Frozen Foods: Off Limits or Fantastic Time-savers?

When we’re in a pinch for time, frozen foods seem to be the perfect answer: a full meal in a matter of minutes! But what do those time saving meals mean for your health?

I find that the freezer aisle is a very love-it-or-hate it area of the supermarket; either you can’t shake the image of a 1950’s family eating mushy TV dinners straight from the microwave and therefore won’t touch the stuff, or you adore the convenience of a pre-made, high-flavor complete meal that requires no prep (though you’ve probably never checked the label).

I fall somewhere in the middle. The health-food wave is slowly spreading throughout most supermarkets, and the freezer aisle is no exception! The trick to shopping here is to know what you’re looking for and how to compare products.

Here’s my Top 5 Freezer-Friendly Shopping Tips:

  1. Sodium Alert
    Salt has been used as a natural preservative since ancient times, which is why so many frozen (and canned) foods are packed with sodium! The American Heart Association recommends most people consume no more than 2000 mg sodium daily (the same as 1 level teaspoon), while those with a history of heart disease should aim for 1500 mg sodium.  For any large meal like a frozen dinner, choose meals with 600 mg of salt or less. Many popular brands have over 1500 mg in one serving, so definitely start eying the sodium before picking a meal!
  2. Well-Balanced Meals
    As tempting as it may be to purchase just frozen truffle macaroni and cheese, try to choose well balanced meals that have some fresh vegetables and whole grains. Many companies are creating more well-balanced meals using organic produce, ancient grains, and lean protein to help your meal be nutritious as well as delicious.
  3. Look Beyond the Label
    Perhaps more than any other aisle, the freezer is full of items marketed towards dieters. Just take a look at how many have words like ‘lean,’ ‘light,’ and ‘healthy’ in the brand name! While those foods very well might be great choices, a title alone doesn’t guarantee that. Always look at the nutrition facts before trusting the marketing, examining the calorie content (I’ve seen meals range from 200 to over 800 calories in a serving), saturated fat content (the goal is as low as possible here), and sodium amount to make sure your meal is actually a healthy choice.
  4. Bulk Up With Veggies
    Some meals look delicious on the cover but are far too small when you actually pop them out of the box (if you ever see a meal for under 300 calories, that’s a red flag that the portion will be petite). Instead of doubling up, bulk up your meal with frozen fresh vegetables! Frozen produce is often flash frozen right after harvest so the nutrients are preserved, and any vegetable on its own (without any sauce or butter added) is still very low calorie, high in fiber, low in sodium, and high in nutrients. You can add a lot of bulk to tiny but delicious meals this way.
  5. Be Adventurous!
    Take advantage of the wild array of recipes available at your fingertips! Food companies have recognized that consumers like to try foreign cuisines and complex meals that we wouldn’t cook for ourselves, so take a walk on the wild side and try some new flavors. I’ve seen Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican dishes as well as meals featuring ancient grains, unique herbs and seasonings like lemongrass, and flavorful curries.

 

Next time you think about ordering take out or driving through the fast food window, consider the freezer aisle for some potentially healthier alternatives. Do you have any brands or lines that are your go-to or that you’re looking forward to trying? Comment below!

 

Bonus: for some insight into frozen breakfasts, take a look at my Low-carb Breakfast post featuring a breakdown of some popular items!

Meal Prepping for Beginners

Whether you meticulously pre-make all of your meals for the week every Sunday or occasionally pack your lunch for work, any experience with meal prepping can help you take control of your diet!

Time is the #1 issue for many of my clients (and I can certainly relate!). With schedules full of work, meetings, family gatherings, playdates, and appointments, thinking ahead to our next meal can seem like too much to handle.  That’s why it can be a huge benefit to actually plan some specific meal prep time into your week– it makes nutrition as much of a priority as every other important thing you schedule

If you’ve prepped your food in advance before, here are some start-up tips:

  • Buy food in bulk (this saves time and often money!)
  • Choose foods that hold up in the refrigerator well (i.e. don’t put dressing on salads, keep sauces on the side, and be careful about cutting up items like avocado or fresh fruit in advance as they’ll spoil quickly)
  • Try to make your meals balanced: Choose a lean protein (chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, legumes, lean beef), add tons of non-starchy vegetables (salads, sauteed peppers and onions, broccoli, zucchini, squash…), and add a portion of healthy carbohydrates (whole grains, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beans)
  • Remember food safety – the CDC states that most cooked foods should be consumed within 4 days of preparation, so if you plan to make multiple servings that will last more than that, stick them in the freezer. You can move each serving to the fridge the night before you need them.

Take a look at Eating Well’s article “Meal Prep for Weight Loss: 8 Ways It Will Make You More Successful” for more info — I contributed a quote about how planning your food can help you avoid the temptation of less healthy options when you’re on the go!

 

Why Your Diet Doesn’t Work: The Imprecise Science of Caloric Balance

“Want to lose one pound of fat? Just cut 500 calories from your diet each day and you’ll shed one pound per week!” We’ve all heard that sensationalized claim before, and if it sounds a bit too good to be true, that’s because it is. This math is based on the premise that it takes exactly 3500 calories to burn one pound of fact, but that information itself is inherently flawed.

Weight maintenance is essentially a function of our basal metabolic rate, or BMR: the amount of calories your body burns daily just to survive. Just like it takes more energy to power larger machinery, it takes more calories to feed all of the cells in larger or heavier people– so they naturally have higher BMRs. If you were to lie in bed for 24 hours without any activity or intake, after fasting for at least 10 hours, your BMR is the number of calories your body would burn.

We can estimate our BMR with equations like the Harris-Benedict and Mifflin St Jeor equations, which take your height, weight, age, and gender into account. If you’ve ever tried to calculate your calorie needs online or via app, they probably use these equations.

The only way to actually measure your BMR, though, is through ‘calorimetry‘ (which literally means ‘calorie measurement’); direct calorimetry requires you to stand in a specialized chamber that measures how much heat your body is producing (impractical for most people), and indirect calorimetry can use respiratory tests to measure how much oxygen you inhale and carbon dioxide you exhale over a set period of time (somewhat more practical and actually available at some fitness and medical centers).

Of course we don’t just lie in bed all day. When we factor in our daily activities, we can find our Total Energy Expenditure (TEE), which means how many calories you burn on a typical day doing your usual activities. This is about 20% higher than your BMR if you are mostly sedentary to up to 90% higher if you are a professional athlete. Most people who are moderately active (1-3 days of intentional physical activity or exercise) burn about 38% more calories than their BMR.

This is where the error happens: It is very difficult to know how many calories you truly burn in a day. According to predictive equations, as a 5’4″, 27-year-old, mildly active, average weight female, my estimated BMR ranges from 1360 calories (Mifflin Jeor) to 1430 calories (Harris-Benedict), and my TEE should be about 1630 – 1720 calories daily.   I actually had indirect calorimetry done at a local gym last year, however, and my results showed that a better estimate for my BMR is 1123 calories and my TEE is close to 1350 calories.

That’s about 20% fewer calories fewer than traditional estimates- meaning that my body needs way fewer calories than the textbooks tell me.

Moving onto the second major issue: the 3500-calorie rule just doesn’t seem to be true.

This number came from a 1950s study by Max Wishnofky called “Calorie Equivalents of Gained or Lost Weight,” which posits that one pound of fat would require about 3500  calories to burn based on the scientific principles of fat. (If you’re interested in the gritty details: 1 pound (454 grams) of fat cells contains about 87% actual fat, and since it takes about 9 calories to burn one gram of fat, than a whole whole pound (454 grams) should burn up using about 3700 calories).  If you took a literal pound of fat and threw it into an incinerator to measure how much energy was required to literally burn it, that might be accurate. However, it doesn’t take our physiology into effect, and for better or for worse, our bodies are extremely adaptive at trying to preserve our energy stores.

Wishnofsky also examined a 1930s study by Strange, McCluggage, and Evans (“Further studies in the dietary correction of obesity”) which essentially starved for weight loss and found that they lost 0.6 pounds per day with a 2100 calorie deficit. How would one have such a severe deficit, you ask? They were put on a 360 calorie diet.

  • The diet: 360 calories made up of lean steak, fish, egg whites, whole milk, orange juice, yeast, minimal vegetables, and salt contributing ~58 grams of protein, 14 grams of carbohydrates, and 8 grams of fat each day. By today’s medical standards this would be a study of intentionally invoking severe malnutrition.
  • The participants: only 13 patients participated, and they were all in a hospital setting. Their weight ranged from 180 pounds to 427 pounds at the start of the study.
  • The outcomes: everyone obviously lost weight – the average was 35 pounds over 59 days. This was VERY inconsistent, though: actual weight loss ranged from 5 pounds over 8 days to 104 pounds over 176 days. 

This very small data pool based on a severe starvation diet showed that people lost about 0.6 pounds with a 2100 calorie deficit each day – making the weight loss ratio 1 pound to every 3500 calories. The 3500 calorie rule is based on these 13 people, severe starved for anywhere from a week to 25 weeks. 

I think this just exposes a truth we all know deep down inside: it’s just not that simple. Reviews of studies indicate that we lose weight more slowly than the rule would predict because our body burns fewer and fewer calories as we lose pounds. If you’ve ever watched a season of The Biggest Loser, you’ve seen this reality in action. Contestants used to lose over 20 pounds per week in the beginning when they were larger and had more excess weight to lose, but by the final weeks, they were following severe diets and working out 10 hours per day only to lose 2 – 3 pounds per week. Over time, their bodies required fewer calorie per day to run, so that calorie deficit rule shifted for them.

The good news is that researchers are now starting to battle this well-known rule to promote more realistic weight loss attempts. Dr. Diana Thomas and colleagues are leading this crusade with a math-driven approach, modeling actual weight loss journeys to create calorie / weight loss curves showing significantly less weight loss than the 3500 calorie rule predicts. Though many weight loss apps still use standard formulas to calculate how many calories you need per day for weight loss, a much more sustainable method would be to try to improve the overall quality of your diet, monitor what you currently eat and try to implement a slight deficit, increase your physical activity, and adjust things your plan as you go.

There is one slight upside to the 3500 rule, which is that it is memorable enough to communicate that caloric deficit is needed to burns weight. The downside is that it dramatically overestimates the rate of weight loss and can inspire dangerous levels of calorie cutting. I would never recommend eating less than 1200 calories; crash diets slow down your metabolism as your body adapts quickly to its new low-energy state, and nearly everyone rebounds back to a poor higher-calorie diet later on. Emphasizing overall nutrition quality, seeking a registered dietitian for ongoing nutrition counseling and support, and focusing on nutrition as a health goal rather than a means to an end can help you actually achieve your goals and maintain them long-term.

 

The overall takeaway:

  1. It is difficult to calculate your accurate BMR.
  2. It is even harder to then calculate your TEE
  3. Even if you can figure out how many calories you need daily, it is difficult to know how steep of a calorie deficit you would need to burn 1 pound of fat as the 3500 calorie rule is unreliable and based on absolutely extremist, insufficient research.
  4. Focus on improving diet quality, achieving a mild but sustainable caloric deficit, and seek assistance from a nutrition professional if you feel lost!

 

 

Resources:

Wishnofsky M.  Caloric equivalents of gained or lost weight. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1958 Sep-Oct; 6(5):542-6.

Strang JM, McCluggage HB, Evans FA. Further studies in the dietary correction of obesity. American Journal of the Medical Sciences. 1930;179(5):687–693.

Thomas DM, Gonzalez MC, Pereira AZ, Redman LM, Heymsfield SB. Time to Correctly Predict the Amount of Weight Loss with Dieting.  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2014;114(6):857-861.

Preparing for the Holiday Season: How to Enjoy without Over-Indulging

Holidays are a high-pressure time for people trying to monitor their intake.

Trust me, I get it — we spend the next month or so piling our plates with a scoop of everything, wash it down with cocktails all night, and top it all off with desserts, and since we wait all year for these celebrations, we want to enjoy every minute!

My first piece of advice is usually this: Cut yourself some slack, it’s a holiday! If you truly eat whatever you’d like on a day like Thanksgiving, that is 100% okay. Your lifestyle is built upon your everyday choices, and one day of splurges is not going to topple any progress you’ve been making.

If you’d like some actual tips on how to make the holidays healthier, however, that’s also reasonable. Nutrition is largely mental, and if a free-for-all eating day is going to set you back or open up a whole season of overeating, then try these tips:

  1. Focus on your fruits and veggies. Nutrients matter, so even if you’re having a particularly high calorie day, try to make sure you’re getting vitamins, minerals, and fiber from plant foods! More decadent dishes like sweet potatoes with marshmallows or green been casserole will have added empty calories from the toppings, so try to scoop more veggies but less topping to cut a bit of the calories. Overall, though, eating a plate that is 50% veggie casserole is still healthier than one that is 50% macaroni and cheese.
  2. Try not to drink your calories. This is a huge factor to the holiday season weight gain! Light beers run around 100 calories, while heavier winter lagers are closer to 200. Seasonal craft cocktails can easily be close to 200 as well, especially as you add in sweet juices. You can still enjoy your drinks, but try to limit the number and type to keep the empty calories under control.
  3. Remember you can eat everything – just not in one day! It’s the holiday SEASON, so remember that there will be ample opportunity to enjoy your favorite dishes (whether it’s pie or twice baked potatoes or tasty drinks) throughout the next few months. Definitely enjoy the special items around you, especially if they’re homemade by loved ones, but remember that you don’t have to have it all at one sitting. Listen to your hunger cues and stop when you’re full so you avoid the post-meal guilt. Ask to take a slice of something else for the road if you won’t get a chance to eat it again, and enjoy it tomorrow. This will let you savor all your favorite flavors but spread the calories out over time.

Remember that your nutrition journey is not built in a day, and it certainly won’t be wrecked by a day either. Enjoy the things around you, try to eat mindfully, and continue focusing on the big picture of making overall healthy choices whenever possible– that will be a win in my book!

Top 5 Ways to Get Back on Track after Thanksgiving

We’ve officially kicked off the holiday season with Thanksgiving – and if you’re like most Americans, you ate several times the calories you normally would!  I’m a big believer in enjoying celebrations and eating guilt-free on those days, though even those who are normally mindful of what they eat can easily eat seconds and thirds of their favorite family recipes (followed by tiny portions of about 6 different desserts).

The key to surviving the holiday season from this point on while still adhering to your health goals is to take each day at a time- follow these tips to make it to New Year’s without backsliding into old habits.

  1. Leave the holiday splurges for the holidays.
    If you follow one tip all season, make it this one! Food traditions are at the heart of many holiday celebrations, so enjoy them on the actual day-of, but don’t carry those bad eating habits with you for the rest of the season!
    Whatever your major holidays are — Christmas Eve, Christmas day, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, a certain holiday party you’ve been waiting for — enjoy the food and drink on that day but go back to your normal eating routine once the event is over. If you carry out that celebration mentality every day until New Year’s and eat twice the calories you normally do, you can easily pack on the pounds or wind up with out of control blood sugars. This goes for leftovers as well; definitely enjoy those Thanksgiving leftovers, but serve yourself smaller portions so you don’t overeat like you may have while feasting with family.
  2. Listen to your Hunger Cues.
    If you’ve ever eaten to the point of becoming uncomfohunger scalertably full (a feeling very well associated with holidays), you probably ignored your hunger cues. Our bodies are great at telling us when we need to eat and when we can stop, but our love of flavor usually leads us to keep eating far beyond that point. Using a mental Hunger Scale can help you identify when you need to eat or wait so you can eat more intuitively. Throughout the season, ask yourself if you are eating because you are hungry (scale points 3 & 4) to the point of satiety (points 5 & 6) or beyond that (points 7 & above) so that you can enjoy your holiday treats without feeling stuffed.
  3. Don’t drink your calories.
        Alcohol is a major part of many holiday festivities, but it’s a two-fold trap when you are watching your health! First, alcohol is packed with calories – and the heavier the drink, the more calories it packs.  While a light beer or a 4 ounce glass of champagne has around 100 calories, a heavy winter lager or a martini can easily have over 200. Add creamy drinks like eggnog or dessert martinis and those drinks pack more than 300 calories each. The second trap here is that alcohol dulls your inhibitions and often leads to eating far more than you ever would while sober! This is especially true for anyone who restricts their eating on a daily basis, so if you tend to be a crash-dieter, you may find yourself eating twice what you normally would once alcohol silences that voice in your head. My tip is to cap yourself at once drink so you can enjoy yourself while still being able to hear your hunger cues rather than overindulging unintentionally.
  4. Plan ahead.
         This may be the least fun tip, but it’s the most practical. If you are going to a holiday party where you know your friend’s famous seven-layer dip or decadent dessert will be served, make a mental plan of how you will be allotting your calories. This can help you enjoy your favorite items without feeling guilt that you splurged all night long. A good rule of thumb is to try to divide your dinner into courses like you would at a restaurant: an appetizer, dinner, and dessert. Choose your favorite small app, a main course with protein and some vegetables if available, and one sweet plate (or drink) for dessert rather than grazing mindlessly all night.
  5. Stay mindful between meals.
    There are only a few actual holidays this season but many normal days with special treats lying around. If you love to buy seasonal snacks or work in an office with a constant supply of desserts, make a mental note of how often you are eating otherwise celebratory foods throughout the day. If you are having multiple sweets throughout the morning and afternoon, you are likely having way more calories and carbohydrates than you would eat any other time of year, and this can do a number on your blood sugars and waist line. Find a happy medium that works for you, like only eating workplace treats two times a week instead of every day or saving your treats at home for weekends.

If you find yourself struggling and need extra guidance on how to prioritize your health goals while still enjoying the holidays, nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian nutritionist can make a huge difference. I have a great holiday deal through the end of the year and an even better Black Friday deal through 11/26, so this is the time to book a session!

This weekend only!

**Now until 11/26- new client deal!** Get your first session for only $75!!

The Thanksgiving feast was just the start of the holiday food fest, so change your relationship with food starting TODAY with nutrition counseling! Why wait until New Year’s for a new you?

Meet online via video chat or in my Ramsey office- message or visit our website for details!

Promo code: BFDEAL

Low-Carb Alternative Ideas

One of the top questions I get as a dietitian is how to replace your favorite high-carb foods with lower-carb options.  Take a look at this article from Insider featuring recommendations from several nutrition professionals – including me!  I mentioned my favorite low-carb swap: zucchini noodles, which I recently shared so you guys can experiment on your own!

 

 

 

Is Your Food Dangerous? Top Food Safety Tips You Might Not Be Doing

We often take food safety for granted and assume that everything we buy is likely fine to eat until a predetermined expiration date, but the truth is that some foods have far higher risk of spreading foodborne illness.

Anyone with a weakened immune system, including children, the elderly, or anyone taking immunosuppressants or undergoing chemotherapy is at a particularly high risk of catching a foodborne illness, but even generally healthy individuals at at risk with certain foods or poorly prepared dishes.

My top 5 tips for ensuring your food is safe:

  1. Read about Recalls: Rely on trustworthy sources like FoodSafety.gov for recall information! This is a phenomenal way to stay updated about any foods that may have been tainted before they reach your kitchen. While many major recalls make headlines, smaller recalls can slip by under the radar, so FoodSafety.gov’s information can help you protect yourself.
  2. Choose Pasteurization: Always choose pasteurized goods including milk, cheeses, and fruit juices as the pasteurization method kills dangerous bacteria
  3. Avoid undercooked meat: Even though rare hamburgers and raw tuna taste like delicacies, many bacteria thrive at temperatures under 165 degrees Fahrenheit, so foods need to be well cooked to ensure safety.
  4. Take caution at buffets and salad bars: the huge selection can be tempting, but food that sits out without proper heating or cooling puts you at major risk of foodborne illness. If your hot food seems cooler than 140 degrees Fahrenheit or your cold salad bar items seem warmer than 40 degrees, bacteria can be growing all day long. Look for trustworthy locations where you see employees checking temperatures and bringing fresh trays out often. Also keep an eye out for servingware that falls into any serving dishes, carrying bacteria from whomever touched it last.
  5. Use your Judgment for Sell-By Dates: That beloved Sell By date on your package is only a guideline used by retailers to know when products are generally safe or should be tossed:

“Sell-By” dates are a guide for retailers. Although many products bear “Sell-By” dates, product dating is not a Federal requirement. While these dates are helpful to the retailer, they are reliable only if the food has been kept at a safe temperature during storage and handling.

— USDA Food Safety and Inspection Services

If a product was stored at an unsafe temperature at any time, that date is no longer a good estimate of how long the product will keep, so always evaluate your food carefully; if there is a change in odor or consistency, it may be a sign of spoilage. Also note that most refrigerated products should be used within 7-10 days of opening, so don’t keep your opened sour cream or salad dressing for 2 months just because the Sell By date hasn’t yet arrived!

Check out this article by Healthy Way featuring some foods that are particularly risky with input from a food safety professional as well as my recommendations for alternative options!