Archive for May, 2010

Successful Snacking

May 18, 2010

The headline “7 Habits of Highly Successful Snackers” from caught my attention today. I chuckled at the reference to self-help guru Franklin Covey’s famous work (though “7 habits of highly annoying people” makes me laugh harder) then decided to share my take on tips for successful snacking.

I often lament the way our culture intertwines junk food and snacks as well as how the phrase “healthy snacks” conjures images of a plain apple or celery sticks dipped in low fat dressing or some other “diet food.” Now don’t get me wrong, a crisp juicy apple plucked from a tree or a bin at an autumn farmer’s market is something to be savored. Conversely, a wax-coated mealy apple in the spring or summer taken along because it’s “healthy” fits into my doomed-to-fail-diet category.  The truth is, good snacking habits can really help you manage your weight (and health) and improve your overall diet.

  1. Ditch the idea that snacking is just for kids. The word ‘snack’ sounds like the word ‘sneak’ and too often adults are embarrassed to admit they need one. While the strategy of eating several mini meals throughout the day rather than three squares appeals to some busy people, it’s not always practical. A well-timed, quick and nutritious (but tasty) snack can help you eat less at mealtime and feel more energetic throughout the day.
  2. Save the bars for times you can’t get real food. The idea of jamming nutrients into a bar that you can stick in your pocket, purse, car or desk drawer is great. Bars beat the heck out of going too long without eating and getting crabby, distracted or arriving ravenous at your next meal. But bars aren’t magic – no matter how many vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, or other alluring ingredients they contain. Also, we get used to a certain volume of food each day so a bar may pack as many (or more) calories as a banana spread with peanut butter but not be as satisfying or keep you sated for as long.
  3. Mix your macronutrients. A combo of carbohydrates (preferably high fiber choices like veggies, fruit, whole grain crackers or bread), protein, and “good fats” (nuts, seeds or butters made from them, avocados) makes snacks taste good and keeps you satisfied longer. Some foods like nuts, beans (hummus, edamame, bean salsa) and yogurt already combine protein, carbs and fat so these can be good, easy snacks all by themselves or good companions for veggies and fruit.
  4. Use snacks to eat more veggies and fruit – an make them delicious. You know there are many benefits to eating more plant foods. You also know that knowledge alone doesn’t change your habits. Piling on veggies (or fruit) at meals is great but isn’t always an option. Plus, snacks are a more realistic way to reach the ideal 9-11 servings (a serving is 1 cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked) each day. Turns out there are many delicious snack ideas for fruits and veggies – just Google “fun” or “delicious” fruit and vegetables and you’ll find pages of ideas.
  5. Don’t just drink your snacks. Your brain doesn’t recognize calories you drink the way it registers calories you chew. Even if a liquid snack is filling when you drink it, it may not stave off hunger pangs later the way an equal number of calories from food does. If drinking your snacks fits your schedule, lifestyle, budget, and taste buds but doesn’t stick with you long enough try drinking half your usual amount and supplement your beverage with a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit or something you need to chew.
  6. Timing is everything. Sometimes concerns about weight and health make us lose sight of the bigger picture – food is fuel. If you are busy and/or active throughout the day, that is when you need food most. People who eat more of their calories earlier in the day have an easier time managing their weight. Also, if you eat before your blood sugar dips you may prevent mood swings and improve concentration.
  7. Manage your expectations. Our quest for perfection can lead to all-or-nothing thinking…especially when it comes to changing dietary habits for health. One of my favorite mantras is “progress not perfection.” Sometimes hunger strikes when you’re not prepared, your next meal is hours away and your snack choices are less than ideal. Make the best choice you can – sometimes this means eating less than usual amounts of a suboptimal food and that is okay. As you learn and practice new skills related to better snacking you may make choices that don’t work or don’t taste good to you. Relax – that is part of learning something new. The more you practice the better you’ll get and the easier healthy, satisfying snacking will be!

Food Memories – From Elk Droppings to Bacon

May 12, 2010

I recently said goodbye to my sweet black Lab Abbey. After 12 years of companionship and bonding I’m left with many wonderful memories. The part that strikes me now is how many of these memories relate to food. There is no question that food, in addition to being necessary for survival, is part of the human social experience shared in many celebrations or for comfort. Abbey taught me that domesticated dogs also understand eating goes beyond survival. There is no doubt in my mind that Abbey’s tail wagged as vigorously for a piece of bacon when her belly was full as she did when she was hungry. Food definitely went beyond mere sustenance for Abbey, just as it does for most of us.

I suppose those familiar with Labradors aren’t surprised that food memories are part of our history together, even though Abbey wasn’t a “typical Lab” when it came to food. She would leave food in her bowl once sated, didn’t care much for raw meat bones, and “asked permission” before touching human food – even if it was right next to her nose (like when she rode shotgun in the car and I was snacking on something interesting in the driver’s seat). Don’t get me wrong, Abbey LOVED food she just wasn’t obsessed with it in a stereotypical-Labrador way (unless it was restricted that is). She did eat elk and horse droppings with zeal and when we pulled up to the drive-through window at the bank she would salivate waiting for the little dog treats that magically appeared in the plastic tube.

Since I didn’t really feed Abbey “people food” when she was a puppy she wasn’t much of a beggar at the table, at least until we met Dave. I think it’s safe to say that part of Dave and Abbey’s bond was forged with food. He liked how excited she got when he’d slip something yummy to her from the table and I suspect she welcomed something other than kibble. If Dave was in the kitchen Abbey was very attentive and I recall times Dave ordered meals at a restaurant with Abbey in mind, especially if we were on a road trip or celebrating a special occasion (ribs and lamb chops were among their favorites).

Food became more of a focus for Abbey during the past few years as she aged and her mobility decreased. I guess even dogs eat out of boredom. Last fall after a surgery when I was instructed to cut her usual food portions by 25% so she wouldn’t gain weight, Abbey transformed into the food-crazed dog of Labrador lore for a while. Every crinkle of a package or whiff of food cooking got her full attention (even if it was just me in the kitchen). During that time Dave created a game with Abbey that led her to accept raw carrots as treats – a trick that unfortunately lost its allure once she went back to full portions of food. (Of course I felt awful when her 2-week post surgery check-up revealed she’d lost six pounds!) Once she went back to “normal” unrestricted eating she returned to the atypical Lab who would leave food in her bowl.

I am grateful for so many memories of Abbey – many that don’t include food such as playing outdoors, road trips and camping. But I also appreciate that we (including Dave) shared a love of one of life’s most basic needs – and pleasures, food.

Aflatoxin – The Peanut Butter Scare Lives On

May 3, 2010

I have been asked many times over the years about the safety of peanut butter due to aflatoxin, a carcinogen that is produced by a mold that can grow on peanuts. After a bit of digging I came up with some information that may be helpful.

First, aflatoxin is a naturally-occurring toxin that can contaminate a variety of common crops including cereals (such as corn and wheat), oil seeds (including peanuts), spices and tree nuts. It is also found in the milk of animals given contaminated feed. This toxic substance can contaminate crops before harvest and during storage. Crops with prolonged exposure to a hot, humid environment or that are damaged due to stressful growing conditions such as drought are more susceptible to aflatoxin contamination.

Aflatoxin can cause a number of liver problems including liver cancer and aflatoxicosis is influenced by age, sex, nutritional status, and health as well as both the level and duration of exposure to the toxin. The FDA has established safe levels of aflatoxin for both human food (20 parts per billion) and animal feed (up to 300 ppb) and both peanuts and products made from them are tested regularly. According to the USDA website no cases of aflatoxicosis have been reported in the U.S. – only in third world countries.

Interestingly, some research shows that eating are regular diet that includes apiaceous vegetables such as carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley (and a number of herbs and spices) can decrease the carcinogenic effects of aflatoxin. Good news for the “ants in a log” fans (celery stuffed with peanut butter and raisins)! There is also research that demonstrates chlorophyll (a green pigment that occurs in plants and algae) can reduce the absorption of aflatoxin in humans.

According the Dr. Andrew Weil’s website the Consumers Union investigated aflatoxin levels in several brands of peanut butter sold in the U.S. (early 2000’s?) and found the major brands such as Peter Pan, Jif and Skippy had less than the fresh peanut butter sold in health food stores. I have also seen recommendations not to purchase bulk grains, nuts and seeds to avoid the possibility of contamination though there is no proof the bulk varieties pose a problem.

In general, keeping nuts, nut butters, seeds, and grains that you don’t use quickly in the refrigerator or freezer may be a good practice to prevent the hot, moist environments that favor aflatoxin growth. Other advice includes: avoid eating nuts that look moldy, discolored or shriveled – perhaps an obvious choice for most of us. The recommendation to choose only major brands of peanut butter is conservative but may put anxious parents at ease…though there are added sugars and trans fats to consider in some of these choices.

All things considered, I love peanut butter – and many of the other whole, nutritious foods that are susceptible to aflatoxin, and this new information is not enough to make me forego these foods. Given the amount of peanut butter the average American eats (especially kids) if this were truly a major public health issue I think we’d know about it beyond the random articles published in cyberspace.  I do keep all of my nuts, seeds and nut butters in the fridge or freezer (they stay fresher that way – aflatoxin or not) along with grains such as corn meal and whole wheat flour that I use in baking (mainly because I don’t bake often). I also eat a variety of vegetables and herbs and spices regularly – with carrots and all kinds of green stuff as staples in my diet, so I guess I’m covered if these plants actually do end up being protective. As always, I believe in balance.