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Friday, November 17, 2017

The Culture of Food


Food is more than calories and nutrients.  The what, when, where and with whom we eat is so much more than just a sum total of nutrition it provides.  What identity, history and tradition are you passing on with the foods you eat and your food habits? Aside from delivering nutrients, food has many other roles.  Here are four to consider:

Relationships. The origin of the word “companionship” comes from the sharing of bread (or pan) with someone.  Inviting someone to share a meal or a beverage is often the first step in getting to know another person.  In some instances, it is culturally taboo in many ways to refuse an invitation to share a meal and could even be viewed as a rejection of the host or a hostile action toward them.

Trust.  Eating is a very unique experience for our body.  The GI tract is the only completely open organ system and when we eat we are  exposing ourselves to  some vulnerability.  Food could cause an allergic reaction, or make us sick, or in the extreme, be poisonous, so eating food prepared by someone else becomes an act of trust.

Control. Food is power.  Whether on a large national scale, or simply within your own family, the person who controls the food wields the power.  I remember as a kid, sneaking food to my bedroom – not because it was forbidden to eat that food, but just the thought that I could eat what, when and I where I chose was appealing.  Kids especially crave that power and it is a delicate balance in feeding kids to allow them some control when it comes to food.

Identity. Food shapes our identity as a group.  For example, if you are served fry sauce with your French fries, you know you’re among Utahns, but if your fries come with gravy and cheese curds, you know you’re amongst Canadians. Food shapes our identity as an individual.  For example, being vegetarian, being a dark chocolate eater, or maybe just being the only in the house that doesn’t like nuts creates a descriptive sense of identity.


Food teaches much more than nutrition and a list of how nutrients affect our health.  It teaches manners, patience, cooperation and sharing.  It hopefully teaches delayed gratification, serving others, organization and planning.  It tells a story of who you are, what you love, where you came from and often involves memorable stories within your family.  It hopefully teaches you about your past, but also how to be a wise steward of resources going forward.  If you haven’t thought much about food beyond what you can stuff in your gullet to silence the hunger, maybe you should sit down and think about what food means or should mean to you and how you are going to pass that cultural legacy along to others. 

Trimming Thanksgiving

Rumor has it that a typical American eats around 4,500 calories on Thanksgiving.  That’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But even with the more realistic number of 2,500 calories at one meal, Thanksgiving becomes a painful study in excess calories.  Here are some simple ways to eat less at Thanksgiving without overhauling or skipping your favorite dishes. 

Buffet all the way! Keeping the food at a slight distance from your plate makes dishing up an intentional, mindful act.  Having to get up from the table to refill your plate means you’ll most likely think twice before cramming in un-needed second helpings. 

Veg-out first.  No, this is not the call of the couch potato, instead, serve salads, veggies and other nutrient-dense, but calorie light foods first.  Filling up more on veggies will keep the higher caloric options in better. 

Downsize your plate.  If you can choose dishes with smaller plates, do so.  Plate size has increased right along with American’s waistlines – coincidence? I think not.  An 8 inch dinner plate is optimal for normal portion-size control, but if you struggle to find 8 inch plates, don’t choose anything larger than 9-10 inch plates.

Cut calories with color.  The color of your plate may actually make a difference in how much food you end up eating.  More contrast between the plate and the food means you’ll eat less, whereas a plate that blends in with the food will increase your chances of eating more. 

Slow down the meal with fun conversation.  Thanksgiving is a time to reconnect with family – so play that up at the dinner table.  If we converse more at mealtime, we eat slower and eat fewer calories.  If you have already moved the food to the buffet, you’ll have plenty of space on the table for creative conversation starters.  Consider incorporating family photos or mementos in the centerpiece of your table.  A kid’s table would really enjoy a few fun family trivia questions, or even some “would you rather. . .” questions on the back sides of their place cards. 

Think sliver not slice.  By the time dessert rolls around, most guests are fairly full.  Double the number of slices in your pies to allow guests to enjoy just a sliver, or perhaps try more than one without going overboard on dessert. 


Thanksgiving can be a festive, healthful and traditional meal without the painful fallout of overdoing it. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Pumpkin Spice Dos and Don'ts

Pumpkin spice gets a lot of publicity this time of year – both good and bad.  But whether you’re a pumpkin spice lover or not, it’s estimated that this food trend is more than a $500 million dollar industry.  
While the actual spices themselves can boast all sorts of health benefits from reducing inflammation, to helping with blood sugar control and digestion, and we all know that pumpkin is loaded with all sorts of vitamins that help reduce blood pressure and improve eye health, the reality is that consumers need to beware of the health halo on that autumnal packaged flavor combination.  
A donut, cookie, latte, cake, or candy is still just that – an occasional food that should play only a cameo role in your diet – whether or not it is pumpkin spiced or not.  

So how does one get this seasonal flavor fix in a more moderate, healthful way? 


  1.  Be a label reader.  Watch out especially for excess calories, lots of sugar (more than 9 grams added sugar for most slightly-sweet foods), and keep an eye on portion size. 
  1. Be picky.  Just because it comes in a festively decorated package with those magic words “pumpkin-spice” doesn’t mean it will appeal to you.  Life is too short and health is too important to waste the calories on foods that you consider mediocre.
  1. Pay attention to and assess your craving.  First, make sure you’re not just thirsty or bored.  If hunger really does play into the equation, then decide what will truly satisfy. If you’re wanting something sweet, don’t plow through loads of savory before you eat that one pumpkin cookie you’ve been wanting all week.  If crunchy is really what you want, then don’t down ice cream, yogurt and a latte before you get it right with a little crunchy granola bar or nut mix.
  1. Bake savvy.  Consider making your own pumpkin spice foods.  In 3 easy swaps, you can transform your favorite banana nut bran muffin into a pumpkin spice muffin.  
    Swap:
    pumpkin for the banana
    pumpkin spice for cinnamon  
    pumpkin seeds for walnuts  


And don’t hesitate to be bold and try something a bit more exotic like a pumpkin spice hummus or curry. 

Just use the same common sense that applies to most food choices to help you navigate the ever growing wave of pumpkin-spice products and you’ll be able to keep your calorie intake from growing just as steadily.  

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Eating and Anxiety

Keep an even keel with carbohydrates.

  • Whole grains and complex carbohydrates found in foods like whole wheat bread, whole grain pastas, brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal not only help keep your energy level stable (and that plays a large role in anxiety, but are also high in B vitamins.  Deficiency in some B vitamins can serve as a trigger for mood disorders in certain individuals, so you’re better off keeping your bases covered with good sources of B vitamins.
  • Avoid candy and simple, processed sugars– it gives a quick surge of energy, but then leaves you tired and low. The good news is that dark chocolate is actually beneficial in small doses as it contains some tryptophan, and also contains other components that improve mood. 
Protein foods play a prominent role in reducing anxiety.
  • Tryptophan-rich foods such as poultry, cheese, nuts and seeds contain a precursor to serotonin – the neurotransmitter that keeps you feeling calm.
  • Beef, dried beans, nuts and eggs are also high in B vitamins and will help avoid the mood pitfalls of deficiency.
  • Greek Yogurt and other high protein foods cause the brain to produce norepinephrine and dopamine.  These are neurotransmitters that help boost mood, and improve mental alertness and reaction time. 
  • Salmon and other fatty fish provide omega-3 fatty acids that have been linked to improvements with depression, plus they keep your heart healthy as well. 
Avoid caffeine as it interferes with your body’s natural serotonin production and alcohol since it acts as a depressant. 

Don’t underestimate the power of your attitude about food.  Fear and guilt sell and the dieting industry is cashing in at the expense of not only our physical but mental health.  Food is food. It is designed to be savored and enjoyed.  So keep mealtimes regular, pleasant and free from guilt or judgment.


The take home message is that a delicious and enjoyable diet balanced with complex carbohydrates, high quality protein foods and heart-healthy fats will help keep your mood level and anxiety at bay.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Diet-free Holiday

With the holiday season comes the fear of imminent weight gain and the dreaded d-word (diet) looms ugly and fierce on the horizon.  Here are some ways to put those fears to rest and enjoy a diet-free holiday season. 
Stay active.  Crazy weather and schedules may force you to become a bit creative with your physical activity, but MAKE IT A PRIORITY!  Keeping an exercise routine will not only help keep your metabolism going, but it will help your commitment to healthful, balanced food choices as well.


Veg-out.  No, this is not the call of the couch, but rather a call to take advantage of all the tasty, nutrient rich dishes that are traditional with the holidays.  Veggies are one of the most effective ways to keep nutrition high and calories low since they are naturally high in water, fiber and low in calories.  Don’t hesitate to get your veggies from a variety of sources. 


Don’t skip meals.  Skipping lunch in order to save up for a holiday dinner party means you’ll hit the buffet starving and most likely overdo it on higher fat, appetizers and simple carbohydrate traps like the dessert table. If you know you have a festive eating event coming up, make sure that your breakfast and lunch have a good balance of protein, produce and whole grains to help keep you nourished and satisfied so that you can approach the buffet table with a level head and choose reasonable portions of the foods that mean the most to you.


Be picky.  With the exception of being backed into a corner with Aunt Mae and her fruitcake that, “you absolutely must try,” we generally have control over our food choices during the holidays.  If you don’t absolutely love it, don’t eat it. 


Be portion aware and pay attention! Go with a sliver instead of a slice, and slow the whole meal down.  If we actually paid attention to and heeded our hunger and fullness cues, our bodies would be able to self-regulate towards health.  If you’re not that hungry, take tiny portions, wait and re-evaluate how full you are.  If you’re really hungry, start slow, and check-in while you eat to see if you’re filling up so that you don’t overshoot the full mark and end up miserably stuffed.  And if you’re not hungry at all, don’t eat.  

Chances are you’re tired, thirsty, bored or lonely.  So drink some water, put on your favorite holiday tunes (who can resist Johnny Mathis?), fit a puzzle, soak in the tub, or call/text a friend.  Eating mindfully now will stave off the need to diet come January.