Restaurant Dining: A Hit to Your Health and Wallet

Couple DiningMy spouse and I are health conscious because I am a dietitian and not a hypocrite, and his life depends upon it.  We regularly visit an area of southwest Michigan, and recently had breakfast at a local diner with great TripAdvisor reviews.  Unfortunately, we did not agree with the great reviews on TripAdvisor.  The menu was limited, but I will be the first to state that this is not necessarily a bad thing because the focus may end up being on quality, rather than an abundance of mediocre dishes.  The good news here was the staff was more than happy to substitute egg whites for whole eggs, but that is probably where the positive aspects of the meal ended.

Now the bad news:  the nice multi-grain bread was already buttered on the bottom of the toast (so did not realize it until it was eaten), the portions were huge (I know many people want large portions for the money being doled out), and I saw no fruit options on the menu.  Other bad news: the bill was $30.00 for what we could have made at home for probably a dollar at most, and made it a lot healthier in a short amount of time.  This is, in fact, the key issue with dining out on a regular basis.

When my clients dine out on a regular basis, this is what I tell them to expect:

More Fat.  If you make the same food at home, you can control the fat in the dish with very simple recipe tweaking.  Restaurants don’t typically care about the fat content in their meals because fat carries flavor and texture in food and of course, they want you to return for another meal! You can bank on eating more calories than you anticipated due to the higher fat content, and you can also assume that it will be more difficult to meet your weight loss goals.

More Calories.  And, let’s not forget the simple concept that larger portions, when eaten, yield more calories.  Unless you can exercise a lot of self-discipline while dining out, you will most likely eat your whole meal.  If you can consistently ask for healthy substitutions such as fruit for fries, you are on the right track.  Also, you need to get in the habit of bringing at least half of your meal home. And who doesn’t want that yummy appetizer, dessert, or cocktail while dining out?  It is probably safe to say that if you are eating at home vs. dining out, you probably are not having an appetizer, cocktail, and dessert with your main meal!

More Sodium.  If you are fortunate to find a nice restaurant meal low in fat and overall calories, the sodium is probably lurking.  I have yet to see a healthy restaurant meal that is low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, calories, and sodium.  If you think the sodium content does not matter because your blood pressure is fine, you need to think again.   High sodium intakes cause other health problems such as bone loss and are correlated with increased cancer risk.  And, if you hop on the scale the next day, you can credit that weight gain of several pounds to fluid retention from all that salt you ate.

More Money.  As my husband made a lower sodium chili on Sunday, he proudly pointed out to me that the entire pot of chili probably cost less than a few dollars.  Had a bowl of chili been purchased at a full service restaurant, it would have been at least $6.00 dollars.  He also used only half a packet of low sodium chili powder and added additional beans, and veggies creating a lower sodium, but healthier higher fiber dish.

So, while eating out is social and recreational for many, having the mentality that it should be a treat for special occasions rather than your regular diet, can keep you healthier, slim you down, and fatten your wallet.  In fact, it is a win-win way to eat.

Checking out online menus and nutrition information is key to healthier dining options.

Do you have any strategies for managing your calories, fat, and sodium while dining out?


Is Your Child Too Energetic? Check Out the Caffeine!

If your child seems a bit too “energized”, you might want to throw out the theory that it’s simply overstimulation from sugar, and give some thought to hidden caffeine-like compounds in the diet.  While Johnny may not be drinking Starbucks with you in the morning, there are actually plenty of opportunities for kids to get caffeine-like compounds into their bodies. Caffeine, and another dietary compound called theobromine, are commonly found in foods we give our kids.  Common food sources of both caffeine and theobromine include:

Beverages.  Lemonade, bottled teas, non-cola soda, vitamin water, hot cocoa,  chocolate milkshakes, and energy smoothies can all contribute varying amounts of caffeine-like stimulants. While your 5-year old may not be consuming energy drinks, your teen probably is, and these beverages are loaded with excessive caffeine. Because these beverages may be hidden sources of caffeine or other stimulants, read any available labels of all beverages you provide to your child and teen.

Noting that a standard cup of drip coffee has about 150 mg of caffeine, check out how some of these common beverages stack up with regard to caffeine content:

  • 8 ounces of most popular energy drinks range from 80-300 mg
  • 12 ounces of Coke Zero, Classic Coca Cola, Diet or Regular Dr. Pepper, Sunskist Orange Soda- 30-45 mg
  • 12 ounces of Diet or Regular Mountain Dew has 55 mg
  • Diet Snapple Tea-42 mg
  • White Tea or Green Tea-15 mg-25 mg

Foods.  Foods may contain either caffeine or the caffeine-like stimulant theobromine. Foods containing theobromine include chocolate flavored cereals, desserts, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate candy.  Coffee ice cream and yogurt could contain varying amounts of actual caffeine and should be discouraged for children. A 6-ounce serving of Dannon Coffee Yogurt contains a whopping 36 mg of caffeine while Starbucks Coffee Ice Cream has 50-60 mg of caffeine per one cup serving.

You won’t find the caffeine content of these foods listed on any Nutrition Fact Panel, so all you can do is be aware of the potential foods containing caffeine or theobromine.

Medications.  Certain adult medications may contain caffeine which speeds pain relief.  Examples of non-prescription pain relievers containing caffeine include:  Excedrin, Anacin, and Dristan. Parents should avoid these medications and choose medications that are caffeine-free.  Another medication an adolescent female might take which does contain caffeine is Midol for relieving menstrual cramps.

While a little caffeine will not harm your child, if your kid is bouncing off the walls or having trouble sleeping it’s wise to assess if he or she is consuming too much “hidden” caffeine.  Thoughts on how else caffeine gets into our kids’ diets?

Fall Favorite Foods : Pumpkin Pie and Minestrone Soup

Today some major plans fell through, and I very unexpectedly have the whole day free to tackle my kitchen and food preparation. With the fall chill in the air and mums on the front step, I am in the mood to make some of my favorite “fall” foods.

For your sweet tooth, consider pumpkin pie.  In my family, we eat pumpkin pie all year-not just during the holidays.  This is a slimmed down version, with literally half the calories of traditional pie.  The trick is to get rid of the crust calories, but still have the pie hold its shape.  Using Bisquick mix (and you can use the reduced fat version), you will decrease the calories by 50%.  This is a healthy dessert, full of anti-oxidants.  You might even want to consider eating this for breakfast!

Slimmed Down Pumpkin Pie Recipe (1/8 pie has about 100 calories)

  • 15 oz. Can pumpkin pie
  • 1 can evaporated skim milk
  • ¾ cup Splenda or 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs or 1/2 cup egg substitute
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp. ground cloves
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ cup Bisquick mix

Mix all the ingredients in bowl.  Use baking spray and coat a glass pie pan. Add the mixture and bake at 425 degrees for about 15 minutes, then turn down the oven temperature to 350 degrees, and continue baking approximately 45 additional minutes.

Soups are another fall favorite recipe.   Soups are wonderful in that most can be frozen very well and then pulled out of the freezer for a very quick dinner when time is tight.  A favorite soup in our family is quick minestrone.  It takes virtually no time to assemble my version of this recipe.  This is a true family favorite, and all of my adult children and daughter-in-law really enjoy this recipe.  I hope you do as well.

 Very Quick Minestrone Soup (1.5 cup serving has about 200 calories)

  • 1 cup carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup celery, diced
  • 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced
  • one large can (28 ounces) of low sodium chicken broth
  • 1 can light kidney beans (15 ounces), rinsed and drained
  • 1-2 cans of stewed tomatoes
  • 1 cup medium pasta shells, uncooked
  • 1 cup frozen peas or Italian-style beans
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil leaves
  • Parmesan cheese to top soup (optional)


Toss all ingredients into a stockpot. Bring to a boil and simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Sprinkle each serving with parmesan cheese if desired. Serve with whole grain bread and a light salad.  This is a meal rich in anti-oxidants and fiber.

Bon Appetit!

How to Halt Your Hearburn!

Recently a student in a college nutrition class I teach raised her hand to contribute to a discussion on heartburn.  She indicated that her doctor told her to drink whole milk to help her heartburn.  She stressed that the doctor noted it HAD to be whole milk.  Since she was not interested in drinking whole milk, this recommendation was not followed through on by the student.  The recommendation was neither realistic for her, and probably not really the best advice to take anyway with regard to managing heartburn.

You know if you have suffered from heartburn.  You may actually have a burning sensation in either your chest, mouth, or both areas.  You may have a constant sore throat.  You may even bring up vomit.

Common factors contributing to heartburn include: pregnancy, smoking, certain medications, obesity, and alcohol.

Food Factors.  Certain foods are known to aggravate heartburn.  Consider the following list of foods and evaluate if your symptoms are worse when you eat these foods.

  • Citrus fruits (limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit)
  • Spicy foods
  • Chocolate
  • Caffeinated food (coffee, soda pop, tea)
  • High fat foods (salad dressing, oil, butter, margarine, fried foods, rich desserts)
  • Raw onions and garlic
  • Tomato based foods
  • Peppermint or spearmint oils (sometimes recommended for irritable bowel syndrome)

Lifestyle Factors.  By manipulating your daily habits, you can help to decrease your heartburn symptoms.

  • Make sure you eat a low fat diet
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Mange your weight and lose weight if you are overweight.
  • Avoid overly large meals-instead eat smaller meals more frequently.
  • If necessary, prop your head up with multiple pillows at night.  This makes it a bit more difficult for the acid to back up into your esophagus.
  • Drink liquids between meals, instead of with your meals.
  • Wear loose clothes.
  • Wait several hours to lie down after a larger meal.

Taking these first steps to halting heartburn can be very effective.  You can always consult with a dietitian as well.  If your symptoms persist even after diet and lifestyle adjustments, you should see your physician for medical management of your problem.


The Meatless “Revolution”: A Health Savvy Trend

I just heard the term “meatless revolution” coined on an evening news program.  Being a dietitian who is both professionally and personally a big fan of good nutrient dense carbohydrates-white potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, fruits, and vegetables- I am ecstatic to hear this is becoming a mainstream trend.  Apparently, US meat consumption has declined 30%, so my hope is this trend continues as it is good for our health and good for the planet.  Dietitians have been promoting this concept for decades.  The USDA plate reinforces this eating “revolution” as well.  So why should we cut down on meat consumption?  For dietitians, the answers are obvious:  this decreases total fat, saturated fat, and allows for calories to come from other food sources such has complex carbs which provide specific nutrients to the diet that would be lacking in a heavy meat diet.  Eating less meat is also a good way to decrease inflammation and cancer risk in some people.  Eating and growing more plant-based foods also consumes less energy and pollutes the environment less.  For every pound of bread made, one pound of grain is needed.  But for every pound of beef weight, eight pounds of grain are needed.  And, let’s not forget that cows pollute with poop.  It has to go somewhere, and often ends up contaminating our water and soil.

To embrace this so-called meatless revolution, start with:

  • Having a meatless meal a few times per week.  Try a lentil soup with whole grain bread or a vegetable topping pizza every Friday.
  • Making a conscious decision to decrease your animal protein servings to the size of a deck of cards; this is the portion size you should be eating, but many are eating 2-3 times that amount.
  • Substituting plant-based protein for meat options.  Try peanut butter in place of cold cuts on whole wheat bread for a hearty sandwich or lentils and beans in soups and stews to replace some of the meat the recipe calls for.

How do you downsize your meat?


6 Starter Steps to Tame Your Triglycerides

I recently had a client come to a nutrition consultation for a severely elevated triglyceride level.  While his elevated triglyceride level was a challenging and depressing situation for him personally, it was what his cardiologist told him to eat which was really depressing!  His physician actually told him to “eat grass and cardboard.”  Obviously, this doctor was being sarcastic, but the comment implied that the diet needed to be overly restrictive.  As is often the case with nutrition advice, this particular advice was misleading, incomplete, and inappropriate in terms of helping the patient improve his medical outcome.

Here are 6 simpler alternatives to eating cardboard and grass:

  • Maintain or Get to a Healthy Weight—Studies have shown losing weight and maintaining an ideal weight to be associated with decreased levels of blood fats-including both triglycerides and cholesterol.
  • Increase Physical Activity—Aerobic exercise can help with weight loss and can decrease triglyceride levels at the same time. In fact, both short bouts of aerobic exercise as well as long-term repetitive exercise have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels. Most studies find that the best bet is to do 30-45 minutes of moderately intensive exercise five times a week. First, get your doctor’s approval if you’re not accustomed to exercise.
  • Cut Down on Carbs—Carbohydrates are basically divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates tend to be sweet, such as soft drinks, desserts, candies, and syrup. Complex carbohydrates are found in bread, pasta, rice, fruits, and vegetables.  It is generally recommended that people with high triglycerides avoid simple carbohydrates. Some people are so sensitive to sweets that their triglyceride levels increase drastically when they eat too much sugar. In any healthful diet, complex carbohydrates should be in the 45-65% of overall calorie intake, but even too much high-fiber, nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates can aggravate triglyceride levels when eaten in amounts exceeding 60% of total calorie intake.
  • Limit Alcohol—According to the American Heart Association (AHA), even small amounts of alcohol can increase triglyceride levels. For some people, cutting out alcohol can elicit a marked decrease in their triglyceride levels.  In the case of my patient, his triglyceride decreased a whopping 90%.
  • Choose Fats Wisely—The AHA also recommends that up to 30% of the calories you get from fat come from foods containing more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • Eat More Fish—Most health experts also recommend eating more fish because of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, which have been associated with decreased triglyceride levels. Omega-3 fatty acids also help make the blood less sticky, so it is less likely to forms clots that contribute to heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in all types of fish, but are more abundant in fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and herring. Other good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include tofu, soybeans, flaxseed, nuts, and green leafy vegetables.

While these are some steps to start you off, a licensed dietitian can help personalize your food plan to meet your goals, and do so effectively and palatably so you too can avoid eating grass and cardboard!

What’s on your plate to lower triglyceride levels?

Confused About Healthy Eating? 5 Easy Tips to Start!

We are a society on ”nutrition” overload. Messages reach us each time we turn on the ten o’ clock news or boot up the computer. Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs, do this, don’t do that-and consumers feel messages conflict and constantly spin a one-eighty every other week. No wonder the public is unsure about what to eat or who to take advice from! With that in mind, here are 5 tips I feel can help most people improve their overall health status:

  • Decrease your animal protein consumption. This will decrease your saturated fat intake, keep your calories in line, AND decrease your carbon footprint on our dear planet earth.
  • Eat more plant-based foods. The upside of this, is simply, more anti-oxidants, more fiber, fewer calories, and less of a carbon footprint on planet earth.
  • Try to focus on unprocessed foods as much as possible. The less processed the food, the more nutrient dense the food. When the food is molded, distorted, manipulated, or redesigned, the nutrition composition is most likely altered, and not usually for the better!
  • Don’t be afraid of bread! Whole grain breads are a rich source of B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, and fiber.
  • Cast a wide net on the variety of foods you eat. No single food is a magic health bullet. Eating a variety of foods keeps your taste buds happy and also increases the likelihood that you are getting more and varied nutrients into your diet.

While some people should not follow these suggestions due to specific medical concerns, for most people this is a good start to up shifting to a better quality of diet. If you need to omit food groups or implement special diet therapy, consider consulting with a Registered/Licensed Dietitian to design a food plan that works for your health goals. Bon Appetit!


Ice Cream: 6 Tips to Slimming Down Summer’s Special Treat

Ice cream is a special summer treat for family outings.  For many of us, summer is the time we went to the local ice cream shop for a special treat on a hot summer day.  We did this as kids, and now with your own kids, you may be repeating family traditions.  Tradition is wonderful, but if your waistline has expanded, it may be time to go for a slimmed down version of this treat.   In fact, if not careful, you can easily end up with an ice cream calorie equivalent of a whole day’s worth of calories!

Here are six tips to carry on with your ice cream tradition without increasing your waistline:

  • Avoid premium ice creams altogether:  A single 6 oz. scoop of premium ice cream can cost you 500 calories.  Oberweis chocolate chocolate chip, chocolate marshmallow, chocolate almond, butter pecan, butter brickle, chocolate caramel crunch, cookie dough, and strawberry cheesecake flavors can all claim that calorie content!
  • Eat like a little kid:  Calories and fat will always follow portion sizes, so you can either have a bite of someone else’s treat, or get yourself a kids scoop.  A kids scoop is roughly 2.5-3 oz., so you can assume the calories are slashed 50% from the adult version, translating to much more calorie and fat control. 
  • Exercise caution with low-fat ice cream options:  Don’t assume because the ice cream is low-fat that it is fine to have a double scoop!  The Oberweis single scoop low-fat flavors range in calories from vanilla at 250 calories to chocolate marshmallow at 300 calories.  Do the math and you can see how you might still get into a calorie bind by having a double scoop.
  • Avoid the final touches:  Dipping your DQ vanilla cone in chocolate will add anywhere from 100-200 calories to your treat, depending on the size of cone you opt for.  Adding  the candy pieces, whipped cream, and nuts will also give you some additional “energy” to the tune of at least 100 calories.
  • Go for cold alternatives:  Most ice cream franchises have healthier lower fat and calorie options for consumers.  Better options include sorbet, low-fat frozen yogurt, and sherbet.  Single scoop servings of these frosty alternatives may also be significantly lower in calories.  A 4 oz. serving of sorbet can run your calorie tab 80-150 calories.  Many frozen yogurt flavors are 150 calories or less per 4 oz. serving.  While sherbet is virtually fat-free, the calories can start adding up as a 4-6 oz. single scoop of orange sherbet can run as high as 260 calories.  If slashing fat is the objective, sherbet is a good way to go, but the calorie tab may run higher than anticipated.
  • Go to the supermarket instead:  There are so many frozen treats at your supermarket to take advantage of if you are trying to stay slim this summer.  Spend a few minutes looking at the nutrition fact labels and pick a product that suit your palate and nutritional goal.  There are many ice cream-like products hitting the mainstream and specialty grocery stores all the time that are both tasty and fit into anyone’s eating lifestyle.

What do you opt for at the ice cream store?  Can you share the nutrition information of your favorite frozen treat?


“Great” Green Tea: What’s in it for You?

Green tea is probably the one beverage I can think of that can be deemed completely healthy and almost without any controversy!   A search on pub med today just yielded 4688 scientific/medical journal abstracts on green tea.  I am not aware of any studies that are critical of green tea regarding health, and scientists have been interested in the potential health benefits of green tea for many decades. 

The compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is found primarily in green tea, and it is the compound that appears to confer the significant health benefits of green tea.  This compound is one of four prominent compounds which are strong anti-oxidants present in green tea.  Some of the health benefits of green tea include: interfering with cancer cells, lowering lipids, decreasing inflammation, decreasing the risk of blood clots and stroke, and fighting tooth decay. 

Many people assume green tea has a lot of caffeine and they opt for decaffeinated green tea.  A cup of regular brewed green tea has only 30 mg of caffeine while a cup of regular brewed coffee (not Starbucks) has about 95 mg.  So, if you are highly sensitive to caffeine, go for the decaffeinated version, but if caffeine sensitivity is not an issue the regular green tea is still low in caffeine.  If you do want to drink only decaffeinated green tea, try to choose a brand which is decaffeinated by a carbon dioxide method as opposed to chemicals as the chemicals may actually destroy the anti-oxidants.

How to brew green tea:  Green tea can be brewed as loose leaves of tea or using a tea bag. Use one tsp. loose tea or one tea bag per serving.  Using bottled water rather than tap water for brewing may improve the taste of the tea.  Steep your tea in water which has just reached the boiling point of 160 degrees.  Turn the heat off and steep the tea for 2-4 minutes.  Limiting the steeping time to 2-4 minutes will allow for optimal anti-oxidants and decrease the bitterness and caffeine content.  Steeping tea for 4 minutes will actually increase the caffeine content to 40-100 mg of caffeine per 8 ounce serving.

What about flavored teas and tea products?  Flavored teas will be lower in anti-oxidants because the flavoring added to the teas displaces the actual tea content and anti-oxidants available in a serving of tea.  Nonetheless, flavored teas and already prepared tea products can still be a source of anti-oxidants.  You can also brew your own tea, and add your own flavorings such as mint, lemon, or ginseng.

With the summer heat wave sweeping the entire country, consider making your green tea into a pitcher of iced tea to reap both the health benefits of green tea along with hydration!

Do you have a favorite green tea brand or recipe to share on this blog?

Bread Buying Basics: Shopping Tips for the Savvy Shopper

photo: courtesy J. Rose

A recent family conversation revealed to me the confusion produced by shopping for bread. It’s not just an issue of rye versus wheat or white versus whole grain. Grocery shoppers encounter a far more complex array of bread terms such as enriched, 100% whole grain, high fiber, and gluten-free. Knowing a few facts about what these terms mean is crucial for the savvy bread shopper. Here are some key points about packaged store bread:

  • Whole Grain Bread or 100% Grain-This means the entire grain kernel was used to make the bread, as opposed to just part of the kernel. More specifically, the bread was made from all parts of the grain kernel: the nutrient dense bran and germ of the grain, as well as the less nutrient dense middle endosperm. As a result, the fiber and nutrient content of the bread is generally higher. For the consumer, this translates to a healthy food choice.
  • Enriched White bread (refined flour)-Enriched white bread is made from the less nutrient rich endosperm. US government regulation also requires that some of the nutrients found in whole grain bread be added back into enriched white bread. These nutrients include some B-complex vitamins; however, fiber, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and chromium are not typically added in to the enriched product.
  • Wheat Bread, Brown Bread, Stone Ground-These breads are not necessarily made from a whole grain, and consequently are not guaranteed to be a nutritious option. You must check the label to determine whether the bread is made from a whole grain or an enriched flour.
  • Fiber- Most whole grain breads will yield more fiber than white enriched products. Fiber is an important element of a healthy diet, so look for a minimum of 2 grams of fiber per slice. Many whole grain breads may have as much as 5 grams of fiber.
  • Sodium- Bread can be a significant source of sodium. If this is an issue for you, check out the nutrition fact label for this information. Sliced packaged bread typically ranges from about 150 mg to several hundred mg of sodium per slice.
  • Calories-Calorie content per slice of bread varies widely. Many varieties of sliced bread range from 70-120 calories per slice. Check the nutrition information to ensure that the bread of your choice aligns with your caloric requirements.

Other label deciphering tricks-Look at the list of ingredients. The most prevalent ingredient is listed first, and the least prevalent ingredient is listed at the end. If you are looking for a healthy whole grain bread, you would most likely see “whole or 100% wheat” noted first on the list of ingredients. A less nutritionally desirable bread might list 100% whole wheat, followed by enriched wheat and other ingredients.
A word about gluten-Gluten is protein which some individuals are sensitive to, or must avoid due to celiac disease. It has become popular to avoid or decrease gluten, but it is not necessary for everyone to do so. When it comes to bread, avoid gluten if it is medically required.
A word about high fructose corn syrup-High fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetener in food items, and it has been highly criticized in the past few years. Whatever the final scientific findings on high fructose corn syrup may be, there are many breads on the market free of this ingredient. Read your labels and find a bread that uses an alternate sweetener if this concerns you.

Do you have a healthy favorite store brand bread you can recommend?