Archive for the ‘ Diet ’ Category

What is “Real Food?” Dietitians Weigh In

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

For the past few years, you’ve likely heard how vital it is to feed our children and ourselves more so-called “real food.” Adding to—if not starting—the conversation, popular food writer Michael Pollan weighs in on all things food in his bestselling book, Food Rules. In it, he defines “real food” as “plants, animals and fungi people have been eating for generations.” Pollan also refers to most new products offered in supermarkets each year as “edible food-like substances” and describes such foods as “highly processed concoctions designed by food scientists, consisting mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy that no normal person keeps in the pantry, and that contain chemical additives with which the body has not been long acquainted.”

Although many parents and experts alike may agree with Pollan’s point of view, there’s no formal, universally accepted definition for “real food.” Even if there were, it’s likely parents who want to feed themselves and their growing children better would go about doing so in different ways. Still, I thought it would be fun to take to Facebook and Twitter and ask my registered dietitian colleagues what they think “real food” really is.

According to Marty Yadrick, “real food” is anything edible. Sheryl Lozicki thinks of “real food” as food that is minimally processed and nourishing. Alexandra Lautenschläger concurs, adding that “real foods” have few ingredients.

Janet Bond Brill, PhD thinks of “real food” as food that is eaten the way Mother Nature intended it to be eaten—for example, an apple rather than apple pie. And Maggie Green says, “If “real food” means it’s tangible, then all food is real. If “real food” means it’s not processed, that excludes foods like olive oil and butter.” According to Lauren Slayton, “For many parents, “real food” is food they serve their children—it doesn’t come from a package or from a factory.”

Regan Jones concedes that that term “real food” means different things to different people (something that came across loud and clear when I posted the question on Facebook and on twitter in the first place). According to Jones, “In it’s truest sense, “real food” represents foods that we recognize in their most basic, natural form—how they grew from the ground, what animal produced the milk, or even the tree on which the fruit grew. But busy, modern day lives mean we don’t/can’t eat at that most basic root level—so for my purposes, “real foods” are foods that have been processed in a way to allow for convenience (like peeling or grinding) and safety (like pasteurization).” The co-creator of, an image-based recipe discovery platform—and the only site of its kind moderated by registered dietitians and solely focused on healthy food blogs—Jones says, “While we (at don’t shun all advances by food manufacturers, we do like to focus on ingredients that are easy to recognize and understand.”

Supermarket dietitian Leah McGrath thinks terms like “real food,” “whole food” and “clean eating” are elitist and simply give certain foods and eaters undeserved status. To McGrath, “real food” is anything we can safely consume. Rebecca Scritchfield also takes issue with the term “real food.” In her opinion, it’s a term that’s full of judgment. That said, Scritchfield thinks of “real food” as food you can make in your kitchen, even if you don’t. “I can make homemade corn tortillas in my kitchen for fish tacos or migas, but I can also buy them. I can also make chocolate chip cookies with real butter and sugar and don’t need to use applesauce or other “replacements” to call it real. Like Scritchfield, Danielle Omar thinks of “real food” as food that she can make or grow myself. She says, “I can make yogurt, but I can’t make Cool Whip or Velveeta cheese.”

Roseanne Rust believes that trendy and simple terms like “real food” that get pitched to and by the media as sound bites never explain the whole picture. She’s also tired of simple “X is bad” statements and “Avoid X challenges.” According to Rust, “Food and eating is personal. “Real” is not what matters. What matters are healthy eating behaviors and patterns.”

However you define “real food,” the bottom line is clear—at least to me. Most of us don’t own and run a farm, or grow most (if any) of our own foods. If we can produce some of our own food via a garden, or rely on a local farmer’s market for fresh, locally grown produce, fantastic! But if that’s not possible—or we haven’t yet made time for it (guilty as charged), following a few simple rules can help us feed and nourish our families without making ourselves crazy.

Eating foods—mostly plants, as suggested by Michael Pollan and so many of us registered dietitians—and choosing mostly foods that are made with minimal amounts of solid fats and added sugars (SoFAs) that provide empty calories can certainly help. Eating a dietary pattern consistent with MyPlate and keeping portion sizes of foods that don’t neatly fit into any recognizable food group can also help. (For example, foods like low fat chocolate milk or Hershey Kisses can be included as part of kids’ daily SoFA calories if that’s how they’d like to spend those extra calories).

For other tips on how we can help our kids eat better, check out How to Help Kids Eat Less and Better and Tips From Experts to Feed Kids Better from The Scoop on Food.

Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks
Kids' Favorite Snacks

How do you define “real food?”

Image of healthy lifestyle concept via shutterstock.


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Should Soda Carry a Warning Label?

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

We all know that sugary soda offers empty calories and not much else to help children grow and develop optimally. Studies have linked soda intake with everything from poor diet quality to weight gain to an increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Soda intake has also been associated with an increased risk of dental caries and kidney stones. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics also found a link between soda intake and an increased risk of aggressive behavior in young children.

Because of the purported perils associated with soda consumption, some believe they should come with a warning label. Just this week, the California Senate approved a bill that would require a label on the front of all sealed sugar-sweetened nonalcoholic beverage containers that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces. The label would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” Sodas that are dispensed or poured at the business premises where the beverages are purchased would be exempt from the labeling requirements.

According to the bill, referred to as SB-1000, in California alone, 19 percent of 2- to 5-year-olds, 32 percent of 6 to 11-year-olds, and 65 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds drink a sugar-sweetened beverage daily. The bill also notes there’s a major disparity between races and ethnicities. It says, “74 percent of African American adolescents drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage each day, compared to 73 percent of Latinos, 63 percent of Asians, and 56 percent of whites.”

Although estimates vary, a recent study published in American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that, on average, Americans aged 2 and above derived 171 calories—8 percent of total calories—from sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs), the top source being soda. The study also showed that 12- to 19-year-old boys derived 12 percent of their total daily calorie intake—293 calories—from SSBs. Using national survey data of thousands of children and adults, a previous study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that while soda intake fell, intake of nontraditional SSBs rose. For example, although soda was the most heavily consumed SSB in all age groups except for children, adolescents’ intake of soda dropped while heavy intake of sports/energy drinks tripled.

No matter how you slice it (or pour it), we know we should all replace some or all of the sugary soda and other nutrient-poor SSBs in our diets with more healthful drinks like water. But would having a warning label on soda containers cause parents and children to drink less soda—and would that, in turn, reduce the risk of obesity and other diet-related diseases? That’s the million dollar question. Coupled with anti-soda public health campaigns, having a warning label on soda may encourage a parent or child to think twice before purchasing or drinking soda. But only time and studies would tell if the measure would prove to be effective in improving dietary intake, weight and health in the nation.

Although I agree we should all cut back on sugary soda intake, I’m not sure I agree that soda should carry a warning label. I truly believe that small portions of soda or other nutrient-poor treats like cookies, snack chips and candy can be included in an otherwise nutritious, balanced diet. Also, if we stick warning labels on soda, shouldn’t we do the same for candy and other treats? What about butter? Where do we draw the line?

According to David Katz, MD, co-author of Disease Proof, “I really don’t think it makes sense to put warning labels on food that is still sold as food. Once it warrants a warning label, it no longer qualifies as food.”  In a post for TIME Magazine, Katz argues, “Junk (like soda) should never have been a food group in the first place. So sure, let’s apply some objective method to determine what foods warrant a scarlet “J,” but then let’s eradicate them. It’s silly to have warning labels on food we keep selling.”

Whether or not warning labels on sodas and other SSBs becomes mandated in California or in other states across the country, parents can choose to skip the soda altogether and not drink it themselves or offer it to their children. Instead, they can provide their families with nutritious beverage options at home and encourage their selection at restaurants or when on-the-go.

If parents drink sugary soda themselves or allow their children to drink it, a good rule of thumb is to think of soda as a treat or dessert and to limit the frequency of consumption and to keep portion sizes small. It’s also important for those who drink soda, young or old, to have it instead of—not in addition to—candy, cookies, ice cream or other foods and beverages made with a lot of added sugar to ensure they stay within calorie needs and have enough room for nutrient-rich foods.

For more tips, check out Rethinking Kids’ Drinks: How to Foster Healthier Habits.

Do you think warning labels on soda are a good or bad idea?  

Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid
Nutrition Labels: 3 Things To Avoid

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Food Recalls: How You Can Stay Safe

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Just as you’re planning to celebrate with family and friends this Memorial Day weekend, the Food and Drug Administration has reported recalls of a variety of foods. As reported by CNN, in just the last week everything from raw clover sprouts, hummus and dip products, walnuts and ground beef products have been recalled because they’ve been linked with dangerous bacteria that have made—or could make—some people very sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—the agency responsible for tracking the occurrence of foodborne disease and investigating outbreaks—each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases caused by bacteria,  parasites and viruses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also monitors recalls of meat and poultry products produced by federally inspected establishments.

On the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts for FDA-regulated products are posted. To find out about such recalls, you can sign up here to receive email alerts.

Here’s some information about a few of the recent recalls you likely want to know about:

Raw clover sprouts: According to the CDC announcement on May 22, 2014, seven confirmed and three probable cases of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O121 infection have been reported in Idaho and Washington. Some types of STEC frequently cause severe disease, including bloody diarrhea and one type of kidney failure. Nine out of ten ill persons reported eating raw clover sprouts in the week before becoming ill. Preliminary traceback investigations indicate that the likely source of the outbreak are contaminated raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, LLC of Idaho. The Washington State Department of Health and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare are advising people not to eat raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts. To protect yourself against illness from sprouts, check out Sprouts: What You Should Know.

Walnuts: According to a company press release issued on May 21, 2014, Sherman Produce based in St. Louis voluntarily recalled 241 cases of bulk walnuts packaged in 25 lb bulk cardboard boxes and Schnucks brand 10 oz trays with UPC 00338390032 with best by dates 03/15 and 04/15. According to the company, the walnuts were recalled because of their potential contamination with listeria monocytogenes—an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Short-term symptoms in healthy people can include high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Pregnant women contaminated by listeria monocytogenes can experience miscarriage and stillbirth. The recalled products were sold to retailers in Missouri and Illinois from March to May 2014. No illnesses have been reported to date and consumers who have purchased these walnuts are urged not to consume them. Instead, they are advised to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Hummus and dip products: According to a press release issued on May 19, 2014, Prepared Foods manufacturer, Lansal, Inc. (also known as Hot Mama’s Foods) announced a voluntary recall of about 14,860 pounds of hummus and dip products due to concerns about possible contamination with listeria monocytogenes. Although the recall was taken as a precaution, and no illnesses have been reported, the company saw the potential for contamination during a routine test of Target Archer Farms Traditional Hummus (10 ounce) by the Texas Department of Health. Consumers who have purchased the hummus products listed here are urged not to eat them and to dispose of them or return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

Ground beef: According to a press release issued on May 19, 2014, the Wolverine Packing Company based in Detroit, Michigan recalled approximately 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products (see the complete list of recalled products here). The company believes that the ground beef can potentially be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Although the products were shipped for retail and restaurant use nationwide, they were not distributed to the Department of Defense or the National School Lunch Program or for sale in catalogs/on the internet. E. coli O157:H7, a potentially deadly bacterium, can cause dehydration, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps 2–8 days (3–4 days, on average) after exposure to the organism. Although most can recover from the infection within a week, some can develop a type of kidney failure (symptoms can include easy bruising, pallor, and decreased urine output). Those who experience such symptoms should seek medical care immediately. The FSIS advises consumers to safely prepare raw meats, including fresh and frozen, and only consume ground beef that has been cooked to a temperature of 160° F (and to use a food thermometer that measures internal temperature to ensure doneness).

While most of the time we don’t need to worry about the safety of the food we buy or consume, some of it can become contaminated through undercooking (eg ground beef), cross contamination (preparing or handling raw meat and having it be in contact with other foods like produce), inadequate hand washing and other ways. While we shouldn’t shop or eat in fear, there are things we can do to protect our families against the dangers of foodborne illness. Staying in the know about alerts and using the resources below can certainly help us decrease our risks of getting sick from food and help us enjoy food and eating as we should.

Product Recalls: What to Do
Product Recalls: What to Do
Product Recalls: What to Do

Are You At Risk for Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne Illness: Especially Dangerous for the Vulnerable

Making Food Safer to Eat

Recipe for Food Safety

For help with safe home cooking, use our free Roasting Guide.

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Cereal for Breakfast: A Good or Bad Idea for Kids?

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

If you’re like many Americans, you grew up all too familiar with Tony the Tiger and other characters painted on cereal boxes heavily advertised in TV commercials. Because of all the fun and familiarity surrounding cereal, you probably had more bowls of cereal to start your day than you can count or care to remember. I know I did! And I’m embarrassed to admit that when I was 5-years-old, I’m pretty sure I killed my hamster by feeding him Fruity Pebbles.

Although I continue to eat cereal a few times a week and also feed it to my children, I know how important it is for families to look before they leap when it comes to buying and eating cereal. While many ready-to-eat cereals can provide plenty of vitamins and minerals and make significant contributions to intakes of whole grains and fiber that many children fall short on, they also tend to provide way more added sugar than considered healthy—especially for growing bodies. The added sugar alone can turn a seemingly innocent breakfast into dessert.

In a new analysis, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks 1,556 cereals, including 181 marketed to children, by their total sugar content by weight and compares the findings with current federal dietary guidelines and those by other organizations. Among the findings:

  • 92 percent of cold cereals and 100 percent of cereals marketed to children in the US contain added sugars, some having up to six different kinds including sugar mixed with corn syrup, honey, dextrose or high fructose corn syrup.
  • Cereals marketed to children have more than 40 percent more sugars than adult cereals, and twice the sugar of oatmeal.
  • 78 percent of children’s cereals contain more than 2 teaspoons of sugar in a single serving—more than a quarter of the daily limit for an 8-year-old.
  • For 40 cereals, a single serving (¾ cup or 1 cup—less than many children typically consume in a single sitting) exceeds 60 percent of the daily limit for sugar.
  • 12 cereals including Kellogg’s Honey Smacks and Post Golden Crisp provide more than 50% sugar by weight.
  • Only 47 cold cereals—3 family cereals, 43 adult cereals and one granola)—and 155 hot cereals and had no added sugar.

Although ready-to-eat cereals can certainly pack in a lot of added sugar, especially if kids eat it in oversized bowls or fill their bowl up more than once, they seem to contribute relatively little added sugar to the diets of Americans aged 2 and older when compared to some other foods and beverages. Whereas national survey data estimates that 3.8 percent of added sugar in the diet comes from ready-to-eat cereal, a whopping 35.7 percent of added sugar intake comes from sugary soda, energy drinks and sports drinks alone. Those drinks together with grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts and candy comprise 70 percent of added sugar intake.

Current dietary guidelines suggest a daily limit of 3 teaspoons (12 grams) to 8 teaspoons (32 grams) for children who consume 1,200 to 2,000 calories depending on their age, gender and individual needs. On average, children typically consume two or three times these amounts.

Although the new documentary Fed Up seems to blame sugar alone for the twin epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes in children, I do agree with the conclusion that to raise a healthier generation of kids, we do need to reduce the intake of added sugars. But while cereal is one source of added sugar, I believe that it’s important to look at and limit how often and how much we consume all sources of added sugar in the diet including (but not only) ready-to-eat cereal. We also need to look at individual food and beverages choices in the context of our total dietary intake and lifestyle –and teach our kids to do the same—when trying to improve the nutritional value of the diet.

Although the EWG findings may make you never want to eat—or feed your children—cereal again, I don’t think it’s necessary, desirable or realistic to ban cereal altogether from your pantry. Ready-to-eat cereal—especially whole grain, high fiber, low sugar options—can provide busy families with a tasty and convenient source of vitamins and minerals. Cereal can also be a great cluster food that pairs well with nutrient-rich picks like low fat or nonfat yogurt or milk, fresh fruit (or dried fruit with no sugar added) and nuts/seeds.

To choose a more nutrient-rich cereal, look for one that’s 100% whole grain (look for the 100% whole grain stamp, or look for whole wheat, whole oats or another whole grain listed first on the ingredients list). Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber per one cup serving. Look for as little added sugar as possible—one of my favorites is shredded wheat (it also has very little sodium, rare for a ready-to-eat cereal). If your cereal has added sugar, make sure the sugar content is no more than double the fiber content. (For example, if it has 4 grams of fiber per serving, look for no more than 8 grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts panel.) If you and your kids already eat sugary cereals and don’t want to give them up, eat it in smaller bowls with smaller utensils. Better yet: mix them with lower- or no-sugar cereals. You will get used to the taste if you give it some time. You can also choose more flaky cereals and fewer crunchy, hard, more concentrated cereals and granolas that can pack in more calories (and more added sugar) in smaller portions, or mix them to reduce the load of calories—and added sugars.

To learn more about choosing cereals and reducing added sugar in the diet, check out the EWG’s Recommendations. You can also check out my previous Scoop on Food posts including Empty Calories and Kids and How to Help Your Kids Satisfy a Sweet Tooth and get breakfast ideas here.

Do you and your kids eat cereal?

Image of a good breakfast via shutterstock.

How much do you know about toddler nutrition?

Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids
Healthy Breakfast: 3 Quick Meals for Kids

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Summer Meals for Kids Who Need Them

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

For many kids, summer means picnics, playtime and fun in the sun; ice cream on the beach; or dinners at a favorite restaurant. But for some kids—more than you might think—summer can be a time of uncertainty or “insecurity” as some call it when it comes to food and nutrition.

In the summer, many kids who rely on school during the academic year to provide breakfast and/or lunch will find it more of a challenge to eat well, if much at all. That’s why there’s a strong need to fill the gap left in summer so kids can stay adequately nourished.

Fortunately, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Originally formed in 1968 as part of a larger pilot program, SFSP has operated as a separate program since 1975. It provides low-income children 18-years-old and under with free nutritious meals (breakfast and/or lunch) that meet federal nutrition guidelines throughout the summer. Meals are provided at approved SFSP sites in areas with significant concentrations of low-income children.

Unfortunately, only a fraction of children eligible for the free meals are provided with them. According to Kevin Concannon, the Under Secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, “Of the 21 million children who receive free and reduced-priced meals through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) during the regular school year, only 3.5 million children participate in summer meal programs.”

The good news is that 168 million meals (that includes all SFSP meals and NSLP lunches served in July) were served in the summer of 2013, up from 161 million meals served the summer before. The USDA hopes to continue on this upward trajectory and increase meals served—and children fed—this upcoming summer and needs our help to spread the word to connect these free meals with kids who need them.

Schools, park and recreation departments, libraries, and faith and other community organizations across the nation can provide summer meals through SFSP. To achieve its goal to serve even more eligible children this summer, the program relies on community partners to serve as sponsors or provide meal sites.

Anyone—individuals, schools and community organizations—can help connect SFSP to eligible children and their families.

Because the deadlines for becoming an SFSP sponsor vary from state to state, schools and organizations interested in being a sponsor should contact their state administering agency, usually the state department of education as soon as possible.

To register your site to provide summer meals or to find a summer meal site in your community, call 1-866-3-Hungry or 1-877-8-Hambre (in Spanish). You can also visit the National Hunger Hotline resource directory.

Image of elementary pupils collecting healthy lunch in cafeteria via shutterstock.

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