How many foods do you eat each day that come from a box, can, bag, or container of some kind? When I’ve asked clients to track this, they’re often shocked at just how few fresh foods they eat, and paying attention to your packaged versus fresh ratio is important. According to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, the synthetic chemicals used in food processing and packaging can leach into food and can lead to chronic, low-level ingestion of these substances over a lifetime. Some, such as bisphenol A (BPA) can disrupt hormone production and balance, and others, like formaldehyde, are linked to cancer risk. (Plus, some packaged foods can be high in salt and fat, neither of which help your waistline.)
While it’s not practical to eliminate packaged foods completely, there are ways to cut back so you can reduce your exposure and protect your health. Try these five fresh food strategies.
Reach for more “loose” produce
I’m talking package-free fresh fruits and veggies from the supermarket or farmer’s market. You can avoid plastic by picking up some natural fiber reusable mesh produce bags (about $3 each, and they’re machine washable). Swap processed snacks for your fresh fruit bounty. And if time is an issue for veggies, choose favorites that don’t require much prep. For example, after washing, baby Brussels sprouts or asparagus spears only need a light mist of olive oil and a dusting of cracked black pepper before you pop them in the oven to roast. And string beans or snow peas can be steamed over lemon water in minutes.
Shop the bulk section
You can buy many healthy staples in bulk, like oats, wild rice, quinoa, nuts, beans, lentils, and dried fruit, which can be stored in sealed glass containers at home. This is a terrific option for buying only what you need to avoid waste and reducing the number of products that sit in your cupboards wrapped in packaging. It’s also a great way to avoid preservatives, artificial additives, and extra sodium. If you ever forget how to prep something (like how much water to boil for quinoa), or you need some easy recipes ideas, simply hop online and do a quick search.
Switch to filtered water
Ditch plastic bottles and save a ton of dough by investing in a water filter or filtering pitcher. Then take your H2O on the go in a stainless steel water bottle. One of my clients was reluctant to kick her bottled water habit, but when she realized it was costing her up to $500 a year and she was potentially swallowing hormone-disrupting chemicals, she was on board.
Buy or grow potted herbs
You can’t get much fresher than herbs still rooted in soil. Grow your own or pick up a small plant or two, like basil, mint, rosemary, cilantro, dill, or thyme. Most grocery stores sell them in the produce section, and I almost always find “living herbs” at my local farmer’s market. Aromatic, flavorful, antioxidant-rich herbs are an ideal way to season other fresh foods without using sugar or salt. I love to whip mint into fruit smoothies, sauté or marinate veggies with fresh basil, fold cilantro into mashed avocado, and add dill to dishes like brown rice and pureed cauliflower. A little bit goes a long way, and you can snip off just what you need, so a $2 or $3 plant will last a long time.
Make it yourself
It doesn’t have to take a lot time (or skill) to whip up some of the dishes you might normally purchase pre-made like soup, energy bars, hummus, crackers, salad dressing, or even bread. There are dozens of simple healthy recipes online, and DIY dishes can be fun projects to take on with friends or family. Replacing packaged products with fresh fare is also a smart way to simplify your diet and boost your nutrient intake. For example, instead of a buying frozen pizza, use your bulk-bought whole grain flour to make your own crust, and cover it with fresh toppings. Even adding a handful of homemade rather than packaged dishes to your regular dining repertoire can result in a significant health and safety shift.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously worked with three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Cynthia is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.Health World
Monthly Archives: February 2014
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We’re swimming in sugar: Americans take in more than 22 teaspoons of “added sugar” each day. That's the kind put into food, either by manufacturers, such as cookies and candy, or by you, like stirring sugar into your coffee. This sticky habit snowballs into the equivalent of more than 14 four-pound sacks of sugar per person each year. And all that sweet stuff is affecting our health.
According to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the added sugar the average American consumes can increase their risk of death from heart disease by almost 20%—regardless of other health problems. And for the 10% of Americans who get a quarter of their calories from added sugar, the risk more than doubles.
Fortunately, a few diet tweaks can help you quickly reduce your sugar intake, knock down your disease risk, and protect your ticker. Bonus: you’ll probably drop some pounds in the process. Put these five simple sugar-reduction steps into action today:
Nix sweetened beverages
Nearly 40% of the added sugar in Americans’ diets comes from sugary beverages like soda, sweet tea, lemonade, and fruit punch. Just one 12-ounce can of regular soda contains about 140 calories, all from added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to less than 100 calories daily for women and 150 for men, which means that a single soda meets or exceeds the limit. Kick the habit, and replace sweet drinks with good, old-fashioned H2O spruced up with healthy, flavorful add-ins like lemon, lime, fresh mint, cucumber, or a little mashed fruit.
Scope out hidden sources of sugar
Sugar hides in dozens of foods you might not suspect. Unfortunately, there’s no way to look at a Nutrition Facts label and tell how many calories come from added sugar. And even the grams of sugar can be deceiving, because there’s no distinction between naturally occurring sugar versus sugar that’s been added. For example, if you look at the label on a bag of frozen raspberries, the only ingredient is raspberries and yet you’ll still see 6 grams of sugar listed, even though none was added to the bag.
The best way to scope out added sugar (the type the study focused on) is to read ingredient lists. Look for words including brown sugar, corn syrup, maltose, fructose, dextrose, molasses, agave, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, cane syrup, and evaporated cane juice. By law, ingredients must be included in descending order by weight, so the higher up on the list you see one of these additives, the more sugar per bite. And you may find multiple types. These 12 products don’t seem overly sweet, but they typically contain some form of added sugar in the ingredients: ketchup, salad dressing, soup, crackers, flavored yogurt, spaghetti sauce, bread, frozen dinners, granola, protein bars and shakes, and sushi.
Buy plain foods and sweeten them yourself
It’s becoming easier to find plain versions of many foods these days. I’m not talking about products made with calorie free-sweeteners (which I don’t recommend—check out my previous post on 5 Steps to Quitting Artificial Sweeteners), but truly unsweetened goods, including Greek yogurt, oatmeal, and almond milk. Switching from sweetened vanilla almond milk, which contains evaporated cane juice, to unsweetened vanilla, which lists no added sweeteners, saves the equivalent of about three teaspoons of sugar per cup. If you need a little sweetness, add it yourself to control the amount and type you use. For example, some of my clients prefer swirling a teaspoon of organic honey or maple syrup into yogurt or oatmeal at breakfast, both of which provide some nutrients and antioxidants, rather than buying pre-sweetened versions made with more refined sweeteners.
Trade sweetened foods for naturally sweet fruit
One of my favorite tricks to share with my clients is how to replace foods laden with added sugar for fruit which is naturally sweet and just as satisfying. For example, in place of strawberry jam on PB&Js, use warmed up frozen strawberries. Just one level tablespoon of jam packs 50 calories and is typically made with three sweeteners: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and sugar. A half cup of frozen strawberries (about eight times the volume), warmed up on the stovetop and seasoned with a little cinnamon or ginger, contains less than 25 calories with no added sugar, and has bonus vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants. Fruit—whether it's fresh, baked, grilled, or pureed—makes a great replacement for sugar in lots of dishes, from cookies to coleslaw. For more on fruit, check out my previous post on Why Fruit Isn't Making You Fat.
Limit sugary treats to once or twice a week
It’s not realistic for most people to go through life never having a sweet splurge. But setting some limits on how often you indulge in sugar-rich foods is certainly reasonable. Pick a day or two a week, maybe Wednesdays and Saturdays, to enjoy can’t-live-without goodies like candy, baked goods, or ice cream. Just knowing that you have a pre-planned treat to look forward to can help you avoid giving into temptation more often, and can result in seriously slashing your overall sugar intake.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Chat with us on Twitter by mentioning @goodhealth and @CynthiaSass.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.Health World USP