Taming the Easter Bunny

Easter is around the corner, and Easter candy has been in stores for several weeks, tempting even the most disciplined eater. I am often asked what a parent can do to reduce the sugary and fatty goodies that fill most Easter baskets.

This is a tough question. As a nutritionist I value health and try to follow a healthy eating routine daily. But there are times when a little indulgence is ok.

Here are a few suggestions that may help. (Remember to select age-appropriate treats in all cases due to choking hazards in young children. Rules on when the treats can be enjoyed can help reduce the sugar and fat eaten at one time. And if there are pets in the house, make sure that they are not able to sample the treats or the non-edible Easter grass.  I speak from experience with a Golden Retriever!)

For non-food treats, try the following:

  • Plan a family outing and include tickets to an event.  This could include a visit to the zoo, children’s museum, science center, or historical site.
  • Interested in an Easter egg hunt? Check the newspaper and internet for events in your area.
  • Pack the basket with small toys or stuffed animals. Coins work well, too.
  • Promote creativity with art and craft items, books, blowing bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and bath accessories.

For food treats, consider these suggestions:

  • Choose dark chocolate over milk chocolate. Research has shown that the chemicals in dark chocolate are better for the heart than other varieties. If chocolate eggs or bunnies are too much for your preference, try chocolate-covered versions of pretzels, nuts, or dried fruit.
  • Look for candy with less fat per serving, such as Three Musketeers bars and Peppermint Patties. The mini size is just right for a basket.
  • Remember fruit leather? This can be purchased or made at home. Recipes are numerous, and many fruits can be used.
  • Make your own Rice Krispie treats. For added fun, use cookie cutters to make holiday shapes and then wrap in plastic wrap.
  • Prepare trail mix and put the mix in decorated Easter bags.
  • Make homemade cookies in Easter shapes. When making cookies at home, one can reduce the sugar by at least a third and still have a tasty product.
  • If one must have Peeps and jelly beans, add just a few. The sugar content is high in these items. Or, substitute dried fruit.  Dates, dried cherries, apricots, and blueberries are fun and also add fiber. Pack these in plastic eggs.
  • And to help keep dental bills down, how about adding a toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste to encourage good dental habits?

Also, to make the hunt for goodies last longer, wrap and hide the different treats. Then have the kids look for these items and place in an empty basket. The fun lasts longer than when presenting a prepared basket. Have the treats color-coded so each child searches for a different color.

Be sure to include fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods at meals throughout the day. If weather permits, engage in some outdoor activity to use up the extra treat calories.


Foods that offer nutrients for healthy skin

According to InStyle, women spend $15,000 on cosmetics during their lives. In addition, billions are also paid for cosmetic surgery.  People might be overlooking an easier and less expensive way to achieve a youthful glow.

Citrus fruits, the group that includes oranges, grapefruit, lemons, and limes, contain the essential nutrient vitamin C. This vitamin is an antioxidant, a substance that helps prevent and repair damage to cells. This damage can come from medications, sun exposure, and the environment.

Vitamin C is also necessary for the formation of collagen, a protein that gives skin tissue firmness and strength. Firmer skin means fewer wrinkles. Healthy skin cells also mean improved moisture retention to combat dryness.

Other sources of vitamin C include most berries, kiwi, papaya, green and red peppers, broccoli, cabbage, and melons.

Tomatoes help the skin in two ways, first as a source of vitamin C and second as a source of the antioxidant lycopene. This nutrient also gives tomatoes their red color. For those readers that enjoy fresh tomatoes, consider that these vegetables offer the most lycopene when eaten cooked. And being fat-soluble, lycopene is more easily absorbed by the body when eaten with a source fat, such as heart-healthy olive oil.

Tomato sauce, tomato paste, and ketchup all contribute this important nutrient. Other sources of lycopene include watermelon and ruby-red grapefruit.

Another pigment that offers benefits for skin is beta-carotene, found in orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, pumpkin and other winter squashes all offer this nutrient. Beta carotene is used by the body to make vitamin A, and is also another antioxidant. Note a trend here?

Although not orange in color, dark green veggies contribute beta-carotene to the diet, too. Spinach, kale, turnip greens, peas, green peppers, and broccoli are rich sources of this nutrient.

Last on the list are fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. These provide the essential fatty acids known as omega-3 fatty acids. Most know that omega-3’s protect the heart, but these fats also promote healthy skin by keeping moisture in the cells and helping to form collagen. Although animal sources of omega-3’s have been shown to be stronger when compared to plant sources, the body can convert some the plant omega-3’s to a form used by the body. Plant sources include walnuts, soy, flax, and chia seeds.

Next time you shop for that perfect shade of eye shadow, make sure to pick up some fresh produce and salmon, too.

The changing reputation of fat and cholesterol

Fat is bad, right?  It is highly caloric, adds pounds and inches to the waistline, and is one cause of heart disease.  That is what we have been told for, well, a long time.  And don’t even mention cholesterol.  That guy packed his bags and was chased out of town long ago.

Not so fast. Healthy eating recommendations are changing once again.  It is enough to make a dietitian cry, or at least eat crow.

A new set of Dietary Guidelines will be out later this year, and the advisory committee has published its report for consideration.  These current recommendations are based on better research than in the past.  Here are some of the committee’s recommendations concerning fat and cholesterol.

  • 1.  Replace saturated fat (SFA) with unsaturated fat (PUFA).  This is not really new because we have been prompted for several years to eat less fatty meat and fewer whole fat dairy items, both sources of saturated fat.  In place of those foods folks are encouraged to include low-fat or non-fat dairy, fish, oils, nuts, dried beans, and monounsaturated sources such as avocados in daily eating plans.

Total fat is not considered the issue, but the type of fat is.

  • 2.   Along with the idea above, another recommendation is to eat less red and processed meats.  This will not only improve our health, but that of the environment as well.  Interesting that the committee chose to address the environment.
  • 3.  Do not be overly concerned with dietary cholesterol.  It used to be that the daily limit for cholesterol consumption was 300 mg. Eggs weigh in around 200 mg, so we were advised to limit eggs to one per day. But dietary cholesterol has lost some of its importance as far as heart disease is concerned.

Worthy of note, diabetics are still cautioned to not overdo their cholesterol intake due to heart disease risk.  And blood cholesterol, the type that is measured with blood tests, may still be a concern.  A person’s LDL or low density cholesterol, if elevated, can increase one’s risk of heart disease.

There are other recommendations to limit sugar, refined carbs, and alcohol in our diets.  And the committee is also concerned about young people and their high consumption of caffeinated beverages.

It will be interesting to see how many of the recommendations the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA decide to include in the new Dietary Guidelines.

When worrying about weight goes to extremes

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  The theme for the week is I Had No Idea.  Really, how many of us understand eating disorders?

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics approximately 24 million Americans have some type of eating disorder. These disorders are serious medical conditions that occur when people spend most of their time focused on food and, oftentimes, body image. Although eating disorders are frequently found among females, men and boys can also be affected by abnormal eating habits.

The American Psychological Association lists three main types of eating disorders.

  1. Anorexia nervosa occurs when people see themselves as fat but are really very thin from extreme diet restriction.
  2. Bulimia nervosa is diagnosed when people eat large amounts of food, often in secret, and then purge by vomiting or using laxatives. Or, instead of purging, excessive exercise or fasting are used to keep weight down.
  3. Binge-eating disorder describes the regular habit of eating excessively without the purge.

According to Marci Anderson, MS, RD, CPT, eating disorders top other psychiatric illnesses in mortality rate.   She states that these diseases are not associated only with female teens, but also occur in those over 50 years of age. And it is estimated that 10 millions males will develop an eating disorder during their life.

Females, adolescents, and athletes (such as dancers, rowers, and gymnasts who keep their weight fine-tuned) are often at risk for eating disorders. With the continuing emphasis on obesity and body image in our country, even young children are at risk.

Eating disorders left untreated can severely impact one’s health. Anorexia can lead to an abnormally slow heart beat, osteoporosis, muscle loss, fatigue, dry skin, and dry hair. Bulimia can result in heart failure, inflammation of the esophagus, tooth decay, ulcers, and pancreatitis. Binge eating shares the risks of obesity including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.

For more information on eating disorders, symptoms, and treatment, visit these organization websites:

Giving up something for Lent? How about doing something for others

Lent begins this week.  Some people will observe the beginning of this time with prayer, religious services, or the familiar ashes applied to the forehead.

Traditionally, people the observe Lent often form goals that revolve around giving up some treat such as  chocolate, fast food, or alcohol during the Lenten season.  Others use Lent as a time to renew New Year’s resolutions or healthy eating goals.

Over the years the concept of giving something up for Lent has broadened to include doing something positive for self or for others.  Drinking water instead of pop or going meatless two or three times a week are examples of Lenten resolutions that add a positive spin to doing without.

If you have not committed to a resolution yet, consider an activity to help others.  Here are a few suggestions.

  • Volunteer at a food pantry. There are food pantries and homeless shelters throughout most locals that could use an extra hand.
  • Give a gift of time to schools or church-sponsored charities.
  • Help elderly or other neighbors in need by preparing extra meals for them. Or, offer to drive the elderly to the grocery store for needed items.  Better yet, volunteer to pick up items the next time you shop.
  • Volunteer at a local hospital or clinic.

Lent can be a time to review past behaviors and begin new, positive habits. Hopefully these new habits will continue past Easter and change your life and the life of others for years to come.

Clementines make a perfect snack

Citrus fruits are in plentiful supply at this time of year. Navel oranges, grapefruit, and other varieties are available at reasonable prices. And those cute, little clementines that come in wooden boxes or mesh bags are becoming more popular with shoppers because of their small size, sweet taste, few seeds, and easy-to-peel skin.

With only 35 calories per fruit, clementines offer a healthy snack or meal addition that both children and adults can enjoy. These tasty packages of nutrition are not only low in calories, but are also low in sodium and a source of heart-healthy vitamin C, potassium, folate, and fiber.

Besides being healthy to eat, clementines are versatile, too, and can be enjoyed in many ways.

  • For breakfast, lunch, after-school treats, or midday snacks, just peel and eat. What could be easier than that, especially when time is short? Keep a bowl of clementines out on the table or countertop to encourage healthy snacking.
  • When enjoying a favorite hot or cold cereal, add clementine slices for a sweet treat. No need for added sugar with the natural sweetness of this fruit.
  • For a salad or side dish, combine cut-up clementines with a selection of berries, or chopped apples and dates. Or, add the fruit to mixed greens and then drizzle with just enough honey-mustard dressing to coat the salad.
  • As a dessert, a clementine parfait can be prepared easily by layering a fat-free yogurt and your choice of low-fat granola or puffed cereal, and chopped nuts.

Need more ideas? Visit Bon Appétit for a salad with clementines, fennel and avocado. And check out EveryDay with Rachael Ray for a tasty combination of clementines and ricotta cheese.

Enjoy these little darlings soon.

Carnitine in red meat: a new health concern?

When I have asked clients what makes up a heart-healthy diet, I have often heard statements about eating less red meat and replacing it with fish or chicken and lots of vegetables.

When I ask why they single out red meat, the reason often is that red meat is high in cholesterol and/or saturated fat, or that red meat is simply not healthy to eat. Is this true or just another diet myth?

Recent studies suggest that indeed red meat may be bad for one’s heart, but not because of the fat or cholesterol. The new bad boy on the block is carnitine.

Wait. Carnitine?

L-carnitine is a substance found in red meat that is eventually metabolized or broken down by bacteria in the intestinal tract. During the digestion of L-carnitine, other compounds are formed that are thought to increase the risk of cholesterol build-up in the arteries.

The research into carnitine comes from a group led by Dr. Stanley Hazen and Robert Koeth of the Lerner Research Institute and the Miller Family Heart and Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Their work was published first in Nature Medicine  and most recently in Cell Metabolism

Although the research may seem to cast a disparaging light on carnitine, this compound has important roles in the body. For one, carnitine takes certain fats to the part of the cell called the mitochondria, the little power plates in our cells that process nutrients for energy.

Another job of carnitine is to transport toxic substances out of the mitochondria. Mother Nature was good to us in that we make plenty of carnitine in our kidneys and liver without needing it from food.

The research on red meat and carnitine that suggests an association with heart problems is interesting. According to Dr. Mozaffarian at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, though, the association between red unprocessed meat and heart disease is weak.  However, salty processed meats, such as cold cuts, sausage, and bacon, show a greater degree of harm than the unprocessed red meats. And this is not a new finding.

So what is a meat-lover to do when even the experts are not sure of these new findings?

If you are concerned about heart disease, limit portion size to 3 ounces of meat per person and include more fowl and fish in your weekly meal plans. Increase the number of servings of vegetables to decrease overall fat and increase fiber, two other ways to protect your heart and overall health. Low-fat and fat-free diary along with legumes and other vegetarian options can help provide protein as your meat consumption decreases.

What color is your fat?

Did you know that the fat that we eat is an actual nutrient, being a concentrated source of energy (meaning calories) and helping our bodies absorb the fat-soluble vitamins including D, E, and K?  Fat can also be considered an organ serving to insulate our body, release hormones, and protect bones, nerves, and organs.

There are different types of fat, or adipose tissue, in our bodies.  Fat can be defined by where it is in the body such as visceral or abdominal fat, the type that also surrounds our organs.  The body also has subcutaneous fat, the type of fat that is beneath the skin.  Fat is also classified by color: white, brown, and beige.

White fat it the stuff that just sits there, making our jeans feel tight.  Its role is to store energy and produce hormones.

Brown fat has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation.  Thin individuals tend to have more of this fat than those who are overweight as do those who live in northern climates. Brown fat is desirable because it burns calories stored in white fat.

Babies have the most brown fat of all ages and this fat helps to keep them warm.  We lose brown fat as we get older.  Shivering increases the activity of this fat as will sleeping in a cool bedroom.

Research is ongoing to determine how to activate the brown fat to burn more white fat or increase the amount in the body.

The newest member of the fat family is beige fat. This fat also burns energy or calories stored in white fat.  But just like brown fat, beige fat is not found in large amounts in adults.  Could there be a way to turn white fat into the calorie-burning darker fats?

Researchers are working on that idea in animal models. By increasing the amount of beige and brown fats we might be able to reduce belly fat and the deep fat that accumulates between and around our organs.  This in turn could lead to decreased obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and inflammation.

The research is in its infancy, and results are limited to animal studies.  But what an intriguing idea and one filled with hope for improved health.

Starting the New Year with a healthy breakfast

What, another post on breakfast?  Yes.  My opinion is that breakfast is a great way to start your day, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or detailed in prep.

As a registered dietitian, I have heard many reasons for not partaking in the traditional first meal of the day. Non-breakfast eaters claim that they are not hungry, too rushed, on a diet, out of the habit, sticking to coffee or colas, opting for a doughnut at work, or eating an early lunch.

These reasons do not necessarily mean that people think breakfast is not important. Busy lifestyles and numerous responsibilities just get in the way of a sit-down morning meal.

So what is so great about starting the day breakfast anyway?

  • First of all, for most people, it has been several hours since the previous day’s dinner or evening snack. Because of this fast, blood sugars will be low in the morning, especially in children whose smaller bodies store less blood sugar. Without a morning meal to replenish the body, one may feel sluggish or have trouble concentrating. Breakfast helps to prime to body and mind to meet the challenges of the day.
  • In addition to low blood sugars, skipping breakfast reduces the amount of other important nutrients in the diet such as calcium from dairy products, vitamin C from fruit or juice, and fiber from whole grains.
  • The wake-up jolt from caffeinated and/or sugared coffee and colas is soon gone. When hunger strikes, you may be tempted to eat the first thing you can find, which could be the donuts in the office cafeteria or the candy bar in the vending machine. Clearly, not the best use of calories.
  • Then when lunch time does roll around some may overeat due to extreme hunger or from overestimating the calories supposedly saved by not eating breakfast. Eating a healthy breakfast, though, can help reduce hunger and the tendency to overeat.

To make breakfast a healthy habit, have a plan. Set the morning alarms so that you and the family have enough time to eat without rushing. Organize breakfast when cleaning up after dinner so things go smoothly in the morning. Put out glasses for juice, and bowls and spoons for cereal.

If a hot cereal is a family favorite, try making oatmeal overnight in the Crockpot. This is an inexpensive, low-maintenance, and heart-healthy start to the morning.

Have easy-to-grab foods including individual yogurt containers, bananas, Clementines, and whole wheat bagels available for busy mornings. For variety, try non-traditional foods such as cold pizza, mac and cheese, or apple slices with peanut butter.

Depending on the age, children can help with meal suggestions, preparation, and evening set-up. Make breakfast a fun, family affair, and a way to develop health eating habits.

Breakfast is an important meal in your day. Eating a healthy breakfast can increase energy, provide needed nutrients, and help keep those extra pounds off.

For more suggestions, click on the links provided or visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Heathy eats for Thanksgiving

It is a little more than a week until Thanksgiving.  The local grocery store was crowded early this morning with shoppers buying turkeys and other food items for next week.  Many shoppers clutched lists and coupons and were intently reading labels while looking for the best buys.  And I was right there in the thick of it.

People are often curious about what a nutritionist will serve for a holiday meal.  Nuts and twigs or will she indulge?  How about a little of both?

Our family Thanksgiving meal varies from year to year, depending whether or not the chief cook and bottle washer feels like experimenting with new recipes.  And this also depends on whether the family members are game for a few surprises.

The general idea is to serve turkey with various sides.  These sides usually include stuffing, sweet potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, green vegetables (green beans, limas, or peas), sweet-sour red cabbage, dinner rolls, gravy, assorted relishes (carrots, pickles, celery, olives), and, of course, pumpkin pie with a topping.  Sounds traditional, right?  And with a few variations, the meal is healthy, too.

Usually we have turkey and just the breast portion.  The size works well with our family.  Sprinkling rosemary and thyme on the turkey or inserting the herbs with garlic under the skin before baking adds a tasty touch to the white meat.

Stuffing is a mix of white and whole wheat breads, browned and drained turkey sausage, whole egg, onion, celery, vegetable or chicken broth, and herbs to taste.

The sweet potatoes are baked in the skin and adorned with the individual’s preference of spread and/or gravy.  No one really misses the marshmallows or sugary additions found in potato casserole recipes.

Twice baked potatoes are prepared with a mix of Neufchatel cheese and low-fat sour cream.  I let the guests decide on salt and butter or spread.

Veggies, such as green beans, are also prepared without any additions except for toasted almonds or other nuts. Toasting brings out the nutty flavor and serves as a compliment to the vegetable.

Dinner rolls are homemade.  I do enjoy my bread machine for preparing the dough and making life a bit easier this time of year.  Canola oil works well for any fat called for in the recipe.

Dessert is always pumpkin pie.  Pies are made with fat-free sweetened condensed milk and whole eggs.  A graham cracker crust works well for the shell.  Sometimes I use a similar crust made with gingersnaps.   I heard a few sighs—she is taking this low-fat stuff too far.  Well, I do add a full-fat pecan pie to the meal that more than makes up for any fat loss.

This year I may experiment with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts. There are several tempting recipes available to try.  Browning the vegetable brings out its sweetness.

By making a few, easy, ingredient substitutions, holiday meals can be delicious and satisfying without causing the scales to tip.

And remember, if a dish does not turn out as expected, most likely no one will notice.  Thanksgiving is about family.  Enjoy the day.