Saturday, July 19, 2008

Found on Craigslist: I wasn't waving, I was drowning (in the most confusing food environment ever)

Reply to:
Date: 2008-07-17, 2:25PM EDT

Nutritionist with common sense needed to help me figure out the absolute most simple way to eat a healthy diet. Realistically I'm not going to cook or prepare food, and I definitely don't want to hear about calories, carbs, and servings. I just need a simple, plain-English plan for things I can just buy and eat (right now I eat turkey sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, bagels, burritos, etc.) If you're up for this creative task, please let me know what your approach would be and what your background is. Thanks.

* Location: Midtown West
* it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests
* Compensation: tbd

PostingID: 758871337

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Hi. So, I'm not a nutritionist, and I'm not trying to be hired by you. I just saw your post and I couldn't help but respond. I've been doing research on nutrition for the past 6 years or so for various reasons, and in our current food environment it can be so very difficult to cut through the crap and figure out who's telling the truth and who's just trying to sell you the latest fad. Here's what I've gleaned, as it applies to actual everyday eating.

-Fat is not the enemy, and neither are carbohydrates. Your body can't function without adequate amounts of either of these things. You just don't want to have too much, and you want them to be of high quality whenever you do have them. What is high quality? Unsaturated for fats; complex for carbohydrates; for both, as close as possible to how they were created in nature.

-The more processed the food, the less healthy it is for you. Period. I don't care if the box says it's a "healthy choice" or a "smart choice made easy" - those are marketing gimmicks specifically designed to make people think that overprocessed junkfood is healthy. While it's impossible to avoid processed foods entirely, make sure you're getting some fresh fruits and vegetables in there too. Apples, oranges, grapefruits, carrots, celery - these will all keep for a week or more in your fridge, and the most prep they need is to be cut up. When you do eat processed foods, check the ingredient list: how many are there? Do you recognize them and can you pronounce them? Can you figure out why each one is being included in the product? Forget what the food scientists (who have been paid by the food companies making this tripe) are telling you, and let common sense dictate.

-When it comes to grain products, whole is the key. Why? Because when you strip away the fiber (which is what's done to make something white), you a) lose the fiber, duh, b) lose a ton of nutrients, as that's where many good things are stored in plants, and c) make your body process the grain much differently. Basically, you turn it into sugar very quickly and end up getting a big fast jolt, whereas when it's still whole it's a slow process that feeds your body a low steady stream - exactly what it needs. For breads and pastas, you want 100% whole wheat. Some of them are quite tasty. Try to find one without too much added sugar - and with actual Sugar (sucrose) or honey rather than high fructose corn syrup. For pastas you can also try asian noodles made of rice flour or buckwheat for variety. For rice, it's brown all the way. If you don't have a taste for it already, you'll develop one quickly - it's so much more flavorful! My exception to this is when I eat sushi - I love a good avocado roll, and I've found that the brown rice rolls just aren't quite the same. But a little white now and then is no big deal. (A note on rice: I can't cook it to save my life. Instead, I go to my nearest take-out Chinese place and buy a pint of it for $2, already perfectly steamed.)

-If you're going to consume animal products, I'd suggest going organic due to two main factors: antibiotics and bioaccumulated pesticides. People get all hysterical about eating organic produce, but the fact is that somewhere between 70 to 90% of the pesticides consumed by humans actually comes from meat. As far as the antibiotics being a concern, lots of people have a low level allergy to them and so the constant low dose keeps their immune systems inflamed without them realizing where it's coming from. It also makes your prescription less effective when you have bronchitis. There are many other reasons not to consume animal products, health and otherwise, which I'll be happy to discuss with you if you're interested.

-Be careful of added sugars. In everything - it's amazing the products that they can sneak them into, like soup or salad dressing. Some products that seem 'healthy', like fruit yogurt and granola bars, might as well be ice cream and candy bars when you look at the sugar content. Also, seriously, watch out for high fructose corn syrup. Regardless of what the Corn Grower's Association might want you to believe, it behaves differently in the body than table sugar does.

-As a general rule, food prepared in a restaurant is always going to be higher in fat, sugar, and salt than food prepared at home. And sometimes that's ok: that's why it tastes so good.

For meals, some suggestions:

-Eat breakfast! Seriously. It's best for your metabolism and blood sugar levels (translation: you'll feel better all day). And if you like coffee, go ahead and drink it. Just don't OD or add four spoons of sugar to it. What to eat? Find a good multigrain cereal that you like the taste of, or several that you can rotate. Look for ones that don't primarily feature wheat - we Americans eat way too much wheat. There are other grains out there, like oats and rice and barley. Again look for whole grain, and low sugar content. Half a cup of cereal and enough milk or "milk" to get it wet is a good way to start off. My "milk" of choice is Blue Diamond unsweetened almond milk. I like the taste so much that I drink it by the glass. You could slice up a banana in there too. During the winter I love to eat porridge-type grain cereals that you mix with your liquid of choice and throw into the microwave for a few minutes - Bob's Red Mill makes several tasty varieties.

-For lunch: Sandwiches are fine, as long as you watch what you put on them, and put them on. PB&J is tasty, but can be pretty high in sugar and fat content. But there's also plenty of protein, and around mid-day you need some good carb-fueled calories They taste good too, so sometimes you gotta do what makes you happy. Also good with some banana slices, or you can try banana instead of jelly, or cream cheese instead of peanut butter. Try to get some raw vegetables (or cooked ones) into the meal sometimes. Canned or cartoned soups can be a good option from the right companies - try to find those with short, recognizable ingredient lists that again don't contain a lot of sugar. Pacific and Imagine Foods both put out excellent lines of soups in cartons; each contains between two an four servings.

Assuming that you live in New York (which by your post it would appear that you do), stop by a deli that does fresh tossed salads and fresh made juices once in a while. With the salad, add lots of vegetables and some nuts, but avoid the cheeses and meats and creamy dressings. If you really need something with a little umph, go for chopped grilled chicken over ham chunks. Then opt for a simple vinegarette - commercial salad dressings are nothing but fat and sugar, and they'll be dragging you down come about 3pm despite your dose of fresh veggies. My top salad: mesclun mix, roasted red pepper, grape tomato, heart of palm, tofu, almonds, oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Simple, refreshing, and filling. Fresh juices are awesome and surprisingly filling too; they're chock-full of enzymes and vitamins that will give you a boost through the day, and taken regularly they'll improve your health long term. They taste great too. It's not the same as getting one in a bottle, as the vitamins and enzymes released in the juicing process have a "shelf life" of only a few hours. Some nice combos to try: orange carrot, orange carrot ginger (for some extra zing), carrot apple beet... I lean toward carrot bases as it's creamy and mildly sweet, but at a good juice cart the possibilities are pretty much endless. My favorite one is at the corner of 48th and 3rd ave, by the way. Also, during the winter these carts often offer wonderful vegetable or lentil soups or other healthy and cheap meal options.

-For dinner: This is probably the hardest meal of the day, and it's the one where I most often default to restaurant food. Any of the lunch suggestions will of course also apply to dinner. To make a broad generalization, I can find healthy options from pretty much any ethnicity of asian takeout: Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese - you name it. Just opt for steamed not fried, brown rice not white, vegetable or tofu not meat, and you're there. As for grab and go items from the grocery, Sunnen Foods out of Pensylvania stocks many NY area groceries with options. They make black bean and "tex mex" burritos, quinoa and cous cous salads, pasta dishes, and so on. They meet the "short recognizable ingredient list" criteria, and are portable and not too expensive. I've found them in most groceries with a "natural" section - for example, the Key Foods by my house has them. They're also at Whole Foods sometimes. There are decent frozen selections that can be popped into an oven or microwave, but to sort the ok from the total junk you'll have to scrutinize the label.

If you're up to doing just a little cooking, there are simple things: pasta or gnocchi (chewy tasty balls of potato starch) with a little jarred tomato sauce, or pan fried slices of polenta - a cornmeal conglomerate that you can now get in awesome flavors like sun dried tomato. You can get a steaming basket from most grocery stores for under four dollars, and it makes steaming vegetables the easiest thing in the world - broccoli is great this way. A nice big salad or sandwich can make a great dinner too. Just think light on meat, cheese, and mayo, and heavy on greens, tomato, and avocado.

Perhaps you find all of this helpful; perhaps you stopped reading about four lines in; perhaps you're annoyed that I wasted your time. But if you find this kind of advice helpful, I suggest you read "What To Eat" by Marion Nestle. No, I'm not her PR rep or something. I've never met her, and I actually disagree with some of her points. She's just my favorite voice in the nutritional community; her writing is honest and down to earth and not extreme in any direction.

Anyway, best of luck in dealing with the daily task of getting fed. It's really not easy. I'd be happy to talk more with you about this if you're interested in what I have to say.

-Melissa B.