Make March Your Month for Healthy Change: Go Mediterranean

Did you know March is National Nutrition Month? The 2015 campaign encourages Americans to “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.” If you do not already make nutrition and exercise a priority, this month is a good time to start. Even small changes can make a big difference over time.

Which diets are best? The sheer volume of information available on the web can make eating healthy a daunting task. In addition, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report last month reversed many long-held dietary beliefs. Low-fat diets are not as crucial to maintaining good health as previously thought. Eggs do not actually contribute significantly to cholesterol levels. Finally, recent studies show that artificial sweeteners are nearly as detrimental to your health as real sugar.

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Let go of the low-fat diet and focus on nutritional balance. Choose a diet that you can adhere to long-term. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommends fueling your body with a heart-healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. A 2013 study found that the eating pattern of a Mediterranean diet significantly helped prevent cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke. Other research points to reduced risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The Mediterranean diet provides variety and lasting health benefits.

Here are the basics:

20140502-DSC_0040Make meals plant based. Include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts with every meal. These foods provide essential vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines also recommend a plant-based diet to ensure adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables are consumed daily.

Dairy products, especially yogurt and cheese, are encouraged. Avoid sweetened yogurt brands and choose one rich in probiotics. A good option is Nancy’s Yogurt based in Eugene, Oregon.

Limit red meat and use fish, eggs and poultry instead. Aim to eat fish at least twice a week for the Omega-3 fatty acids.

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Olive oil is a staple ingredient in Mediterranean cooking. Unlike the low-fat guidelines of the 1980s, the Mediterranean diet encourages consumption of healthy fats. The fat in olive oil, monounsaturated fat, works to reduce cholesterol levels. Other healthy fats prominently found in the Mediterranean diet include Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and nuts. Avoid products like butter or processed food that contain unhealthy saturated and trans fats.

Finally, a daily 5-ounce serving of wine contributes to heart health.

Any type of dietary change can be overwhelming at first. Find recipes that work for your schedule and preferences. Start small, be patient and don’t give up. Your body will thank you for it.

Food Swamps

Do you live in a food desert? According to the USDA, more than 23 million Americans do. Food deserts are areas designated as low-income or low-access. For Americans residing in these urban or rural areas, it may be especially difficult to find healthy affordable food. Obesity rates are commonly higher in food deserts than in other parts of the country.

When I hear the term ‘food desert’, I imagine an urban concrete jungle like the suburbs of Los Angeles or New York City. Studies in 2012 found urban food desert consumers commonly rely on corner stores and fast food chains for their nutrition needs. Surprisingly, the studies also found that consumers’ environments alone did not substantially affect obesity rates.

The USDA Food Access Research Atlas considers my hometown in rural southern Oregon a food desert. Although Roseburg has traditionally been a lower income timber town, the city has grown to 22,000. Grocery store options include Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertson’s, Sherm’s, Ray’s and Costco. Weekend farmers markets in spring and summer also offer fresh fruits and vegetables. Undoubtedly, those in smaller outlying communities have more trouble accessing these options but is Roseburg truly a food desert?

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San Diego State University researchers suggest that the term ‘food swamp’ more
appropriately represents food desert environments. The term, also used by New York Times journalists, describes areas where unhealthy, energy-dense foods overpower healthy foods. The more nutritious options are usually there but consumers choose unhealthy options instead.

Earlier this week, TakePart shared research conducted by NYU on a food desert in Morrisania, a neighborhood of the South Bronx area of New York City. Many residents in Morrisania come from low-income households and 27 percent suffer from obesity and related diseases. New York City’s obesity rate is much lower at 20 percent. Although health officials consider the neighborhood a food desert, Morrisania has a large supermarket partially funded by city government support. Here, residents have full access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy options. The NYU study, which compared Morrisania to a similar neighborhood without a supermarket, found no improvement in health or eating habits among residents following the opening of the store in 2011.

TakePart noted the supermarket is not popular on sites like Yelp. In the swamp of unhealthy options, residents are choosing to shop elsewhere. These recent studies show that improving access to healthy options is not enough. Innovative solutions to improving access, including nonprofit grocery stores and food trucks carrying fruits and vegetables, will not make an impact if consumer habits stay the same.

If improving access is not the answer, what needs to change? Perception of healthy food must change among all demographics. Households must learn how to effectively prepare meals with raw healthy ingredients. Students must be engaged in the entire food process from school gardens to cooking classes. Finally, healthy food must become less expensive than unhealthy processed food and fast food. If we target food deserts and obesity with a holistic approach, maybe we will see notable improvements.

#GimmeFive Things Let’s Move! Did for U.S. Kids

The year 2015 marks the fifth anniversary of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. The first lady recently celebrated this milestone by challenging Americans to take to social media to share five things that they do to stay healthy. Obama asked participants to use the hashtag #GimmeFive when sharing their success stories on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vine and Tumblr. She even enlisted the help of Beyoncé.

I greatly admire Mrs. Obama for her dedication to mitigating childhood obesity. Nationwide, one-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese. With the launch of Let’s Move! in 2010, she announced that the mission was to reduce the rate of childhood obesity from 17 percent to five percent. While we are nowhere near five percent yet, some states have seen a moderate decline in obesity rates among children over the last five years. Although not all reviews of her efforts have been positive, Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move initiative started a conversation and enacted change.

In honor of her #GimmeFive social media campaign, here are five notable moments from the Let’s Move! campaign.

  1. The Obama administration passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010. The bill revised nutritional standards for schools and provided funding for healthier school lunch programs. The new nutritional standards set forth by the USDA required schools to include more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit fats, sugars and sodium. Shockingly, the bill introduced the first ever calorie max for school meals. Additionally, the bill made improvements to programs like WIC, school gardens and farm to school partnerships.
  1. MyPlate replaced the food pyramid in 2011. Designed to help parents and kids alike, MyPlate is easier to read than the traditional food pyramid. The five main food groups, vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins and dairy, appear on the four quadrants of the plate and adjacent cup. It is easy for even a child to see that vegetables and fruit should take up half of your plate at each meal.
  1. The new nutritional standards for schools are not popular with everyone.
    #ThanksMichelleObama
    began to trend on Twitter in 2014. Armed with camera phones, students took to Twitter to complain about their “gross” school lunches. In foodiesfeed.com_cutting-green-beanslate November 2014, students used the hashtag at a rate of 40 tweets per minute. Is eating healthy really so awful? Studies show that students discard 60 percent of vegetables offered to them at school meals. Although this number seems discouraging, it has actually decreased from 75 percent since the nutritional standards update in 2010. Many students are accustomed to eating unhealthy processed foods at home so the low-sodium, low-fat and whole grain options may seem especially awful. Schools must revise food preparation methods to accommodate for less processed food and more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  1. The White House further reduced unhealthy food in schools with new marketing rules in 2014. The rules force schools to cut ties with large food corporations like Coca-Cola. Vending machines and cafeterias will no longer offer sugary drinks or snacks from processed food giants. These new rules are a major strike against the food corporations that currently spend $149 million on school marketing, including hallway posters, coupons and scoreboard advertisements.
  1. Changes to the National School Lunch Program received heavy criticism from parents, students, politicians and the School Nutrition Association in 2014. Higher costs and food waste due to students’ dislike of the healthier meals are commonly cited concerns. Although nutritional standards and meals indisputably improved over the last five years, some schools petitioned to opt out of the program in 2014. Why would a school district opt out of standards recommended by the White House and USDA? The schools that forfeited thousands of government dollars say kids won’t eat the recommended food.

What messages do schools send kids when they opt out of vegetables and reinstate fries and pizza? Although it is not easy, changing the eating habits of U.S. students is necessary. On the fifth anniversary of Let’s Move, we should all say #ThanksMichelleObama for getting us this far.

A Sweet Change for Nestlé

One of the most recognizable candy companies in the world took steps this week to make its products healthier. Nestlé USA announced the elimination of artificial colors and flavors in more than 250 candy products by the end of this year. The company’s directional change is yet another example of major brands accommodating a rise in health conscious publics. According to a 2013 Nielsen study, 60 percent of Americans say the presence of artificial colors and flavors in products affect their purchasing decisions. Nestlé cites the Nielsen study findings as a driving force behind the removal of artificial colors and flavors.

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The Swiss owned brand is the parent company of popular candy selections like Butterfinger, Crunch, Skinny Cow and Baby Ruth. While the FDA allows the use of artificial colors and flavors, many countries in Europe ban them in response to health concerns. In the U.S., the use of Red 40 and Yellow 5, two of the most common artificial colors, is especially troubling. The dyes have been linked to asthma, allergies, ADHD in children and even chromosomal damage. Many dyes are currently undergoing testing to understand side effects. Although European countries ban the use of dyes like Blue 1 and 2, Green 3 and Yellow 5 and 6, the FDA does not believe testing results are conclusive enough to remove them from domestic products. The list of possible side effects linked to these dyes includes brain tumors, bladder tumors, thyroid tumors and lymphomas.

Nestlé takes responsibility for its products with the voluntary eradication of artificial colors and flavors. The move supports Nestlé’s mission of “good food, good life” while competitively serving customers in the nutrition, health and wellness industries. As Nestlé and other companies that choose to follow suit transition away from artificial ingredients, consumers may see an increase in natural dyes like beets and saffron. Natural colors and flavors are more expensive than their synthetic counterparts are. With this in mind, it will be interesting to see how many companies put profits aside and follow Nestlé’s socially responsible lead.

Good Eggs, Bad Sugar: Five Things You Need to Know About the New Nutrition Guidelines

New dietary guidelines contradict decades of familiar nutritional advice. On Thursday, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee released new recommendations for Americans’ diets. These changes follow criticism of the science behind the guidelines of the 1980s, which recommended a low-fat diet.

Health professionals now believe that the low-fat diet actually contributed to the current obesity epidemic. Fat reductions in diets allowed added sugars and carbs to creep in. The proteins and fats eliminated from Americans’ diets were often replaced with carbohydrates like grains, processed foods and starchy vegetables. Consumption of carbohydrates rose by 30 percent as fat intake went down by 25 percent.

The new guidelines focus on reducing sugar intake. Here are the top five recommendations you should know:

  1. Added Sugar is the Enemy

The average American consumes upward of 22 teaspoons of sugar daily but the panel recommends consuming no more than 12 teaspoons daily. This means that Americans will need to severely change their eating habits. Sugary beverages, including sodas and fruit juices, are the main culprits of added sugars in diets. Just one 20-ounce bottle of Sprite contains 16 teaspoons of sugar.

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Health conscious Americans no longer have to avoid eggs, specifically egg yolks, for fear of raising their cholesterol. The dietary panel reduced restrictions on cholesterol after finding that foods such as eggs and shellfish did not significantly affect blood cholesterol as previously suspected. 

  1. Keep Caffeinating

Coffee, even 3 to 5 cups a day, is not bad for you. Studies show that consistent consumption of coffee could even lower your risk for diabetes and heart disease. Of course, added sugars and creamers must be limited or avoided.

  1. Less Salt is Best

Try to limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams daily. To put that into perspective, 3,400 milligrams a day is common for the average American. 

  1. Choose the Mediterranean Way

Dietary specialists increasingly recommend a well-balanced diet that incorporates whole foods and healthy fats. As always, try to increase vegetable and fruit consumption.

A Millennial Mindset Forces Change in the Food Industry

The Super Bowl commercial Carl’s Jr. chose to air two weeks ago highlights an interesting factor in fast food industry marketing: the influence of the millennial eater. If you didn’t see the commercial, you only need to read this headline from the Huffington Post last week for context: “Carl’s Jr. Unveils Grass-Fed Burger With Side of Nudity.” Carl’s Jr. advertisements that feature a nearly naked model eating a hamburger are nothing new. The advertisement is noteworthy because the traditionally unhealthy franchise is taking steps to cater to a more health conscious audience for the first time.

Previous Carl’s Jr. commercials have not attempted to bolster the health image of the restaurant or reach a new audience. What changed in 2015? Researchers believe their target audience, millennial men, has become more health conscious. Recent studies found that the millennial generation increasingly cares about cleaner food. Eighty percent want to know where their food comes from. Thirty-nine percent believe they eat healthier than their parents do. Enter the Carl’s Jr. all-natural burger eaten by bikini-clad Charlotte McKinney in the middle of a farmers market.

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The Huffington Post article points out that while the patty itself is all natural and grass fed, the rest of the burger, including the bun and condiments, contain around 60 different ingredients. It is not the healthiest option, but at least they are listening to their publics.

Carl’s Jr.’s newest marketing reflects an understanding of the influence millennial preferences can have on brand direction. The blog Millennial Marketing said, “Food trends tend to trickle up the generational ladder; what Millennials want in food today is what we will all soon be asking for.” Millennials could be the generation that forces the fast food industry to clean up its act. If you are skeptical of this statement, consider McDonald’s. In recent advertising, the company humorously pokes fun at health trends like Greek yogurt and kale. A Jan. 4, 2015 tweet by McDonald’s featured a photograph of a burger with the tagline, “Sesame Seed > Flaxseed.” The 2015 marketing campaign appears to be a major misstep for the golden arches at the worst possible time. In October 2014, McDonald’s reported a 30 percent quarterly drop in profits.

To flourish in the current market, it seems that McDonald’s must do more than simply embrace its unhealthy image or make claim to American heritage, as they did in this January 2015 commercial. Although 42 percent of young adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, there is hope that greater awareness and acceptance of healthy options will continue to force change in the food industry.

Vitamin Craze Masks a Larger Issue

This Valentine’s Day weekend, The New York Times took a deeper look at America’s love of vitamins and found that consumers often fail to critically analyze how they get their nutrients. All 13 of the essential vitamins the body requires to function occur naturally in a healthy and balanced diet but many Americans fail to eat this way. The majority of consumers rely on synthetic vitamins and dietary supplements to make up for a poor diet.

Catharine Price, the author of the book “Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection,” believes that a reliance on dietary supplements has led us away from proper nutrition and good health. She points out that the food industry has capitalized on our vitamin craze by providing the U.S. with 85,000 dietary supplement options. Endless numbers of synthetic vitamin products help Americans avoid nutritional deficiencies while maintaining unhealthy diets.

Food fortification in the U.S. is not a new phenomenon. Although milk contains only small amounts of vitamin D naturally, Americans have relied on it to meet nutritional requirements for decades. The U.S. began fortifying milk in the 1930s when rickets, a bone disease caused by vitamin D deficiencies, affected more than 80 percent of children. Few realize that oil from fatty fish like salmon and cod is actually the best natural source of vitamin D.

The body absorbs vitamins found naturally in food more easily than when they are presented in capsule form. In fact, a 2011 study found that patients absorbed seven times more cancer-fighting nutrients from broccoli than from a comparable vitamin pill.

Apparently, there is no shortcut to a complete and balanced diet. Americans need to scrap the supplemented “health food” and focus on eating real, whole food.

#FoodTruth Heroes

Amid the bleak state of our nation’s health and food system, there is now a glimmer of hope. Three world-renowned chefs have teamed up to create the Food Truth Coalition. Alice Waters, Ann Cooper and Jamie Oliver began the #FoodTruth movement in Jan. 2015 to demand food education for kids and shed light on the junk food industry. In an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live last month, Oliver likens the junk food industry to the dark side in Star Wars. An editorial by Cooper compares the battle against junk food to the Matrix Trilogy. If the junk food industry is the villain then the Food Truth founders represent our nutrition heroes.

The founders of the Food Truth Coalition believe in the value of an edible education. School garden projects, kitchen classrooms and nutritious and sustainable lunches have proven to be highly effective methods for improving kids’ attitude towards healthy food. Nutrition standards for school lunches have improved in recent years but kids often push back against the healthier changes. In 2014, students tweeted pictures of their bland but healthier meals with the hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama. Many school districts complain that the new health standards cause food waste as students refuse to eat the healthy food. The Food Truth Coalition believes that involving children in the food cycle, including growing and cooking, is key.

Waters led the sustainable, local and seasonal cooking movement for years, starting with her gourmet restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkley, California. Twenty-five years after opening Chez Panisse, Waters turned her attention to nutrition education for local youth through her Edible Schoolyard Project. The first program, a one-acre school garden and kitchen classroom at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkley, is a model for the 3,500 partner locations worldwide.

Last month, the Sacramento Bee quoted Waters saying, “I just know that when children grow food themselves and they cook it, that they always eat it and I’m talking about kale and collard greens and things we assume children don’t love. On the contrary, they do.”

The Food Truth Coalition will continue to push this philosophy to legislators, schools, families and kids. Chefs Cooper and Oliver stress that kids should receive adequate nutrition education in schools. “It’s a child’s human right to learn to cook in school, to know where their food comes from and how it affects their bodies,” said Oliver on Jimmy Kimmel Live. “At the end of the day, no one is going to die young because they didn’t do their geography homework.” He makes a powerful argument for less focus on standardized exams and more attention to our children’s overall health. Studies project that this generation may live shorter lives than the last generation due to complications that stem from being overweight and eating poorly.

If you want to learn more about the #FoodTruth movement and its founders, check out The Edible Schoolyard Project, The Chef Ann Foundation and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Waters, Cooper and Oliver are all on Twitter as well.

Star-Studded Junk Food Endorsements

Think back to the last few advertisements you can remember from TV, a magazine or online. You probably saw a celebrity enthusiastically endorsing a major brand or product. Americans’ fascination with the celebrity status gives highly visible individuals immense promotional power and influence in advertising. Although we may not realize it, athletes, reality TV stars, music artists, actors and actresses influence the clothes we wear, the songs we listen to, the shows we watch and even the food we eat.

Of course, not all celebrity endorsements are beneficial for their fans. This advertising tactic is especially problematic for kids and their eating habits. A recent study found that food promotion featuring celebrity endorsements directly influences children’s food preferences. The average child in the U.S. spends five to seven hours interacting with some type of screen each day. The food and beverage industry spends $2 billion on marketing to children each year. Although the World Health Organization considers junk food marketing directed at children an international crisis, children frequently watch television intended for adults as well. What brand loyalties are celebrity endorsements fostering in your child?

IMG_4292The sports industry, one of the worst offenders, features the juxtaposition of the world’s fittest people endorsing the unhealthiest food. A 2013 study of the top 100 athletes and their endorsements found that all calories came from added sugar in 93 percent of the endorsed beverages and 80 percent of the endorsed food was unhealthy.

If your kids love LeBron James, they might also like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. James reportedly has a $16 million contract with Coca-Cola to endorse Sprite. An open letter to James by The 2X2 Project pointed out that one 20-ounce bottle of Sprite contains the equivalency of 16 teaspoons of sugar. Check out this rendition of an overweight James with the tagline “What if LeBron James drank all of the Sprite he wants our kids to drink?”

Here are a few other major brands endorsed by celebrities:

NFL quarterback Peyton Manning earns $10 million annually with endorsements of Papa John’s Pizza, Wheaties and Gatorade.

Kobe Bryant earns around $12 million to endorse McDonald’s. The fast food chain has also enlisted Dwight Howard and Justin Timberlake.

IMG_4290Soccer superstar David Beckham and reality TV star Kim Kardashian try to stick to the healthier side of the fast food business by only endorsing smoothies at Burger King and salad at Carl’s Jr., respectively.

Mt. Dew, with almost 20 teaspoons of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle, enlists Lil Wayne, Mac Miller and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to advertise its products.

Pepsi pays Beyoncé $50 million to endorse its brand. Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Michael Jackson have also appeared in Pepsi advertisements.

Taylor Swift endorses Diet Coke, which is not necessarily healthier.

As disappointing as it is to see a favorite celebrity represent an unhealthy brand, it seems that some kids are catching on. The Wat-Aah! Foundation and Fit Kids conducted qualitative research on kids’ opinion of celebrity endorsements.

“I think it’s a little weird that they (LeBron James, Dwight Howard) are fighting over McDonald’s. You wouldn’t expect a fit person to eat McDonald’s because they probably try to stay healthy to play the sport they play.”

“If you make commercials, do it for healthy products like vegetables, fruits, water or milk, make it as fun and cool as your Sprite commercial (LeBron James).”

Maybe these kids are on to something.

 

Not All Calories Are Created Equal

A new research project may challenge what we know about the root cause of obesity. Scientists with the Nutrition Science Initiative are conducting a series of multi-million dollar studies to understand the exact cause of obesity. For decades, government health specialists advised patients to eat fewer calories and exercise more to maintain a healthy weight. Too many calories and not enough exercise create an energy imbalance, which the body stores as fat. Over time, this imbalance leads to obesity. At least that is what we have always thought.

The NuSI scientists hope to prove that it is not how much we eat but what we eat that leads to obesity. Gary Taubes, a co-founder of NuSI, discusses the need for more research on this topic in the food issue of the Scientific American magazine. He points out that despite our best efforts, the obesity rate in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1970. What are we doing wrong? Taubes and NuSI think the energy imbalance hypothesis, which scientists never properly verified, could be only part of the problem. If their alternate hormone hypothesis proves true, the root cause of obesity is far more complex than a simple energy imbalance.

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The hormone hypothesis looks closely at the way glucose, a simple sugar in
carbohydrates, causes insulin levels to rise in the bloodstream. Insulin is the hormone that tells muscle, fat and liver cells to use glucose as energy or store it in fat cells. There are roughly 50 calories in both a cup of raw broccoli and a quarter cup of General Mill’s Cinnamon Toast Crunch but the small amount of cereal will spike glucose levels. Taubes thinks this digestive process is key to understanding the root cause of obesity.

This study highlights the need for a complete understanding of our food. It is no longer enough to simply compare calories. Few Americans know that low-fat options actually contain added sugar to maintain taste quality. Recent studies also show that artificial sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose and aspartame still raise glucose levels in the bloodstream and may keep them high for longer than real sugar. Diet soda may not not be as guilt-free as we all thought. Both the artificial sweetener study and Taubes suggest that sugars like high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners may contribute to insulin resistance, a possible cause of diabetes and obesity.

The average American diet is rich in the carbohydrates that produce the most glucose: grains, sugars and starchy vegetables. Although the NuSI research is not yet definitive, we know enough to start improving diets today. Carbohydrates and sugars must be limited and fruit and vegetable consumption must increase. The NuSI website prominently features a quote by Samuel Adams. “It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” The cure for obesity can start with making healthy choices on the individual level.