Spring Clean Your Eating

After a long and frigid winter, the sight of easter flowers, buds and blossoms are welcome as spring is ushered in. We’re three months into 2014. How are your resolutions coming along? Sticking with them? Dumped a few already? At this point it really doesn’t matter because with spring comes another opportunity to revitalize and reinvent your healthy resolutions. Spring clean your eating, and of course your health. Here’s how:

1. Start with your pantry. Long winter days may have meant stocking up your pantry with non-perishable items to tide you through snow and ice storms. While highly processed and packaged food are necessary at times, they are also laden with preservatives and fluff that don’t always offer the best bang for buck nutritionally. Always hang onto a few trusty items; canned fruit in juice, low sodium canned vegetables or soups, pastas, rice, and whole grain cereals and snack bars. The more ingredients listed that are difficult to wrap your pronunciation around, the better off you are without them. Determine what stays and what goes. And for the sake of unnecessary food waste, remember that anything that goes can be taken to food banks and used in healthy meals for families in need.

2. Bring out your recipe books or surf around a little. You may even wish to subscribe to monthly magazines with inspirational and fresh recipes. My favorites, Better Homes and Gardens and Organic Gardening. We all get into recipe ruts, or find ourselves with meal ‘writer’s blocks’, but simply browsing a few recipes can inspire you to try something new. And as the season progresses into full spring, look out for recipes that showcase seasonal fresh produce. Eating in season is a bonus… and here’s why.

3. Seasonal produce is tastier and possibly more nutritious, particularly if you buy it local,  from a farmer directly… at a farmers’ market! Very soon most farmers’ market will be opening. Look out for spring treats like leafy vegetables, radishes, turnips, carrots, onions, and soon, oh very soon, strawberries! You can also join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). These options are not only spring cleaning your eating, but they’re certainly cleaner for our environment too. Food less traveled is food with smaller carbon footprints.

4. Reevaluate what’s important. Are you trying to lose weight? Are you aiming for long term health and good habits?  Spring cleaning your eating doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect. It just means you have a chance to regroup and start the warmer season on a BETTER note. So if you’ve slipped into old habits, dust them away. If you’re fretting over the falling off the wagon, simply get back on. You are in charge of your spring cleaning, and in charge of your health.

5. And don’t forget to move! Long winters tend to mean more time indoors and fewer opportunities to get active. As spring unfolds, so does your opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy it. Walking, hiking and cycling are just some of the ways you can get active and enjoy the outdoors. Or get back into the gym! Chances are you’re paying your membership… so set yourself a new spring schedule. Remember, the day is getting longer so you have more day to enjoy for activity.

So happy spring cleaning! Your eating and health will thank you for it.

Jessica Avasthi

Minding My Peas & Food

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Food-parency

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Food has been making the headlines again, but not quite in the light we would hope.

We’ve learned that here in the U.S. we’re eating 8 foods banned elsewhere in the world. Within a few days, the list had evolved into 11 chemicals in our food. And when this list features growth hormone-infused milk and bromated flour breads, you’re left wondering how two innocent foods have become so adulterated.

And believe it or not… your pantry may house some frauds. That’s right. Certain food items and ingredients have a decent market value, so counterfeits are fast becoming the norm. Don’t you remember the honey debacle? Well vanilla, cocoa and sugar join its ranks. And unfortunately, this may impact the organic industry too.

Unfortunately less desirable practices impact major food industries too. Kelloggs is in the headlines regarding its labeling of certain products like Pop-Tarts. If it says ‘made with real fruit’, it’s not. Turns out General Mills had a similar issue a couple of years ago with its fruit roll ups. You would’ve thought that this earlier stern tap on the knuckles would’ve jolted the industry to cut dubious labeling… but no, this keeps happening and it’s impacting consumers the most. After all, if it’s going to say ‘made with real fruit’, consumers deserve to know the truth before they or their children eat these products.

By now you can’t help but feel fear and angst at the thought of going to a supermarket, but don’t panic. Here are some simple strategies to improving your food literacy for food-parency:

1. Most HIGHLY processed foods are likely to be loaded with ingredients you can barely pronounce, so check the ingredients. But there are some safe havens. For example cereal choices like oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits or muesli are better if you really want to stay clear of artificial colors and ingredients at breakfast.

2. The candy, snacks and soda aisles are havens for anything artificial. These foods shouldn’t feature in your daily food choices AT ALL.

3. If in doubt… make your own. Yes, this means you’ll need to set a little bit of time aside to find easy recipes and cook, but the more control you have over your food, the better it’s going to be for you. After all, I doubt you have tartrazine or bromated oil in your pantry.

4. Follow food blogs (like this one!) or major media outlets via social media. This helps you keep up with any food developments, recalls, food illness outbreaks etc.. Being engaged makes for a well-informed consumer.

5. And finally, air your grievances with the food industry. If you don’t like what you see, or believe you are being misled, tell them, even rally up the troops of you have to (try online petitions). The food industry has to respond. If they don’t, they lose their consumer base. And to date, their track record isn’t too hot so they’re going to need to make some fundamental changes on all levels (labor rights to food transparency) to survive the age of enlightened consumers.

So the next time you’re at the supermarket, you’ll be able to discern the friends from foes and still enjoy a nutritious and delicious life!

Stay hungry my friends,

Jessica Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Minding My Peas & Food

Ditch the soda. Date real food.

photoI love food and I love to eat it. The experience of eating is something I cherish every day. And I consider myself pretty lucky. I get to eat really good and wholesome food. And I make time to cook or bake or just make food. Yes, it’s not always easy to be this connected to food daily, but my and my family’s health takes precedence. I believe farmers are our farmacists, and that good food is farmacy. My kitchen is an apocathery from which healing foods to sustain longevity are created and eaten. And being in the field of nutrition, I must practice what I preach. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not perfect. Who is? But we can always be better with our food choices.

So let’s take a can of soda. Sodas, especially sugar-sweetened ones, are getting a lot of press these days. Do I drink soda daily? No. Do I drink this on absolute occassion, yes, but I mean absolute… like MAYBE once or twice a month. I don’t have anything against soda other than it’s not food. It doesn’t offer me any nutritional benefit and is loaded with sugar. That’s right – If I’m going to have that soda, give it to me straight, no ‘diet’ please. Artificial sweetners aren’t in my little black book of nutritional go to’s… (I know what you’re thinking…food snob… I concur completely.)

Besides, by now you may be aware that a can of sugar-sweetened soda contains 140 calories thanks to voluntary labeling by industries like Coca-Cola (in the same breath, I’m no fool to their marketing ploys and public health tactics that fall short of anything sincere and concrete). Still, 140 calories, not too bad. Small change compared to the average calories we consume daily.

But based on all my years of experience in nutrition, who can honestly stick with just one can a day? Or one can per meal? Unfortunately for many, one can is one can too short. We love sugar too much. And drinking this is easy for very little reward. What I would like to propose is to eat these calories instead. Yes, EAT.

You’re eating but you’re constantly hungry right? You really want to shed a few pounds but they’re clutching on? You want to feel a little more energized, and you want this energy to stick around rather than come in ebbs and waves throughout the day? Sound familiar?

How about this – ditch the can and actually eat something? And I mean eat REAL food. You’ll get far more nutrients, and greater satisfaction. Your stomach will be happier that you’re not fooling it with pseudo-satiety thanks to all that soda carbonation, and your brain will get super excited to see real food in all its glory for you to nosh. Eating is SO much more exciting than drinking out a can (and environmentally-friendlier too).

I turn to these snacks daily, so why not give them a try? You can always pack these in a small cooler for the road, or keep a stash of ingredients in your work refrigerator. While it may take a few minutes to get these together, if you’re in the office, it will likely take you the same amount of time to walk to the vending machine, find enough quarters, bang on the machine for your coins to go through or the can to be released, and then walk back to your desk. For bigger bang for the buck, 140 calories gets you:

– One cup sliced apples and a tablespoon almond butter for dipping (145 calories)
– One medium banana, chopped and topped with 1/2 6oz tub plain non-fat Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of roasted coconut (155 calories)
– A strawberry and blueberry (berries are in season) almond milk smoothie (1/2 cup each fruit, 1 cup milk) (125 calories)
– 4-6 chopped dried apricots topped with 1/3 cup cottage cheese and drizzle of local honey (150 calories)

– 6 wheat/ grain crackers with 2 tablespoon low-fat cream cheese (or local goats cheese if you desire) topped with cherry tomatoes (coming to a farmers’ market near you), fresh basil (grow your own in a pot) and splash of balsamic vinegar.

So ditch the can and date some food! You’ll feel great and your body will love you for it.

Stay hungry my friends, and when you eat, do so mindfully.

Jessica Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Minding my Peas & Food

5 Food Fundamentals

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We consumers have plenty to juggle when we navigate the food-scape of the twenty first century, and with limited time, stretched paychecks, and other areas of life to manage, it’s invaluable to know how to source good food quick on our feet. ‘Should I get my produce from farmers’ markets? Is all organic food healthier for you? How can I afford to eat good? How do I make time to eat good?’. These are just some of the many questions from consumers’ mouths.  And where do we source our food and nutrition information from? It appears that we rely on the internet. The sheer volume of information on the net is not necessarily a good thing. Not all sites are reliable, and often information is conflicting, leaving consumers befuddled or mislead.

Being a registered dietitian, its important for me to communicate sound and evidence-based information on the health benefits of food to all consumers. But it in addition to this, it my responsibility to encourage consumers to consider important philosophies regarding the growing, raising and processing of food. Food is much deeper than just nourishment, so to make good food easier to understand and access, here are Five Food Fundamentals all consumers should know.

1. Know food terminologies and labels: See all those colorful labels on food? Spend some time examining these. What are they telling you? What does cage free really mean? You’ll be surprised to learn the hard facts. For example, ‘natural’ or ‘all natural’ sounds lovely, but it boils down to very little. It doesn’t concern how found is grown or raised, it mainly refers to how the final product comes to be. Buying natural beef? All this implies is that no colorants have been injected into the meat to make the red that much brighter. In contrast to this, ‘Certified Naturally Grown’ refers to produce grown following organic standards, but the growers have refrained from the often tedious and costly organic certification process. It can take hours to research all the labels and terminologies, but thanks to a smart phone app called Eco Label, some of these are demystified at the press of a button.

2. Plan: Armed with a plan takes the admin out of food. What are some of your favorite recipes? Get your week of meals planned, and schedule cooking days to cook a few meals in advance. This translates to not needing to cook daily. Once you have your week menu planned, take a look at the ingredients you need. Is everything is season? If not can you make substitutions? This is a where a good measure of creativity is employed. The beauty of cooking is that it’s not baking. You can experiment without the risk of a flopped cake. Thinking Italian? How about Bruschetta? No tomatoes, no problem! Radishes, turnips, beets and tender beet greens make a gorgeous bruschetta. Now for some pesto… no basil? Look around at the farmers’ market and what do you see? Kale, Swiss Chard, and Collard greens, longing to be substitutes! ( collard and pecan pesto is delish y’all!). Of course, we don’t expect you to do everything seasonal but give it a shot. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. So you have your menu, and a shopping list. Time to find some coupons for some of the products you need. One great resource is the Best Organic Coupons site. Every penny counts, especially when feeding a family. You never know… you may become the first ‘extreme organic couponer’…

3. Shop: We all depend on grocery stores and supermarkets for the essentials. When shopping in the naturals foods section, there are a few money-saving strategies to keep your wallet afloat. Check use-by dates on products. Unlike sell-by dates, use-by refers to food quality and not food spoilage and safety. If you notice products close to their use-by date and you’re willing and able to scoop these up, you may be able to get these at a discounted rate. Store managers prefer the idea of selling, not chucking, food. And does all your food have to be organic? Not necessarily. Many consumers believe that organic food is healthier. A box of mac ‘n cheese, organic or not, is highly processed and tends to run high in sodium. Best not to spend to spend your money on something like this (go home and make mac ‘n cheese from scratch folks!). Now produce is a different ball game. If you want to eat meat from happily raised livestock, or you want to avoid pesticides, organic is the way to go. In the same breath, you can be selective in fruits and vegetables if you’re on a tighter budget. The Environmental Working Group has a great resource, the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to help consumers determine what items can be organic or conventional, with the overall goal to minimize pesticide exposure.

There is life beyond the grocery store. Shop around a little. And shop local. How about joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share? This is a great time to sign up, just as the farmers start sowing the spring crops. If you’re on your own, or if you know your family is not enthused by idea of having green leafy vegetables three nights a week, split a CSA with friends or family. You can save (again) and avoid waste, awesome for your bottom line, health, and local economy. If you’re an online shopper, you can select products from multiple farmers and artisans and collect these from a designated market using a great online resource, Locally Grown. Then again, grab a shopping bag or basket, and step out the door. Farmers’ markets await! With spring just around the corner, the market season will be in full swing in a matter of weeks. Being outdoors and seeing the gorgeous produce and friendly farmers’ faces is a world apart from the supermarket aisles. Local is lovely indeed.

4. Cook: Delicious food is an easy feat! If you have fabulous ingredients, these will speak for themselves. Simplicity is a cherished friend to food integrity. Five fundamental ingredients to have on hand at all times: olive oil, garlic, fresh lemons, sea salt, and freshly crushed pepper… you’ll work wonders with these. Cook in bulk and freeze some leftovers for a rainy day. If you’re a meat-eater, determine a couple of simple vegetable sides to complete your meat choice. Want a happy, meaty meal minus the drive through and acid reflux? Lemon basted chicken pairs beautifully with braised swiss chard and roasted root vegetables (it’s breakfast time right now but seriously, I could scoff this now!). If blueberries are in season, buy and freeze, repeat, and repeat some more, and in the winter you’ll be making blueberry compote full of the peak summer flavor. If you’re part of a family unit, recruit family members to gather and cook. And stressed out about planning a dinner party? Pot lucks aren’t tacky. Host a pot luck show casing local ingredients. This will be a great way for your guests to chime into the season. And if you have plenty of wine, they’ll come!

5. Advocate: I know what you’re thinking. ‘Wait a minute, here she was talking about all this good food stuff now she’s thrown in a spanner, politics!”. Well, sorry to say folks but if you truly care about what you eat, you need to speak up. Food is a BIG picture. It starts with soil health, and ends with our health. The journey in between is long and complex. Concerned about farmers’ rights, animal treatment, the environment, food access, small-scale farmers, food corporatization… concerned about anything concerning food? Advocate. And this is the year to break ground on advocacy, if you haven’t already. Heard about the Farm Bill? Bet you have. This bill is a blueprint for our food system, and it’s far from perfect. Join advocacy groups. If you’re in the Georgia region, Georgia Organics is a super start. Nationally, the Food and Water Watch organization is also a great resource. It’s always a good idea to examine candidates before voting, but it’s equally important to examine the issues they are going to work on during their terms. You’ll never know everything, but knowing something is empowering, enabling you to truly ‘vote with your fork’.

These Five Food Fundamentals are what I try to apply, and what I believe we as consumers can all try and apply. Treat food as an investment to long-term health for us and for our planet. And treat the current emerging reforms (more farmers’ markets, more small-scale farmers, more local food, better food transparency etc.) not as ‘trends’ but rather as reforms that our generations to come will continue to support and thrive on.

Jess Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Minding my Peas & Food

Can Nutrition Experts coexist with Big Food?

I’m a registered dietitian (RD) and one of the 74,000 members of the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics (AND). While you can call me ‘nutritionist’, I prefer RD. I have nothing against nutritionists, after all, I am one. It’s just that ‘nutritionist’ has morphed into a fairly generic term for anyone who provides nutrition advice and may or may not have formal education and training in the field. I have had over 6 years of college education and training, and like other RDs, I continue to polish my credentials through rigorous continuing education. And I’m also licensed, which means I am monitored by my secretary of state licensure office for adherence to safe and ethical practice regulations. So yes, I want my credentials to be distinct from ‘nutritionist’.

I have been fortunate to have worked in public policy for our profession, thanks in part to AND, and it was during this experience that I learned our profession must be vocal advocates to safeguard our credentials and expertise. Many entities who want to practice nutrition believe that AND are monopolizing the field of nutrition by lobbying for its RD members. Well, in this day and age of ‘health awakening’, I am sure that given the opportunity, any entity would want to lead with expertise, especially if they are trained rigorously in the field, and right now RDs are ‘food & nutrition experts’, so why wouldn’t AND want to protect our professional interests? Let alone protect the interests of the public. While healthcare is altruistic, and despite its exponential growth, it is very competitive and many want to take advantage of it and its users. I’m relieved that AND lobbies on my and the public’s behalf, and even I’m happier to be a vocal advocate myself.

But for a while, I have sensed that RDs are facing some challenges. While we have AND supporting our membership on the issues mentioned, it appears that somewhere along the way, we are struggling to engage the public, my proxy for ‘consumer’. While I believe that most (in every profession there is good, mediocre, and bad) RDs are experts in their scope of practice, I’m concerned that our expertise doesn’t quite resonate amongst consumers. From my own experiences, consumers aren’t too sure what RDs do, other than ‘put them on diets’. I have lost count of the number of times I have been labelled ‘food police’, in jest of course, by healthcare providers, educators, and really anyone who eats. While RDs are ‘out there’ as food and nutrition experts, consumers don’t always connect the dots. The result: our messages appear to be falling short of our intended audience. Consumers are seeking or following new food movements, new food trends, fad diets, or the panacea for health and wellness, but they’re rarely seeking RDs. According to the January 2013 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a publication of AND, just 14% of consumers turn to health professionals for nutrition information, and dismally, only 5% refer to a RD. And let’s be honest. Some RDs are doing a great job in the media and public relations (I love that Ellie Krieger is ‘one of us’ and on the Food Network), but when it comes to the honchos, it’s Dr. Oz who is providing nutrition expertise for Time Magazine.

So why are we so good at what we do, but we have to work so hard to convince anyone from physicians, to the government, and yes, consumers, that we’re top notch in the field of food and nutrition?

The answer could be any number of reasons, but last month, one of the potential reasons resonated pretty loud. Trust.

Over the years, consumers have challenged my profession’s relationship with big food companies. I always reassure them that we are not swayed or paid by big food. What I advocate as good food and nutrition is based on part science, part logic, and a good measure of the human element. My go to ethos: eat whole food, preferably cooked yourself, and enjoyed sitting down without your electronic device. I also appreciate that there is a big picture to food and its system, and as a RD, I have an obligation to navigate the ‘grey’ areas in order for me to do a better job for the sake of our communities, environment, and health.

Most RDs I know are on the same page.

But it really does take just one voice, a very vocal and recognized voice, to unravel our legitimacy as food and nutrition experts’. Michele Simon, prominent lawyer, public health advocate, and whistle-blower on how big food is profiting on the backs of American consumers’ at the price of deleterious health consequences, has blown a very loud whistle on how AND is tied to mega food industries through corporate sponsorship.

To many RDs, AND corporate sponsorship by big food may or may not be a surprise. Regardless, this report and it’s outreach should be. We shouldn’t take lightly to our professional ‘liaisons’ being questioned in the New York TimesForbes and Huffington Post. And honestly, maybe it is time to revisit this contentious issue. I know many RDs, myself included, who have struggled to find a good fit with some of our big food sponsors. Why? Because we’re challenged, professionally, and yes, ethically. For example, some of our sponsors produce the very food and beverage products that we, as RDs, are struggling to communicate to consumers as ‘have only in moderation’. We’re also at the receiving end of when moderation goes wrong: obesity, in adults and especially disconcerting, in our children. Moderation. Turns out it’s subjective and influenced by choice, desire, and need. Sure, science-based dietary guidelines help us conceptualize moderation, but from my own experiences, what is moderate to me may not be to you. So where does the science-base sit here? Therein lies our daily professional challenge; science versus reality.

But is it possible that big food industries, several of which are supporting my profession, capitalize on this inherent flaw of nutritional moderation?

Maybe… And therein lies our ethical challenge…

RDs can yell ‘moderation’ until we’re blue in the face, but the nature of our food environment appears to be shaped by big food capital. And I’m not going out on a limb about this. There is plenty of literature and evidence to support this. And if you don’t have time to peruse these, tune into logical observation. Whose running the prime time ads on your T.V.? Whose dominating the billboards? Or just visit your supermarket and observe how food products are displayed. At eye-level, or on the bottom shelf? Are consumers strictly to blame for making poor nutritional choices?

Another maybe… But what would RDs make of this: I have been in the middle of nowhere in Africa and have been able to get my hands on an ice-cold Coca-Cola. I know Africa well enough to vouch that it takes tremendous capital and marketing strategies to place a product of this nature in the unlikeliest of places. A place where a balanced meal is a tough find, refrigeration is almost non-exisitent, yet the consumer can access chilled sodas and feel happier for it (as depicted by the ads in the dusty tin shack).

Granted, some of these perspectives are entirely my subjective opinion but I believe that logic can either trump or support literature and evidence, including science-based assumptions.

So for the sake of consumers, I strive to view things from several perspectives, besides absolute science. I consider culture, socioeconomic status, beliefs, morals…

What would any logical and somewhat moral consumer seeking accurate nutrition information see if they learned that Coca-Cola and Hershey’s are sponsoring my profession? Is it possible that they see a questionable co-existence and potential for ‘conflict of interest’? While we advocate ‘healthy eating’, consumers may be befuddled and bordering on distrustful when they glance through our list of sponsors. Why should they turn to us? And if they do, why should they listen to us? AND may be able to legitimize its ties with big food for RDs, but can it do this as effectively with the public, the consumer, our livelihood?

Michele Simon’s controversial report is no help to this dilemma, but it may present opportunities for RDs and AND. And now more than ever, what with healthcare moving into challenging territories, and the state of our country’s health at sub-optimal levels compared to other industrialized countries, it’s absolutely necessary for AND to reclaim and reassert ‘food and nutrition experts’. However, it’s up to us, as RD members, to steer AND in a direction we believe to be most prosperous for us. Let this be good time for RDs to determine if we are in fact dissatisfied with AND’s business model for big food corporate sponsors. Although some members have been surveyed before, in view of this recent report, this is a ripe time for AND to canvas its members again. And how about the public too?

Ok, time for reality. Even if it turns out that thousands of RDs question big food and AND, can we truly believe that big food will just go away?

What could RDs do then? Leave AND? Start anew? Or demand some other changes? I understand that for many organizations, corporate sponsorship is necessary. In fact, I’m aware of an urban agriculture organization seeking funds from several big food sponsors.  Funding helps organizations with good intentions and altruism to grow and thrive. And as Ms. Simon reports, there are many organizations with credible healthy food products and practices who support our annual conference. I also have to disclose that my father works for a cane sugar industry in South Africa. That’s right, big food paid for my college. Despite many heated arguments, my dad always listened to my concerns about ethics in big food industries. On a positive note, and despite the notoriety of sugar, the bottom line is we all eat it at some point, demand is high, but the industry is also addressing issues of sustainability. Regardless of whether ‘sustainability’ means ‘fiscal’ or ‘environmental’ (an argument I’ll save for him), big on my father’s agenda is using ethanol by-products of sugar processing to operate sugar mills. It’s a start. Maybe we need to credit the ‘good’ deeds of big food, but be more instrumental in demanding and outlining more of these? There is no easy solution, and I don’t believe anyone is going to come out a winner. It is perhaps long overdue, but never too late, for RDs to have this dialogue, amongst ourselves, with our leadership, the public, and big food. And may this dialogue be fruitful in solutions.

I guarantee you that while most RDs I know are have some conflicts concerning big food/ag sponsorship, none have a ‘conflict of interest’. They’re honest, highly experienced, and very committed to promoting our profession and mitigating nutrition-related health issues. They are practicing in many sectors, providing sound nutrition counseling and education, and their utmost desire is for Americans to be happier, healthier, and more attuned to good food. They just don’t toot their horns enough about the remarkable work they do. And yes, they may or may not be happy about AND’s corporate sponsors but just haven’t tooted their horns enough about this too. My upfront apologies, but I can’t avoid gender stereotyping with these next few statements. Most RDs are women, many married, working moms, students, caregivers, and daily jugglers. Some of our personal obligations lie above and beyond AND and what Ms. Simon has written. But one stereotype hard to ignore is that as women, we’ll continue to find our voices, we’ll continue to challenge the status quo for the betterment of our profession, and that with our male colleagues, we continue to be ‘Food and Nutrition Experts’.

Jessica Avasthi MS, RD, LD

Mindful eater, Mindful RD