By Megan O. Steintrager, Epicurious.com
I recently caught up via an email interview with Gloria Tsang, RD, the author of Go UnDiet: 50 Small Actions for Lasting Weight Loss and the founder of HealthCastle.com, a site that offers nutrition advice from registered dietitians. She shared the following tips for improving your diet and staying healthy through the busy fall season. Read on for advice on reading labels on packaged food, which food "villains" you should steer clear of, and more.
Related: 5 Mistakes Parents Make When Feeding their Kids
1. Of the "50 small actions for lasting weight loss" you cover in Go UnDiet, which one would you pick if you had to name the most important?
Out of the 50 small actions, I'd have to say #12 "Un-HPF" is the most important. In my book, I called out highly-processed foods (HPF) for being the real culprit of our obesity problem, not meat or carbs. People worry about white meat vs. dark meat, or whether it should be skinless or not when ordering chicken. That really should be the least of your concerns. For instance, a piece of chicken breast WITH skin has about 6 to 7 grams of fat. But a piece of highly-processed pizza from the frozen aisle may have three times as much fat! Another example is fish. A serving of sole has merely 1.5 grams for fat, but the same serving size of highly-processed battered fish sticks has 13 g!
2. After Labor Day, it seems we all get even busier (back to school, ramped up work schedule, and other activities), plus all that great summer produce we've been enjoyed starts disappearing. With that in mind, how can people keep their diets on track into the fall?
Eating healthy takes effort! It pays to plan ahead and use available help. Most people resort to fast-food or commercial snacks when they are hungry and can't find anything at home! Therefore, the key thing is to have healthy food choices and ingredients available at home so we are able quickly put together a wholesome meal. Since most of us tend to grocery shop on weekends, I encourage you to "Un-Burden yourself" (#49) by using a grocery delivery service to have food delivered mid-week to supplement. Join a CSA, try FreshDirect [a New York-based delivery service], or check with your local grocery stores to have fresh veggies and fruits delivered mid-week.
3. When buying packaged food, what are some good things to look for on the label?
Low sodium: #6 "Un-Low" discusses why low fat, low sugar, etc. products are not necessary good for you. But if there's one thing we WANT to be low it's sodium!
"Active" Culture: It's appalling how some yogurt products actually don't have active bacterial culture!
Trans Fat Free or Zero Trans Fat: Since labeling regulations allow manufacturers to claim 0 trans fat if [a product] contains less than 0.49 g [of trans fat] per serving, it's important to make sure you do not find partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredient list.
100% Whole Grains: The key is "100%." Some products have a whole grain logo on the front of the box, only to find out they are actually mixed with refined white flour.
See also: Our Complete Back-to-School Guide
4. What about things to avoid in packaged food?
When buying packaged food, use my "5-second scan rule" to determine if the product is highly-processed:
a) Does it has colorful cartoon characters? (#8 Un-cartoon) In a recent review of 104 breakfast cereals, the top 10 all show cartoon characters on the box when we sorted it by sugar content from high to low!
b) Does it say fat-free? (#9 Un-fat-free). Artificially made fat-free products are usually not real foods! To replace fats in products, manufacturers have to add something back to mimic the texture. Usually, bad carbs like thickeners are added! Page 24 in my book shows how many artificial ingredients go into a fat-free salad dressing.
c) Is the ingredients list long and does it sound like a Chemistry textbook? In general, the longer the ingredient list, the more stuff and artificial ingredients go into it. Page 21 and 22 discuss some of the common additives like colorings, preservatives, chemicals, and sodium that are found in HPFs. In addition to partially hydrogenated oil (trans fat), watch out for palm oil as well. In #15, I call for "Un-palm." Products that are made with palm oil are usually highly-processed -- like instant noodles and microwave popcorn.
5. What are some foods that have been unfairly maligned and what are some true "villain foods"?
Meat and carbs are often regarded as the villain! People often say, "I'm on a diet so no steak tonight!" I've already explained why meat is not the villain in question one above. And don't we all know someone who is on a low-carb diet?!!! The truth is, carbs are not the problem. But rather, it's the toppings we added to these foods. For example, a dish of plain pasta has a reasonable calorie level, but if you add the Alfredo sauce, the calorie count triples. The same goes for baked potatoes. After we add the toppings like sour cream, bacon bits, and cheese, the calorie count doubles. All these years we've been fixating our focus on carbs, and I feel that it's time to step back. So I've dedicated one chapter (Chapter 8) to look into these extras, toppings, and dipping sauces.
6. Many experts focus on "calories in/calories burned" when it comes to weight loss. Why do you say look beyond calories?
I still believe in calories-in/calories-out! It's really as simple as that. The problem occurs when we choose low-fat or low-sugar, highly processed foods. Low-fat or fat-free foods are often less satisfying to eat than their full-fat counterparts, so we need to eat more of them to get the same level of satisfaction. In fact, research suggested that "diet" foods may be satisfying at first, but they become less so over time. The researchers even suggest this may be one reason that so many of us find ourselves yo-yo dieting. We can live with low fat food only initially, but after awhile we will crave the real thing. Worse, many low-fat foods are not saving that much in calories anyway. In our review of potato chips baked chips only save about 20 to 30 calories compared to fried chips! It's easy to convince ourselves to eat more since there's less fat. In the end, this means you'll actually eat more low-fat foods than you would if you chose the regular full-fat version. The same goes with artificially-sweetened products. Yes, diet soda contains zero calories! But studies are not conclusive about whether artificial sweeteners actually help us lose weight or help us eat fewer calories. In fact, studies showed that artificially sweetened soda lead to weight gain in kids. And whats worse, some studies have found that artificial sweeteners in non-energy foods like chewing gum, flavored water, and other zero-calorie drinks can actually increase hunger! Therefore, don't judge a food product by how much calories it contains.
Share your thoughts on Tsang's advice in the Comments section, below, and find more healthy eating and diet advice here on Epi.
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By Megan O. Steintrager, Epicurious.com