Thursday, March 31, 2011

Super Duper Foods

What are super foods?  Where do antioxidants come from?  Are phytochemicals good or bad?  These are just a few of the many questions I often get asked as a dietitian.  Food companies and the media have done an excellent job of confusing the public as to which foods are healthy and which are not.  Words such as super, antioxidant, and natural get thrown around without much care.  But what are they and where do they come from?  
Phytochemicals are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and dry beans that are thought to promote health.  They include antioxidants, fiber, and the natural chemicals that give plants their flavor and color.  People have known about phytochemicals for centuries even if they did not call them phytochemicals.  Chewing the bark of the willow tree in ancient Greece was known to reduce pain; the compound salicin was extracted from the bark and is produced commercially today as aspirin.
As we go through our day, our bodies move from bed to kitchen to shower to work… all these activities require energy.  This energy is provided by the foods we eat.  As food breaks down in our stomachs and is transported through the blood to our muscles, thousands of chemical reactions take place creating ‘free radicals.’  Think back to grade school when you added vinegar to baking soda to create a flowing messy “volcano.”  Unlike the volcano, we do not immediately see the end results of these reactions.  Just like the volcano though, the reactions that take place inside us leave behind byproducts called free radicals that need to be cleaned up.   This is where antioxidants come in. Antioxidants are molecules found in fruits and vegetables that clean up and neutralize the harmful free radicals.  If left roaming free in the body, free radicals will cause inflammation and stress; which may lead to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis. The most commonly know antioxidants are vitamin C, vitamin E, and lycopene.  Foods high in these antioxidants are citrus fruits, dark green vegetables, nuts, and tomatoes.
            Super Foods are those that contain high amounts of antioxidants and phytochemicals.  They are low in fat and calories.  Thanks to celebrities and companies promoting their favorite products, new super foods seem to be popping up every year or so.  It started with cranberries and then moved to pomegranates and then the acai berry.  There is nothing magical about these fruits by themselves.  Drinking gallons of blueberry pomegranate juice will not make excess pounds fall off or protect someone from cancer.  However, eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits will help promote an overall healthy body and when they replace high fat, high calorie foods they can aid in weight loss.  Some diets encourage people to fast or ‘cleanse’ their bodies of toxins and free radicals by drinking special teas, juices, or other concoctions.  The lack of calories in these diets is what leads to weight loss in the short term.  Once the person begins eating normally again, weight will be regained quickly.  Adding green tea (un-sweet) and small amounts of fruit or vegetable juice to any diet can be a good way in increase vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but will not make up for a diet high in processed foods. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Quick Prep Products

We all experience times when a "home cooked" meal just is not possible.  You get caught at the office and have to stay late, your kids have a football or hockey game that goes into double overtime, or you just don't feel like putting much energy into cooking.  It's times like these when having quality quick prep products on hand can be very beneficial.  Instead of ordering that pizza or swinging by the drive through, consider keeping a couple of these products on hand. Any of these would also be great for people trying to be animal friendly and having a "Meatless Monday."

Garden Lites: Frozen egg souffles chock full of vegetables.  I've only tried the spinach, but when paired with a slice or two of toast it makes a complete and very filling breakfast, lunch, or super for one.  Each package contains one souffle that is big enough to be split between two small kids if needed.  The best part is that all the ingredients are pronounceable.  At approximately 140 calories (2 points) per souffle, these are perfect for people watching their weight; especially if they are doing the new Weight Watchers Points Plus program.

Buitoni Ravioli: We tried the Mushroom Agnolotti and they were scrumptious.  They were so flavorful and rich they do not even need sauce.  But a drizzle of leftover pizza sauce did a nice job of adding a little moisture to the edges of our ravioli.  Each package contains 2 servings which range in calories from 250 to more than 340 for most of the cheese versions.  Convenience wise they cook up in 4-6 minutes which is just enough time to pop a bag of frozen broccoli in the microwave.  My only complaint is that their products are a little pricey.  They range from $3-$8 depending upon the filling and number of servings per package.  For larger families they may not be a great choice as a main course, but could work as a side dish.

Trader Joe's Indian Fare:  Shelf stable packages of 'traditional' vegetarian Indian dishes.  We tried the Madras Lentils a while back and served it with TJ's frozen Naan and a vegetable; of course.  Thankfully I had some dry lentils on had that I quickly cooked; otherwise the 2 serving package would have fed only one of us.  We were both very impressed.  The flavor was great and at $2 a pouch they are very affordable.  Each serving contains just over 200 calories, and is low in fat.  As with most packaged products their sodium is a little high at just over 600mg, but I let that slide since they have more than 6g of fiber and no added sugar.  Too cook, either immerse the pack in a pot of boiling water, or empty the contents into a microwave safe bowl and heat for 2 minutes. Soon we will try their Punjab Choley and I have a feeling I will be adding a can of chickpeas/garbanzo beans to stretch it.  The frozen Naan is delicious and thaws/bakes in approximately 1 minute. Now this is what I call fast food!   For people who do not like traditional breakfast foods, these would be a great stand in.

Prepackaged foods are not always the best options...some fast food burgers have fewer calories many of the TV dinners lurking in the freezer section.  However, if you do a little looking and read the nutrition labels there are some great buys out there.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

National Nutrition Month 2011

Mixed greens salad, Chicken with mango salsa, steamed broccoli, apple/cranberry risotto,
 angel food cake with fresh strawberries

March is National Nutrition Month!  This year’s theme is Eat Right With Color.  People who consume lots of colorful vegetables and fruits tend to weigh less, suffer fewer chronic diseases, and lead healthier lives compared to people who do not.  The produce section of the grocery store contains a wide array of colors and each one may have special properties that benefit our bodies; this is why it’s important to eat a variety of different colored vegetables and fruits.  To get in as many different colors each day try and consume at least one fruit or vegetable with each meal.  This may mean topping morning cereal with a cut up banana or fresh blue berries.  Sautéed mushrooms and peppers make ‘egg-celent’ additions to omelets and are a sneaky way to get veggies in at breakfast.  Sandwiches are another easy way to sneak in more vegetables by loading them up with fresh baby spinach, sliced cucumbers, and sprouts.  Dip fresh slices of apple in low-fat vanilla yogurt for a light and refreshing desert after super.
To ensure a variety of colorful produce people can try and eat ’the colors of the rainbow.’  This is done by consuming 1 vegetable or fruit each day that is Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, and/or White.  Foods that are red and orange contain vitamin A which is important for eye health.  These colors are also easy to spot.  Fill your shopping cart with mangos, tomatoes, carrots, and strawberries.  Foods such as yellow summer squash, bananas, white grapefruit, and corn contain vitamin C which is an important antioxidant.  Green foods such as broccoli, spinach, and green beans are believed to help prevent cancer.  The compound chlorophyll gives these vegetables their color and is believed to help prevent not only cancer but heart disease and even Alzheimer’s dementia.  Also, thanks to their high concentrations of vitamins C and A as well as iron and calcium, green vegetables are considered ‘super foods.’  Blue and purple colored foods might be harder to spot, but purple grapes black and blue berries are a good start.  Black berries and black beans also count.  The dark blue and purple colors contain high concentrations of antioxidants which help reduce inflammation in the body.  Inflammation occurs when the body is under stress or injured.  Chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, and diabetes also cause inflammation.  Over time this inflammation can be very damaging to the body and its many different tissues.  White and brown produce like cauliflower, onions, mushrooms, and pinto beans are good for intestinal health.  Some people may experience gas and bloating after eating cauliflower and onions, but if eaten in small amounts each day the body will adapt and the bloating will decrease.  
Peeling, chopping, and preparing fresh produce can be time consuming.  Cutting up bell peppers, celery, and onions on the weekends can help make them easier/faster to use during the busy week nights.  Weekends or days off of work are also a great time to prepare snack bags filled with fresh grapes and baby carrots.  Before heading to work in the morning, grab a bag for an instant healthy snack later in the day.  Grocery stores also offer precut veggies such as broccoli, lettuce, and mushrooms.  These types of items are great for the super time crunched, as well as people who have limited knife skills.  Frozen vegetables can be very economical, especially for large families.  The produce is picked when it is the ripest and flash frozen.  Compared to canned vegetables, those that are frozen retain more vitamins and minerals and are not loaded with extra salt.  Stock up on large bags of frozen broccoli, green beans, and vegetable blends for a quick side to any meal.  
  Juices are an easy way to sip down a serving of fruit and in some cases, vegetables as well.  However, fruit juice contains the same number of calories from sugar as a similar serving of soda.  While juice contains vitamins and minerals it does not contain any fiber to help people feel full.  Because of these reasons, people who are trying to maintain or lose weight may find it helpful to limit juice to 4-6 oz per day.  For individuals who enjoy a glass of juice at breakfast, make sure to read the label as see that it contains only 100% juice.  Juice drinks such as ‘Sunny D’ contain very little real fruit juice and are mostly added sugar and corn syrup.  Just like whole fruit, try and pick juices with the most color. Orange, pink grapefruit, cranberry, and purple grape juice will contain more antioxidants than clear juices such as pear and apple. 
It’s easy to see why eating a variety vegetables and fruit is important to keeping our bodies as healthy as possible.  Celebrate National Nutrition Month by trying a few new fruits or vegetables and by trying to “eat the rainbow” people will ensure that they are consuming plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber; all of which are important to ensuring optimal health.