Saturday, June 18, 2011

Meatless Monday: an easy, gradual step towards a healthier diet

I want to preface this post by telling you that I am not a vegetarian. At a work party earlier this week, everyone was shocked when I helped myself to a hot dog. All year long, I taught healthy eating classes to 4th and 5th graders, and everyone at the school (including the kitchen staff) assumed I was a vegetarian. Health-conscious eaters are often assumed to be vegetarians, but it's not true that a healthy diet can't include meat. Various kinds of meat can be a rich source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and delicious flavor.

That said, Americans often make and order meals that are centered around meat, resulting in consumption of large amounts of beef, pork or chicken (larger than the recommended deck-of-card-sized portion) in almost every meal. This type of meat-heavy diet has a large carbon footprint. Large farms, where most grocery store and restaurant meat is produced, have hugely negative impacts on the environment. Higher consumption of red meat is also associated with diabetes and obesity.

While no one should expect Americans to eliminate meat from their diet entirely, a new idea called "Meatless Mondays" is catching on across the country. The NY Times recently profiled the city of Aspen, which is encouraging the idea in its restaurants and schools. Oprah's studio, Toyota's U.S. branch, and the U.S. Department of the Interior have all gone meatless one day a week. More interestingly to me, many universities and school districts, including UC Davis and Baltimore Public Schools, have eliminated meat from their menus on Mondays.

There are also lots of individuals who have taken on this challenge. Why do this? First of all, it's an easy and gradual step to reducing your meat consumption. There's no need to stop eating meat if you enjoy it. But avoiding it one day a week means you'll be more likely to fill up on vegetables, fruits, and grains. It means you'll save the water and fossil fuel energy that goes into producing your meat. And it means that, on the days you do eat meat, you'll enjoy it that much more. And who doesn't want to savor their food?

Not sure what to cook on your meat-free day? Here's a huge list of recipes from one of my current favorite magazines, Eating Well: Meatless Monday

Thanks to for many of these resources.

Photo credit: Run with Kate

Friday, June 10, 2011

Some information on the E. coli outbreak in Germany, and whether it could happen here

There have been lots of news reports and blog posts on the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany, which was responsible for 30 deaths and more than 3,000 illnesses. E. coli outbreaks and other foodborne illnesses are a serious issue in any country that has a large, complicated food system that makes it hard to trace where your food comes from. Here are a few articles that give more details on the outbreak, its possible causes, and the best way to protect yourself from foodborne illnesses.

These articles can be frightening, but it's important to remember that knowing where your food comes from will help eliminate the threat of E. coli and other contaminants. Food that is grown locally on small farms goes through less processing and travel, and is easier to trace if there is a problem.

And if you don't have time to read the articles, here is a bit of concise advice (from Bill Marler, via Mark Bittman's article) on how to protect yourself from foodborne illnesses:

“Eat simply, locally, things that you wash well, cook well and process yourself. Wash your hands and keep your kitchen clean — especially the dish rag. Keep cold things cold and hot things hot. Keep meat and unwashed vegetables away from ready to eat food. Have a glass of good red wine.
“Think about eating mass-produced raw meat and produce like you are swimming in a pool with a thousand people you don’t know. Think of eating as described above as sitting in a bath with your significant other — hopefully less risky and much more fun.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How to find real food at the supermarket

Just came across this flowchart. It's funny, and it does a great job of illustrating the confusing nature of shopping in giant grocery stores that have shelf after shelf of processed food. Thanks to Summer Tomato for the image. Their website has a lot of great articles on healthy living.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why we need to ban Happy Meals

So, there is a debate raging in the public health world about Happy Meals. Health advocates are trying to  ban McDonald's and other fast food restaurants from handing out toys with kids' meals, since the meals are completely unhealthy and the toy prize just makes kids want them even more. The fast food industry, on the other hand, says that the government shouldn't decide what kids eat, their parents should. (Conservatives, I should add, also strongly agree with this statement. It fits in so well with their fear of a "nanny government," and any attempts at regulating the crap that children are encouraged to eat. For a golden example of this, recall when Sarah Palin handed out cookies to school children in order to mock Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign.)

Honestly, at first I wasn't sure where I stood on this issue. I understand that parents are leery of elected officials deciding what their kids eat. There is something sacred and private about the meals we eat at home. But after a long time thinking about it, I now whole-heartedly agree with the public health advocates who are pushing to ban Happy Meals. Happy Meals are not something we eat in the privacy of our family kitchens. They are high-calorie, unhealthy meals that are marketed deliberately towards children on TV, billboards, stores, and other public places.

Let's take a closer look at what's offered in the Happy Meals at McDonald's. The choices for a Happy Meal are a hamburger, a cheeseburger, or chicken nuggets. They come with a soda and fries. Well, McDonald's also offers other choices for drinks (milk or apple juice) and a side (apple slices). But the default Happy Meal comes with the soda and fries, which automatically means fewer families will order the healthier option. (See this article on why it's important to make healthy meals the default at restaurants.)

Let's pretend the kid chooses the chicken nuggets meal option, with fries and chocolate milk. This means she is eating a meal that gives her 580 calories, 26 grams of fat, 710 milligrams of sodium, and 25 grams of sugar. To put this in perspective, this one small meal provides 41% of recommended daily calories, 65% of daily fat, 60% of daily sodium, and 200% of recommended daily sugar intake. In other words, way too much.

Now, I don't have an issue with children eating these meals every now and then. But for many families, especially those in food deserts that have many fast food restaurants and few healthier options, these meals are a regular part of the diet. They're cheap, they're fast, and kids love them. Happy Meals come with a toy. Seriously, what kid turns down a meal that comes with a free toy and box with a huge smile on it? As a matter of fact, what kid wouldn't beg for that meal?

There aren't two ways to look at this issue. We don't market cigarettes to kids anymore, because cigarettes are terrible for kids. Happy Meals are terrible for kids. They shouldn't be marketed towards them.

Either fast food restaurants need to step up and offer healthier meals with their free toys, or we need to ban Happy Meals altogether.

Sources: McDonald's, Los Angeles Times, Mayo Clinic 
Photo Source: Gunaxin
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