What I’m Reading

I fully intended to write a review of Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss but I need to throw in something else I’ve been reading too because it caused me to sit up and say “Yes! That’s right!”. Let me explain…

You may have seen, heard or read about Michael Moss and his book recently in one of many places. The New York Times, the Daily Show, NPR, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post and many others have interviewed Michael Moss and/or reviewed his book. Salt Sugar Fat is a bit of an expose about the food industry and how they are engineering their foods to be simply irresistible. After reading books like The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler and Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink amongst many others, I have to say the revelations in this book were not very surprising. If however you have never thought about why you keep reaching for one more chip long after you’ve had enough, you should take a look at this book.

Food companies are in the business of selling products in order to make money. No matter what they say in their marketing materials or on the packaging, you need to know that this is the bottom line. When you look into various food corporation’s mission and vision statements, they are all very similar. They put something in there about feeding people ‘better’ but there is also something to the effect of becoming an industry leader in the marketplace; industry leader = biggest profits. Although you might begin to think there is an evil conspiracy afoot when you read this book, I think it’s just old fashioned greed and competition. Things sell well when you get the right blend of salt, sugar, and fat in them. People feel compelled to keep eating something that’s right in front of them. We are all very easily led to buy certain items based on packaging and marketing.

Food companies are not concerned with your health. The number one ‘threat’ to sales listed on a Kraftfoods powerpoint I found online (they really should be more careful!) is increasing obesity rates in North America. So what can you do about it? As I’ve said before, knowledge is power. The more you educate yourself about what you and your family is consuming, the better off you’ll be. Read labels, read books like this one, talk to nutrition professionals (shameless plug) and don’t believe the hype from any companytrying to sell you a food product. While we can’t become immune to marketing and the manipulation of processed foods, the fewer processed and prepackaged foods we purchase and consume, the better off we’ll be.

The other book I’ve been reading this week is Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending by Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton. What does this have to do with anything on this blog? The second principle discussed in the book is to ‘Make it a Treat’. This is something that has been on my mind for years now. We are being told daily that we deserve a treat, a cookie, a latte, a shake, an ice cream, a burger, an extra large fry, and many other things. The problem with this sentiment is not in the deserving (sure if you work hard for something you deserve something in return) but when you have that treat daily (or hourly) it is no longer a treat, it’s a habit! Not only can this habit add to our waistlines, the researchers say that it reduces the pleasure we experience! You may enjoy that ice cream cone more if you only have it once every two weeks rather than every night.

Think about all of the ‘treats’ you give yourself in any given day or week, and notice how often you justify consuming a certain food or beverage because you ‘deserve’ it. If this is happening on a regular basis, you need to come to terms with the fact that it’s a habit for you. If you are trying to lose a few pounds, want to improve your health or want to feel better, this is the perfect place to begin. As a bonus, having a genuine occasional treat tastes even better when it is truly a rare occasion!

Why Hide the ‘Good’ Stuff?

A few weeks ago I found myself out and about with the family at dinner time. We were far from home and would have to find something on the road. My husband saw that there was a Panera ahead, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to look into their “Hidden Menu”. I had heard about this at the beginning of the year and was curious about it (although not curious enough to go there until faced with a dinner challenge on the road).

I googled the hidden menu on my phone (since it’s hidden, you can’t find the menu in the store) and saw that I had four choices for dinner. I picked the “Power Mediterranean Chicken Salad” because it was the only one without raw onions and I didn’t want to be tasting onions for the rest of the night.

I thought it was a nice touch that the olive oil was given on the side in little packets. It was actually a pretty nice salad and the ingredients were fresh, although I’d like to see more lettuce and tomato. When I got home, I was able to look up all of the information about the hidden menu online. Here’s what it said:“All of these meal selections are an excellent source of protein and contain limited processed carbs. But you won’t find these items on banners in our cafes, or even on the menu board.”

So I found it interesting that this hidden menu is full of high protein and low carb offerings. Perhaps the reason that Panera (known for its bread and pastries) thinks it needs to be hidden? There was also an interesting story about how the Chief Concept Officer, Scott Davis, lost 60 pounds. In this piece he talks about reducing his calorie intake and increasing exercise, but I have to wonder if he also used a low carbohydrate approach, inspiring this hidden menu along the way. Regardless of the reasoning behind this menu, why hide it? I can guess several corporate rationales behind this, but ultimately it makes me think of something Scott Davis mentions in his article; “Knowledge is power”.

I encourage everyone to seek out the nutrition information for everything you eat and drink. Most companies have their nutrition information on their websites (in some states they must post it in the restaurants on the menu), and all packaged foods have nutrition labels on them as well. The first step is to read those labels and develop an understanding for what you are eating. Note how much sodium, saturated fat, trans fats, sugar, fiber, calories, protein, carbohydrates and fats are in your foods. Remember that you want to keep sodium low, saturated fats low, trans fats zero, and need to stay within your calorie needs.

If you are eating foods without a label (like fresh produce!!) check out a website like nutritiondata.com which gets it’s information from the USDA. There you can find almost every food under the sun with full information about macro- and micro- nutrient contents. When you start looking at the contents of vegetables and fruit versus those of your favorite take out meal, you’ll get an inkling of why I am such a produce pusher. Low in sodium, high in fiber and nutrients, produce is the way to go – now go read some labels!

Change of Season

Summer’s finally here! For many of us that means a big change in our daily schedules. For those of us with children, they are out of school and may be home with us or off to camp for part of the day. Our roles may become that of cruise director and outing planner, and you had better get a supply of popsicles in the freezer for those hot humid days! If you don’t have children things can still become topsy turvy in the summer; friends want to go out for drinks after work in the still-light summer hours. It’s the perfect time for long hours of socializing with friends over drinks on the patio or by the pool. Summer is also the time that many of us go on vacation, which means eating out for most meals and not keeping to your usual exercise routine.

What to do if you find yourself in any (or all) of the above scenarios? Don’t panic! Now is the time to think logically about summer schedules and socializing before you throw out all of the healthy habits you’ve been building throughout the year!

  1. Don’t stop going to the gym or doing your regular exercise! I’ve spoken with many personal trainers and gym owners who have said that business always slows way down in the summer. If you have a gym membership, don’t let it go to waste this summer! Take advantage of having a climate controlled place to exercise without having to slather on the sunblock. You may have to make extra arrangements for the kids but it will be well worth it; to make it easier, team up with a friend or two so that your kids can have a play date while you take turns working out.
  2. When it comes to socializing (eating and drinking) keep in mind the same things that you would over the holidays. You can look back at these posts: Tackling Thanksgiving, Food Holidays, and Handling the Holidays. The general idea is to remember your usual habits and don’t go overboard every day. Do you need to have a huge pile of chips at the cookout, AND two burgers, AND 3 margaritas? Pick and chose the things that are most important to you and then savor them in appropriate serving sizes. You will wake up the next morning pleased rather than regretful (and hung over!)
  3. Bring something healthy and delicious when you go to a party. Just this week one of my clients was complaining that he was going to a relative’s for a cookout. “My sister never has any vegetables” he said, “I’ll have to eat just hamburgers and chips!” I’m sure we’ve all felt like this, powerless to the whims of our hosts. If you know in advance that the food is not in keeping with your goals then plan ahead and handle the situation. Have something healthy before you go (a big salad, some fruit, etc) so that you aren’t ravenous when you get there. Bring something with you (it’s only polite anyway) a big veggie platter, a side salad, veggies to grill, sparkling water for drinks, a watermelon, etc. This way you know that you’ll have something that won’t undermine your plans.
  4. Eat your produce!! This is the best time of year to be loading up on vegetables and fruits. Make sure to visit at least one Farm Stand this summer to understand just how wonderful just picked, locally grown produce can taste! Keep plenty of prepped veggies within view and easy reach around you all day. Instead of a candy dish, have a container of snap peas or grape tomatoes at the ready. Go to a pick your own place for strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, etc. It’s a fun outing for you, your friends and your kids!

Plan ahead and you will make it through the summer in good shape!