Was it something I ate?

by Rebecca N. Schiller, MSc

This article was originally published in December 2002

People at a table

(December 2002) — It’s easy to gain a few pounds over the holidays and it’s tempting to blame certain foods. As you navigate the holiday feasts, keep in mind this straight talk from a nutritionist to cut through the clutter of diets and dismay.

The latest results are out — obesity rates in the United States still are on the rise. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that between 1988 and 1994, approximately 23 percent of Americans were obese. Based on current analyses, this percentage has climbed to 30 percent in just eight years, while the percentage of overweight Americans also has increased from 56 to 64 percent.

Healthcare professionals and policy makers alike are realizing that obesity is fast becoming the nation’s biggest health problem. Obesity has been linked to such illnesses as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. This serious health threat begs the question: What is responsible for the current obesity epidemic?

A recently published book, “The Hungry Gene: the Science of Fat and the Future of Thin” by Ellen Shell, suggests that the roots of obesity lie in our genetic makeup. Alternately, articles in both the New York Times and Time magazine this past summer propose that obesity is the result of poor dietary choices. The reality perhaps may be a combination of these two theories.

Portion control

We know there are three basic components to the foods we eat: protein, carbohydrate and fat. The current obesity debate attempts to identify which of these three components is the major contributor of weight gain in the United States. This dispute however, fails to address the most important elements in weight loss: portion control and daily caloric intake.

Research shows that while obesity rates continue to rise, national averages for total dietary fat intake have declined steadily over the last decade. How can it be that Americans are eating less fat overall and yet are continuing to gain weight? Again, the answer lies with overall energy intake.

In today’s “supersized” environment, caloric intake has soared alarmingly. It is not uncommon for an individual to consume more than 3,000 calories during the course of a day. This is easily understandable when you consider the ever-increasing portion sizes available to consumers.

In 1955, the average restaurant serving size of a glass of soda was approximately 6.5 ounces or about 75 calories. Today’s 32-ounce serving packs a whopping 400 calories. This is but one example of how portion size has evolved over the past five decades.

Portion Size: typical portions vs. portion standards

Food Portion received USDA Pyramid
serving size
servings in
portion rec’d
bagel 1 bagel, 4.5″ in diameter 1/2 bagel, 3″ in diameter 4
muffin 1 muffin, 3.5″ in diameter 1 muffin, 2.5″ in diameter 3
burrito-size flour tortilla 1 tortilla, 9″ in diameter 1 tortilla, 7″ in diameter 2
popcorn 16 cups (movie theater, med.) 2 cups 8
spaghetti 2 cups cooked 1/2 cup cooked 4
rice 1 cup cooked 1/2 cup cooked 2
baked potato 1 large (7 oz) 1 small (2.25 oz) 3
broiled chicken breast 6 ounces 2-3 ounces 2
broiled fish 6-9 ounces 2-3 ounces 3
porterhouse steak or prime rib 13 ounces 2-3 ounces 5
ham or roast beef (deli sandwich) 5 ounces 2-3 ounces 2

A survey conducted at Tufts University found that many restaurants provide an entire day’s caloric need in just one meal.

“We’re eating roughly 500 calories a day more than we did in 1980,” says USDA agricultural economist, Judith Putnam. “More than a third of the increase comes from refined grains, a fifth comes from added sugars, and a third comes from added fats,” which have increased steadily since the late 1970s in the form of oils, shortening, lard, and tallow found in processed foods. (Nutrition Action Newsletter, Nov. 02)

Increases in daily caloric intake coupled with overall non-activity have contributed significantly to the steady weight gain in the United States. At the same time, portion control may be effective for weight loss, yet it’s too simplistic to interpret as license to eat whatever one wants as long as it falls within a caloric limit.

The quality of food one chooses to eat is just as important as the quantity and that often is lost in the clutter of dietary recommendations.

For more information on serving size visit www.usda.gov/cnpp/Pubs/Brochures to download the USDA brochure “How Much are you Eating?”

Food quality

The abundance of dietary recommendations is overwhelming. Low-fat diets, low-carbohydrate diets, high-protein diets; what’s a health conscious person to do? With so many conflicting messages, how are consumers to navigate the current array of dietary guidelines?

The USDA Food Pyramid places carbohydrates at its base and recommends 6-11 servings per day; at its pinnacle lies “Fats, Oils and Sweets.” Opposing dietary recommendations, such as the Zone Diet and the Atkins Diet, recommend a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet. While consumers may find many convincing arguments for consuming less carbohydrate, fat or protein, they tend to overlook a key aspect in “healthy” weight loss — food quality.

Not all food items within a food group are identical. For example, while refined grains such as white bread, rice, pasta and cereal fall into the same category as whole grains, they do not contribute equally to nutritional health. Highly processed carbohydrates are low in fiber and B vitamins and have been linked to an increased risk of diabetes and insulin resistance. High fiber unprocessed foods, on the other hand, stabilize glucose levels and prevent sugar “highs” and “lows.”

Dietary fats

During the past decade, consumers have been subjected to the same message repeatedly: Fat in your diet makes you fat. While it’s true that fat has twice the calories as either proteins or carbohydrates, fat is fattening only if consumers don’t limit their caloric intake from other sources.

Many consumers are aware of certain nutrients that the body cannot make itself, such as essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. This is also true of some fats. Essential fats — the fats the body requires for healthy function yet cannot make itself — must be incorporated into one’s daily diet.

Omega-3 fats, found mainly in fish, flax seed, walnuts and canola and soy oils, are necessary for healthy cell function. Studies show that omega-3 fats reduce inflammation and the formation of blood clots, boost immune function and support healthy fertility. Consumption of these fats also has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.

Conversely, trans-fats, also known as partially hydrogenated fats, have been linked to increased LDL (bad) cholesterol, decreased HDL (good) cholesterol, and are thought to increase the risk of heart disease.

General dietary recommendations

Dr. Walter Willett, Director of the Nutrition department at Harvard University has recently published his own food pyramid in his book, “Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy: The Harvard Medical School Guide to Healthy Eating” (Simon & Schuster Source, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York). This pyramid successfully distinguishes between healthy and unhealthy sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats while simultaneously incorporating such beneficial behaviors as daily exercise and dietary supplement intake.

Key aspects of Dr. Willett’s recommendations include replacing saturated and trans-fats with unsaturated fats, substituting whole grains for refined grains, consuming less red meat in favor of chicken, fish, beans and nuts, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, and getting thirty minutes of daily exercise.

Following “extreme” diets, such as those advocating very high or very low dietary components (carbohydrates, fats or proteins), is not beneficial because it is next to impossible to maintain such a diet over long periods of time. The most successful “diets” are not really diets at all, but rather lifestyle changes that can be maintained indefinitely.

During the holiday season many people are tempted by high calorie foods. It is important to keep in mind that food choices as well as portion size are key components in weight control. A 3 1/2-ounce serving of white turkey meat, approximately the size of a deck of cards, is 157 calories while this same serving of dark meat is 187 calories; keeping the skin raises the calorie content by about 30 calories.

Similarly, a half cup of regular egg nog is approximately 180 calories with 5 grams of saturated fat while the light version is only 140 calories with half the saturated fat. Additionally, adding a half hour of moderate physical activity to your daily schedule will help balance additional holiday calorie intake thus reducing the risk of weight gain typically experienced during the holiday season.

Rebecca N. Schiller received her Masters of Science in Nutritional Sciences from Bastyr University. In 1998 she was the recipient of a Cancer Research Fellowship Award from the National Cancer Institute and has contributed to research conducted at both the National Cancer Institute’s Department of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has an extensive background in nutrition and health writing. Please contact Rebecca through her company, WriteNutrition at www.writenutrition.com.

Healthful eating tips from PCC Nutrition Educators

  1. There are fruits and vegetables available each season that are fresh and flavorful. Try to maximize your color selections each day, choosing red, orange, yellow, and green per National Cancer Institute recommendations.
  2. When eating a meal, aim for making half the volume on your plate vegetables.
  3. Eat your food deliberately. Enjoy every bite. Pay attention to your body’s signals for when you’re getting full.
  4. Eat quality fats. Choose unrefined fats for foods you don’t cook and choose other appropriate oils or fats for when you cook at high heat.

See www.spectrumnaturals.com, then click on the links “Spectrum Naturals” followed by “general oil information.”

So … what does “natural” really mean?

Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager

The word “natural” is very important on labels and in ads to consumers.

According to a HealthFocus Study done last year, 42 percent of the “primary” food shoppers in this country — those who shop the most and presumably have experience reading labels — say “natural” strongly influences their food purchasing choices.

But “natural” is not an easily understood, well-regulated term. The Food and Drug Administration does not define what “natural” means. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does define “natural” meat products as “no artificial ingredients or added color and only minimally processed” and the label must explain the use of the term “natural” completely.

Yet, in households with income under $50,000, the study found a higher likelihood that this undefined, unregulated label term will be a “very” persuasive factor when the shopper makes a purchase. It’s tempting to speculate that when the grocery budget is tighter, the word “natural” implies the product is of higher quality, higher nutrition and healthier.

The report says, “to this group, the term either means the food isn’t highly processed or doesn’t contain anything artificial.”

With no actual definitions in place, food manufacturers can arbitrarily define what is highly processed, artificial — or natural. There can be great variation in how various manufacturers view “natural.” That’s why PCC merchandisers seek out the most reputable, high quality products available, and it’s why they ask a lot of probing questions. Good manufacturers expect hard questions — and have the answers.

Other surveys observe that there’s also a blurring of the term “natural” and “organic.” Yet when products are labeled “organic” or “certified organic,” remember that those terms are fully defined, independently certified by third party agents of the USDA and federally regulated under the National Organic Standards Program as of October of this year.

Also in this issue

Letters to the editor, December 2002

Product choice resolution, Please market PCC values, Biscotti

News bites, December 2002

Zinc's antioxidant potential, GE fight in Canada, Irradiated beef at school?, and more