3 Nutrition Truths for the New Year

Happy New Year! I know it’s late, but I decided to sit out the first Internet wave of new year nutrition advice. This was intentional, but then the SEVEN snow days with my three kids at home kicked me completely out of commission. (Although extending vaca wasn’t half bad…if I’m honest!)

So, although I am somewhat late, at this point I hope you are like me and still mulling over what/if anything to do differently now that it’s January. If so, these are my deep thoughts and words of encouragement to help you keep it real for 2018with real food and real talk, as always! Because January is the peak of nutrition-related misinformation, in case you haven’t noticed.

But stick with me (if you want, subscribe to follow this blog via email, or follow @dvnorwood on Instagram or The Wandering RD on Facebook) and we’ll get through it together. Let’s start with three “nutrition truths” to help you wade through the media buzz and start your year off with steady, science-based steps in the right direction.

  1. Goals Are Still Resolutions (Do Set Goals)

So, new year. New you? Wrong. If you read the many wellness articles this year, most tell you not to set resolutions. Have you noticed lately the health and wellness conversation has shifted from always trying to improve yourself to accepting yourself?

I get the focus on self-love. I mean, I love you (ya know, as a neighbor) enough to want to help you figure this stuff out. So, surely, I want you to love yourself. But as with all things, a healthy balance is important. And to be our best, I believe we all can make small changes to our lives that would improve our health, wellness, relationships, productivity, etc. The important things in life are worth the effort—are they not?

Nothing explains what happens when we don’t put forth the effort as well as the scientific concept of “entropy,” which is the universe’s tendency for disorder (a.k.a. why our kids’ rooms get messier by the day.)

So, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting goals. And you can even call it a resolution, if you want. Because isn’t a goal still a resolution? “Resolutions” just have a bad rap because it’s human nature to want to change ourselves in grandiose ways and then drop the ball when it’s unachievable. So, if “resolutions” are a New Year thing, then maybe “goals” are better.

But the point is this: it’s never a bad idea to set realistic, small resolutions (a.k.a. goals) to improve yourself or your circumstances. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about that. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the current you. It doesn’t necessarily mean your self-worth is in jeopardy. If anything, it means you are investing in yourself, and isn’t that something we do when we can see our own potential?

And further, there’s no reason anything has to start on January 1st. I don’t know about you, but I’m still mulling my goals over and yes, it’s almost February. It’s great if you want to ride the wave of motivated people in January, but it’s equally great if you decide you’re ready to start something in September. Goals have to be realistic and practical. It helps to have a plan in place to be able to achieve them. And most importantly, before you even try, you have to decide which goals will be meaningful or you will fail and not even care about it—don’t ask me how I know this…

So, wait till you are fully ready, but go ahead and start to wrap your brain around what it is that would help you become the you that you’ve always wanted to be!

I was reminded recently in this NYT article that sometimes, for many of us, the hardest part of doing anything is starting…(unless it’s finishing, then read the book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done. Ha! It’s a great quick read and I am not paid in any way to say this.)

  1. Diet is a Four-Letter Word (Do NOT Restrict Drastically)

About half of the population makes resolutions that involve losing weight and getting in shape. But have you heard? “Diet” is a “four-letter” word—literally, and figuratively. Yes, diet can be just a word that means “habitual nourishment,” but it has come to conjure up images of a very restrictive way of eating to lose weight. Research shows that’s bad because most people lose weight only to gain it back when they go “off” the diet, and often even more weight than they lost. So, bottom line: diets don’t improve your health if you gain back the weight (or more) and even decrease your metabolism in the process. And then there are the feelings of failure you’ll have to deal with, too.

So, if your goal is to restrict yourself so drastically that you can’t maintain it, then please, please, please change your goal to a more attainable, sustainable one. It’s okay to want to make changes to your diet, even to lose weight and/or improve other aspects of health, but consider smaller changes that you can incorporate to become lifelong habits.  That said—even a lower sugar, and/or lower carbohydrate diet can be maintained if you slowly make changes that become your new normal, which is especially helpful for preventing and managing obesity, prediabetes and diabetes.

  1. Mindfulness Isn’t Always Intuitive (Do Practice Mindfulness)

So, 1) set goals, 2) don’t drastically restrict—this begs the question: what’s a person to do?

Have you heard about Intuitive Eating? It’s often used in the same sentence as “mindfulness.” The principles promote a non-diet approach to eating, which involves ditching the scale, listening to hunger and fullness cues to determine food intake, and perhaps most importantly, finding other ways besides food to deal with emotions.

Let’s be clear, I am not at all against any of these things. But I do have a serious problem with the word “intuitive.”  If eating is supposed to be so intuitive, how are so many people doing it “wrong”? It appears to me that eating is not intuitive for a large part of the population, or there wouldn’t be a growing obesity and diabetes epidemic.

The problem may be this: it’s intuitive to eat what is available. Studies show people weigh more when presented with more variety and diversity of food options (think: buffets). And in America, we have a disproportionate amount of unhealthy foods available at our every turn.

Or the problem may be this: what if certain people with a genetic predisposition for overweight or obesity are biologically driven to overeat certain foods (such as refined carbohydrates and sugar)? It is far from conclusive, (and I talk about it in this comprehensive post about sugar) but there is a school of thought that refined carbohydrates and sugar could be addictive in some individuals. If it proves true, aren’t we judging and–even worse—alienating many people we are trying to help by telling them, or even trying to teach them, to simply “eat intuitively”?

I believe it’s not fair, accurate, or helpful to call eating “intuitive” in our food culture and that it does more harm than good.

Rant over!

That said, can one learn to eat mindfully? Absolutely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However, it appears mindfulness may be harder for some people to learn and practice, perhaps due to one or more of the following:

  • our fast-paced culture,
  • our food supply,
  • differing genes,
  • and/or emotional issues (including eating disorders).

Some people can eat “everything in moderation” while others prefer to avoid certain foods because they can’t stop at a “reasonable” portion. It’s highly individual and we all know ourselves best, although sometimes need help and guidance teasing out all the factors that affect building healthy eating habits.

It should be noted it is impossible to talk about mindful eating without fully addressing the emotional aspects of eating, especially eating disorders, preferably with qualified therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists, in addition to RDs.

Nonetheless, mindfulness for most everyone involves learning to incorporate more real foods, and far fewer processed foods, especially those with refined carbohydrates. I like to say it is a practice, because it is important enough to do the hard work and there is no room for perfection or guilt–just keep at it the best you can.

And you can always count on me to try to make practicing mindfulness as simple as possible with an ever-growing list of easy, real food recipes.  Stay tuned for a post with specific tips on how to practice eating mindfully!

My Journey to Embracing an Instant Pot

A friend asked me what I thought about my Instant Pot yesterday. The short answer: there’s still time to tell Santa you need one.

What follows is the long answer…with my pros and cons–and of course a few easy, real food recipes for the Instant Pot.

I’m not an early adopter when it comes to newfangled things, or anything really–I have never been a trendsetter. I am much too cautious for that, and in my scientific mind, I don’t need to be a guinea pig! I prefer to wait and see if it works as promised, and then assess if it will add value to my life–which believe it or not, I try to keep simple (just don’t look in my garage)!

And I’m more than okay with the delayed gratification. Come to find out, science (the Stanford marshmallow experiment, for example)  has shown that better things come to those who wait!

So, years after most everyone else, I finally bought my Instant Pot this past July, on Amazon Prime day because it was heavily discounted. I still wasn’t convinced I needed it. I just thought as an RD and a nutrition and food blogger, I should try it out. It is clearly a huge trend, at the very least.

But the biggest reason I waited to get an Instant Pot is because the word “instant” didn’t sit well with  me. Instant oatmeal, instant rice, instant gratification–instant is usually a bad thing, am I right?! Instant foods are convenience foods. And convenience foods are usually more processed. And more processed is usually less beneficial to your health.

Obviously, I knew you could cook easy, real foods in an Instant Pot. But I can’t help but think it’s a bad thing when we (as a culture) expect all things (food or not) to be instantaneous. Not all short cuts are good. There is something beneficial in the “work” we do. But when we bypass the whole process in a blur, many times we miss out on the “journey” (which, as you would expect, is important to “the wandering RD”!)

  • If we simply cram with rote memorization for a test, we don’t remember the material later.
  • And you may know, I feel similarly about meal planning…if you regularly subscribe to meal plans or order meal delivery kits, you don’t learn sustainable meal planning and prep skills, or learn flexible eating habits since you can’t always eat all your meals at home.

So, given my preconceived notions about the Instant Pot, I am surprised that I have come to embrace my Instant Pot wholeheartedly. But like many nutrition trends, the Instant Pot just has a catchy title. It’s not as “instant” as I thought, which is both good and bad. (Good because real-food meal planning in an Instant Pot still takes forethought. Bad because the cooking process takes longer than it seems from the recipe; the times are misleading– it takes a good 20 minutes to reach the pressure level before the timing begins. But it’s passive time I can be doing something else–so not a big deal.)

But the most important thing about the Instant Pot is that it helps me get an easy, real food meal on the table a few times a week, and that’s gotta count for something. Plus it’s just kind of fun experimenting with it! Here are my pros and cons…

Pros of an Instant Pot:

  1. It is great for making easy, real food. There are many recipes out there, but you do have to search a bit to find the ones that include real food and limit processed foods. Each time I am successful, I share my Instant Pot recipes on my recipe page, so please check back often! And scroll down this post for a few links to get you started!
  2. The texture of meat that is pressure cooked is phenomenal.  This is what I love the most about the Instant Pot. You can make real-food recipes many ways, but they have to taste good! I am a very picky about slow cooker recipes; I don’t like how meat especially gets stringy and dried out despite being cooked in liquid for 7 to 8 hours. This does not happen when you cook meat in an Instant Pot. Ribs, chicken, pork tenderloin, beef stew, etc. tastes like it was roasted in an oven or over the grill, but in a fraction of the time.  
  3. It’s really one-pot cooking. I am also picky about slow cooking because I usually like to saute meat and some veggies (like onions) before slow cooking. In the Instant Pot, I love the saute feature. It allows you to saute, and then all the browned bits contribute to the flavor while minimizing dishwashing. Aaaawesome!
  4. I am not a guinea pig, nor am I reinventing the wheel. Someone else has indeed done the work of figuring things out–I am part of the Facebook Group Instant Pot Community and it is nearly 850,000 people strong!!! Searching for recipes has helped me tremendously adapt my own recipes for the Instant Pot. And I know if I were to ask a question, hundreds of people would respond within minutes. It is such a wonderful resource.
  5. I have had only one epic fail–and let’s just say, it was operator error (owning it!) I forgot to add water to my whole chicken and when the beep summoned me, the chicken was still raw. I knew I had to add the water to achieve pressure, but I had simply forgotten that step. Won’t do that again!

Cons of an Instant Pot:

  1. An Instant Pot may not free up your pre-dinner hour(s). Each of my 3 kids comes home at a different time in the afternoon. Then we spend most afternoons doing the “activity carpool shuffle” and usually arrive home in time to eat a fashionably late dinner. A slow cooker allows you to prep your meal in the AM and it is ready at dinner with little to do just before you eat. An Instant Pot, because it takes much less time, may require operation an hour or so before eating.  But with most one-pot recipes, I have learned a “work around” to this is starting my meal in the early afternoon and allowing it to hold on “warm” until we eat it, which has worked thus far with all my attempts. (And allows for an AM run to the grocery store if I don’t know what we’re having that day! Sometimes I wing it…keeping it real!) But anyone who doesn’t work from home would not have this luxury. Of course, in that case you could also meal prep a few meals in one day with the Instant Pot and solve this problem with another “work around.”
  2. It takes up space. As yet another large kitchen appliance to store (it’s an occupational hazard for me), it is taking up space–honestly, in the corner of my kitchen. I haven’t found it a concealed home yet 1) because it’s big and 2) I have a lot of other kitchen equipment and 3) because I use it frequently (but that’s kind of a pro, now, isn’t it?) Notice I didn’t say my kitchen was too small for once…military spouses can relate to that one, but my current rental home actually has adequate storage! I just have too much kitchen stuff, if I’m honest…
  3. They’re pricey. Although there are many sales lately, and they are already making them bigger and better (gotta love America!)

So, that’s my honest opinion, in case you are in the market for an Instant Pot! I am not paid by nor have I received free products from Instant Pot. I am simply a fan!

Here are a few of my easy, real food recipes to get you started!

Instant Pot Beef Stew

Instant Pot Chicken Soup

Instant Pot Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Instant Pot Country-Style Ribs

Instant Pot Pulled Pork Tenderloin

Smoothie Science: Are Smoothies Good For You?

Everyone seems to love a good smoothie these days.

Everyone except me. I know I’m getting old because, more and more, I seem to be an outlier when it comes to popular opinion. Over 40–check. Opinionated–check. Crotchety–wait, no…I hope!

Nevertheless, I sometimes feel like I am the only person on the planet who doesn’t drink smoothies. Not even green ones or those with other real-food ingredients. I am just not a smoothie person. Never have been. Even if you call it a smoothie bowl (which is a smoothie in a bowl with toppings). But even I have to appreciate that clever rebranding!

I know I’m in the minority…a lot of people drinks smoothies, right?  That’s the idea I get from blogs, Pinterest and Instagram anyway, but please leave a comment and correct me if I’m wrong!

The thing I hate most about smoothies is that they often masquerade as health food when they are typically anything but. They are often full of sugar and calories, even if they have some redeeming qualities. And you know my thoughts about sugar; we all eat way too much! I just don’t think you need to eat something healthy–kale, for example–bad enough to load it into a smoothie with more sugar (natural or not) or calories than you should eat in one sitting. I’d rather have you learn to like kale–or frankly give yourself a break–and don’t eat kale, but choose other whole, real foods you do like.

Yes, you heard me! Kale is a nutrient-packed food, but you don’t have to eat kale unless you want to (preferably in a salad, soup or sauteed). That’s good news, isn’t it?

Well, maybe this is bad news, if you like to drink a lot of smoothies.

I know–you’re thinking your smoothies are healthier than most…and yes, there are healthier ways to make smoothies with real food ingredients. But even if you can keep the portion and amount of carbohydrates reasonable, the simple act of blending everything together may offer fewer benefits than the act of eating whole foods intact. Put simply, smoothies may cross the line into the “refined foods” category. Here’s why:

6 Good Reasons Not to Drink Smoothies:

Chewing, secreting saliva and other digestive “juices,” and movement (peristalsis) of the gut have important functions in digestion. I can’t bring myself to drink smoothies in part because pulverizing whole foods bypasses normal digestion processes.

  • First of all, when you drink smoothies, there’s no chewing, which is the first step in stimulating digestion. When you chew, enzymes are secreted in your saliva that begin to break down carbohydrate and fat in your mouth. Chewing also signals to the rest of your gut (and pancreas and brain) that food is on the way.
  • When food reaches your stomach, it causes the stomach to stretch. Liquids do not achieve the adequate stretching of the stomach that solids do. Every step in digestion, including stomach distention, results in a cascade of hormone secretions, some of which we understand well (insulin), some of which we have only begun to understand (ghrelin, leptin and GLP-1), but all of which are vital to optimal digestion and metabolism.
  • When fiber is no longer intact, and many servings of fruits and vegetables are blended into a high-carbohydrate beverage, the carbohydrates are more quickly absorbed and this results in a sharper increase in blood sugar. This affects insulin and hunger levels–and can be especially harmful in the short term (high blood sugar) and long term (obesity) for people with insulin resistance, prediabetes, and/or diabetes.
  • Research supports that when we blend fiber, its effects in the body are changed; how this matters is a little more difficult to determine. It’s difficult to study fibers’ effect on the gut because there are many types of fiber that occur in nature, and the gut is a complex organ. However, it is my belief that mechanically blending fiber probably does not offer the same prebiotic benefits that we are learning are beneficial to our microbiome (the natural bacteria in our gut).

Yes, there are ways some foods should be processed in order for us to eat them, such as cooking meats to avoid bacterial infection–so I’m not totally crazy to think we don’t need to process anything. However, we don’t need to blend foods into smoothies, so I really prefer to eat and chew my foods and let my body do the work of digesting them more slowly and fully.

Smoothies aren’t satiating and may make you eat more later.

  • Research has shown that participants who consume liquid calories (beverages) consume more calories overall than participants who consume solid calories (food).
  • This study showed that eating a piece of whole fruit before a meal makes you feel more satiated than the same fruit in pureed or juice form and eating the whole fruit before the meal makes you eat fewer calories during the meal.
  • Part of the reason some research shows liquids aren’t as satiating may be the speed at which liquid calories are consumed and absorbed. Usually smoothies are downed quickly, sometimes while doing other activities on-the-go, such as driving or working. In addition, liquids result in less stomach distention–the actual stretching of the stomach with food–which is an important cue for the body to detect fullness.
  • But more recently, it has become clear that the GI tract, the largest endocrine organ in the body, plays a very complicated role in the secretion of many hormones to regulate processes such as satiety and food intake. Liquids and solids appear to affect these hormones differently. For example, ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” is produced in the GI tract when the stomach is empty. It stimulates hunger, gastric acid secretion, and gut motility to move food through the GI tract. When food stretches the stomach, ghrelin secretion is stopped. When liquids are consumed, the stomach is not adequately stretched and may contribute to feelings of hunger even with adequate nutrient intake.

Smoothies (and juices) can contain more calories and carbohydrates than could typically be eaten in the same amount of time if eaten in whole food form.

  • In the same amount of time as it takes to slurp a smoothie down, you wouldn’t eat 5+ servings of fruit. A 20-oz. serving of orange juice, as a reference, contains 65 grams of carbohydate–the amount of carbohydrate 4 1/3 oranges. Your stomach would feel too full, due in large part to the fiber, which is an important part of satiety. But a smoothie (or juice) allows you to tolerate that much fruit at once, which jacks up the carbohydrate content significantly.
  • While nutrients are important for health and most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, our bodies can indeed be overwhelmed by too much carbohydrate. 
  • Rather, research shows it is more beneficial when you eat a solid meal with whole foods, because it takes more time to eat and contains fewer calories.

Smoothies often contain protein powders to increase the protein enough to balance out the carbohydrates and fat content.

  • To make smoothies a balanced source of nutrients, protein powders are often used, which are also processed and further increase calories.  It is not difficult to get enough protein in your diet when you eat a variety of whole foods.
  • Chewing whole foods requires more time, which is helpful for proper digestion and satiety–and provides added social benefits. We generally eat smoothies on the go rather than taking the time to sit down and enjoy the food, preferably in the company of other people.

I choose to model eating whole fruits and vegetables to my children.

  • I do not agree with sneaking fruits and vegetables into my children’s diets unbeknownst to them. I want them to learn to like whole fruits and vegetables, not to just get the nutrients from them. I am shaping their mindset and this is one of the greatest gifts that will keep on giving long after they leave “the nest”!
  • So, I repeatedly offer them fruits and vegetables in raw and cooked form and they learn to like them over time, some more than others. That’s normal and to be expected. The important thing is that you don’t give up eating them and continue to offer them to your kids.
  • My kids sometimes have smoothies, but these are considered a treat.

It’s simply a pain to clean the blender.

  • A lot of people eat smoothies daily as a meal replacement because they say they are aiming for simplicy.
  • But frankly, it’s a lot easier to wash a piece of whole fruit and go. Or even slice up some peppers and cucumbers and start chomping while I rinse the knife quickly. Or boil or scramble some eggs and portion them in reheatable containers for the week.
  • Smoothies are really not easier when you have to figure out what to put in them, make them, and then clean the blender–every day.

Bottom Line:

What to do if you like smoothies?  Enjoy a small portion of a homemade smoothie with real-food ingredients infrequently as a healthier treat. Stick with fruits, vegetables, water, and full-fat yogurt or milk, or your unsweetened milk of choice as main ingredients.

As for your non-smoothie days, work on expanding your horizons with whole real foods, such as: 

  • set a goal to eat one fruit and one vegetable serving at each meal (or more if desired), OR
  • add a salad every day to your dinner, OR
  • try preparing a new vegetable (or a familiar vegetable in a new way) each week, OR 
  • join a delivery service or Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program through a local farm to have produce delivered right to your door.

References:

https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/199317

What Do You Do When the Going Gets Rough?

Me? Sometimes I quit. I have many unfinished projects, some nutrition-related, some not. For example, I have at least 20 unfinished blog post drafts. True story. Yes, that’s what NOT to do when the going gets rough.

School has started, so life with my three girls has become more challenging during the past two weeks. I haven’t been blogging much, I haven’t been meal planning much, and I haven’t been doing much to complete my personal projects. Can you relate?

Of course, sometimes life also gives you extra “lemons” during these already challenging times: another flat tire and a dog accident on my Persian rug. Yeah…there’s never a good time for either of those.

I thought it was just me, but failing to finish projects is a common problem.  I know this because there’s a book about it.  Today I just received a pre-ordered copy of the new book, Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. It sounds so promising! I’m so grateful he finally finished the book. Stay tuned, if I finish it, I’ll let you know if the strategies are indeed life-changing.

I think it’s interesting and important to note, though, that I take commitments very seriously and will go to great lengths to not inconvenience or quit on anyone else. I work in a field that revolves around deadlines. No problem–I’m on time or early! But chaos or not, I often quit on myself. I tell myself it’s prioritizing, that my children are more important, or that anything for myself can wait. But if I’m honest, it’s also because I have a fear of failing, which I’ve learned is quite common among perfectionists.

It’s also common among people with a fixed mindset, according to the fantastic book Mindset, by Carol Dweck. I highly recommend it, for yourself and especially if you have children. (After all, your mindset shapes their mindset.) Most importantly, with a growth mindset you believe you have the power to learn and grow more through challenges and perseverence. And failure is an important part of that growth.  A growth mindset is far more helpful in life than a fixed mindset, which essentially focuses on quitting when the going gets rough, because you just aren’t ____ enough. Fill in the blank, you big loser.

Those who know me might find it hard to believe I’m a perfectionist–my house gets cluttered often, I mess up meals sometimes, and I never remember everything I need to. But often on the inside, and sometimes on the outside, I have been known to verbally beat myself up. And then I must add “sweating the small stuff” to my growing mental list of faults…

Yes, I do realize everyone makes mistakes. And when I make them, I can even verbalize “everyone makes mistakes.” But it takes a conscious effort to believe it to your core when attempting a new challenge and seeing it through to the end.

My point: we are all works-in-progress. We all fail. But when was the last time you tried so hard you fully failed? Chances are, if you’re trying that hard, you won’t fail. But even if you do, there’s growth in that. So, frankly, I’m done holding myself back to prevent failure. Are you with me?

We all know building healthy habits (food-related or otherwise) is not easy. That’s why New Year’s resolutions fail more often than not. But the reality is we can all learn more through challenges and perseverance, and especially through failures. So, we keep trying. But we must seek better strategies to complete our personal goals and find more balance in our lives.

Maybe you are striving to improve your eating habits and want to try a new approach. (You’re in the right place!) Or like me, you could be striving to stop sacrificing yourself too much for your kids so they see you as an accomplished, well-rounded individual. Whatever your personal goals, go big or go home!

So, here’s to challenging ourselves in this new school year (parents and students alike) to finish–or even fully fail–more of our important personal goals we set! I figure it makes sense to start with the book, Finish.

Top 10 Foods I Buy at Trader Joe’s

When I’m not in a hurry, I generally love grocery shopping–exploring the various products, reading the labels, comparing the prices. But alas–I’m usually in a hurry–and oh, how I missed Trader Joe’s for the four years we weren’t near one while in Italy! There’s nothing like being able to run in and out of a favorite store quickly, get the good quality items that you need, and at a good price to make easy, real food.

I know. We were in Italy! Definitely not complaining about that or the various outdoor produce (and shoe!) markets and cool grocery stores. (BTW, one of them, a German grocery chain Lidl, is here in Virginia Beach!) I will always embrace a new food-related adventure, especially while traveling. I find it most fascinating to figure out a new culture via its foods. Restaurants are fun, but grocery stores tell you so much more about a culture. And strangely enough, it even provides a certain comfort while out of my home country to notice that generally the same real-food ingredients I use are used in different ways all around the world! Somehow that makes the world seem smaller and more relatable to me. Everybody eats, as I like to say…

Sometimes I even enjoy the challenge of a store’s layout, looking for needed items while questioning the placement of related products. It’s like a game of mind-reading and I feel so accomplished when I guess correctly! Is almond butter near the jelly, like peanut butter is, or in the “health food” section. (Oh, smart–and note to self for next time–it’s in both places!) I know, maybe it’s strange I play weird games in my head…

But for efficiency and simplicity, I like knowing my way around a store and having the price comparisons all figured out. It’s the worst when you have to start from scratch figuring out where to get all your favorite ingredients, and even some new ones occasionally, and at the best prices. So, in my opinion, you may as well live in a foreign country if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s nearby!

I’m not being paid in any way to say this–I’m simply a passionate foodie who loves a great grocery store! Trader Joe’s stores are strategically located, and I have been fortunate to live near one in MD, MA and now VA. That said, I don’t do all my shopping at Trader Joe’s–not even close. They are famous for their commitment to quality, the avoidance of preservatives, and customer service, but there are plenty of unhealthy options–even organic and gluten-free junk–just like any other store. So, you really have to pay attention to the Nutrition Facts Label, and particularly the ingredient list of each product.

So, what products are a sure bet at Trader Joe’s, you ask? Here are the Top 10 Foods I Buy at Trader Joe’s. They are fantastic quality and the best prices around compared to regular or specialty stores in my area.

  1. Nuts and Seeds–I regularly buy bags of pecans, walnuts and almonds, my favorites. But you can find any and all kinds of nuts at Trader Joe’s. They come raw, toasted, in pieces or whole. I prefer to buy raw pieces; they are cheaper and I toast them myself when I’m ready to use them. I use them in salads mostly, sometimes grain-free granola, and I sometimes eat them by the small handful. For convenience and a portion controlled treat on the go, I also like the individually packaged mixed nuts with dark chocolate pieces (although I wish they were 70% dark). My kids enjoy these, too!
  2. Honey–you can find good quality raw honey at TJ’s. I don’t use honey a lot, but if I do, I want to be sure it’s real honey and not a poor-quality honey diluted with corn syrup.
  3. Real Maple Syrup–We are New Englander’s at heart when it comes maple syrup. My daughter SE was once at a sleepover when she was about 7 years old and we still laugh at how she rudely turned her nose up at the other “syrup” she was offered! She actually lectured the other family that they are made from corn syrup and not “the real stuff.” Whoops, occupational hazard of a foodie RD parent! We promptly discussed when it’s most polite to keep your food opinions to yourself, but it’s still a work in progress…
  4. 100% Italian Organic Olive Oil–We were absolutely spoiled by good quality olive oil in Italy. Did you know most olive oil sold in the US can be a blend of olive oil and other oils like soybean or corn? And the labeling can be tricky. Even when it says Italian it can be a blend of different sources of olive oil. There is a certain amount of trust that you are relying on when buying olive oil, but I feel better when it says the source is 100% Italian organic olive oil. (As an alternative, it’s not certified organic, but my daughter visited the Oropallo olive farm in Italy on a school field trip, so I recently ordered their delicious, good quality olive oil, which you can buy through their FB page, Oropallo EVOO.)
  5. Chipotle Salsa–I prefer to make my own fast fresh salsa, but sometimes there’s just no time for making a condiment when you’re busy making the Mexican-inspired main dish, usually along with B’s homemade guacamole. This Chipotle salsa has a great texture for a jarred salsa, and the chipotle adds another dimension to the flavor.
  6. Organic Eggs–I prefer to get local free-range eggs, but when I run out or need to buy store-bought, I choose Trader Joe’s because they are organic and the price is the cheapest I’ve seen around town.
  7. Red Pepper and Eggplant Sauce–This sauce is from Bulgaria, but it reminds me of one we enjoyed so much at restaurants while on a road trip through Croatia and Slovenia that we sought it out at a grocery in Slovenia. It has a simple ingredient list and I use it as a condiment, along side some grilled chicken thighs topped with homemade seasoning salt for the ultimate lazy, real-food dinner. Sometimes I also use pesto on the side in the same way with the chicken and the two condiments’ flavors work well together.
  8. Canned Tuna and Frozen Wild-Caught Fish--I was hooked on Italian canned tuna packed in olive oil. It was phenomenal and it is the #1 thing I miss from Italy. I know what you’re thinking…how good can it be? Well, let me just say, I eat it, but I’m not a huge fan of American tuna in the can. It can be dry, the color is off-putting and the flavor is not the best. But Rio Mare brand from Italy is the opposite. It’s packed in good olive oil, is an appetizing pink color and the flavor is delicious and slightly salted. TJ’s has an olive oil-packed tuna that is not quite as good, but it’s a close second and a good substitute. In the freezer section, I enjoy the wild-caught salmon, cod or other white fish.  I make it a point to buy wild-caught seafood from the USA, and although it’s not cheap, it’s one of the rare places you can even find frozen fish that is sourced from the USA, not from China. (Military friends, FYI, I buy Emeril Lagasse’s shrimp from the commissary, because it is caught in the USA).
  9. Cheeses–I love cheese and Trader Joe’s has good prices on a variety of specialty cheeses. If I had to be dairy-free, this is what I would miss the most. I use cheese to add flavor and interest to some my meals when they are free of refined carbs and sugar. I regularly buy imported feta from Greece (I’m half Greek, you know) for salads, and I use the small balls of fresh mozzarella in scrambled eggs, salads, or my kids’ lunches. I love the seasonal cranberry-coated goat cheese log in salad during the holidays, although it’s a treat, since it’s pretty sweet! Usually I pick out a different cheese to try every once in a while such as brie, various cheddars, havarti, etc.
  10. Frozen Vegetables–sometimes you just need to use frozen vegetables. They are perfectly healthy, quick, and a good way to round out your real-food meal. I like to buy organic ones when I can, and TJ’s has a pretty good selection at good prices, but I don’t always use organic. Some of my favorites: green beans, broccoli, spinach, riced cauliflower, and sliced bell peppers.

Of course, I buy other things at TJ’s, too, but these are my staples. Hope it helps you with your shopping!

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)

5 Questions This RD Wants You to Ask About Nutrition News

I think we can all agree, nutrition is the most relevant yet most confusing science. Everybody eats, but in the 19 years I’ve been an RD, I’ve seen complete 180-degree shifts in what we know. And trust me, I’ve been as frustrated as the average person. Even knowing that nutrition is a relatively new science that is constantly evolving, I have wondered what to eat and what to feed my family.

Further complicating matters, nutrition science isn’t just about the foods we eat. It’s about so much more–our genetics, our emotional relationship with food, and our social connections with each other, to name a few. Actually, many of the things that confound our understanding of nutrition are the things that fascinate me the most!

But frankly, nutrition is also about the politics and economics of those invested in it–and it this fact that most makes me critically (sometimes cynically!) question all health-related information I come across.

We can’t change any of these factors, try as we might. But what we can do is approach each piece of nutrition news with a plan to get to the real bottom line–and I do not mean the economic one.

To do this, we should ask ourselves questions that analyze the news and help us make the most sense out of it. It is my goal to do that through my blog posts, but in case you are wondering how I approach nutrition news, here are the very questions I ask myself. I hope you will ask these same questions the next time you hear some nutrition news, whether it’s from government sources, the media, or even your multi-level-marketing friend. And when still in doubt, feel free to contact me at dianenorwood@thewanderingrd.com!

5 Questions This RD Wants You To Ask About Nutrition News:

1. What is the primary source of the information?

Knowing the source is important because you can consider bias when assessing new information and comparing it with other sources of related information.  The information’s source is only one piece of the puzzle to assessing the validity of the information because you cannot eliminate bias, only minimize it.

Is the information coming from a company who stands to benefit financially? Or conversely, is it coming from a researcher at an institution who stands to lose a lot (for example, funding or their job) if the research doesn’t support their life’s work? Is it coming from an organization with a political and economic agenda (for example, the USDA with agricultural ties)?  Is it coming from a blogger who is paid to promote a product?

But even when there is not an obvious economic or political investment, sometimes the source’s preconceived notions are a form of bias. I frequently find that many RDs have a judgmental almost angry tone when presenting information from their “soap box” and this is a bias that I really try to keep in check.

 

2. Is it a quick fix or does it sound too good to be true?

If it sounds easy, look deeper. Particularly in the case of weight loss, I’m sorry to say there is no easy fix. In fact, many proprietary herbal blend supplements can actually be dangerous, especially because many companies don’t list the amounts consumed of each ingredient, but rather lump them all together as a blend.

But even if a product doesn’t contain questionably harmful ingredients, there’s the very real possibility it is a waste of money. One reason is that dietary supplements are not regulated well (thanks to the Dietary Supplements and Health Education Act of 1994), so companies don’t always include the ingredients or full amounts that are listed on their labels because no one is checking up on them.

Plus many people experience a “placebo effect” when they begin using dietary products; that is, they unknowingly (or even knowingly) change how they are eating and experience desired results that can’t be attributed solely to the product they are taking. If you’re like me, you may even see this with your own friends; your Facebook feed may be full of  pictures of really healthy meals your friends are eating while they are taking one dietary supplement or another. If you eat real, lower sugar, lower refined-carb food that replaces processed foods, you can lose weight without expensive products.

 

3. Do you need a subscription, membership or salesperson “dealer” as a gateway to the product, information or service?

If and when there is a truly effective weight loss supplement, there will be no more overweight people and no weight-loss industry. Until then, most companies are trying to make money, not trying to help you lose weight safely and permanently.

When multi-level marketing companies use social networks to sell nutrition-related products among friends, I find it particularly scary because you are more likely to try a potentially harmful or wasteful product just because your trusted friend is swearing its safety and efficacy to you. And sometimes you are even made to feel unsupportive if you don’t buy it.

But fundamentally, I’d stand firm if I were you. There is no way to extract all the compounds that work together in real, whole food to make it the most nourishing to our bodies and as a result, there is no proprietary product on the market that will revolutionize your nutrition. And don’t forget to consider what will happen when you stop taking the product. You may be worse off than before you started.

 

4. Is there scientific, peer-reviewed, journal-published data to review?

This is the gold standard of scientific data: scientific articles published in a well-respected journal that is reviewed by experts in the field. In particular, the only way to prove causation is the randomized controlled clinical trial, although it’s difficult to do these studies when it comes to nutrition. You have to force people to eat a certain way and it’s hard to be sure they are doing so unless in a lab, and if they’re in a lab, it’s not “real life.”

So, observational studies are frequently done to look for associations to provide hypotheses to be further tested; however, they only show correlation not causation. Unfortunately, most people forget this, including many study authors. And the media is notorious for publishing stories stating results of observational studies as fact. If it’s an observational study, or a short clinical trial, take the results with a big grain of salt.

In addition, scientific articles are not free of bias. Only certain articles are selected for publication. Even the ones that are published can be poorly designed with confounding factors. Review articles can creatively select certain studies to include and others to leave out, which influences the conclusions.

And if the research available is only done by the company itself and reported on their own website, do they give you access to read beyond the abstract? Frequently scientific language is used to make claims that are not supported by the study’s actual design. Scientific-sounding information may sound convincing, but it’s important to look at the study details to determine the methods used and whether the conclusions are reasonable.

 

5. What Should I Do With This Information?

This is the most important question to ask yourself. When a headline suggests a particular food has health benefit, many Americans tend to run out and add it to their usual diet. But in most cases, you have to analyze your overall diet and see how the food can fit in and make adjustments to the foods you already eat.

For example, olive oil is a very heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. But if you simply start adding it to your diet, without giving up anything else, such as sugar and refined carbs that contribute to obesity and heart disease, you will not see the health benefits and may actually end up worse off. Radical changes to your diet based on one new study are likely to leave you even more frustrated–and potentially unhealthier–than ever.

Final Words

When reading about nutrition news, remember to have respect for your body. It is an incredible, complicated machine that is capable of far more than we may ever know. There is no need to detox or cleanse your body. The best thing you can do for your health is to eat easy, real foods and avoid processed foods as much as possible. Please, consider this if you consider nothing else when you read nutrition news.

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