having to cook now and then!
  8. Consider making double batches. Even when you don’t need leftovers, you can freeze an entree that will make another night that much easier. Just label it before putting it into the black hole that is your freezer. And you might want to keep a very informal list on your fridge detailing what’s in your freezer, so it’s a quick reference when you’re looking for a quick meal to thaw and serve. Soups work great and most meats can be frozen as well.

Final Thoughts

You may find meal planning services useful in the short term, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you choose healthier meal options. Just don’t let trendy meal planning services make you believe you need fancy, photogenic meal plans to eat easy, real food. Real life with real food is simpler, less expensive, sustainable and worthwhile if you build a healthy meal-planning habit week by week.

 

The Neighborhood Harvest: Easy Real Food, Delivered!

I love easy real food. And I love to eat local.  So, it won’t be surprising to learn I am a huge fan of The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA. In fact, I love them so much as a registered dietitian and a customer, I approached them about blogging about their products and am NOT receiving any free product or compensation for doing so. That’s “organic” love, am I right? I simply want to share with you this revolutionary company that is making local, sustainably grown, safe, nutritious real food as easy as it can be.

10 Reasons I Love The Neighborhood Harvest:

  1. The Neighborhood Harvest is a local company. I love supporting my community.
  2. The farmers are following “better than organic practices” to grow their greens, tomatoes and cucumbers. This means that although they haven’t been technically certified “organic” by the government (it’s costly to get certified and the products would also have to cost more), they are still following sustainable and eco-friendly farming techniques. Their eggs are also pasture raised, with chickens allowed to roam freely feeding naturally on insects, which is better than cage free or even free-range.
  3. The freshness of the greens is unmatched. They are picked and the next day they are delivered. So, they last a week (or more on the rare occasion I haven’t eaten them up in a few days.)
  4. The nutrient content is superior to store bought. Due to their freshness, these vegetables are at their peak nutrient density when I eat them. Every little bit helps!
  5. Subscribing to a rotating box gives me a variety of greens that I wouldn’t have otherwise bought at a store. This provides a variety of nutrients and makes for more interesting meals. Truthfully, I’d never even bought micro greens before they were included in my subscription! They are not sprouts, but not full grown plants either; in short, they are tiny nutrient powerhouses and they add texture and flavor to my salads.
  6. I don’t have to wash the greens. They are grown hydroponically (in water), so without dirt, and in a greenhouse without exposure to acid rain. This may well be my favorite reason to subscribe to The Neighborhood Harvest! This makes it SO EASY to quickly make a salad in as much time as opening a bag of lettuce, but they are safer than bagged lettuce and they don’t wilt with washing before I even add salad dressing.
  7. I don’t have to cook the greens. This also makes using them SO EASY. All the greens I’ve received are tender and can be eaten raw, which preserves their nutrition and simplifies my meal planning. Some, like bok choy or tatsoi (like spinach), can be stir fried or added to a soup or stew, but it’s not necessary, so I like the simplicity and convenience.
  8. A weekly subscription for delivery makes it easier to complete my meal planning and enforces healthy eating habits. I have a standing date with my salad bowl (which I also kinda love, it’s olive wood from Italy) 4 or 5 times per week, which is a great way to make eating more vegetables a healthy habit. There’s a whole science to building habits, the Neighborhood Harvest helps make them healthy ones! Here’s what my simple salad looks like. And for the record, it was the very first recipe I blogged about because it is that important to me!
  9. They are priced comparably to organic greens in grocery stores (although I think the delivery convenience makes a subscription to The Neighborhood Harvest worth it even if they’re slightly more than some sale prices you can find.) The weekly boxes start at $11. I buy the large box for $17 for my family of 5.
  10. The Neighborhood Harvest’s customer service is fantastic. They stand by their products. The freshness is guaranteed. They offer incentives to customers who spread the word to friends. They support the local community with donations and discounts.

In summary, IMHO, they are a good, principled company, which is hard to find and I simply want to support them. Watch this video to learn more about the farming techniques and the quality products you’re getting at The Neighborhood Harvest. If you’re interested in a subscription, go to The Neighborhood Harvest website–and please tell them I sent you, if you’d like!

If you’re not in Hampton Roads, VA… I’m curious (I’ve been overseas too long): are there similar local companies like The Neighborhood Harvest near you? Is this type of produce delivery the norm or the exception? I’d love to hear about your local food options!

Eat Local!

Do you “eat local”? It happens to be a major food trend. Surely you’ve seen some bumper stickers? You might even say it’s “trendy.” And if that’s what gets you to eat local, I can live with that. After all, I’m a foodie, too! But if you’re on the fence about buying locally produced food–and wondering if it’s worth the extra cost–let me share the many advantages that I strongly believe make it worthwhile to eat local. You may not be able to eat local all the time, but the more often you do, the more you support your community while enjoying the personal benefits. I love it when everybody wins!

Do you think it’s ironic that, as a military spouse, I’m talking about anything local? Oh, it’s not lost on me…(oh, and please don’t ask me, “Where are you from?” unless you have the time.) But in talking to someone today about anticipating the next possible move, I found myself saying, “I never want to leave wherever I am.” I do love it here in Virginia Beach. And in Japan when I volunteered as a mentor for COMPASS, I even taught the “Local Insights” class.  Hmmm…maybe I embrace a “local” life like no native could! Not better, just different, and I’m grateful for the opportunities!

And I would be remiss, as the Wandering RD, if I didn’t mention that eating local takes on new meaning when you are traveling and exploring a new place. Whether in the US or elsewhere, eating local allows you to experience the unique flavor of a culture–through its people and its food–however temporarily. Yes, everybody eats…but we all do it a little differently. Not better, just different, and I’m fascinated by this!

The bottom line: eat local whether you’re a native, a transplant or just passing through!

Top Reasons to Eat Local:

  1. Local food is fresher. It doesn’t have far to travel from farm to table. Local produce is not generally waxed or sprayed with any gases, and it naturally lasts longer than conventional produce because it is often picked within 24 hours before it is purchased. Conventional fruits and vegetables are often in transit for 7 to 14 days before arriving at a grocery store.
  2. Local food may contain more nutrients. Because local produce is generally fresher, certain nutrients (for example, vitamin C) don’t have time to break down after harvesting and before the food can be consumed.
  3. Local food is sold in season and tastes better. Local produce is not usually picked before it is ripe to allow time for travel. It is allowed to mature naturally and this offers the best possible taste.
  4. Local food is better for the environment. Local food uses fewer natural resources and less packaging during transit. Many local farmers engage in sustainable eco-friendly practices. Farming also preserves land and open space and prevents overdevelopment and the various forms of pollution that accompany it.
  5. Local food contributes to the local economy. Farms and restaurants using local food products are typically small businesses providing a valuable product and/or service to the community and need local support in order to succeed. Patronage benefits the small business owner and the local economy in general. And the open space provided by farmland maintains beauty and quintessential charm to an area, which can also contribute to tourism.
  6. Local food is grown by your accountable neighbors—often according to the highest standards of farming practices, even when not technically certified “organic.” You can ask the growers about their methods or even visit the farm yourself to find out.
  7. Local food is more and more convenient every day. Urban farmer’s markets are the norm now in many cities. There are many restaurants with a focus on using local products. You can join a community supported agriculture (CSA) program where you prepay for the season and receive weekly boxes of produce. Or there are home delivery options where you can have local products delivered. The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA delivers locally, hydroponically grown salad greens, microgreens, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggs and more. All of these options are making local food far more accessible than ever.
  8. Local food is easy, real food! Local farm foods are the most optimal easy, real foods! Vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat and dairy products… If you aren’t finding them to be easy, we can change that! Check out my recipe index, which I am continually growing (pun intended). And don’t hesitate to ask me what to do with that strange vegetable you get in your CSA or any other question!

What About You?

What’s your experience with eating local? Do you shop at a farmer’s market? Have you tried a CSA? Do you pick your own strawberries or blueberries? Do you have a garden? (Even that counts as local!) What motivates (or would motivate) you to eat local? Share it here!

Resources

Sugar: What You Should Know

Sugar is always making it into the news—and into products on grocery store shelves.  It, apparently like sex, sells. As a result, we are bombarded with conflicting and even controversial information about sugar every day. We love it, and at the same time, we hate it. One minute dietitians (RDs) are telling us “everything in moderation.”  How can we not love that–permission to eat what tastes good? The next minute, we hear how Americans should banish sugar from our lives forever.  And oh, how we hate that! Sugar is the ultimate love-hate relationship! What gives? Sugar tastes so good. How could it be so bad?

Well, let’s discuss all things sugar. In this post, I will do the following:

We Are Simply Eating Too Much Sugar
American women eat an average of 15 teaspoons of sugar each day, while men eat 21 teaspoons (it likely differs because men eat more, in general).1 Children eat an even higher percentage of added sugar than adults each day, and surprisingly, the majority of sugar is coming from store-bought foods eaten at home.2 These numbers are likely significantly lower than actual intakes, because they are estimates from 24 hr recalls, which are notoriously unreliable. Yet, even these numbers far surpass any current recommended limits (see chart), which I believe could even be falsely high due to sugar industry lobbyists influencing them. After all, a 20-ounce soda alone provides a day’s worth of sugar (about 15 teaspoons of sugar) according to all these current guidelines. I’d say soda companies have a vested interest in the science and policies of sugar, wouldn’t you?

Most concerning is the fact that people haven’t always eaten sugar in these proportions. In fact, for the great majority of human history, before sugar and flour became easily refined and cheap during the industrial revolution, we ate far less sugar and carbohydrate.  Americans have increased our sugar intake more than 40-fold since the American Revolution!6

Not everyone agrees on the cause, but all researchers agree that people grow fatter and sicker after adopting the “Western” diet and/or lifestyle. This has occurred in many populations around the globe, and it seems to happen within only two generations. Many argue that we grow fatter and sicker because of increased total calories, which have no doubt increased over time. But even if refined sugar and flour aren’t specifically to blame  (although many experts, including me, would argue that they are), it’s hard to argue that these excess calories are coming from anything other than refined sugar and flour. Yes, some increased calories are coming from the fat in our ice cream and other processed foods, but we probably wouldn’t be eating these foods if they didn’t have the added sugar.

Since the beginning of the low-fat diet craze that started in the early 1980’s, added sugar, and carbohydrate intake in general, has dramatically increased (food companies had to replace the fat with something) and so have many diseases.32  It appears that many chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer are negatively associated with sugar intake.6-31

Soda often takes the brunt of the blame for added sugar intake because 1) Americans drink a lot of it, and 2) there are very few foods that are pure sugar like soda is, which makes it easier to identify and study than the various types of sugar in other mixed-nutrient foods. 6-31   I’m not a soda fan, but soda does not appear to be any worse than any other source of added sugar. The problem is it all adds up. Sometimes certain sugars are described as “better” than others. Particularly, there has been a lot of misguided focus on high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as the “worst” added sugar, and honey, agave or maple syrup are often described as “better.” The bottom line is this: existing research shows (and in my opinion future research will continue to show) excess sugar of any kind appears to be harmful to your health—which is the first compelling reason we should limit all types of sugar–and FYI, sugar has 50+ names.

  1.  Sugar is Linked to Many Diseases

This is my first point deliberately—it’s actually many related points. Just look at this long list of diseases associated with sugar. It’s shocking, and I promise I don’t mean to scare you as much as educate you. But frankly, I find it a little scary. The good news: eating less sugar may improve your health!

  • Sugar provides excess calories and increases levels of the hormone insulin, which promotes fat storage and leads to obesity.
  • Chronically elevated levels of insulin are linked to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, all of which increase your risk for heart disease.
  • Sugar contributes to increases in blood levels of circulating fatty acids (dyslipidemia), which increases your risk for fatty liver disease and heart disease.
  • Sugar also contributes to hypertension, which may increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and renal failure.
  • Chronically elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin levels are linked to cancer, including endometrial, esophageal, pancreatic, kidney, gallbladder, breast and colon cancer.
  • Chronically elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin levels are also linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Further, there is research linking nearly all of these “Western” diseases with each other. Obese people are more likely to develop diabetes. People with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease. Cancer occurs more frequently in people who have diabetes and obesity.  Alzheimer’s has been dubbed “type 3 diabetes” by many researchers.30  Is sugar part of the connection? It is not completely clear. It is very complicated and difficult to study to be sure what is causing the associations. And your genetics most certainly play a part. But let’s discuss what happens in your body when you eat sugar.

Of course, as you know, there are different types of sugar. But when they are metabolized, many break down into varying amounts of glucose and fructose in the body. The body handles both of of these differently.

Glucose enters the blood stream, increases your blood sugar, and your pancreas pumps out the hormone insulin to escort the glucose into the cells, where it can be used for energy. To be clear, insulin itself is not the problem. In fact, you can’t live without insulin; it is just the catalyst for increased fat storage in response to excess sugar intake.  Some glucose is used directly for energy, some  is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver, and some is converted and stored as fat. So, a high sugar diet may lead to obesity, which then puts you at increased risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Many types of added sugar, including HFCS, white table sugar (sucrose), honey, maple syrup and agave also break down into about half fructose and half glucose. Fructose is the natural sugar found in fruits, and it should be noted it would be difficult to get too much by eating fruit alone.  But when you eat unnatural amounts of fructose from various sources of added sugar, fructose can be converted into fat directly in the liver, and this process also produces uric acid, which can lead to gout and possibly hypertension. So, a high sugar diet may also increase your risk of gout,  hypertension, and dyslipidemia, which further contributes to metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, and fatty liver disease.

The metabolic pathways that occur when we eat various types of sugar are also thought to cause inflammation, especially when you have abdominal fat, which may be part of the process by which sugar is linked to certain diseases, especially cardiovascular disease.31 More research is needed, but the arrow is pointing in the right direction: cutting out all forms of added sugar and refined grains (which break down and are metabolized much like sugar) and eating mostly easy, real food can only help.

  1. Sugar Provides No Essential Nutrients

Excuse me for restating the obvious—but you do not need sugar, and it takes the place of more nutritious real foods.  This is the second reason I urge you to limit your sugar intake. It provides energy (that is, calories, usually in excess of what you need), but no other nutrients. That’s what we RDs mean by “empty calories.” Yes, we have been saying this for yeeeeears. But please don’t gloss over it—it’s what I like to call a “common sense verification of science.”  In other words, does the science make sense?  Well, yes, indeed, it does. There’s never been a research study or a dietary guideline that has suggested we need to eat any amount of refined sugar regularly. (I know, right? Duh. And it’s crazy to say “never” and “research” in the same sentence.)

If you want to get even more technical, carbohydrates from foods are not exactly necessary either. There are “essential amino acids” (protein) and “essential fatty acids” (fats) that our bodies cannot make, so we need to eat them from foods. But your body is technically able to make the carbohydrate it needs, specifically glucose from protein or even from glycerol, which is released in fatty acid metabolism.33 And your brain is able to function quite well on mostly ketones, which are produced when you burn fat for energy (hence, the popular “keto” diet.)  Of course, that’s another post…or several!  But I digress. For most people, this discussion is moot because our food supply provides more than enough carbohydrates for our bodies…even if you’re eating mostly real foods, which is the best way to get your carbohydrates because then you also get beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals that only whole foods provide.

Are you with me so far? We are eating too much sugar, it negatively affects your health, and it provides nothing your body needs. Still need another reason to lower your sugar intake?

  1. Sugar May Be Addictive

It is not my intent to minimize how hard it is to cut out sugar—it does take some getting used to. It even requires some will power.  But that might be putting it mildly, for some people. Although it’s controversial, some scientists suggest sugar may be addictive.34-36 Addiction or not, the jury is out, but sugar tends to lead to continued cravings for some people. If you’re one of them and you’ve ever tried cutting it out, you know the feeling. Sugar hovers in your forethought, almost haunting you, even after you’ve eaten a meal and should feel satiated. Maybe you need that piece of chocolate after your meal? You’re used to that feeling of satisfaction that serotonin triggers in your brain after you eat sugar.  We are learning more and more that our gut hormones are also intricately involved in appetite, satiety and sugar metabolism. Some people can have a little sugar and be fine. Some people can even have a lot. Some people find it easier to try to avoid sugar because even having a little leaves them wanting more and more. I suspect there’s something in that, beyond just will power.

However, as hard as it is to avoid sugar—both due to its prevalence in our food supply and the possibility it may be addictive—the cravings can be overcome with time, the right mindset—and by sticking with real foods. The body is able to adjust to lower sugar intake in a few weeks, and it gets easier, so don’t give up and give it enough time!

Sugar: Putting the Science into Real-Life Perspective

To summarize this evidence-based perspective and put it into practical terms, I will ask you the very questions I consider when deciding what to eat and feed my family:

  1. What if you have genes that are prone to obesity? Or diabetes? Or heart disease? Or cancer? Or Alzheimer’s? In other words, you may not know you have these genes, but what if these health problems run in your family, and therefore, you might also be more susceptible to them?

and

  1. What if our food supply is providing too much refined carbohydrate and sugar, often in hidden places, so that it’s nearly impossible to eat within the recommended guidelines (if you’re not purposely trying to avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates)? (Or worse still, what if the guidelines aren’t low enough for optimal health, even if you are eating within the recommendations?)

and

  1. What if sugar and/or refined carbohydrates may be addictive?

Add together these very real (evidence-based, although not all conclusive as of yet) possibilities and ask yourself this final question:

Do you want to be a slave to the high-sugar, highly-refined processed foods you eat, so that eating them makes you crave more and sabotages your health?

I, for one, don’t. So, I choose easy, real food. Every. Single. Day. And I personally find that once you limit sugar, it’s easier to eat for your health and most surprisingly, it’s equally satisfying. Do I deviate sometimes? Yes. I just got back from a week at Walt Disney World. I still tried to limit my carbohydrates to mostly real foods, but I had some dessert foods. You know how moderation makes me cringe, but that’s my kind of moderation–a very small portion of one or two of my favorites when I’m on vacation once or twice a year!

Real Food: a Work Around?

You know how I love simplicity. And real food. And most importantly–life itself (hence the extreme value I place on health.) So, while we are continually waiting for more conclusive research, I do not believe you need to count grams of sugar or carbohydrates. The simplest way to limit sugar is to choose real, unprocessed, whole foods.  Added sugars are not going away from our food supply. And public health policies or guidelines are not going to dramatically change anytime soon either. (Well, the Nutrition Facts Label is, but you can read what I think about that here.)  Rather, I see it as a “work around” to these fundamental problems if you choose to be mindful of your body and intentional with real-food fuel.  The quantity and the quality of the carbohydrates you eat will be vastly improved when you choose real, whole foods and you will drastically cut added sugars.

You might worry it will take lot of time looking for sugar in products, researching healthier options, and cooking from scratch. But I would argue lowering my sugar intake has even simplified my life. I share here How Slashing Sugar Can Simplify Life.

Final Thoughts

Slashing sugar (and refined carbohydrates) in your diet can be a big adjustment, I realize. We are surrounded by foods not fit for healthy lifestyles. But choosing better food doesn’t have to be complicated or a negative experience of deprivation. You are changing your health for the better, going back to the basics and simplifying your life, and enjoying foods as nature intended them. With the right mindset about food (which science shows you have control over, so think positively…more on that later), I believe it can be a very rewarding experience. Don’t aim for perfection, but aim for improvement with consistent healthy habits. You can retrain your brain and your body. You have nothing to lose–except possibly some excess weight and/or some health risk–giving it a try.

Start with these Tips for Slashing Sugar. I’d love to hear how it goes for you…please share your comments and tips if you’ve been trying to cut out sugar!

References

Organic or Not?

Happy Earth Day! In honor of our precious Earth, let’s discuss organic foods. Organics is a $43 billion industry and growing every year. You may have noticed. You no longer have to go to specialty stores to find organic products because more and more mainstream grocery store chains are selling organic foods–with hefty price tags. While wandering through the grocery store, I frequently wonder whether organic food is worth the extra cost. As a result, I often buy some organic items, but not always. Maybe you too have wondered about organic, so here’s the low-down, including my tips for how to handle buying organic food.

What does organic mean?

  • Organic farming, by definition, may not use synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering (GMOs).
  • Animals raised for meat and dairy consumption must be raised in a natural environment with access to outdoors, must not receive hormones or antibiotics, and must be fed 100% organic feed.
  • If a food is labeled as “USDA organic,” the farm is required to follow strict regulations, it must be accredited, and there is a costly fee associated with the certification. However, this system is far from perfect and once a farm is certified, there is little to no monitoring to ensure organic practices continue over time.
  • Processed foods containing all organic ingredients may be labeled “100% organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 95% organic ingredients may be labeled “organic.”
  • Processed foods containing 70% organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Is organic food better for the environment?

Yes. Organic farming is better for the environment and better for the treatment of animals for meat and dairy consumption. Organic farming leads to long-term sustainability, greater biodiversity and better soil. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the methods used in organic farming “must integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” These methods make it cost more to produce foods organically, but the environment may get what we pay for in the long run.

Is organic safer?

It seems so, but more evidence is needed. Studies have shown that organic produce can contain four to five times more pesticide residues than conventional produce.  And some studies have linked pesticide exposure to health conditions like Parkinson’s, cancer and birth defects, although these associations don’t prove pesticides cause  these diseases. However, tests on conventional produce have shown it contains levels well within the legal limits set by the USDA. So, the question remains, are the pesticide levels in conventional foods enough to cause health problems? No one knows. But it has been suggested the chemicals build up–in soil, in water, and in our bodies. If this is true, it could explain why some research suggests that those who work with pesticides may be at greater risk. So, the safest bet seems to be to reduce exposure to as many pesticides as possible. Eating organic foods as often as possible may help. But then again, are the non-synthetic “natural” pesticides used on organic food any better? And there’s the possibility organic foods can carry higher levels of potentially harmful bacteria.Unless you know where you food is coming from (which most likely means buying locally or growing your own), you may not be getting the “pesticide-free” organic food for which you think you are paying.

Of course, you may be choosing organic foods to avoid GMOs (genetically modified organisms) for fear they are unsafe. It does seem unnatural to be tinkering with nature, I’ll give you that. However, there is no conclusive evidence that GMOs are unsafe. According to the World Health Organization, “[Genetically modified] foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”  That said, science can’t prove absolutely there is no risk. So in my cautious opinion, it is smart to avoid processed foods for many reasons, only one of which is that they usually contain some type of GMO, usually in the form of corn or soy.

Is organic food more nutritious?

We are not sure yet. Research does not support that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. Some studies have shown certain organic foods contain more nutrients than the conventional counterparts. For example, some studies have shown organic milk and beef appear to have more favorable fatty acid profiles than their conventional counterparts, and other studies have shown certain fruits or vegetables have more antioxidants than their conventional counterparts. But the data is limited and far from conclusive, so more research is needed. But it is also very difficult to determine whether observed nutrient differences have been due to other factors, such as genetic varieties of the produce, soil, ripeness at harvest time, or even the weather. For now, it appears nutrient profile is not a compelling reason to choose organic foods.

My Organic Tips:

The bottom line: only you can decide whether organic food is worth the extra cost. You are helping the environment and likely reducing your risk of exposure to chemicals, but most likely not getting significantly more nutritious foods than when you eat conventional ones. Consider these general tips for buying organic foods.

  1. Buy organic whenever you can if your means allow–but don’t avoid conventional produce if you can’t afford to buy organic. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” fruit and vegetable lists for guidance. Buying organic as often as you can potentially limits your lifetime exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and fewer chemicals can’t be bad, for your body and the environment. But if you can’t afford to buy organic produce at all or even sometimes, don’t avoid conventional produce. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables far outweighs the risks of pesticides and fertilizers, and there are legal limits as to the amount of pesticides and fertilizers conventional foods may contain in order to keep the food supply safe.
  2. Buy local whenever you can. Some local farms employ “near organic” standards, but fall short of the expensive certification process. So, in practice, these farms may be providing produce, eggs, meat and dairy products that are just as good as organic, but without the certification. And perhaps at a more reasonable cost and with more accountability, since they are your neighbors. Ask about their standards. For example, one of my favorite local farms is The Neighborhood Harvest in Suffolk, VA. They are growing pesticide free, GMO-free greens and microgreens hydroponically and delivering them straight to your door every week! The greens are cut the day before they are delivered and their freshness is unreal…on the few occasions I haven’t used them quickly, they have lasted up to 10 days. You won’t find that quality and freshness in the grocery store, and I’m supporting my community. And you don’t have to wash them, so they are super convenient. And it’s bonus that your standing order ensures you eat your greens each day. Try them if you live in Hampton Roads (I’m not paid to say this!)
  3. Always wash your produce thoroughly with water before eating–organic or not–and even when the skin is not edible. Bacteria, fertilizers or pesticides on the skin can be spread to edible parts during cutting and preparation.
  4. Don’t be fooled by the word “natural” on food product labels.  A “natural” product is not necessarily as good as “organic,” nor is it necessarily better than a conventional product. This is because “natural” has no definition according to the FDA, except in the case of meat products, for which “natural” means the meats do not have “added color, artificial flavors or synthetic ingredients.” Therefore, “natural” meats are not held to the same standards of “organic” meats. These meat products and many other food products may use the term “natural” misleadingly; you may be wasting your money if these products cost more than other conventional options.
  5. Don’t be fooled into paying more for conventional pork or chicken when labels says “no hormones administered.” Of course, hormones are naturally present in all meat. But hormones are not allowed to be administered in any pork or chicken, so the meat manufacturer took no extra measures with these non-organic meats and it is misleading.  Buyer beware of spending extra money on these products that are not any better than cheaper conventional products.
  6. Don’t be fooled by “cage-free” or “free-roaming” on egg labels. This doesn’t guarantee the birds had access to outdoors, if that is important to you. “Free-range” is a better bet, since this means the birds are required to have access to outdoors for half their lives, but that said, it’s not monitored. Organic or local eggs where you know the producer’s standards meet your expectations are the best bet.
  7. Organic processed foods are still processed foods. Limit them and choose more whole, real foods (organic or not) whenever possible.
REFERENCES:

Environmental Working Group “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists

Food and Drug Administration Basic Questions

Organic Trade Association

Baranski M et al. Higher antioxidant concentrations and less cadmium and pesticide residues in organically-grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses.  Br J of Nutr. 2014;Sept 14;112(5):794-811.

Freire C et al. Pesticide exposure and Parkinson’s disease: an epidemiological evidence of association. Neurotoxicology. 2012 Oct;33(5):947-71. 

Smith-Spangler C. et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.

US Department of Agriculture Organic Agriculture

Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. National Academies Press. Published 2016. Accessed April 22, 2017.

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

You are probably thinking “green” for tomorrow, but don’t forget all the colors of the rainbow! Easy. Real. COLORFUL. FUN. Food. My kids love it when I make these for their classes, or even just for their own lunch bags. And I love that it’s real food and not just another holiday excuse for processed food!  And don’t dismiss this idea for adults; I’ve brought it to potlucks as well. It’ll put a big smile on their faces, too!

“An Irish Blessing”

May you always have…
Walls for the winds
A roof for the rain
Tea beside the fire
Laughter to cheer you
Those you love near you
And all your heart might desire.
-unknown

30 Eating Habits of Healthy and Happy Families

Have you heard? March is National Nutrition Month!  Nothing is dearer to my heart than the topic of family nutrition, which I practice morning, noon and night on my four most important clients! So, I’d like to celebrate National Nutrition Month with you by offering this calendar of 30 eating habits of healthy and happy families.

I hope these practices help you incorporate more easy, real food into your lives. I use the word practice very deliberately; wander a little and embrace that you will not be able to achieve perfection. But when these practices become habits, I believe they can help you minimize time spent preparing healthy food, and maximize time spent making meaningful memories with your family. But that happens over time–and only if you start somewhere. What are you willing to start doing for your family’s health this month? As always, feel free to share your ideas as a comment to help others!

Click to download a printable calendar.

“Moderation” Makes Me Cringe

A while ago now, I read yet another nutrition-related news article that stated “moderation” was key–and I cringed. Then it hit me, I am a moderation-hating registered dietitian (RD). You will no longer hear me use the word “moderation” or worse, the phrase “everything in moderation.” You heard that right. Hear me out…

I used to preach “everything in moderation” as much as the next nutritionist. Especially when friends or acquaintances asked me on the fly for nutrition advice. Or when I addressed a group of people and couldn’t delve into individual specifics. I walked a line; I wanted to promote a balanced and sustainable way of eating, while not giving too much bad news. And I also towed the line with my fellow RDs; moderation was our mantra. However, recently I have become frustrated with the ambiguity and the political correctness of the “moderation” philosophy, which is geared toward the masses and therefore, grossly oversimplified.

I can see how this phrase came to be. Unfortunately, I think nutrition experts (like me), food industry, government, and consumers are all partly responsible for this ill-defined, mass-communicated, often ineffective approach to eating. But the fact that moderation has gotten out of hand as a philosophy is as much my fault as anyone else’s. As a nutrition expert, I now believe it is negligent telling people they can eat everything in “moderation” knowing it’s likely not specific enough to help them improve their health.

But in all honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting (besides a busy life) is because I have been hesitant to say it. Afraid of turning people off immediately and not getting through to help them. Afraid of taking a stand when science may disprove me in the future. And I honestly think even our political climate lately has affected me so very personally, so that I have been generally afraid of voicing an opinion. Eeek. How meek of me…

Am I a middle-child peace keeper having a mild mid-life crisis? Maybe, but the bottom line is this: I’m over it. (Until the next one.) And recipe posts are not all I have to share (although it is my pleasure to offer this practical information since I’m doing it for my family anyway). That said, I can’t make any promises about posting a certain number of times a week, although more frequently than once every five months should be doable. Ha. Blogging on my own terms…ah.

Back to my main point…in our defense, sometimes we nutrition experts have engaged in the moderation conversation when it’s not the right time or place (in a group or in public), when what we really need is more time together to make individualized changes that you can live with to improve your health. But I now think it’s more harmful than helpful to give a cursory spiel of moderation even in these situations.

The way I see it, suggesting moderation for the masses can actually hinder individual behavior change. For example, sometimes during an individual counseling session— just when I think we have made progress together, forming some specific behavior change goals—I hear my moderation philosophy echoed back to me. At this point, it is as clear as a door slamming in my face that the conversation is being shut down. (We all do that sometimes, don’t we? Sabotage ourselves before we begin when we are not ready to make changes.) But when this happens, I am only half as frustrated as the people who later realize that eating in moderation hasn’t helped them achieve their food-related goals. I can only imagine how devastated they must feel, blaming me or themselves, or both. And the viscous cycle of weight-loss efforts and failures continues…

Just look around to see how moderation fails us with weight loss. Some people eat moderately and are not overweight. Some people eat moderately and are overweight. Some people do not eat moderately, and are not overweight. And yes, some people do not eat moderately and are overweight. Clearly, “eating in moderation” isn’t effective for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of increasing physical activity. There are many overweight marathon runners. And I strongly believe achieving a healthy weight is not only a matter of will power either. Obese people have different genes that are making it harder to be thin than people who are not obese. Weight control for overweight or obese people is an uphill battle that is definitely an injustice, yet deserves no judgment—only useful tools. And “eating in moderation” is simply not specific enough to be one of them.

I think the moderation philosophy also came into being because we haven’t wanted to negatively talk about certain foods. We don’t want to take away your eating pleasure by stigmatizing “bad” foods. Eating should be enjoyable! But what you may not realize (I didn’t for a while) is that certain food industry lobbyists go to great lengths to make sure government directed guidelines don’t identify and/or quantify “bad” foods. You could say I’m cynical (BTW, I think that’s when you know you’re getting old, when everything is a conspiracy!) but this really happens. So, we nutrition experts have been left frequently hoping we all have a “sixth sense” that helps us figure out how to balance mostly healthy foods with a few treats now and then, because that seemed reasonable. But it’s not reasonable or helpful.

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I care enough to spend my priceless free time saying this (among other things): there are indeed “bad” foods. While we might disagree on some, most unbiased experts can’t deny sugar-containing foods are among the worst. So, we’ll start there. Foods containing the refined white stuff we know as sucrose, the syrups (corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and all of the 50+ other names for sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, and even honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) are not healthy when eaten in excessand they almost always are eaten in excess if you’re not purposefully avoiding them.

Sorry, but there’s no sugar-coating it. And even though it may make me a nutrition extremist, I have to take a strong stance against sugar (all types)—and even a high carbohydrate diet (more on that later)—because I feel you should know it’s a serious health hazard. And it’s not just in regards to people who are overweight or obese. Sugar is linked to many different diseases—which means you might want to read on whether your weight is in a healthy range or not.

To be clear, I am not trying to take away your eating pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows I believe eating should be truly enjoyable! But I also firmly believe eating whatever your body craves is not the only way to enjoy eating.  Changing your mindset, “resetting your body” with easy, real foods, and focusing on many positive and social eating behaviors (shopping at local farmers’ markets, cooking with friends, eating as a family, etc.) will allow you to enjoy foods in a simpler, more meaningful way. I passionately believe (and there is some evidence to support this belief) “there is something in” these social connections we make while eating. And living overseas, especially in Italy, made it even more apparent that we are often lacking those connections in our American culture.

Who doesn’t crave simplicity and meaningful social connections in this often crazy, fast-paced, disconnected lifestyle we live? I think it’s a great start to eat easy, real food at your next snack or meal. Stay tuned for more on all of these themes, starting with more thoughts and data on sugar.

 

Just Say Yes (to Breakfast Popsicles)!

FullSizeRenderI don’t know about you, but sometimes I am a mean mom. In my opinion, there’s no way around it. Sometimes, because we love our children so much, we need to say no to our children. (True story: they are in their respective rooms as I write this. I said no to the fighting. And we still have three more weeks of summer.)

Regardless, I could probably stand to say no more often, actually. It’s just so hard. (If you didn’t hear the whine in my words, read that last sentence again!) I hate to make light of serious world issues or to exaggerate about my family’s negative behaviors—although I’m about to do both here. I often “negotiate with [my] terrorists.” It’s never more evident than when I hear my four-year old say to me in an exasperated tone, “okay, fiiiinnne” after I’ve had to ask her three times to do something. Yes, I hear my words echoing in her voice; I’ve given in with the exact words and tone after she’s whined about something to me no fewer than three times. Just being honest…although I don’t always cave, sometimes it’s easier (albeit only in the short term) than sticking with a firm “no.”

But when it comes to healthy eating, I usually stand firm. I try to provide a wide variety of foods—and believe me, there are plenty of treats—so most times I don’t give in to unreasonable requests for junk. (Especially junk I don’t like. Do you do that as a parent, too?)

Nevertheless, at the store with my three children, I am barraged with questions: “Can we buy this sugar cereal? Can we buy these fruit snacks?  We can’t agree on one, can we buy both these cookies?” Aside from the usual treats (if you know me, you know I can’t deny them ice cream and chocolate), and the occasional bribe, this mean mom says, “No. No. And no.”

And then this mean mom makes a mental note to self: do not bring all three children (or any combo, really) to the store, if it can be avoided. I highly recommend going shopping alone. If you know me, you have heard me say more than once, “If you see me at the store with all three children, you will know I was desperate for some ingredient(s).” Of course, going it alone doesn’t solve all nutrition-related problems, but it’s a good start. And it’s cheaper, calmer, and just plain easier.

FullSizeRender (15)Once at home, the testing continues. Just before dinner, “Can I have another snack?” During dinner, “Is it a dessert night?” And this summer, I have even been asked before breakfast, “Can I have a popsicle?” You guessed it: “No, no, and hell no!” I’m not sure why a popsicle after lunch is any more reasonable, but I try to hold out for as long as possible on the less nutritious foods…

Well, sometimes I like to be able to say YES to my children. It’s so much easier! So, my work around for “breakfast popsicles” is simple, yet well-received: leftover homemade smoothie frozen into popsicle molds.

While I myself hardly ever drink smoothies, I do make them for my kids now and then. Smoothies, no matter how healthy the whole-food ingredients, can quickly provide unreasonable portions, especially of sugar. And because they are liquid, they just don’t have the satiating power of solid foods because they are digested more quickly. Meaning, they will be back for more to eat before you’re even done cleaning the blender.

FullSizeRender (16)Most often, I make smoothies that are plain yogurt based with added frozen fruit, because it’s easy. I use plain, full-fat yogurt (organic and Greek-style if possible) to provide protein, fat and probiotics to balance out the carbohydrates. I don’t usually follow a recipe, because it’s hard to mess it up (here’s my smoothie recipe). However, because of this, I always seem to make more smoothie than we need. In trying to teach my kids about reasonable portions, I serve up a 9-ounce serving for each of them in these purple cups (with these amazing straw spoons) and then freeze the rest into several different popsicle molds, but the colorful silicone tubes (4 ounces) are our favorites.

Sometimes, thanks to my high-powered blender (mine is a Vitamix but many are just as powerful), I skip the yogurt and make the smoothies all whole-fruit, and sometimes they include a combo of fruit and vegetables, making for a green smoothie we affectionately call the “Shrek smoothie.” Although they are tasty, we haven’t tried freezing them yet.

All this is to say, it’s not rocket science or proprietary. I’m surely not the first to think of this. But it’s easy, real food that I feel good about serving to my kids. But perhaps the best part about it is that my kids get to eat popsicles for breakfast and I’m the best mom ever…if only for a moment.

Then it’s back to my usual “mother of the year” status…