Thursday, December 31, 2015

USE BY and other interesting package DATES

Year ending. Year beginning. So let’s talk about calendar dates – not weight loss goals or New Year’s resolutions, but dates on packages, cans, cartons of food and what they may or may not mean for you.

The information that I am providing today (the upshot) is freely available in more detail from the USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service. I am not covering infant formula which has separate rules, and I notice that tuna and other canned fish are not specifically mentioned in the fact sheet. If you want more info on those products you might have to use the feature.
Here are the take home points on those package dates, some may surprise you:
There is no federal – or country wide – law regarding dates on food packages. Meaning, they ae not required at all, by the federal government.

Around 20 states have laws regarding dates on food items, but the laws vary.
An open date – just the date, no words to describe it – and a sell by date – are not meant for use by us. These are more a message from the manufacturer to the store owner letting them know that the foods will be of the highest quality if sold by – displayed until – whatever that date is.
If a package has a date and with that date are the words USE BY, you should – use it by that date. The food will be of better quality if you use it by then, and if you are not going to use it by that date, you can freeze it. Foods can stay in the freezer indefinitely, but be mindful of how you package them so they don’t get freezer burn.

Eggs are interesting. A few states require sell by or expiration dates and some others forbid them! If an egg carton has USDA stamped on it, you will find a package date. The date the eggs were put in that carton. And it’s a little unusual. It only contains 3 numbers. This 3 digit date indicates the number of days since the start of the year that the eggs have been packaged. So if you buy a carton of eggs and it says 145, the eggs were put in the carton on the 145th day of the year – year starting January 1st. If there is a sell by date on this same USDA carton of eggs, it cannot be after that package code date.

Also interesting, eggs can be stored in the fridge and used for 3 to 5 weeks while maintaining great quality – even after a use by date. Of note, the eggs should remain in the carton and at the coldest part of the fridge (so much for all the refrigerator egg gadgets!)

If there is not a use by date, the USDA provides advice on when to use the food by, and offers a chart here. The thing that stood out to me when I looked at the chart is that opening the product is the kiss of death, and that almost everything should be used within 2 days of breaking the seal (except milk and produce). It’s like time is suspended until the seal is broke and then it rapidly accelerates.
Other important food safety and shelf life considerations: If you leave a product out of refrigeration, like hot dogs you are waiting to grill, the use by date is void, they are not safe anymore. Thawing something out at room temperature for over two hours is also frowned upon. Notice this is not about quality anymore, it’s about safety via contamination. Other safety issues mentioned in the handout involved not washing ones hands before preparing foods.

BTW, there was no specific mention of yogurt, milk or cheeses, but USDA/FSIS indicated that the foods should be fine if kept refrigerated– and until you notice an off odor, color or perhaps mold J

Monday, December 21, 2015

How The 2016 Federal Budget impacts nutrition, dietary advice and calorie labeling

If you are confused about what foods to eat and which constitute a healthy routine diet, you are not alone. In fact, this year has been extraordinary for its confusion and contention surrounding nutrition science and dietary guidelines. In fact, the experts - nutrition and public health – do not agree. The controversy was simmering even before the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, an update to the Guidelines I meticulously explained and passionately promoted 5 years ago – before I joined the rank of researcher (i.e., became a more critical reviewer).

Did the uproar over the Committee’s recommendations make its way into your daily news briefs? If so, you’ll know that the contention was strongest around the recommendation to lower meat intake, not just for health, but for the planet – for sustainability.

After the report was released, a non-scientist, nutrition journalist published a scathing article on the recommendations, which led to a crusade by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a point by point response letter signed by over 100 experts, researchers and scholars (myself included) that was posted just about a week ago.

There is not just dissent on the recommendations, which include less salt, less saturated fat, less sugar, but also on the scientific evidence used and the scientific process itself. So much so, that the recently passed Omnibus Appropriations Bill 2016, delays the release of the guidelines! Read for yourself (selected text from the Congressional directives):

Congress continues to be concerned about the quality of scientific evidence and extraneous factors that were included in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's Scientific Report.

To ensure the guidelines adhere to the nutritional and dietary scope of the law and are based upon sound science, bill language has been included clearly stating that the final guidelines cannot be released or implemented unless they are based upon significant scientific agreement and adhere to the statutory mandate.

Questions have been raised about the scientific integrity of the process in developing the dietary guidelines and whether balanced nutritional information is reaching the public. The entire process used to formulate and establish the guidelines needs to be reviewed before future guidelines are issued. It is imperative that the guidelines be based upon strong, balanced science and focus on providing consumers with dietary and nutritional information that will assist them in eating a healthy and balanced diet. At a minimum, the process should include: full transparency, a lack of bias, and the inclusion and consideration of all of the latest available research and scientific evidence, even that which challenges current dietary recommendations.

The agreement (the Budget) provides $1,000,000 to review the dietary guideline process.

And that’s not all! The Omnibus Appropriations Bill takes aim at school nutrition and calorie labeling as well. The federal government by enactment of this bill, further delays calorie postings for grocery stores and ‘similar retail establishments,’ which I am assuming are the bowling alleys, movie theatres and convenience stores. My colleagues tell me that the FDA had already made those postponements and the Budget Bill just makes it a mandate. I might have been too focused on vending – which was already set for 2016 – to have noticed. What I am thinking is 1) this calorie labeling is never gonna happen and 2) if the federal law is not in place, state and local laws can’t be pre-empted, thus they can remain more restrictive… good for Philadelphia.

With regard to the school lunch program, schools can have more time to figure out how to increase the whole grain content of meals – though 95% of schools haven’t suggested that they need more time, so this is dumb. Also, the rule to lower the sodium content to a new lower goal has been halted pending scientific evidence that it is necessary to do so for health.

Here are a couple of links re the budget that was just passed.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Food as tradition vs Food as reward

Food has many meanings and purposes. Food can soothe the soul as well as sustain the body. It may even heal and restore. It is a source of nourishment, especially, or perhaps only – when it contains protein, carbs, fats and nutrients, not empty calories (e.g., high sugar, high salt and high saturated fat). And food is a source of pleasure, helping us to recall happy moments, favorite people, and traditions.

For many of us, the act of preparing, cooking and serving food is an expression of love: familial, social, charitable. Within cultures, broad and refined, certain foods celebrate, symbolize, crystalize (as in rites of passage, milestones). There is room in all our lives for these occasions[1], these moments of food as something more than or other from, sustenance. There is no room in any of our lives for abandoned consumption of even our cherished foods. To be honest, gluttony sort of ruins the whole appeal. But this blog post is not about moderation or counting calories. I am hoping that in time, soon, it will no longer be necessary to even mention calorie moderation, not because we have found a magic pill that lets you eat whatever you want, or because exercise suddenly causes easy weight control, but because we will have learned, as a nation, that calories MUST be part of the strategy.[2]

These other than sustenance reasons for eating that I described above, fall into the appropriate practices of most societies throughout time. But there are less salubrious reasons for eating and sadly, these unhealthy, psychologically damaging reasons are often situated and cemented in childhood: pacification, reward, boredom. Recently, I observed one of these unhealthy uses of food, which I’ll describe in a moment, and that scene triggered a few other memories of the misuse of food, memories that are at least 20 to 30 years in the past – I’ll share them too.

The first and recent example uses food as reinforcement. This particular example can be thought of as either negative or positive reinforcement, which is unusual and psychologists might disagree with me, but I’ll explain my reasons and why I call it negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is an action that takes away an unpleasant thing, while positive reinforcement provides a reward or something pleasant when a particular behavior is exhibited. In my interpretation, one is meant to extinguish and the other is meant to encourage. I think that using food to take away an unpleasant emotion would be using it for negative reinforcement – a really bad idea. In the case I witnessed, a child was crying – throwing a pretty good tantrum – and the dad said to the mom, “Give her a lolly pop.” WHOA. – I most certainly did cringe. More distally, when I was a young adult babysitter, I observed what the parents clearly meant to be positive reinforcement when they gave their child a cookie for using the potty. To this day I have wondered if that girl grew up to have an eating disorder. And a little more recently, but still 20 or more years ago, I remember watching a friend constantly hand her son food to eat as they rode around in the car – visiting people. He was bored and eating chips and drinking soda kept him occupied. He is a (heart breaking) morbidly obese young adult now.

Food is not meant to drown out our feelings, teach us to do things, or keep us from being bored.  Parenting is hard -  I get that, but food as a parenting strategy is a dangerous mistake. Though I am firm in my belief that food not be a reward, food can certainly be a pleasure and serving it rewarding. When foods become embedded with our culture, our traditions, and our families it is a good thing. But using food to treat a bad mood, stress or mental illness is ineffective and it’s unhealthy. If you’ve found yourself using it this way, instead, try exercise, talking to confidants or professionals, writing, meditating, praying, and other positive coping mechanisms. Heck, even medicine if all else fails, but not food. Food is not the answer nor the treatment for emotional or physical pain.

[1] Note: this is not the same thing as having style of cooking that consistently creates excess calories or uses large amounts of nutrients/substances of concern (i.e., sugar, fatty and or fried/breaded foods and salt/sodium)
[2] Forgive me for another small aside, but as I wrote the sentence above regarding the pill that lets you eat whatever you want, I had a little epiphany. The ads for pills and supplements do say, ‘eat whatever you want and lose x pounds.’ And that is not the real issue. It is less about WHAT one eats and a lot about HOW MUCH; so the magic pills have to let us eat what we want, as much as we want and keep us thin and metabolically healthy – good luck waiting on that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Resisting a challenging food environment

As the years have progressed and research findings amassed, it has become obvious to most people – experts and non-experts – that obesity is not caused by one thing. However, certain factors seem to have a greater impact on whether or not a person consumes more calories than they need or burn than others. For example, genetics have less of an impact than lack of physical activity. And a combination of risk factors intensifies the impact of any one. For example, a genetic risk, not exercising (or being sedentary), being female and using antidepressants is a perfect storm for gaining weight.

The risk factor that my research and my public health efforts focus on is the environment – the food environment, which I define as anywhere we make a decision about what to eat immediately or what to buy to cook or eat at home.  Within this huge food decision space, individual level factors (knowledge, stress, social and family norms, income) interact to make it harder for some to ‘resist’ what is sometimes called a toxic or obesogenic (obesity causing) environment.

To advance my goals – reducing caloric excess in the population - I support policy that aims to change the environment. Policy that changes the space where we make so many food (and beverage) decisions. I have spoken a lot about information policy, but that doesn’t directly change the environment (indirectly it could lead restaurants to supply lower calorie meals through a change in recipes or serving sizes). Strategies/laws that directly change the environment would include the failed NYC serving cap on sodas.  Other strategies, softer ones some will say, fall into the category of ‘choice architecture.’ In other words, someone (and this someone can be a contentious issue) decides that in order to help a person choose the healthier (? – definition pending) option, this healthier option needs to be easier to access or displayed more attractively than the non-healthy one. For example, instead of the huge display of 50 cent white bread at the front of the store, the owner places a display of whole wheat bread. Strategies that I am particular enamored with include taxes (price manipulations), zoning restrictions (do we need 10 fast food restaurants w/in a mile of a neighborhood or school?), and advertising constraints (do transit busses really need to advertise 2 dozen donuts for the price of 1?). The point of these efforts is to change perceptions about food consumption and the pressure to consume more food than we need. The changes of what is normal developed in response to our environment over the past 30 years. We have new social norms.

Changing the environment means reducing the amount of or display of ‘desirable’ foods.

I hadn’t realized that what I was talking about is also called ‘desire reduction.’ In other words, if the things – no the triggers - that lead us to overconsume calories are taken away, then our desire to overconsume is reduced. Take my donut example. If the ads for donuts are taken off the bus, then this might reduce my desire to go buy donuts. Certainly, if your work place bans junk food at office meetings, this would reduce the desire to eat those junk foods. I like these strategies because they attempt to reverse something that happened without our asking it to happen. The environment changed around us and what was normal changed. Now it is ‘normal’ to be served supersized meals. It is ‘normal’ to sit for hours. It is ‘normal’ to drink a 20 ounce sugary beverage or an 8 ounce glass of wine. And pushing back against the new normal in our social context is often met with shock and disapproval. Still, this push back, this resistance, is yet another strategy – an individual level strategy that some people promote. I am not convinced. 

The ‘new’ term for this type of individual level strategy or intervention is ‘desire resistance.’ I became familiar with both of these terms (desire reduction and desire resistance, but not the concepts) only recently, when I read an article by Dutton, Fontaine and Allison (abstract here).  I am a pretty big fan of Dr. Allison, he is the co-director along with Dr. Fontaine, of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama, and I pay attention to what he has to say. This is one of the few times I disagree with him.

In their discussion of desire resistance, the authors offer this example of the skills an individual might need to posses in order to resist their ‘internal desires’ or ‘external challenges’ (eg those brownies someone left in the break room):

“Desire resistance skills include strategies such as self-monitoring, meal planning, asking for social support, wearing a physical activity monitor, cognitive restructuring, making a public social commitment, and preparing oneself to anticipate, tolerate, and accept feelings of deprivation when they are encountered.”

I understand that the authors are advocating for both desire reduction and desire resistance, but desire resistance, to me, is going back to the individual focus that others have already found to be extremely challenging. Programs that work at this level usually do not produce lasting change. Yes, there is some evidence that teaching people to count calories or plan their meals will work for the short term and maybe in the long term, for some people, but it is rare. In my experience and in the literature, finding people who can actively, consistently and perpetually resist this 'in your face, food pushing society’ is unusual. I AM one of those people, so if I am against desire resistance as an obesity prevention strategy, it’s worth noting!

This idea of resisting cues to eat calorically dense foods or drinks, or any food or drink when you are not hungry, reminds me of the time I spent teaching people how to resist the trigger to smoke a cigarette when they were trying to quit. What worked the best was when there were LESS triggers. In other words, successful quitters are more likely to be around others who did not smoke, work and recreate in smoke free environments and live in a ‘space’ where smoking is not ‘normal.’ The environmental changes – and taxes on tobacco – have done far more to assist in smoking cessation than all the desire resistance programs!

It’s also ironic to me that in the Allison article, where the authors introduce the desire reduction and desire resistance terms, that they also point to the 2010 Recommendations from the US Surgeon General regarding obesity prevention as misguided. They note that most of the strategies are in the desire reduction category, as if that were a bad thing. I see it as a response to the years – decades – of efforts that did not include the environment at all. Still, in the end, the authors suggest that both strategies – reduce desire by modifying the space and increase resistance by teaching skills – be employed. And in their closing comments they make a valid, important point. The same point is true with smoking or in their example, managing anger, and it is: there is no world in which all temptation or triggers will be absent at all times. In those situations where temptations exist, a person will either indulge, relapse or resist.

Personally, I plan to do a little indulgence in a few days…. Thanksgiving here I come!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What do you think 'natural' means?

Remember past blog posts where I discussed the meaningless ‘all natural’ label declaration (see here and here, for example)? Well, it looks like enough people, or I should say, industries, have voiced similar concerns and with their clout, have moved this issue into the FDA action phase.

The FDA comments portal opens tomorrow and you can participate by clicking on this link.  The three main questions posed are:

Is it appropriate (for the FDA) to define the term “natural”?
If so, how should natural be defined (in regards to food/beverage products)?
How should the FDA determine if a manufacturer is using the term correctly on its food or beverage labels?

I have had two broad concerns with the labeling of an item as all natural (because that is the point of this, food companies want to boast a product as all natural, not just natural or containing natural ingredients). The first is that the term gives the product a ‘health halo’ that may not be justified. In other words, all natural just means all natural (except of course we don’t KNOW what that means). It does not mean health promoting, or nutrient rich, or low sodium/salt, or trans-fat free, or low calorie. None of the things that I want my purchases to be are described by the term natural - though I certainly want minimal processing. My second concern is within the parenthetical comment above- we don’t know what natural means! The old standard, but unenforced ethos from the FDA, was that it meant minimally processed, free of artificial dyes and such. That is far too subjective a definition. For something to be truly all natural, I believe it has to be a whole food, maybe it can contain preservatives, but surely it can’t come in a box. There are so many things that natural isn’t that I am of the mind that the word should NOT be allowed on any labels and thus it doesn’t have to be defined by the FDA. I think that is going to be my official comment. Instead of defining the term, I think that it should be banned from labels altogether.

What would your comment be? Speak up here… or the food industry will speak for you!

Update - 11/15/15 Oh my goodness, how could I have forgotten my favorite All Natural product - YES, peanut butter that isn't fortified or processed, that counts :)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Front of Pack Labels vs Labeling Laws

There is a difference in the requirements for vending operators when they post calorie counts for all items in their machines, starting December 2016, and what some candy, chips and pastry manufacturers are doing now - voluntarily.

According to the law, the font type, size and color have to be large enough and stand out enough to get the attention of the customer while the customer is deciding what to buy. I suppose if you go to the snack machine with nothing but Reese's peanut butter cups on your mind, you may not slow down to read calorie counts, but if you are browsing.....

The snack manufacturers, likely because they make their snacks for grocery and convenience stores too, have begun placing industry designed - industry criteria based - front of pack labels on their packages. On the face, this sounds really good. I love calorie disclosures as a general rule. And it looks like the manufacturers are giving counts for the full packages. 

From the pictures below, you can see some problems.

  1. The labels are too small
  2. The numbers do not stand out on the packages
  3. If the package is not placed in the spiral correctly (especially this happens with beverages) you can not see the label at all
  4. Sometimes the spiral actually covers the label
  5. Only some of the items have labels - how can you compare? 
  6. The labels are not in the same spot, so you can't really scan efficiently, and
  7. In this particular machine, the snacks with the most calories do not have labels (eg honey buns and tasty kake)

By the way, there doesn't seem to be any detectable pricing scheme - two items of equal calories or 'healthiness' can cost from $ .60 to $1.00. Or maybe there is, the chips or salty snacks in the machine below are 60 cents and the higher calorie items, the honey bun and pop tarts, are a dollar. Contrary to what we are told - the worse items cost more, not less.

Here the Cheetos and Oreos are labeled, possibly the pop tarts too

Notice the different label placements, upper right hand corner and lower right hand corner, and even the small side of a package

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Health Halos, Calorie Labeling, and Vending Machines

     Vending Times, a trade magazine for, you guessed it, the Vending Industry (machines, coffee service and micromarkets), recently announced that Mrs. Freshley’s has a new product, 7 Grain Cookies. You can read a little about them here, but the important information (i.e., nutrition content) is not yet posted. Other cookies by this company have, on average, 200 to 300 calories per package – the serving size.
     Without my explaining, can you guess the problem with a 7 grain cookie? Here is a hint and a term nutrition and obesity prevention researchers often use – “health halo.” You probably figured it out. By saying that this high sugar, high calorie item has 7 grains, people are distracted from the fact that it is still an item that should be consumed in extreme moderation. Cookies, pastries and such are in the discretionary category and I believe the latest version of US Dietary Guidelines suggest that discretionary calories take up no more than 10% of a day’s worth of calories (actually the new guidelines refer to added sugar not being more than 10% of calories). Therefore, if you were a small, active women consuming 1800 calories a day, this pack of cookies would be all you were allotted in discretionary calories for the day. The fact that the cookies might supply you with some whole grains, a positive thing, doesn’t change the fact that they are cookies. (BTW, other health halos you might see on discretionary food and beverage items, REAL sugar, raw sugar, honey, molasses– it’s all sugar, and in this context, not different than corn syrup or table sugar).
     Label declarations such as these (e.g., 7 grains) can give us a false sense of the healthiness of an item. Of course, healthiness is a moving target, but let’s stick with sugar and calories – we do want to limit them across the board, throughout each day. In a similar fashion to label 'nutrient disclosures', researchers have found that some Front of Pack labels (of which I am a huge fan) can also create a health halo! Hamlin, McNeill and Moore(2014) conducted an experiment on choices people make after seeing different types of Front of Pack labels and found that across all types (2), having a label led people to buy that product more often than if it did not have a label, regardless of what the label said. This is only one study, and others show that the labels can be helpful in leading to a reduction in calories, salt or sugar purchased, but it is definitely something that should give us pause, especially because one of the label formats tested was my favorite, the multiple traffic light. 
      When I think of this in the context of our soon to be implemented calorie disclosure law for vending machines, it occurs to me that maybe, simpler IS better. In other words, if every single product has a label and the only thing on the label is calorie content – then choosing the smallest number would be the (usually) right thing to do. I have that parenthetical usually, because a 100 kcal pack of cookies might not be a better choice than the 200 kcal package of granola bars, BUT – it would still be the least caloric.
      Lastly, the 2016 calorie label law (passed in 2010) is very specific about the placement, color, font and size of the calorie disclosure. If you take a look at the pictures below, you can see why that is important.

I took these photos at vending machines where I work and offer some comments in the captions.

This is industry criteria, notice the calorie, sugar and sodium limits to be called a Choice Plus snack
Notice the sodium  - its too high to be a Choice Plus but the snack is in a Choice Plus Slot. Also this snack has a Front of Pack label which could be a health halo.

Great example of how different a Choice Plus snack can be and if you look closely you see some calorie disclosures on the package. You have 250, 190 and 100 here.  Importantly, they are ALL the same price ~ busting that myth.
In my opinion, this is not as helpful as the machines with the calories on the front inside the picture of the sodas. I was within inches of this display when I took the picture and you can barely read the calories on these sugar sweetened ice teas (120 per 20 oz)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Food Purchases and a Right to Know

Some while back, I listened to an interview of Richard Cordray, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, on the Diane Rhem Show. During the conversation, he said something about consumers having a right to full information when they were making a purchasing decision, whether that was an appliance, house or a loan. I made a note to myself to go back and find the transcript when time allowed, because what he was saying also made sense as an argument for why we should disclose information about the foods we purchase, even if  - or especially if - they are completely prepared by a third party. I do not focus on vaguely defined terms like All Natural or Organic, and though I don't think a product with GMO (genetically modified organisms) is bad simply because it contains GMOs, I do concede to my friends who insist the products be labeled as such.

Instead, my labeling interests are about ingredients (and their amounts) and caloric content - at the very least calorie amounts, because that seems to be the best place to start with regard to weight control. I did find the recording and transcript of the interview, you can view both here, and I believe it is this excerpt that caught my attention back in July.
  • For consumers, the ability to understand more clearly what the costs and risks are that they face as they make choices, I have great confidence in consumers' ability to make decisions for themselves. Nobody can stand in their shoes and understand their circumstances as well as they do themselves. But at the same time, there are things they need to know about what the choices really are and whether the choice that's being presented to them is the deal that they will actually be able to live with next year or the years after or whether it will have changed in ways that are not clear to them in the fine print.These are all ways in which consumers, if they have their eyes open and if they can clearly see the futures, will make pretty good choices for themselves. But if the future is obscured, if they're being tricked and if there's deceptive marketing, as was often the case, then they will make bad decisions and they'll regret them and none of us wants to see that and consumers most of all. 

  • A lot of what Mr. Cordray discusses has to do with loans - its a great interview regarding financial protection and regulation. I encourage you to listen.

    But if you think about all the decisions we make regarding food - every day - the same message applies. Do we know what will happen to our future selves if we eat, for example, meals with very high calorie, sugar or salt content? And if we do know what will happen - for example, that we might gain weight or our blood pressure become dangerously high - shouldn't we be able to make an informed choice? A choice made by easily identifying the foods and beverages that are high or low in those things? It is our future 1) to understand and 2) to protect.

    Full disclosure is a purchasers legal right.

    Tuesday, August 4, 2015

    Calorie Awareness While Traveling

    I recently spent a week at a Residence Inn in Alabama. I attended a research methods workshop for obesity prevention and treatment. On several occasions, I was aware of the 'conspicuous' absence of calorie disclosures. The biggest one... the hotel 'free breakfast.' Except for the cartons of yogurt and milk, nothing was labeled. Considering that a slice of bread can have as little as 40 calories (if you search hard) and as many as 100+, that's a big deal. I imagine the range for the available muffins, bagels and waffles make them equally hard to 'estimate.' Sure a day or two of incidental over consumption should't have lasting effects on your health, but if you travel  - and eat away from home - often, the information will come in handy. 
    When I travel, attend workshops, meetings and just go to work, I try to keep within the bounds of what is healthy for me. That is another observation I had while at the workshop. It is not enough for the planners to serve 'healthy' food, because healthy, especially these days, is a relevant term and a moving target. Healthy for me mostly meets with the updated recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: 
    The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat;i and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. Vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes.
    *The fruits and vegetables are highlighted as being prepared with spices and without adding salt and saturated fat. See the full report here.

    So for me, healthy is not about organic or 'all natural,' and healthy doesn't mean no artificial sweeteners, but that is exactly how some others might define healthy for themselves. My healthy diet includes mostly whole foods, minimally processed; no meats, lots of vegetables, soy based lean protein, fish, almond milk and no or low fat dairy (yogurt, cheese, ice cream), fruit, coffee, plenty of whole grains, like popcorn!, fiber and yup, alcohol and diet soda. So to eat the way I like, I usually bring my own food, and in Alabama, though I ate out a few nights, I went to the grocery store and prepared my lunch and dinner in the nice hotel room kitchen.  (The reason the workshop lunches weren't 'healthy' to me is because they were often sandwiches, pasta, or meat based. I did enjoy the fruit and diet soda though!)
    Interestingly, my friends and I were out walking one evening and one or two got very excited when we passed the Insomnia Cookies store. (remember this was an obesity prevention workshop, and cookies can be part of a calorie controlled diet). So, my friend was more than a little excited as she went into the store - there was quite a line at the counter - but she came right back out, with a brochure (for me) and disgust. WHY? THEY POSTED THE CALORIE CONTENT!  HAHAHAHA, she said that seeing the calories took all the fun out of it. Hilarious. (BTW, we have one of these Insomnia Cookie food trucks at Temple University, and the shop in Alabama was within a mile of the UAB campus. Sense a theme?)

    Notice the ranges, also on the right is ice cream

    Monday, July 13, 2015

    The delay is NOT the demise of menu labeling

    The FDA has granted restaurants and similar retail establishments a delay in posting calorie amounts  -  how that delay actually came about and why, warrants some clarification.

    The National Restaurant Industry, like the National Automatic Merchandising Association for vending machines, supports calorie disclosures on menus and menu boards as mandated for large (20 or more) chain restaurants. Large chain restaurants are probably ready to roll with the disclosures - several cities and at least 1 state already have calorie (+) disclosure laws in place (though they are preempted by the federal law). It is not likely that restaurants need or even want the delay, after all, the industry(through its trade group) supported the federal law; a nationwide, preemptive law is good for them.

    What is really going on is that the 'similar retail establishments,' ones that sell ready to eat food as a major part of their enterprise, for example, grocery stores, movie theatres, bowling alleys, convenience stores, tried to get out of the mandate. Once they realized the law did indeed apply to them, they asked for and received more time to get their act together.

    I do not see the delay as a bad thing and I do not read it as the demise of the legislation. Too many big players AND consumers want calorie displays across the many places where food choices are made. 

    Including the similar retail establishments (and vending machines) in the law makes it 1) fair to the sellers of the food - why should some have to disclose and other not? and 2) easier - possible - for us to monitor our calorie intake if we so choose. Whether we will choose to do it or understand how to do it, is a separate discussion.

    Researchers and proponents of the law do not know if calorie disclosure by itself is going to change the behavior of people most in need of changing their behavior (i.e., people who exceed their average daily calorie needs), but it makes it possible and before we can do anything else (e.g., tell people how many calories, from which types of foods, are too many), we have to put the information out there. The early positive change that I, and many others envision, is that the retailers are going to reformulate recipes or reduce serving sizes in order to 'present' calorie counts that are more reasonable. Hey, there is a thought, maybe one of the things that 'similar retail establishments' will do with their extra year is reduce calories  - say in that bucket of popcorn!

    Anyway, I am not disheartened and as a researcher, I hope to take advantage of the extra time to conceptualize some new evaluation studies!

    Tuesday, June 30, 2015

    Seen about town, ads pushing calorie dense items and calorie disclosures, etc

    It was really challenging to come up with a title for this blog post, which is a good sign that I am trying to say too much in one post. Nonetheless, I am stubborn and have been holding on to these photos and these thoughts for at least a month.

    First, calorie disclosures are coming, they will be the law of the land, but probably not fully so until 2016. In other words, the congress persons representing businesses will get the law delayed, but they will not get it appealed (I understand from my sources).

    Second, it is becoming clear that 'a calorie is a calorie' is not quite true - even for weight. You may recall a post from me some years ago that implied that as far as weight was concerned 1800 calories of twinkie are the same as 1800 calories of vegetables. I went on to say, and this part remains true, that a person will be a lot healthier and feel much better if they refrain from eating 1800 calories of twinkie. I think we've all known that the body handles macronutrients differently, i.e., refined carbs are metabolized differently than fats or fibers - but more recently science has established that the number of calories might be the same in say a twinkie and a piece of salmon, but once our body digests and metabolizes these foods, the calorie end point is not the same.

    Some people have suggested that calorie monitoring may be less necessary, and to that point I strongly disagree.  Many people who have lost weight and kept if off do eat better and maintain high levels of exercise but they also remain vigilant to consuming a sensible range of calories.

    I am not abandoning calorie monitoring. However, I am not involved in research on metabolism - nor am I a nutritionist-  so I will stick to watching what happens when calorie disclosure laws go into effect. For example, I anticipate changes in availability of lower calorie options and changes in purchasing behavior. I am not going to keep trying to describe the science on the relationship between calories and weight gain. Instead, I assure you that we cannot eat with reckless abandon and many of our away from home meal purchases are ridiculously high in those wrong kind of calories.

    Now my pictures and why I chose to take and share these in particular.

    This ad was presented to me while I was listening to Pandora Radio - not so targeted considering I am a calorie controlled vegetarian!

    I was 'exposed' to this ad on the Philly transit bus;  a bargain for two high calorie items. PLUS I am a NYG fan :)
    You may have heard that grocery stores do not want to put calorie labels on their prepared food; that is unfair to restaurants and leaves customers lacking important information for food choices. 

    Manufacturers update their labels from time to time, they may reformulate a product which changes the calorie amount, they may change the serving size which would change the calorie amount or they may fear scrutiny and revisit the accuracy of their label. These side by side boxes are both Jacobsens Blueberry Snack Toasts, but the calories INCREASED from 40 each to 45 each. Everything else appears to be the same. When I find older version with less calories listed, I buy them, but I am just fooling myself!
    This is my favorite!  This restaurant is in Philadelphia where a calorie disclosure law has been in place for several years. The menus also have to display sodium/salt content. This is one positive outcome of calorie disclosures! 

    Monday, June 1, 2015

    Calorie Mindful or Drunkorexia

    I recently came across a research article discussing a phenomena (possible 'disorder') called drunkorexia. The term and what it means caught me off guard and to be honest, disturbed me. It disturbs me for a couple reasons. The first is that I am loathe to think that my advising persons - as a public health educator - to consider how they spend their calories in a given day might in some way suggest that I think people should drastically cut their calories in order to 'fit in' highly caloric (and dangerous) binge drinking. Of course, I expect that the primary audience for my blog and YouTube channel are not mostly college aged females - the group that engages in this behavior the most - and is instead, people doing their best to consume the right amount of calories to keep themselves at a health promoting weight. So when I say that I personally consider the 1 beer, glass of wine or alcoholic beverage (~ 100 cals) in my daily total, and thus have a smaller lunch or breakfast in order to have that drink, I am NOT advocating skipping meals or 'starving' in order to 1) drink on an empty stomach for a quicker high or 2) or to consume 500 or more calories in alcohol and not gain weight.

    I am also concerned when people medicalize/diagnose behaviors, like the dumb one I just described, into psychological problems - at least too quickly. Labeling people, in my experience as a social worker (not a psychiatrist/psychologist or nutritionist), too soon or maybe at all, can cement the problem; the person becomes the problem - the illness manifests because someone said it was there.

    My area of expertise and research is not eating disorders. The main point of this post, and the point I will reiterate and end with is: being smart about the calories you consume does not include - never includes - not eating. It is easy to reduce a breakfast and or lunch by 50 to 100 calories by changing its ingredients. I do not advocate any of the behaviors associated with this 'drunkorexia.'

    Tuesday, May 19, 2015

    The proliferation of calorie disclosures

    In one of my recent posts, I mentioned that calorie declarations for restaurant items were beginning to show up on TV and in web based ads. It appears that the industry is gearing up for the calorie disclosure mandate that goes into effect this December (see the Final Rules for ACA sect 4205[1]).  I have noticed that up-front calorie disclosures are becoming more prevalent in grocery stores as well.

    The grocery store calorie proliferation is likely due to several factors, including the Affordable Care Act’s wide reaching mandate. Food manufacturers began adding front of pack labels some years ago (with declarations THEY are comfortable with, i.e., not every manufacturer includes calories or sugar amounts on the front of every one of their products), but one voluntary version Facts Up Front does provide info on calories and select nutrients, and it has potential.  If you click on the link above, you can scroll through some of the examples. As an example, I have noticed that most sliced bread brands have Facts Up Front labels now - with the calories displayed - but BE CAREFUL sometimes its calories per 2 slices and sometimes per 1 slice. The Institute of Medicine has recommended a standardized, mandatory front of pack label with an interpretive design, for example, 3 stars vs 1 star (I wrote about this recommendation a few years ago).  I believe that the more customers see calorie disclosures, the more they will demand them - up-front.  (The new calorie disclosure law is about ready-to-eat foods at grocery stores, restaurants and similar establishments, not packaged foods. But again, people are now expecting to see calories more easily because of laws like this.)

    One of the issues in labeling, especially for packaged or self-serving foods (e.g., ice cream), is a push to present easily, or commonly, understood serving sizes.  The serving sizes (usually) accompany the calorie counts on front labels, e.g., half a cup, 2 tablespoons. I think it would be a disservice to customers, however, not to also include the weight in grams or number of ounces of that particular ½-cup or tablespoon; a ½- cup of one item may not be commensurate with ½ a cup of another item.  Recently, I was choosing between cookie brands. For each brand, the calorie amount per 3-cookie serving was 130, but the serving for one brand had 20 grams and the other had 30 grams, so in essence, I would get to eat MORE food for the same calories if I chose the heavier product. I owe my ‘per unit’ calorie comparisons to lessons I have gleaned from using UPC shelf labels, price per ounce, as I’ve mentioned in the past. 

    I think that emphasizing serving size can also be context specific.  One place it makes sense for the majority of people to see calories per serving ‘size’ instead of serving ‘weight’ is the vending machine.  I say this because, the usual serving size of a snack purchased from a vending machine, or the amount customarily consumed, is the whole package. The package is the serving size.  Most people intend to eat all the M&MS, Fritos, or Lays, so by scanning across all products and knowing how many cals per pack, a person can, if they choose, pick the lowest calorie package and be done with it.  (In time, I suspect, savvy customers will figure out that even here, they can get more or less calories per package based on weight/volume.)

    So that is very cool.  Calories are showing up more (this is good for people who are trying to limit calories or who simply want to choose items with fewer calories - can’t do it if you don’t know the numbers!).  The national law (again see ACA section 4205) covers more than foods – restaurant chains under the laws jurisdiction will also have to display calories for their alcoholic beverages!  Not the gin and tonic you order at the bar, but the Bahama Mama or Margarita from places like Red Lobster and Chili’s.  This is one place that the restaurant industry in general, is not giving us a prelude with its on line menus.  I went to the websites of more than 10 restaurant chains while writing this blog, and only one, Red Lobster, had its alcoholic beverage calories posted. Some of these drinks have more calories than my meals; I expect many drinks will be reformulated when the law goes into effect.  If you want to get an idea, check out Red Lobster’s menu – see page 2. Else, stick with lighter beers and wine or traditional drinks, gin and tonic should have about 100 calories as does my favorite Dee Dee Sour (Seagram’s seven and Fresca).  BTW, the Red Lobster  Caramel appletini has 160 cals and the chocolate martini has 330 – how could anyone know this without a calorie disclosure on the menu, when you are ordering?  Unless of course, it’s that ONE day a year when none of this matters (smile face!)

    Monday, May 11, 2015

    Label Claims

    In the past, I have cautioned that ingredients, serving sizes, and calorie content can change over time, making it a good idea to keep a watch on even your staple products. For me, Smuckers All Natural Peanut Butter has been a staple for years. I noticed when I got home from the grocery store today that both the Nutrition Facts Panel in the back and the Front of Pack (jar) declaration had changed. To be truthful, I did not notice the Front of Pack calorie declaration on the jar in my fridge before today, but it says 210 cals per 2 tablespoon serving - kudos for 1) disclosing calories up front and 2) including a serving size that we can understand. Also, on the standard NFP, the type of fats are broken down on the older jar. I have often pointed out that Smuckers All Natural peanut butter is a source of 'good' monounsaturated fat, but the tides and the (interpretation of) science have changed on fat - and no matter the kind of fat - the calories are the same. (BTW, this is one of those rare occasions where the term natural really means natural.)

    The reason I started comparing my two jars of peanut butter was because on the front of the jar I bought today there was a declaration of 8 grams of protein per serving. Peanut butter is usually a good source of protein  - that is not new- declaring the grams on the front of the label is though. I guess there is a shift underway and protein is the macronutrient of the day. Because it was highlighted, I did think maybe the amount changed, but no, both jars have 8 g per serving. The older peanut butter does have more calories, just a few, but its weird that it went from 210 to 200 - same serving size. AND, other nutrition related fads (oh I mean concerns) are addressed on the new label, too. I'll let you pick them out below. BTW, the ingredients - peanuts and salt - are unchanged.
    Here are the two jars and yes, I still LOVE this peanut butter.
    This picture shows that the newer label doesn't break down the good fats.

    Old calorie declaration

    New calorie declaration plus 2 more declarations

    Protein highlighted

    Tuesday, May 5, 2015

    Calorie Stealth

    Calories, calories, calories. That is all this girl talks about… well, mostly true. I also talk about making sure that you are as physically active as possible (that means sit less) and that you try to exercise every day. And a few other things, like not smoking or tanning… and, well by now, you can fill in the rest yourselves.

    So YES, calories.  First, restaurant (and similar venue) menu labeling is coming and I have noticed an increasing number of commercials that include a calorie count within the TV (or internet) ad.  Here is the most recent:

    Second, I want to pass along a ‘be on the lookout’ note:

    Little Bites and mini donuts are not low calorie options, but calling something little bites sure makes you think so. Right? Actually, a serving of Little Bites muffins has 180 calories, a regular muffin 190 and a 'mini' cake 260.  All of these are made by Entenmann’s. TastyKake sells mini-donuts with over 200 cals per serving. Take home message: read the calorie AND serving size information regardless of the words, light, little, diet, mini, good for you, all natural, organic...etc.

    And back to the lemonade: 240 calories for a beverage is a bit much… more than half those calories are from sugar - 39 grams or about 10 teaspoons. The rest is from protein and fat, which comes from the milk. Below is the ingredients list from ChickfilA. The ingredients in the “Icedream” read like a chemistry book.

    Frosted Lemonade: Icedream (whole milk, sugar, nonfat dry milk, artificial flavor, corn starch, mono & diglycerides, microcrystalline cellulose, carrageenan, guar gum, Yellow 5 & 6), water, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, sugar.

    Diet Frosted Lemonade: Icedream (whole milk, sugar, nonfat dry milk, artificial flavor, corn starch, mono & diglycerides, microcrystalline cellulose, carrageenan, guar gum, Yellow 5 & 6), water, freshly-squeezed lemon juice, Splenda® (dextrose, maltodextrin, sucralose).

    SO – the picture above, with the 240 calories, that is the diet one…. the regular lemonade has 330 calories and 63g of sugar (16 teaspoons). Sigh…and by sigh, I mean that's crazy! (PS I didn't see the fine print in the picture at first, “starting at…. 240 cals.”)

    Sunday, April 5, 2015

    Learning how to maintain a healthy weight - from our pets

    It is not a secret. We have obese cats and dogs, a good many of them. And I will gander a guess - an educated one, I've read research - that pets gain weight when we give them people food - in addition to their pet food.  I have also read that ad libitum feeding is better than intermittent feeding. Pets - maybe the study was on cats - eat less when the food is left for them all day (I'm sure it was cats, dogs are sort of dumb), than when the food is presented and taken away. Sound familiar?  Its a bit of a take on restriction and forbidden foods - if you think you wont' get to eat that again, you want to eat a lot of it when you have the chance, especially, it seems, if you are a cat.

    Anyways, I recently adopted one, a cat, after not having one for several years. My cat will not get people food - ever. I did buy him some treats though - good for his teeth.  And imagine my surprise (delight even) at this label instruction:
    As with any treat, always adjust amount of main meal to compensate for calories delivered by treats.
    In addition, the label tells you how many calories per treat, and how many treats a day your cat should have based on his or her weight.  But the instruction to compensate is priceless and relevant: you can't just keep adding calories - even good ones - and not expect to gain weight.

    If its important for a cat, isn't it important for you?  Sure - have a glass of wine, but those 150 to 200 calories COUNT towards your daily total, they are not supposed to be 'add ons' - you must compensate... pretend you're a cat.

    I am referencing Feline Greenies, BTW, and my cat likes them - in moderation!

    Monday, March 30, 2015

    The case of South LA, Obesity and the Meaningless Law

    You may have heard about the 'absolute failure' of a fast food zoning ban in South Los Angeles, California.  The ban on new, stand alone - very distinctly defined - fast food restaurants did not lead to a loss of weight for city residents, in fact, overweight/obese rates went UP after the law was 'on the books.'

    Notably, the rates of overweight and obesity went up for ALL of Los Angeles and LA County. According to the study authors (Sturm and Hattori), South Los Angeles residents - ones whose behaviors and weights were captured in the California Health Interview Survey- had a higher rate of overweight obesity to begin with and their rates increased faster - or to a higher degree - than either the whole of Los Angeles city or LA County (their behaviors and weights were also assessed through the survey).

    Whether or not a ban on new fast food restaurants - and it was not a total ban - was a good idea is for someone else to argue, but whether or not the study results are conclusive or even meaningful falls into the bailiwick of this (increasingly infrequent) blogger.  Yes, I end up giving an opinion about the law, I can't help myself sometimes.

    This LA Times article provides a bit of information, though it does not describe the study methods. I accessed the journal article, the abstract is here. My main interest was in how the researchers went about collecting their data and answering their research questions. Sturm and Hattori (2015), used two main sources of data. They used establishment/restaurant permit records from the Department of Health and existing survey responses from a recurring/repeating survey - the California Health Interview Survey.  The survey responses (people) could be categorized by city, county, zipcode etc, so the researchers compared results between 3 groups, only one of which, South Los Angeles, was 'exposed' to the new regulation.

    The regulation didn't really do much, I mean literally - it didn't do anything.  Fast Food Restaurants (FFR) still opened in Los Angeles, new business rose about 2% in all three locations. So from time 1 to time 2 there were actually MORE not less places for residents (or commuters?) to eat foods that were likely very high in calories. Between the time that the law went into effect and when the researchers evaluated the survey respondents FFR patronage frequency and their BMIs a second time, the environment did not change 'for the better'. There were not fewer FFR at time two, but would that have mattered? Research has shown that even sit down restaurants, fast casual or otherwise, serve foods that are calorically dense.  All away from home eating is associated with excess calorie consumption - so a law that prevents a certain sub category of FFR from adding more locations might make sense on its face, the result won't necessarily - or likely - be lower weights for the people who live in that area,

    With an understanding of what did and didn't happen as a result of the law - i.e., FFR locations did not decrease or remain stable, they increased - how can one say that restricting FFRs does not lead to less FFR patronage or less calories consumed.  The law was flaccid at best - the first outcome - a decrease in number of restaurants or restaurant density did not happen. There was NO change in the obesogenic environment - people had as many if not more options for calorie dense food as before the law. So the answer to the first question: "Does a law restricting FFR lead to fewer FFR?" is no. Therefore, we can't answer anymore questions! But lets say the answer was yes, that five years later there were less restaurants in the area; the second question is: "Did the law lead to less consumption of fast food - or even better, much better, did it lead to few calories purchased/consumed?"

    Now, is this the right policy?  Banning restaurants?  In some ways, it makes sense.  If there isn't a FFR on every corner, then FFRs become less popular, less 'normal.' And if FFRs were the only source of our passive overconsumption of calories, fewer of them might change our intake.  But they are not - there are plenty of sources of too many calories. The goal, in my opinion, should be to get existing establishment to reduce the amount of calories - across the board - that they put out for sale.

    NB. Another possible 'confounder' for South LA is that people may not eat where they live - so capping the number of fast food restaurants does not change behavior if people are not eating where they live. 

    Mom, you would be happy to know that I had three more paragraphs, but I realized I had already said what I needed to say so I deleted them.

    Monday, March 2, 2015

    The 2015 Dietary Guidelines: The Advisory Committee Makes Recommendations

    I am not going to spend many hours of our time creating numerous posts to break down the newest (and pending) edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as I did 5 years ago.  Holy cows! Five years ago?!

    I am not going to do it because others, with better nutritional backgrounds, have already been hitting the highlights and controversies and because you can read the report yourself.

    But as is my style, I will say a few things before I link you to the document and one of my favorite blog posts related to it.

    • Calories are as important as ever and a majority of the population - all ages - consume more than they need to maintain a health weight.  A healthy weight, better measured as waist circumference or waist to hip ratio than on a scale or BMI, is one in which the body does not have excess fat.
    • Sugar quickly increases calories without adding nutrients - except naturally occurring sugar in fruits and vegetables - and dietary fat, though not necessarily harmful, has a lot of calories and therefore should be limited in the diet - animal sources and full fat dairy are a continuing concern in these guidelines.
    • Plant based diets are still the best.
    • Exercise is key to better health - better health.  Let's just stop talking about it as a way to lose weight or eat more, whether it helps with that or not does not matter as much as this:  Exercise in and of itself is a necessary component of good health!
    • Taxes and info: Environmental strategies, the likes of which I focus my research on, are promoted in the recommendations. The Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee talks about the need for information disclosure at the point of purchase and taxes on sugar sweetened beverages.

    Two excerpts from the full report of the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

    What to eat: 
    Following a dietary pattern associated with reduced risk of CVD, overweight, and obesity also will have positive health benefits beyond these categories of health outcomes. Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy  products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-  sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains. These dietary patterns can be achieved in many ways and should be tailored to the individual’s biological and medical needs as well as socio-cultural preferences. 
    The food environment:
    Align nutritional and agricultural policies with Dietary Guidelines recommendations and  make broad policy changes to transform the food system so as to promote population  health, including the use of economic and taxing policies to encourage the production and  consumption of healthy foods and to reduce unhealthy foods. For example, earmark tax revenues from sugar-sweetened beverages, snack foods and desserts high in calories, added sugars, or sodium, and other less healthy foods for nutrition education initiatives and obesity prevention programs.  
    Click here for a great blog post by Dr. David Katz 

    Monday, January 26, 2015

    Building a low calorie meal at Chipotle

    Until the menu labeling that is mandated by law and regulated by the FDA blankets the US, there is still the option of using online nutrition information available for most large chain restaurants.  I expect the information to remain available on line after the law is implemented, which is great for planning ahead.  Information on site can help you make a healthy choice at an unfamiliar restaurant you.

    I recently got the notion that I should have a meal in mind in case I ended up at Chipotle.  There is one near my office.  I tried several combinations on the interactive web menu and watched the total calorie count go up or down, a little or a lot, depending on the choices that I made.  You can explore the menu this way too, just click here.

    I did not add any of the meats when I was exploring, but I did add the Sofritas (a soy product/meat substitute); I think I saw an add for the Sofritas and that might be why I started thinking about Chipotle.  I did toy with tortillas and dressings.

    Here is a snap shot of my "meal."  I specifically included the vinaigrette on this salad so you could see how it impacted the calorie total - 270 calories just in the dressing!  The salad has almost 500 calories with the dressing, which of course I don't need because I have the tomato salsa.  In other words, if I were placing an order, I would use the salsa for the dressing, not the vinaigrette.

    Next are examples where I chose a burrito (a tortilla w/300 calories!) and a taco (a crispy shell w/ 210 calories).