Vending machines and healthy food choices

Vending machines are everywhere, from schools and work lunchrooms to airports and hospitals.  Options vary, but commonly one finds candy bars, chips, pop, sweet rolls, brownies, and other assorted foods for the mid-morning or mid-afternoon munchies.  Vending machines are convenient, but what about those choices?

Although the “all foods can fit” mantra is acceptable for an occasional snack, having a high-fat or high-sugar snack everyday isn’t the healthy answer to mid-meal hunger.

Candy may satisfy for the moment, but the sugar will digest quickly, leaving one hungry again. Fatty, salty snacks also satisfy one’s growling tummy, but at what nutritional cost?  Saturated and trans fat are not heart healthy, nor is a diet of high-salt foods.

Thankfully, there are better options.

To ease hunger and stay on a nutritious track, look for foods such as whole wheat crackers, raisins or trail mix, apples, carrots, nuts, and energy bars with fiber and protein.  Opt for 100% juice or water instead of the usually cola beverage.  And skip the energy drinks.  Many of these drinks contain high amounts of caffeine that can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, or even high blood pressure.

To help people make better vending choices, the Alabama Department of Health (ADPH) started a pilot program aimed at adults a few years ago (funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) after adopting new rules for snacks served in schools. The program has put healthy vending machines in state office buildings and hopefully will have an effect on obesity levels among state employees.

Alabama Healthy Vending is a company devoted to providing nutritious vending options that is part of a nationwide network working to improve the fast food eating habits of adults and children.  Joining with Sprout Healthy Vending in Irvine, California, this company offers over 1000 products that are “free of chemicals, artificial dyes, artificial preservatives, and artificial flavors.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital has also seen the need for better vending machine choices and has installed healthy vending options in several hospital locations so that employees and visitors have more choices than the typical vending fare.

According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, the following are the criteria for health vending selections: 

  • 10% or less of the Daily Value of total fat  (except nuts which contain healthy fats)
  • 10% or less of the Daily Value of total carbohydrate  (except fruit)
  • 5% or more of the Daily Value of at least one of the following nutrients:  fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium or iron
  • 360 mg of sodium or less

With a little forethought and better vending selections, snacks can be healthy for everyone, everyday of the week!


To eat breakfast or not to eat breakfast

Years ago Bill Cosby had a comedy routine about feeding his children chocolate cake for breakfast. It was a hilarious routine and remains one of my favorites. But chocolate cake for breakfast is just for fun, right? Maybe not. A recent study from Tel Aviv University (TAU) suggests that dessert foods included with breakfast could help people lose weight.

In this study, 193 obese adults were randomly assigned to one of two diets groups, each group eating the same amount of calories. One group ate a low carb diet that included a 300 calorie breakfast, and the second group ate a diet that offered a 600 calorie, high protein and carb breakfast that included a dessert, such as chocolate.

By the end of the 32 week study, both groups had lost weight. The participants that had the higher calorie breakfast lost an average of 60 pounds more than the participants who ate the smaller breakfast. This study also monitored a hormone called ghrelin that rises before each meal and increases hunger. Ghrelin levels were lower in the group eating the high protein and carb breakfast compared to the other group. The participants eating the breakfast-with-dessert-item also reported feeling more satisfied and had fewer cravings during the day than those participants who ate the lower calorie breakfast.

The researchers concluded that a high protein and carb breakfast may prevent weight gain and counteract the body’s increased hunger and cravings when dieting. The best time to have calorie-laden sweet foods may be in the morning when our metabolism is most active.

Shall we join Bill Cosby and have chocolate cake for breakfast? Maybe. On the heels of the above findings, there is another study in the works at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). This study, led by Barbara Gower, Ph.D., in the Department of Nutrition Sciences, will also focus on the types of food consumed and the resulting affects on metabolism.

According to Dr. Gower, the body is primed to burn fat in the morning. She further states, however, that eating carbohydrates early in the day may shut off the body’s fat-burning mechanism.

Previous research with mice has shown that eating carbohydrates after waking decreases fat-burning later in the day. In this animal study, the mice that ate carbohydrates after waking weighed more at the end of the study and had elevated blood lipid levels. Mice that were fed a high-fat breakfast and low-fat dinner, however, had normal metabolic readings.

Will a high-fat, high-protein breakfast that is low in refined carbohydrates be the better breakfast for efficient fat-burning during the day when compared to other choices? Time will tell. Although breakfasts served in the TAU study contained carbohydrates, the dessert items may have had enough fat to turn allow for efficient fat-burning for the day. The experts will have to sort out the details.

These studies raise questions for me, such as:

  • What constitutes a healthy, high-fat, high-protein breakfast?
  • How many calories and fat should be consumed for breakfast to bring about efficient fat burning?
  • Can Americans slow down enough in the morning to actually eat a healthy, king-sized breakfast and then be satisfied with smaller, pauper-sized dinner?
  • What role will exercise play as a complement to this eating style?

I am not ready to eat chocolate cake for breakfast. But I do agree that breakfast is a meal not to be skipped and should contain enough healthy foods to prime the body for the day ahead. The best mix of those foods may yet be determined.


Making college meals more than fast food fare

Soon college freshman will be arriving on campuses, eager to start a new life experience. 

Is every college freshman doomed to gain those 15 pounds that have become legend among university students?  No, not if students can make wise choices when faced with unending dining hall, fast food, and restaurant items.

If you are new to the university scene, are a returning student, or know someone who is, here are a few suggestions to keep energy levels high and waistlines in line.

  • Eat regular meals and snacks.  Start the day with breakfast to rev up your metabolism.  Plan the day so that you have time for a meal or at least a nutritious snack if class schedules are tight.  Fresh fruit, nuts, cereals, raisins, and string cheese are easily packed and carried on campus. Eating a healthy meal or snack every three to five hours will keep you from grabbing that candy bar.
  • Choose whole grains.  Whole grain breads and bagels, oatmeal, quinoa, and barley provide healthy fiber that will fill you up and keep you going.  On the same note, include beans and peas in your day for fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Try to consume four cups of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruit with breakfast, a fruit and veggie with lunch and dinner, and then another for a snack will get you to that goal.  Single serving fruit packs are easy to through into a backpack for a quick snack.  When eating out, choose the plain janes, those fruits and veggies without fatty sauces and toppings.
  • Make milk (non-fat or low-fat) a part of your day.  Cow’s milk and fortified soy or nut beverages provide needed calcium and vitamin D.  Yogurt is another option that makes a great dessert or snack eaten plain or topped with fruit.
  • Aim for a protein source at every meal.  Choose lower fat options such as baked, roasted, steamed, or broiled fish (not fish sticks), chicken, pork, and beef.  Chicken and turkey breasts are leaner than the thighs and legs. Loin and round cuts of beef and pork are lean choices, too.  Not a meat-eater?  Go for eggs, legumes, tofu and other soy products, nuts, and seeds.  And the familiar nut or seed butter sandwiches (on whole grain) are convenient take-along lunches. 
  • Add heart-friendly fats, in moderation. These include olives, olive oil, avocadoes, nuts, and seeds.  Healthy fatty fish include sardines, salmon, and herring. 
  • Beware the soft-serve machine and late night parties.  These are waistline wreckers.
  • Drink water instead of sugary soda or high-fat coffees options.

Using portion control and eating from all food groups can go a long way towards keeping weight down and bodies healthy during the college years.  Combine good eating habits with 30 minutes of exercise on most days, and your body will thank you.

For more information on nutrition for college students and for meal trackers and other tools, visit MyPlate on Campus.