Tales of a College Nutrition Professor

This was written as part of my role as an advisor to Americans for Food & Beverage Choice.

In the 20+ years that I’ve been a college professor, the comments and questions from students never cease to amaze me.  In fact, it’s one of the reasons I continue teaching-- to keep my fingers on the pulse of what nutrition headlines and myths are circulating and impressing people.  Nutrition misinformation fascinates me, as does the challenge of clarifying it.

Myth: Low-Calorie Sweeteners are unhealthy

For instance, a student recently commented that low-cal sweeteners are “bad” and talked about a study on their unhealthy effects.   From what he said, I could tell it was right out of a 1968 study that caught lots of attention in its day, yet somehow still has legs.  The problem is the study was done on rats and he clearly hadn’t evaluated the science. I explained where the rumor originated and that evidence shows that low-cal sweeteners are safe and proven to help when used in weight loss programs.  I point out that the American Heart Association maintains this position, as do many other health care organizations, like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the FDA, who affirms that low-calorie sweeteners are safe for human consumption.

Science is really the issue and the revelation that nutrition is a science comes as a shock to many students.  Yes, nutrition IS a science, and one study, on rats, does not a body of evidence make.

Myth: Soda is the cause of obesity

On the flip side, are the students who believe sugar-sweetened beverages make you fat?   The evidence shows otherwise.   Excess calories and/or too little activity contribute to weight gain. Obesity is a complex issue that cannot be simply attributed to one dietary ingredient. All calories count and balance really is key.  

Myth: Fresh is best

A myth I often hear is that when it comes to produce is “fresh is best,” while canned and frozen items should be avoided.  Not so.  Due to the transportation and storage involved, by the time they are cooked or consumed fresh fruits and veggies have lost nutrients.  Frozen and canned items are processed immediately after harvesting so nutrient loss is minimal.  What’s important is to purchase fresh produce in season, know your vendor, that turnover is quick, and prepare soon after purchasing.

I could go on and on.  There are two important considerations in nutrition.  One is to take time and know the source of the information; go beyond the headline.   The other is balance.  That means balance in food choices and balanced opinions.  There is no reason to demonize one food or one ingredient.   Hidden beneath the dramatic headline is generally a fable that people mistake for fact.

Professor, photograph © The (Lintakoon) Kwans /flickr


Snack to your advantage: Mindfully!

America is a nation of snackers.  According to a recent Neilsen survey 91% of adults snack at least once a day, including 25% who say they snack 3-5 times a day and 3% who claim to be always nibbling.  Among the favorites are chips, chocolate and cheese.  Fresh fruit comes in at fifth among choices.

When it comes to the health and nutrition of snacks, experts seem to be divided.  Some claim there are benefits like helping to lose and/or maintain weight; others focus regular meal patterns and not skipping meals instead of snacks.  While there is no consensus what stands out is that both meal and snack quality is more important than frequency.  That means considering lifestyle (active vs. sedentary), health (good vs. diabetes or other), emotional state, and a host of others. 

As a dietitian, I tend to favor snacks.  They can contribute nutrients like calcium, fiber, vitamin D and potassium which most people under-consume.  To do get those nutritional benefits means to think before you act.  So I suggest people ask yourself two crucial questions: “Am I really hungry,” and “Is this what I really want?” If the answer is "yes" to both, I say do it. If not: wait.

This notion of giving more thought to food choices is now known as "Mindful Eating."  It involves paying deliberate attention to what, when, where we eat; physical and emotional state; savoring each bite, appreciating the aroma and other aspects of eating. It is just as important to be mindful about snacks as it is for meals.

Individual, portioned-sized foods are a good way to start with snacks.  Apples or poprcorn are a simple choices for a crunchy snack; a container of yogurt or a piece of Laughing Cow cheese will satisfy a creamy craving.  Because you have to unwrap the cheese, it's a perfect way to take a moment, slow down, and savor the moment - and the snack.  You might pair the apple and cheese if you're looking for a combination of tastes and textures.  A simple glass of chocolate milk is a great choice when you're thirsty and want something sweet.  

What makes all of these smart nutrition choices is that they boost your intake of nutrients like potassium, fiber and calcium.  Snacks can run the gamut of creamy or crunchy; sweet or salty; hot or cold; savory or spicy.  Yes, you can have it all when you do it mindfully - and savor the moment.  That's Confident Health!

Photos courtesy of Laughing Cow; tips at #reinventsnacking.


Celebrate Blueberries!

July is a time for celebrations.  On the Fourth, all Americans celebrate the independence of the United States of American.  It's also Blueberry Month, and this year commemorates the 100th year of cultivating farm to table blueberries.  If you're fortunate to live in the Washington DC area you can participate in the festivities. 

On Tuesday, July 16, free blueberry cupcakes will be distributed at Farragut West..  All month Food Truck Bike Tours will feature blueberry items, and you can sign up here.  The reasons to celebrate, however, have become more than notable when it come to health.

Sure blueberries are low in calories (about 80 per cup), and they're loaded with vitamin C, a good source of manganese (a mineral that helps process nutrients like cholesterol, carbohydrates and protein), and contributes dietary fiber.  They are also loaded with plant nutrients known as polyphenols.  That's gives them antioxidant activity in the body, protecting cells from damage.

The benefits of supporting heart health may be blueberries biggest claim to fame.  However, research shows they also promote brain function, maintain a healthy gut and help with diabetes and insulin resistance.  In other words, these little blue dynamos can provide big health benefits.

Fresh blueberries are plentiful in the market right now - and at great prices.  There's no end to the versatility of blueberries. Add them to salads, desserts; blend them into sweet or savory sauces; or eat them right after they've been rinsed.  And don't be at the mercy of running out of fresh blueberries: buy a bag or two to keep in the freezer, and keep dried blueberries on hand to mix into homemade muffins or granola.  Who knows when the next when the next celebration will pop up?

For more information and recipes click here.

The US Blueberry Council is a partner and provided info and a graphic for this blog; no compensation was received.