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Archive for June, 2007

Issue 5 of Small Bites Out!

Installment numero cinco of the monthly Small Bites newsletter examines portions, serving sizes, and why how much we eat is often more important than what we are putting in our mouths.

You can read it right now by clicking here.

To subscribe to the Small Bites mailing list and get each issue a full week before it is available here, send a request to: andy.bellatti@gmail.com
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Say What?: Top Chef Misses the Mark

As a self-confessed reality show and food fanatic, I am sure it would not surprise you to know I am an avid Top Chef watcher.

In brief, it is a competitive reality show on Bravo in which 15 contestants — ranging from professional to self-taught chefs — compete in a series of tasks.

This week’s main challenge consisted of giving classic comfort foods a modern and healthy spin. Some of the dishes included meatloaf, fried chicken, and pork chops with applesauce.

To my dismay, the only criteria contestants were given as to how to make their dishes healthier was simply to lower the amount of cholesterol in them.

I literally groaned when I heard this guideline and then contestants explaining, “I’m using turkey sausage instead of pork sausage to lower the cholesterol in my dish.”

One contestant took a risk and made a dish with lobster — a food moderately high in cholesterol that also offers healthy fats and other nutrients — making the case that people shouldn’t be so afraid of cholesterol.

“Right on!” I thought.

The judges, however, reprimanded him.

Were they regular Small Bites readers, they would know that dietary cholesterol does not affect blood cholesterol as much as saturated and trans fats.

Additionally, lobster contains omega-3 fatty acids, which provide a wide array of health benefits, including lowering the risk of developing atherosclerosis (the hardening of arteries)!

Here’s another perfect example. Three ounces of shrimp contain 166 milligrams of cholesterol (more than half the recommended daily maximum) but only 0.2 grams of saturated fat.

People going on a low-cholesterol diet would shun them and instead opt for a lower-cholesterol protein food like lean top sirloin. Hey, you can get twice as much (six ounces) and only get 95 grams of cholesterol. But here’s the catch — you are also getting four whole grams of saturated fat!

So, the lower-cholesterol option is actually the one that will worsen your blood cholesterol!

If you are truly concerned about your blood cholesterol levels, forget cholesterol in food and instead pay close attention to your saturated and trans fat intake.

Quick refresher: saturated fats are found in animal by-products (except those that are fat-free), while man-made trans fats are mainly in baked goods and shelf-stable processed foods.

Additionally, be sure to consume foods high in soluble fiber (oat products, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds).

Which bring me to another faux pas. One contestant made a flatbread with whole flaxseeds, for which he was commended. “Flaxseeds lower cholesterol,” the dietitian-free panel explained.

I, however, was not satisfied with that erroneous statement. Remember, in order to enjoy all the benefits of flaxseeds, we need to consume them in their ground (or “meal”) form. Whole flaxseeds pass through our digestive systems completely undetected!

I’ll definitely leave opinions on whether a vanilla bean or pomegranate reduction goes better with a rhubarb tart up to the Top Chef experts, as long as they promise to bring on a nutrition consultant for their next season.

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Numbers Game: Answer

An investigation by Efit.com revealed that the average airplane meal provides 1,200 calories, 50 grams of fat, and 2,000 milligrams of sodium.

That’s 87 percent of the maximum sodium recommendation in just one (rather bland) meal.

How can you fix this? Here are my suggestions.

Two days before your flight, check out your airline’s website to see what special meals they offer. Many airlines allow you to choose from a variety, ranging from vegetarian to low fat to high fiber! As an added bonus, special meals are usually delivered to fliers before that dreaded cart starts hitting the knees and elbows of everyone with an aisle seat.

Also, take healthy snacks on board with you. Bring some raw nuts, whole wheat crackers, and healthy bars like Lara or Clif Nectar.

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Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Veggie Chips

NOTE: Although this post discusses Robert’s American Gourmet veggie chips, it can be applied to any other brand with a similar ingredient list.

The packaging boasts “potato, spinach and carrot,” as well as “natural,” but a closer look finds that there is nothing healthy about this rather new snack food.

Contrary to popular belief, the inclusion of vegetables (usually in powdered form) to otherwise nutrient-void choices does not make them healthier.

Take a look at these ingredients: Potato Flour, Potato Starch, Spinach, Carrot, Beet Root Powders, Rice and/or Sunflower Oil and Salt.

True, there nothing is inherently unhealthy (i.e.: high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils). There is also nothing inherently nutritious.

A baked potato, consumed with its skin, offers fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and some B vitamins, all of which are non-existent in potato flour.

Keep in mind that a nutrition label lists ingredients by order of prominence by weight. In this product, potato flour and starch are the big players.

Yes, spinach and carrot are there, but a look at the nutrient values makes it clear they aren’t the featured stars of these chips.

A one and a half ounce serving contains:

180 calories

6 grams fat

375 mg sodium

1.5 grams fiber

And as far as vitamins and minerals go, all we find is:

2% of the iron daily value

Remember, the more processed a food, the higher the sodium amount (and the lower the potassium). Granted, we do not know how much potassium is in this product, but keep in mind that whole fruits and vegetables contain virtually no sodium.

So, those 375 milligrams indicate this is not just a whole carrot being roasted and turned into a crispy chip.

Another clue this is basically just a potato chip with some spinach dust sprinkled on top? The low fiber amount. Vegetables are some of the best sources of fiber (a medium baked potato provides 4.5 grams, a cup of peas packs in 8, and a cup of brussel sprouts delivers 6.4!). These chips, though, deliver a weak 1.5 grams.

These veggie chips are by no means the equivalent of a larger order of McDonald’s fries. However, they are not a good choice if you are looking for a nutritious snack, despite what the packaging may have you believe.

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All-Star of the Day: Goji Berry

After hundreds of years as a Tibetan superstar, the goji berry is being rediscovered on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Tasting like the lovechild of a raisin and a dried cranberry, the Tibetan goji berry – a member of the same plant as tomatoes and potatoes — boasts a wealth of antioxidants and nutrients.

For instance, a quarter cup of this wonder fruit provides:

90 calories

4 grams of fiber

4 grams of protein

180% Vitamin A

30% Vitamin C

9% calcium

15% iron

Wow!

Make sure you buy shade-dried goji berries. The sun-dried variety, while still healthy, offers a lower amount of nutrients.

Apart from containing several carotenoids (the same antioxidants found in carrots and winter squash), recent studies in Japan concluded that goji berries contain antioxidants that help inhibit the division of cancer cells.

Additionally, a 1994 study published in the Chinese Journal of Oncology found that the addition of goji berries to the diet of cancer patients was linked to better response to treatment.

As healthy as these berries are, some goji berry extract manufacturers are overzealous in their advertising and claim consumption of this fruit is basically the equivalent to drinking a liter of water from the fountain of youth. Proponents also claim goji berries cure a variety of illnesses, which is plain old false advertising.

Remember that eating the actual food delivers more benefits than an extract. Since supplements are not regulated, they could potentially not contain any of what is advertised on the label.

It is also worth nothing that as healthy as goji berries are, their benefits are best seen in diets already rich in whole, natural foods. Munching on a quarter cup of goji berries a day and then eating pizza, ice cream, potato chips, and soda will pretty much cancel their effect.

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Numbers Game: The Friendly (and Fattening) Skies

An investigation by Efit.com revealed that the average airplane meal provides _______ calories, ____ grams of fat, and _______ milligrams of sodium.


a) 1,050/50/2,000
b) 1,200/40/1,500
c) 900/70/1,700
d) 1,500/85/2,500

Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Thursday for the answer.


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You Ask, I Answer: Alli

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this new pill called “Alli”. Seems to be quite a big thing, being FDA approved and not needing a prescription for it. What do you think?

– Jamie Church

Alli (a post-modern spelling of “ally”) is the first FDA-approved over-the-counter weight-loss pill. I am sure you heard about it long before its June 15 launch date, thanks to a $150 million nationwide advertising campaign that spanned every kind of media outlet known to man.

A less powerful version of a prescription-only drug known as Xenical, Alli helps partially block the absorption of fat in the body. It works in a very similar principle to Olestra, the fat replacer in “Wow!” chips that was all the rage in the late 1990s.

Anything that blocks the absorption of fat has two drawbacks. First, there are the unpleasant gastric symptoms: diarrhea, bloating, gas, and even an oily rectal discharge at unexpected times.

Additionally, when fat isn’t full metabolized, neither are the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). This is precisely why many products made with Olestra were fortified with these nutrients.

The main reason why this product is flying off the shelves in record-numbers is that, in trial studies, people who supplemented their diets with Alli lost 50 percent more weight than those who simply dieted.

My main issue with Alli – or any other weight-loss drug – is that it does not teach healthy habits. Losing weight isn’t the hardest part of the gig; it’s the maintenance many people stumble with.

Although the dieters who also took Alli lost more weight, it is very likely they also gained back a higher percentage of weight once they went off the drug.

If you just pop a pill that helps melts pounds but does not help alter the eating habits that made you gain weight in the first place, what happens when you stop taking it?

Another issue worth thinking about: Alli is specifically a fat-blocker, so people who have gained weights as a result of diets very high in carbohydrates will not reap its rewards the same way as those who have packed on the pounds as a result of a diet high in fats.

The one positive aspect to this entire Alli craze is that advertisements make it clear this is not a magic pill, and that to fully obtain its properties, it should accompany a reduced-calorie diet and a consistent exercise program.

At the end of the day, I believe that just like in the famous children’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare”, slow and steady always wins the weight-loss race.

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Got Milk? Keep It in the Dark

I recently shared that, when cooking vegetables, the preparation method determines the amount of nutrients available for absorption.

When it comes to milk, storage properties are just as important.

Next time you’re at the grocery store, do not reach for glass or plastic containers of milk. This dairy product should be in containers that shield it from the harsh rays of supermarket ultraviolet light.

Not only does exposure to light affect the protein structure of milk (thus offsetting its flavor), it also drains drastically lowers its nutritional value, specifically when it comes to Vitamins A, B2 (riboflavin) and C.

The lower the fat content of the milk, the higher its nutrient losses when exposed to light. And, a little light goes a long way. Studies have found that, on average, nutrient losses for milk starts after just 4 to 6 hours of exposure to light.

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You "Ask", I Answer: Forbidden Foods

Everything will cause disease in excess, even exercise and celery. The real problem is not what we eat, but how much stress we have.

I guarantee that far more heart problems are caused by stress than by having a few Klondike bars over the summer.

But of course, we can’t ever address stress. That would get in the way of our capitalist goals of working constantly so we can buy SUVs and riding mowers. Nah, much better to create fake foods, diet fads and gym memberships and shame people into using those products.

Please stop contributing to this problem, and stop labeling foods as demonic. It’s silly, and it’s counter-productive to goals of better health.

– Anonymous (not surprisingly)

The section “Angels and Devils” is simply a fun way to label posts that compare different brands of one given product in order to help people make wiser purchasing choices.

I am not labeling foods as ‘angelic’ and ‘demonic’ (I am not trying to be the next Dan Brown), but rather pointing out which ones are a better fit for a health-conscious consumer.

I have stated in several posts (as well as my newsletter) that foods should never be forbidden, nor should food groups be avoided.

That being said, I will not hesitate to recommend that somebody reach for a 100-calorie, saturated-fat-free Haagen Dazs Fat Free Raspberry & Vanilla Frozen Yogurt bar when they are in the mood for a sweet treat versus an artery clogging Klondike bar.

As you said, stress is a problem in our society. So, why aggravate those symptoms with food that raise our risk of heart attacks, artherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and obesity? A body that is fed healthy food will handle stress much better than one whose arteries are clogged due to excess consumption of saturated fats.

As far as “fake foods” and “diet fads” go, I have never condoned them. If you take the time to read my blog and newsletters, you will see I believe in a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods, not sugar-free, fat-free brownies made in a factory.

I have nothing against gym memberships, though. Heck, I have one myself! However, as I have said in the past, the important thing is to perform physical activity, which doesn’t necessarily have to take place in the confines of a room full of treadmills and free weights.

Thanks for taking the time to write in!

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You Ask, I Answer/Celebrity Diet Secrets: Colonics

I often read about celebrities (i.e.: Jennifer Aniston) using colonics as a weight-loss tool. Are they a good way to lose 5 pounds quickly, which you can then keep off with dieting?

– Tiffany Polder
San Francisco, CA

How coincidental! I was planning on publishing a posting on colonics when this question arrived in my Inbox.

I wonder if Tiffany and I were both thinking along the same lines after catching an insepid Vh1 special on celebrity diet secrets where, among other things, they shared that Kate Beckinsale, Ben Affleck, Demi Moore, and Madonna are big fans of colonics (a process where a gallon or so of water is flushed into the intestines via the rectum, which supporters believe helps cleanse and purify internal organs).

I find colonics to be unnecessary and not at all useful for weight-loss purposes.

Much of their reputation stems from the fact that after finishing a colonic procedure, people find they immediately dropped four or five pounds. Guess what? It’s all water weight. In other words, once they go home and eat and drink like normal, all that weight is gained right back.

Remember, water weight is not lost, it is just temporarily gone.

It’s also important to note that we carry beneficial bacteria in our colon that act as immune barriers to a variety of pathogens. Since a colonic flushes both the good and the bad out, people can be susceptible to a variety of illnesses and infections for a few days until the helpful bacteria re-establishes itself.

Since some of these bacteria are responsible for the production of Vitamin K, it is sometimes advisable to take a Vitamin K supplement after getting a colonic.

Successful weight loss is attributed to adopting healthy habits like portion control and choosing nutrient dense foods, which a colonic does not teach you.

If you are concerned with ridding your body of toxins, eating your recommended amount of fiber, staying hydrated, and cutting back on added sugars and saturated fats will do the trick.

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Semi-Angels and Devils: Ice Cream Bars & Sandwiches


We continue our look at ice creams, this time focusing on sandwiches and bars. Unfortunately, as you are about to see, if you are not careful, you could very well end up buying a portable chocolate-covered triple bypass.

I give the following a not-too-enthusiastic thumbs up (while better than other varieties, they are quite high in added sugar):

Haagen Dazs Fat-Free Raspberry & Vanilla Yogurt Bars
100 calories
0 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat
16 grams sugar
(per bar)

Skinny Cow Chocolate & Vanilla Sandwiches
130 calories
2 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat
22 grams sugar
(per sandwich)

Soy Delicious Li’l Buddies Sandwiches
150 calories
3 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat
13 grams sugar
(per sandwich)

And these frightful four should be on the “very occasional treats” list:

Klondike Bar
280 calories
19 grams fat, 14 grams saturated fat
22 grams sugar
(per bar)

Nestle Drumstick
340 calories
21 grams fat, 11 grams saturated fat
24 grams sugar
(per drumstick)

Starbucks Mud Pie Ice Cream Bar
350 calories
21 grams fat, 13 grams saturated fat
25 grams sugar
(per bar)

Ben & Jerry’s Cone To Go
360 calories
19 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat
30 grams sugar
(per cone)

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Numbers Game: Answer

According to research by the American Cancer Society, 14 percent of cancer deaths in men and 20 percent of cancer deaths in women could be prevented simply by weight maintenance.

Being overweight needs to be viewed not from an aesthetics angle, but as a health hazard.

From a nutrition standpoint, I cringe when I hear obese people proudly stating they are at peace with their bodies and have no desire to conform to society’s standards.

Although I find the pressure on women to be a size zero (while men can tip the scales at any weight without much disapproval) absolutely heinous, a healthy weight goes beyond vanity. Keeping off the pounds significantly decreases your risk of developing strokes, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.

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Numbers Game: Don’t Just Blame Smoking

According to research by the American Cancer Society, ______ percent of cancer deaths in men and ______ percent of cancer deaths in women could be prevented simply by weight maintenance.

a) 5, 2
b) 14, 20
c) 10, 6
d) 7, 5

Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Wednesday for the answer!

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Angels and Devils: Ice Cream Pints

A summer without ice cream is like a car without wheels – pretty much pointless. Over the next two weeks, I’ll let you know which ice creams deliver taste without destroying your figure, and which are simply frozen, sugary evil.

Let it be known that I am not listing “sugar-free” ice cream because I find it to taste pretty horrible. After all, what is the point of eating sugar-free and fat-free ice cream? If you’re looking for a treat that doesn’t contain sugar or fat, open up a can of tuna!

Before I start naming names, some general nutrition tips for your next ice cream pint purchase:

* Always read the nutrition label on the back, paying special attention to the number of servings. Each pint contains 4 servings. In other words, if you and a friend down a pint, you would each have to multiply the values on the label by 2 to get an accurate reflection of what you ate.

* Be careful with flavors that mix in brownies, caramel bits, and cookie pieces – all of which contribute additional calories, unhealthy fats, and sugar.

* Serve yourself a scoop in a bowl and then put the container back in the freezer. Sitting down with a pint and telling yourself, “just three spoonfuls!” is a recipe for disaster.

The following brands and flavors get a small bites “Thumbs Up” for their low calorie and fat numbers:

  • Edy’s Slow Churned Light Vanilla

    100 calories

    3.5 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat

    11 grams sugar

    (per 1/2 cup serving)

  • Edy’s Slow Churned Light Fudge Tracks

    120 calories

    4 grams fat, 2.5 grams saturated fat

    13 grams sugar

    (per ½ cup serving)

  • Edy’s Slow Churned Light Mint Chocolate Chip

    120 calories

    4.5 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat

    13 grams sugar

    (per 1/2 cup serving)

  • Soy Delicious Chocolate Peanut Butter

    150 calories

    5 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat

    12 grams sugar

    (per ½ cup serving)

On the other end of the spectrum, these brands and flavors get a red flag for their apparent guerilla attack on our health.

  • Ben & Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup

    380 calories

    26 grams fat, 13 grams saturated fat

    25 grams sugar

    (per ½ cup serving)

  • Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby

    330 calories

    21 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat

    24 grams sugar

  • Haagen Dazs Vanilla Chocolate Chip/Butter Pecan/Cookie Dough

    310 calories

    20 grams fat, 12 grams saturated fat

    22 grams sugar

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No Dairy = No Phlegm?

According to one common nutrition myth often parroted by professional singers, milk consumption results in an excess production of mucus.

However, a numbers of studies across the world (many done by independent researchers not associated with dairy councils) have shown there is no truth behind that statement.

The studies, including a major one in 1990 published in the American Review of Respiratory Disorders Journal, concluded that it wasn’t dairy itself that increased the production of phlegm, but rather that the fat in whole dairy products thickens already existing mucus.

That same year, the South Australian journal Appetite published the results of a double-blind study in which subjects drank either milk or a soy-based drink, which shed more light on this common belief.

Although subjects reported feeling thicker mucus after drinking both liquids, none of them had actually produced more phlegm. Rather, what they were describing was the creamy texture in both drinks that can linger in the palate for a few moments.

I can attest from personal experience that dairy alternatives always have that effect on me.

Some people go as far as saying that going dairy-free is a way to avoid asthma. Again, clinical studies have shown respiratory airways are not negatively affected by dairy consumption.

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