Archive for the tag - sugar

Is Dried Fruit Healthy?

Dried Fruit MixWhat’s not to love about dried fruit? It’s easy and convenient. It’s delicious. AND it can satisfy your sweet tooth cravings. But is it healthy?

The answer is yes, no and it depends.

In the purest form, dried fruit is really just fruit with the water removed. In essence, all the good stuff is left behind. Dried fruits are often rich in the fiber, vitamins and minerals that your body needs. And if you’re feeling sluggish or if you’re engaged in a high endurance activity like hiking or kayaking, dried fruit can provide your body with a much-needed jolt of energy. In this sense, dried fruit is smart choice.

However, many people forget that dried fruits have just as many calories and sugars as their fresh counterparts. A dried plum, for example, is just a fraction of the size of a fresh plum; it can be eaten in one bite. And because it seems so small, many of us will eat 3 or 4 or 5 or more. But it adds up fast. A cup of pitted and dried plums has more than 400 calories, 111 carbohydrates and 66 grams of sugar. While dried fruit can be healthy in moderation, it’s important to carefully monitor consumption.

Moreover, pay attention to the ingredients in your dried fruit. Dried fruit is already sweet and added sugar isn’t needed. But this is America, and a good number of brands add sugar to their dried fruits. When you add sugar to dried fruit, it essentially renders it into candy. Pay attention to the ingredients on the nutrition label and avoid any products that list sugar, corn syrup, etc.

While fresh fruit is the recommendation, dried fruit is a solid and more convenient alternative - and definitely a huge step up from snacking on chips, candy or ice cream.

Is Juicing Healthy?

Dear Davey,

What is your take on juice fasting? Is it a good option for those wishing to lose weight?


155352030Dear Julio,

The long and short of it is that juicing to lose weight is a fad diet. It’s not sustainable long term - and it’s not something that I’d recommend.

There are a few issues with juicing.

For one, the act of juicing strips the fruit or vegetable of its fiber content. Most of us don’t get enough fiber as it is, and juicing doesn’t help. Without the fiber-rich skin that the juicer leaves behind, juice acts a lot like soda. Stripped of fiber, juice can result in unhealthy blood sugar spikes. And fiber also helps you feel full longer.

Many juice diets also lack protein. Much like fiber, protein helps you feel full; without it, you’ll can be subject to extreme hunger pangs that may sabotage your diet. Moreover, inadequate protein intake can cause reductions in muscle mass during weight loss. Protein performs many other important functions - like helping to control blood glucose and providing a boost to your metabolic rate.

Extreme dieting and radical calorie restrictions may result in initial weight loss. But keep in mind that the body is very resilient - and if it goes into starvation mode, it will fight like hell to preserve any fat stores. Starvation diets result in large decreases in the body’s metabolism - and are thus are generally associated with equally large increases in weight once food consumption resumes.

Juicing fans claim a number of benefits including decreased cancer risk, lower risk of heart disease and a boost to the body’s immune system. They also espouse the detoxifying properties of juicing. Though I’ve yet to see any scientifically valid evidence supporting the detox claim (your liver and kidney detoxify your body with or without juicing), the other benefits likely have more to do with eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables rather than juicing. Indeed, plant-based diets to lower the risk of many cancers and diseases - but it has nothing to do with juicing.

In moderation, consuming fruit or vegetable juices can be perfectly healthy and part of a balanced diet. Many of the juices are rich in nutrients - but juicing isn’t a weight loss or diet program in and of itself. Moreover, nothing beats eating the whole fruit or vegetable - skin and all.

Is Agave Nectar Bad for You?

content_img.1485.imgIn the last few decades, it seems that no stone will be left unturned in the search for a healthy sweetener. Lately, agave nectar has been getting a lot of buzz. So what’s the deal? Is it as healthy as marketers claim?

In a nutshell, agave nectar is derived from the agave plant and contains a mixture of primarily fructose and some glucose. Though it’s sweeter than sugar, it has a lower glycemic index - and so it doesn’t result in the same blood sugar spike as other sweeteners. As such, it has been hailed by marketers as a miracle sweetener.

First things first, the glycemic index is a number representing the ability of a food, relative to that of glucose, to increase the level of glucose in the blood. Low glycemic foods lead to increased energy, improved focus and help you feel full longer.

The glycemic index of table sugar, for example, is around 68. For agave nectar, the number is 30. In other words, there is some truth to the claim that agave nectar doesn’t result in blood sugar spikes. But eating plywood also won’t result in a blood sugar spike. A low glycemic rating, in and of itself, doesn’t mean a food is healthy.

One of the big problems with agave nectar is that the sugar content is primarily fructose. In a great article by Dr. Jonny Bowden, the good doctor writes:

Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that’s the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome (AKA pre-diabetes)… And fructose has been linked to non-alcoholic, fatty-liver disease. Rats that were given high fructose diets developed a number of undesirable metabolic abnormalities including elevated triglycerides, weight gain and extra abdominal fat.

Sadly, agave nectar is far from a miracle sweetener. Fructose issues aside, agave nectar is still sugar. It’s not nourishing. It’s not what your body needs. And it’s certainly not healthy.

Moderation is still the best policy.

How to Make a Healthier Smoothie: 7 Tips.

ingredients-for-kale-smoothieI’m the first to admit that I LOVE smoothies. Not only are they refreshing and satisfying, but they’re also a great way to fuel your body with a whole slew of nutrients.

The problem is, not all smoothies are created equal. And many of the smoothies that you might buy at a local mall kiosk are actually terribly unhealthy. They can be loaded with calories, sugar and unhealthy fats. For example, a medium strawberry hulk smoothie from Smoothie King has nearly 1,000 calories and 125 grams of sugar. Yikes!

To upgrade your smoothie, here are a few tips:

  1. Never use fruit syrups. If you’re buying a smoothie, ask if it’s made with real fruit. Many smoothie shops and cafes blend their smoothies with a sweetened, sugar-rich syrup that is anything but healthy. Only drink smoothies made with fresh or frozen (but unsweetened) fruit.
  2. Stay away from smoothies made with ice cream or frozen yogurt. Again, ask the cashier if the smoothie contains frozen yogurt or ice cream. You’d be surprised to learn that many do. Unfortunately, it turns your smoothie into a milkshake and dramatically increases calories, sugar and unhealthy fats. Don’t do it!
  3. Replace base with water and ice. Many smoothies are blended with either a dairy base of skim milk, almond milk, soy milk or fruit juice. For one, fruit juice is nearly as bad as soda. And while the various milks may be healthier, they’re still rich in calories and unnecessary for an enjoyable smoothie. As an experiment, try replacing whatever base you use for your smoothie with water. It sounds completely unsatisfying - but you’ll discover the exact opposite. The smoothie is still really good!
  4. Don’t add sweeteners. Many recipes call for a touch of honey, agave nectar, etc. When you’re already blending a smoothie with naturally sweet fruit, added sweeteners are really unnecessary. In exchange for a bit of sweetness, they crank up the smoothie’s calorie content. Avoid them.
  5. Nix unhealthy add-ons. Chocolate syrup, cool whip and the like are delicious. But they’ll sabotage your smoothie’s nutrition. Moreover, smoothies are still totally delicious without them. They’re definitely not needed.
  6. Try mixing in some vegetables. Though most people stick with fruit smoothies, add some vegetables into the mix. Vegetables are often lower in sugar and less calorie-dense, but still packed with flavor and nutrients. Kale is always a favorite! Avocados are also good - though technically they are a fruit.
  7. Pack in some protein. If you want to make your smoothie a bit hardier or if you need help meeting your daily protein requirement, add in a scoop of powdered protein. Though powdered protein isn’t typically known for tasting good, all the fruity goodness of your smoothie will drown out the protein’s undesirable flavor.

By putting these 7 tips into practice, you’ll never be tricked into drinking an unhealthy smoothie again! And if you have any additional tips, please share them in the comments below!

Coca-Cola’s “Get The Ball Rolling” Fail.

sticker,375x360Earlier this week, Coca-Cola announced an initiative to help people get active and set a goal of inspiring 3 million individuals. According to the press release, Coca-Cola’s “Get The Ball Rolling” effort underscores the company’s global commitments to fight obesity and be part of the solution.

Oh, the irony.

Each year, the average American consumes 43 pounds of sugar from soft drinks alone. If Coca-Cola wants to educate people about health and nutrition, maybe they should publicize the links between refined sugar and violent behavior, fatigue, stiffening of arteries, headaches, depression, skin irritation, acne, hypoglycemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, nervous tension and obesity. Or maybe they should do a public service announcement about how, according to brain scans, sugar is as addictive as cocaine.

Coca-Cola’s press release notes that the company offers low or no calorie options in every market. What the press release doesn’t mention is that even artificial sweeteners have been linked to obesity in that they increase cravings for other sugary, unhealthy foods.

The company commends itself for putting caloric information on the front of all packaging. However, Coca-Cola does nothing to educate consumers that not all calories are alike. Unlike the calories in many of the foods we eat, soft drink calories are “empty” and come without any nutritional benefit.

Moreover, the press release goes on to say that the company markets “responsibly.” Coca-Cola and I must have different understandings of marketing responsibly, as a recent billboard near my home featured an Olympic swimmer reaching for a Coke. It implies a connection between Coca-Cola and health that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s reminiscent of those decades-old cigarette ads featuring endorsements by athletes like Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

On one hand, it’s great that Coca-cola wants to help people be active. Getting people to move is a good thing. But on the other hand, if Coca-Cola wants to do something to help improve the health of Americans, it should close its doors and go out of business.

What to Look for on Nutrition Labels.

nutritionlabelDeciding whether a food product is healthy can feel overwhelming. Fortunately, nutrition labels make things easier and give you an even playing field. You just need to know what to look for.

When doing my grocery shopping, there are five major nutrition label elements to which I pay attention.

  1. Saturated and trans fat. Fat gets a bad rap. But the truth is, not all fats are created equal. And your body does need some essential, good fats to function properly - and that’s why some fats like olive oil can be part of a healthy diet. It’s the saturated and trans fats that you’ll want to limit or avoid. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats to 7% of total daily calories. If you need 2,000 calories a day, that means 140 calories from saturated fats - which translates to about 16 grams per day. Trans fats should be limited to less than 1% of total daily calories. Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, that’s about 20 calories from trans fats or about 2 grams of trans fats per day. Consuming excessive amounts of these bad fats can increase your bad cholesterol, decrease good cholesterol, increase stroke, heart disease and type II diabetes risk.
  2. Calories. When it comes to calories, the first thing to understand is your daily caloric requirement. Based on the Harris Benedict Calculator, most people will find that they need between 2,000 and 2,5000 calories a day to stay in a neutral state. Once you know how many calories you need, it’s easier to make smarter choices. Many seemingly innocuous foods and beverages are packed with calories but totally devoid of nutrients. Spend your calories wisely!
  3. Sugar. Many sugary foods are labeled as fat-free. Marshmallows, for example, are marketed as a fat-free food. And while they don’t contain any fat, they will still make you fat thanks to a very high sugar count. I like to limit sugar to less than 10 grams per portion, especially when it comes to breakfast cereals and smoothies - both of which can be secret sugar bombs. Sugar consumption has been associated with higher levels of bad cholesterol, type II diabetes, weight gain and even aging of the skin.
  4. Ingredients. Read the ingredients. If you find things that aren’t in your grandmother’s pantry, view it as a red flag. As a general rule, it’s wise to go with food that’s actually food - and not something that’s highly processed and loaded with chemicals. If you can’t even pronounce it, do you really want to eat it? Also, know that there are many ingredients that are really just sugar in disguise (here are 45 other names for sugar). If sugar is high on the ingredient list, opt for something else.
  5. Serving size. Last but not least, look at the serving size. Marketers are clever; a food may seem healthier because the serving size is ridiculously small. Ice cream servings, for example, are often listed at one half of a cup. When was the last time you ever saw someone eat half a cup of ice cream? You’ll need to adjust the nutrition information depending on the size of the portion you’ll actually eat.

Of course, there are other important aspects of the nutrition label - like fiber content or vitamins and minerals - but these five elements are a great place to start. They’ll set you on a smarter path and help you make some easy upgrades to your diet.

What do you look for on nutrition labels? Let me know in the comments below!

18 Empty Calorie Foods.

251726The other day, I referenced empty calories in a post - and I received a number of emails asking about the term.

The USDA defines empty calories as:

Calories from solid fats and/or added sugars. Solid fats and added sugars add calories to the food but few or no nutrients. For this reason, the calories from solid fats and added sugars in a food are often called empty calories.

Solid fats are solid at room temperature like shortening, lard or butter. Added sugars are sugars or syrups that have been added to foods during preparation or processing.

In order to stay in a calorie balance and avoid weight gain, it’s important to stay within your daily calorie allowance. For example, many people may aim to eat 2,000 calories in a day. While this number may sound lofty, those calories can go fast; it’s important to get the vast majority of calories from foods that provide the essential nutrients our bodies need. Let’s spend our calories on foods that actually nourish us!

With all that in mind, here are 18 foods and beverages loaded with empty calories; these should be consumed sparingly. Empty calorie calculations provided by the USDA:

  1. Soda - 100% empty calories
  2. Fruit drinks - 100% empty calories
  3. Beer - 100% empty calories
  4. Cheddar cheese - 66% empty calories
  5. Frozen yogurt - 53% empty calories
  6. Ice cream - 76% empty calories
  7. Fried chicken - 80% empty calories
  8. Chocolate chip cookies - 68% empty calories
  9. Chocolate cake - 77% empty calories
  10. Fruit flavored low-fat yogurt - 61% empty calories
  11. Cinnamon sweet roll - 61% empty calories
  12. Onion rings - 58%
  13. Butter - 92% empty calories
  14. Margarine - 89% empty calories
  15. Frozen whipped topping - 92% empty calories
  16. Cream cheese - 88% empty calories
  17. Glazed doughnut - 67% empty calories
  18. Beef bologna - 57% empty calories

This list isn’t exhaustive - but you get the idea. In a nutshell, it’s all about replacing foods that are high in solid fats or added sugars with healthier options.

How Much Food Does the Average American Eat in a Year?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American eats nearly 2,700 calories a day. With the exception of athletes and very active individuals, this caloric intake exceeds expert recommendations by several hundred calories. Over time, all those extra calories add up - and it’s no wonder that 2/3 of Americans are overweight.

In the journey to eating smarter, we need to look at where we’re at today. We need to assess the situation before decided which areas of our diet are most ripe for improvement. To that end, and while these numbers will vary greatly from individual to individual, I think today’s infographic is a great place to start.

(Scroll down for additional commentary)

For me, there are a few important takeaways.

At first glance, it can seem encouraging that we consume 415 pounds in vegetables annually (which translates to more than 20% of our overall food intake by weight). That is, until you realize that corn and potatoes account for 173 pounds of that. Though there’s nothing wrong with corn and potatoes, let’s make more space for other veggies in our diets.

An obvious area for improvement is the 110 lbs of red meat we consume. In a frequently cited study, Harvard researchers found that 9% of male deaths and 7% of female deaths would be prevented if we lowered red meat consumption to 1.5 ounces (or less) per day. That would be just over 34 pounds annually. In other words, replacing 2 out of 3 beef dishes with a leaner meat - or vegetables - would be a wise move for the average American.

We also eat a lot of non-cheese dairy products. In other words, we a great opportunity to substitute with dairy alternatives that are less calorie-dense, like almond milk.

Speaking of calorie dense foods, we’d all be well served by reducing the 141 pounds of caloric sweeteners consumed annually. In part, this is fueled by the 53 gallons of soda we drink annually. And the 24 pounds of ice cream. Replacing just a few glasses of soda and other high-sugar products per week would go a long way to a healthier lifestyle.

In the comments below, let me know how your personal eating habits differ from the average American. And what areas for improvement are there in your diet?


How to Choose a Healthy Cereal: 3 Tips.

You’d never start the morning with a bowl full of sugar, right? After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s interesting, then, that so many cereals list sugar as their primary ingredient.

In fact, according to The Environmental Working Group, Kellogg’s Honey Smacks, Post Golden Crisp and Kellogg’s Froot Loops Marshmallow cereals are some of the worst offenders. They contain 55.6%, 51.9% and 48.3% sugar by weight respectively. Needless to say, it’s not a great way to start your morning.

Finding healthy cereals has become a pet hobby of mine. And with so many high sugar and unhealthy options, it’s not easy to find smart choices.

In general, I have the criteria:

  1. Whole grains listed as primary ingredients. This one is easy. Rather than reading misleading marketing claims, look at the actual ingredients. What do you see? If the first ingredients are whole grain wheat, whole grain oats, rolled whole oats or whole wheat, etc., then you’re off to a good start. If the world “whole” is missing before each grain, assume that it is refined and less healthy.
  2. Contains at least five grams of fiber. Most Americans don’t get enough fiber - but breakfast is an easy way to start the day right. High fiber diets may lower the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes - and fiber helps normalize bowel movements and lower cholesterol. Fiber even facilitates weight loss by minimizing blood sugar spikes and helping dieters to feel full and satisfied.
  3. No added sugar. This one is huge. Most of us get way more than enough sugar, and it’s really not needed for a delicious and satisfying breakfast cereal. Keep in mind that marketers are sneaky, and that sugar is often disguised by other names like brown rice syrup, barley malt and molasses. Some cereals, like those with dried fruits, will contain some naturally occurring sugar - but ensure that additional sugar isn’t added in the ingredients.

So which cereals make the cut? Not many. I’m a big fan of the Engine 2 line - which I’ve only been able to find at Whole Foods Market. Alpen’s “no sugar added” muesli is also a smart choice that’s more widely available.

Does it take a little extra time and effort to find a healthy cereal? Sure. But breakfast sets the tone for the rest of your day… and you’re so worth it.

Do you have a favorite healthy cereal? Let me know in the comments below. Does it pass all three of my criteria?

Can Too Much Fruit Make You Gain Weight?

Dear Davey,

I love fruit! I eat it several times a day, but I’ve heard that too much fruit isn’t necessarily a good thing. Can eating too much fruit make you gain weight?


Fruit: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Thanks for the great question. Most people are surprised to learn that too much of anything can make you gain weight…. Even steamed broccoli!

Weight gain occurs when you take more calories in than you burn off in a day. Of course, because vegetables like broccoli are less calorie dense than many other foods, you’d probably fill up before achieving a calorie surplus.

Fruits, on the other hand, tend to have several times the calories of non-starchy vegetables when compared ounce for ounce. The higher caloric count in fruit is due to its sugar content; therefore, it’s important to consume fruits in moderation.

It’s worth noting that though fruit is often high in sugar, fruits are packed with many other healthy nutrients and are often rich in fiber. High fiber diets may lower the risk of colon cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes - and fiber helps normalize bowel movements and lower cholesterol. Fiber even facilitates weight loss by minimizing blood sugar spikes and helping dieters feel full and satisfied. As such, it’s not fair to put apples and ice cream in the same category just by virtue of their sugar content.

Government guidelines recommend 2 cups of fruit per day. Opt for fresh or frozen fruit - and stay away from dried fruits which often contain added sugar. They’re also easier to overeat. Fruit juice, which usually contains very little fiber (and usually very little fruit), doesn’t count. Apples, berries, bananas, papayas, melons, avocados (yup, it’s a fruit!) guavas and kiwis are often regarded as some of the healthiest fruit choices available.

So eat up - just do so in moderation!