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Snub Soda This Summer

Soda has come under fire by national health experts as a major contributor to obesity. A zero-nutrient beverage that offers little but sugar calories (a 12 oz can of Coke Classic contains 140 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar), it is well digested and all too easy to gulp down. Further, many of us choose the larger 20 oz soda bottles which, on a hot steamy day, isn't hard to guzzle down two or three. That's 480-720 calories—about a third of our daily calorie intake! It's no wonder they are a target of public health departments. New York's Governor Paterson proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks that could discourage consumption by 15-20%. A study by the New York City Health Department estimated that this reduction could prevent thousands of cases of adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes, saving residents over $2 billion in related medical expenses.

I'm skeptical that the reduction of a single food product could have such far-reaching effects but obesity is such a complex problem that making small changes like this just might work. In response to this issue in the Boston area, the Boston Public Health Commission is launching its first citywide Soda-Free Summer Challenge. They are asking people and organizations to take a pledge to skip soda for the entire summer...or at least skimp on it if you're a soda diehard. Instead of soda, they suggest non-calorie drinks like water, unsweetened ice tea and seltzer, or low fat milk, which is rich in nutrients.

What about diet sodas and fruit juices? Kathy Cunningham, a dietitian at the Boston Public Health Commission, says “Diet or artificial sweeteners are intended to produce a sweet taste with zero or fewer calories to promote weight loss. However, over time calories displaced by artificial sweeteners may be replaced by other foods due to the sweetener increasing a taste preference for sweet foods rather than naturally low-sugar tasting foods.” In other words, the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas may promote an ongoing sweet tooth that can become an obstacle to weight loss. Cunningham believes that diet drinks are best used as an aid to transition to less sweetened beverages like water, mineral waters, and noncaffeinated teas. Fruit juices offer nutrients but are still high in calories and easy to drink in large quantities, so limit juice to about a cup a day (choose 100% fruit juices as fruit "drinks" contain added sugar). Or add a splash of fruit juice to seltzer water.

Are you up for the challenge? Admittedly I'm a fan of diet soda and flavored waters but agree that many of these products are filled with artificial ingredients, so I'm up for the challenge...at least for this summer. 


Lean Cuisines Not So Lean? 

Click on this image to watch the Today show segment I have to say how continually impressed I am with the media, specifically how they can generate so much hype over nothing. The latest was a Today show investigative report exposing inaccurate nutrition labeling on "diet" frozen meals. The title grabbed me and I was mesmerized by the whole segment. "No WAY!!" I yelled at the TV as the reporter said that one particular frozen entree had 10% more calories and another had an unbelievable 350% more fat than listed. The segment even interviewed one of my former professors, a reputable nutrition scientist. She blamed food mislabeling such as this as a possible cause of why some people can't lose weight.

Alarmed, I did the math on the inflated calories and fat and became upset again: this time at the Today show. The particular entree they announced as the “biggest gut buster of all” was a Weight Watchers Smart Ones chicken dinner that had 11% more calories and 350% more fat than the label's 210 calories and 2 grams of fat; sounds horrific but the calculation comes out to a petty 23 extra calories and 5 extra fat grams (for a total of 7 fat grams)—still considered a low fat option for a dinner entree! The Today show probably realized how boring these numbers would look so they opted to display the more shocking "350% more!" value.

I agree that it's deceptive labeling, but because the original fat content listed was so low, the inaccuracy that it actually contained 7 fat grams is pretty trivial. Well, at least I don't believe it's a major cause of why people can't seem to lose weight. It's more likely that people are feeling so virtuous eating these low fat entrees that they end the meal with a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Of course I can see that if the total original calories and fat listed on an entree were higher, then the 10%-350% increase might be more troubling, but the examples the Today show used were not.

The report noted that some of the entrees tested actually had less fat and calories than listed. The problem seems to be variances in portion sizes during packaging, for which the Food and Drug Administration (who regulates food labeling) allows a 20% inaccuracy. I understand this might be disheartening for some who are very regimented and count every calorie, but there is a bigger picture with weight control and more meaningful tenets than calories in a frozen meal. Like eating more natural plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Eating only until you feel comfortably "unhungry." Exercising regularly. This Today show segment was mildly interesting but didn't reveal anything earth-shattering or even helpful, especially because they stated the inaccuracies were due to differing portion sizes. Therefore it's possible that same Weight Watchers chicken entree but from a different box could have 100% less fat! Ahh, one up for those media writers who've created yet another sensationalized story I'll have to unravel for my outraged patients.


Kids Cook Monday...and Throughout the Year

A theme that has emerged in the past decade is a reconnection with food, in the kitchen and through family mealtimes, as seen in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaigns. A big reason for this is our country’s ongoing obesity epidemic, now having successfully invaded the youngest of generations. The Healthy Monday campaign, started in 2005 through Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, is an innovative concept that features Mondays as the perfect day to start healthy behaviors. Just as many of us initiate health-related New Year’s resolutions on January 1, Mondays carry the same “new beginnings” feel to motivate us toward making positive changes. Joanna Lee, a spokesperson for the campaign, says “We consider Monday to be the New Years of every week, but because there are 52 Mondays a year, our participants are likely to keep up their health resolutions week to week.”

The Kids Cook Monday is one program in the campaign that stemmed from increasing research showing the health benefits of families who eat dinner together regularly. Of course, we are a fast food nation and eating together doesn't necessarily guarantee healthful meals but according to the Bureau of Labor, meals eaten with families consist of about 50% more fruits and vegetables than meals eaten alone, and family meals are three times more likely to include low fat choices and less soda. Children in families who eat together tend to get better grades in school, talk to their parents when they have a problem, and experience a lower incidence of obesity. The Kids Cook Monday encourages families to continue this effort all year, using the first day of the week as a reminder to involve the family each week. If parents set aside time with their children not only to eat but cook together, the whole family A Kids Cook Monday healthy idea!learns about food and portion sizes (portion distortion is one of the top reasons why people gain weight, even when eating fat-free and reduced calorie foods). The Kids Cook Monday website offers yummy, nutritious kid-friendly recipes categorized by age with specific instructions on how children can assist with preparation.

Joanna notes that bloggers can play a special role in this campaign: “We’d love it if parent bloggers did weekly The Kids Cook Monday posts, detailing their family dinner through family cooking videos, sharing kid-friendly recipes, or describing their dinner experience with photos.” If you cook regularly with your kids and want to take part in this great campaign and potentially be featured on The Kids Cook Monday web page, please contact Joanna Lee at jlee@mondaycampaigns.org.