Category Archives: Health and Nutrition

Reflections on Earth Day 2013

IMG_8455Many of us already recycle paper and water bottles, and as a nation we drive fewer miles than a few years ago. However, we can influence our environmental footprint even further through the foods we purchase and eat every day.

In this article I will discuss several ways to reduce our impact on the Earth. Many of them aren’t perfect solutions, and we might need extra research to really make a difference, but we have to start somewhere. And while the Earth already sustains over 7 billion people, and the United States is coming in third as the most populous country behind China and India; we can make a larger impact with our fork than we might realize…

We all have heard: “buy local” to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide through transportation of purchased foods”, but the real story might be more complicated. By including the purchase of seasonal fruits and vegetables we could make a larger environmental impact. Buying local influences the carbon dioxide produced, but it doesn’t take into account growing methods or storage methods of the purchased foods. Tomatoes grown in a greenhouse on a nearby farm could use more energy than fresh tomatoes grown during the summer and transported from a little farther away. For the same reason; apples in season, imported from a different state or country by train, might use less energy than apples being stored for several months in a cooler. If you are lucky and you live in California there will be many local and seasonal choices year round, but if you live in New York weighing your options will be different. Ultimately, for some people buying local and/or in season might be an easy decision when seasonal and local fresh fruits and vegetables are available year round. For others it means delaying the purchase of certain fruits and vegetables until they are in season, and for some it might mean choosing fruits and vegetables traveling by boat over traveling by air over locally offered produce. It takes an informed customer to make the right choice in their situation.

perimeter shoppingChoose foods mostly on the outside of the perimeter of the grocery store and extra packaging can be avoided.  Fresh fruits and vegetables often have their own protective skin and don’t need to be packaged in extra bags. Meats, breads and diary, also often found at the perimeter of a grocery store, often have only one layer of packaging. An added benefit to the products found on the outside of the perimeter is that they will provide all essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein for general health as well. Products on the inner isles often require extra packaging such as plastic for freshness and carton for looks.

Bring reusable grocery bags to take groceries home. However, wash your bags regularly to keep germs at bay and keep meats products, poultry, fish, and eggs separate from fresh produce by using separate bags.

Combine grocery shopping with other errands or make a meal plan and buy ingredients for several days at the time to cut down on gasoline emissions and time spent.

Consider meatless Monday, and/or cut down on meat during several days of the week. Protein coming from animals is far more energy intensive on the Earth than plant proteins, such as legumes, edamames (soy beans), and whole grains.

mpglass-289x300Drink tap water in a reusable bottle or glass instead of using bottled water or canned sugary drinks. Considering that only 8% of the 31 million tons of plastic waste produced in 2010 is being recycled according to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency); using fewer plastic bottles and cans is a no-brainer.

Cook/order just enough to fulfill your (and your family’s) appetite, or save leftovers for lunch the next day instead of throwing uneaten food out. According to the EPA: ”In 2010 alone, more than 34 million tons of food waste was generated, with only three percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting.” This is food produced, washed, and not even always prepared but still going to waste; producing methane gas and not feeding people.

When packing lunch; use reusable containers and a washable lunch box, keep cool with an icepack and wash the lunchbox and containers with warm soapy water after use.

Save recipes on mobile devices or make use of recipe apps instead of printing out recipes in order to reduce on paper.

Consider Earth friendly cleaning supplies such as low phosphate soaps, lemon and vinegar and use cloth instead of paper towels or sponges while cleaning the kitchen. A cloth can be hygienic if washed with water and soap often, while sponges can become germ growers and can create extra trash.

Many of my readers might want to add buying organic to this list. However, I would like to include a word of caution: buying organic doesn’t always guarantee Earth friendliness. Organic apples might still be stored in cooling facilities for a long time, and organic lettuce might still travel from the other side of the country to be sold in the local grocery store. Therefore when considering organic foods; I still would like to refer back to many of the earlier suggestions mentioned.

One last word; some of the recommendations mentioned are easier to apply than others. Therefore; start with the ones that are easier to stick with most of the time, research tricky ideas, and slowly introduce the harder recommendations. Thank you for not printing this page and have a happy Earth Day every day!

picture sources:  http://www.mass.gov and 1000greensteps.org

March is National Nutrition Month!

March is National Nutrition Month® and is celebrated by the Academy for Nutrition and

NNM_logo_300

Dietetics (AND) and many dietitians through the country. According to

AND’s website: “The campaign focuses attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits.” This year’s focus is: Eat right every day, your way! Not everybody thrives on the same diet, not everyone enjoys the same foods, but with some dedication I do believe it is possible to enjoy your foods, but eat healthier too.

 

Many cultures recognize different foods as important and many carry healthy foods in their traditional diet. The Mediterranean diet has been prized for high amount of fruits, vegetables, nuts and unsaturated oils. Red meat is consumed in low amounts while fish, dairy and poultry are consumed in low to

moderate amounts. The American Heart Association recommends this diet for heart health.

Several studies point to the Asian diet for protection against certain cancers, heart disease and other chronic diseases. This diet includes many dishes rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes and rice and only small amounts of dairy and meat and fat.

Especially in the Western World our way of life has changed. There is less physical exercise, and more sitting behind desks. Fruits and vegetables are lower in calories, but are nutrient dense. This means they contain a high amount of nutrients in comparison with their calorie content, and while legumes, grains and nuts are higher in calories, these also contain many essential vitamins and minerals. Take that as a guideline to adjust your choices in foods while enjoying the variety of your traditions, and do make time to stay active.

Enjoy!
Click here for more information about the National Nutrition Month®

Nutrition and the Environment

While passing the stalls at my local Farmers Market; I become like a child in a toy store. I am amazed by the colors which are vibrant, and the shapes that are mostly even but not always. Interestingly, most stalls offer fruits and vegetables and some showcase an empty stall, except for a large ice chest filled to the brim with ice. A sign tells me that that particular stall offers grass-fed beef or freshly caught fish. Walking the aisles of the farmers market the words of Michael Pollan in his book “In Defense of Food” come to me: Eat food, not too much and mostly plants.

Michael Pollan is a journalist who speaks on agriculture, the environment, food and health. Now I wouldn’t take nutrition advice from a journalist necessarily, but what he said in the above quote happens to help both nutrition health and the environment.

When we eat a mostly plant-based diet we receive lots of vitamins, minerals, fibers, and a relatively low protein and calorie content. When we eat mostly animal products we receive complete proteins, some vitamins and minerals, saturated fat, cholesterol, low amounts of fiber and often a higher amount of calories. The saturated fat, cholesterol, and lack of fiber are what make a diet based on mostly animal products less healthy. High levels of cholesterol in the blood and a diet high in saturated fat have been associated with heart disease.  Fiber is only found in grains, vegetables and fruit and is a necessity for the digestive system. Fibers coming from for example oatmeal, citrus or apples, can actually help lower cholesterol levels in blood.

A plant-based diet is associated with a longer life, lower weight, less oxidative stress, reduced risks of heart disease, lower risks of cancer, and reduced risks for type 2 diabetes as numerous studies show. As a result the new dietary guidelines for Americans that came out in 2010, advises a mostly plant-based diet to improve the general health of people in our nation.

A plant-based diet does not mean a vegetarian or vegan diet. It just means that we fill our plate with mostly plant-based foods and leave a small area for protein coming from diary and or meat, poultry, pork or fish or plant-based protein. This way our body can receive all necessary nutrients without unnecessarily increasing our risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Apart from the direct impact on us, however, is the important impact of the foods we consume on the environment. The Barilla Institute for Food and Nutrition in Italy has developed an interesting double pyramid. The left part shows the five food groups recommended, and the up-side-down pyramid on the right shows the impact on the environment.  According to this figure fruits and vegetables have a low effect on the environment and beef and pork have the highest effect. Taking in organically produced food, organic animal products have a less damaging effect on the environment than traditionally produced animal products. According to the Environmental Working Group: “Meat, eggs and dairy products that are certified organic, humane and/or grass-fed are generally the least environmentally damaging (although a few studies of the impact on climate show mixed results for grass-fed versus confined-feedlot meat) (Pelletier 2010, Gurian-Sherman 2011).”  When we eat fish we have many choices and not all have the same effect on the environment either. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California has developed a Seafood Watch guide, based on extended science based research, which can help make environmentally responsible fish choices. They divide fish in “best choices, good alternatives” and fish to avoid, and location or rarity of certain fish forms a big impact on the advice.

Another aspect of the effect of our food choices on the environment is carbon dioxide produced by transporting foods. We are used to having our favorite produce to be available all year round, which means that much produce will be imported from elsewhere. What effect does that have on our environment? I could write a whole blog devoted on that subject and I probably will do so in the future.

In the meantime, what can be done to lighten our impact on the environment?

  • Join “Meatless Monday” together with restaurants, school districts and countless individuals and skip animal protein for one day a week,
  • Cut down on the amount of meat or poultry you eat and add more grains, vegetables and fruit to your plate,
  • Check the Seafood Watch guide before purchasing fish
  • Try plant-based “dairy like” products such as soy milk or almond milk
  • Try out a meat replacement for ground beef, burgers or sausages,
  • Buy local or organic when affordable

There are many options and any of them can help both health and the environment…

For more information:

Update on Farm to School Program/USDA grants

Just yesterday, November 14 2012, the USDA announced grants to 37 states, including Hawaii, and the District of Columbia for the 2013 Farm to School Program; totaling more than 4.5 million dollars. Almost 2.5 million dollars will go to several of our most obese 12 states, such as Arkansas $144,058, Michigan $144900, and Oklahoma $192238 to name a few. Projects vary between pilot programs at new schools (California); to expanding already existing programs through a food hub (Colorado), building school gardens, hiring knowledgeable staff, organizing field trips to farms etc. Poor neighborhoods such as New Haven, Connecticut; where nearly 80% of the students of their almost 21000 student population receive free or reduced fee lunch are addressed by increasing fresh and local  products, offering fair prices to farmers, and educating parents, teachers and food service workers. Different groups of minorities and American Indians (Minnesota) are included by organizing and planning an introduction to local and traditional foods. A full description of the different programs in different states can be found here.

“The USDA will award up to $5 million in competitive grants for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, developing school gardens, developing partnerships, and implementing farm to school programs.” as announced on the USDA website. Another round of funding will be concluded in 2013. Further details can be found on the USDA website regarding eligibility  and other information.

Child Obesity Rates 2007, Source: NCSL.org

It warms my heart as a nutrition educator and as a parent to see so many organizations pull together to work towards healthier children and healthier families while supporting local farms and economies.

 

 

Farm to School

Children are eating lunch at school; a fact almost as old as schools in our country. However, this fact means that somehow food needs to arrive at school. Several ways are possible; children receive a school lunch made in a central kitchen and delivered to their school where it is heated up and handed out. A parent makes a peanut butter sandwich, ads an apple, some crackers and a drink and gives it to the child to eat at school. A child pops some popcorn, finds a carrot in the fridge, grabs a juice box and runs off to the school bus. Or; a farm grows lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes and onions and delivers it to school where it is processed into a salad that the child will eat.

A national program called “Farm to School” promotes just that. Farm to School connects farmers with K-12 schools with goal to deliver healthy local meals, while providing opportunities to learn about agriculture, health and nutrition, and to support local farms.

Over the last 30 years our population has significantly increased in weight, also children’s weight. Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009–2010 show that almost 17% of youth were obese in 2009–2010, thereby increasing their chances for diabetes and high blood pressure at a younger age. Unhealthy eating habits are often part of the problem. While school systems cannot change what is being served outside of school, it can always improve on what is being served and taught at schools.

Making use of a Farm to School program can have significant benefits; teachers can integrate hands-on agriculture, food, nutrition and the environment into their curriculum. The program can help increase children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables by showing where and how it grows, improving childhood nutrition and thereby health. When well implemented; the farm can provide seasonal whole foods to schools while keeping down cost and improving freshness of the products. Last but not least; the Farm to School program supports local businesses and increases market opportunities for smaller farms and fisheries while reducing greenhouse gases and increasing food security.

Grants  are provided by the USDA and were available for 2012. Funds for 2013 are under review and further announcements will be made available during the month of November according to the USDA website. Eligible schools that could apply in 2012 were:

  • schools or institutions that participate in a program under the National School Lunch or Breakfast program;
  • State and Local Agencies and Indian Tribal Organizations;
  • Agricultural Producers or groups of Agricultural Producers; and
  • Non-profit entities.

The Farm to School Network includes national staff, eight regional lead agencies and is active in all 50 states. Webinars are made available by the National Farm to School Network to inform the public about Farm to School Programs and partnerships. The newest one includes information about a Farm to Preschool initiative that is being developed. If interested please check out the provided links in this article. As said in earlier blogs; before children can be persuaded to eat healthier and include more fruits and vegetables in their diet, they need to have exposure to them at many different levels. They need to learn about foods, grow foods, cook foods, and try foods many times. Not all has to happen at school, but it certainly helps.

National School Lunch Act: Then and Now

President Truman signs National School Lunch Act

President Truman signs National School Lunch Act

Slowly our country is climbing out of a recession period. Some have compared it to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many people lost their jobs during that Depression and were looking for help through public assistance programs. While consumers did not have money to pay for goods they needed, farmers still had a surplus in foods that they wanted to sell. That was when the government decided to help.

“Public Law 320 passed by the 74th Congress and approved August 24, 1936, made available to the Secretary of Agriculture an amount of money equal to 30 percent of the gross receipts… The object of this legislation was to remove price-depressing surplus foods from the market through government purchase and dispose of them through exports and domestic donations to consumers in such a way as not to interfere with normal sales”.[i] The school lunch was born.

By 1946 it was recognized that the school lunch program had a larger purpose as explained by congress as follows: ”The educational features of a properly chosen diet served at school should not be under-emphasized. Not only is the child taught what a good diet consists of, but his parents and family likewise are indirectly instructed.” At the time this meant: provide whole milk, meat, beans, peanut butter and eggs, raw, cooked or canned, breads, cereal, muffins made with whole grain or enriched flour, and butter or margarine.[ii] Since then the program has expanded with the goal to include every child that had to suffer from malnutrition.

In the seventies teachers were quoted to note a positive difference in students who were part of the Lunch Program, and this was supported by scientific research as well.[iii] Today nobody has any doubt that good nutrition helps a child’s brain develop, and that breakfast and lunch are essential for children in order to pay attention in class. However many doubt if the National School Lunch Program reflect families’ thoughts and values around meals and doubt that it is still keeping up with science. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recommends further changes in the school lunch menu:

A: Make menu offerings and nutritional requirements consistent with current scientific evidence showing that plant foods promote good health and help children maintain a healthy weight,

B: Meet the nutritional needs of all children. Since perhaps as many as a third of American children are not lactose tolerant and/or have allergies to cow’s milk, schools should offer equally priced nondairy, calcium-rich beverages at every meal,

C: Meals should include a variety of low-fat vegetable dishes and fresh or dried fruits. USDA purchases should facilitate the consumption of healthy foods that are known to be lacking in children’s diets—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans,

D. Restructure the commodities program to provide foods that offer health benefits to children in government-sponsored nutrition programs. Note, however that since the PCRM recommendation, the USDA revised the commodity foods available in June 2012, and expects to offer broccoli florets, for example, for the first time in 2013.

E. Not only do schools need to offer healthier food choices, schools must provide programs to teach food service workers, parents, and children about healthy eating and promote good dietary habits.[iv]

In my last blog post I described the changes for the school breakfast and lunch menu implemented July 1 of this year, and with these changes school lunch calories have become less in order to help fight obesity. Among compliments and enthusiasm from many sources on the prescribed guidelines for school breakfast and lunch, complaints also followed. For example; the calorie content would not be enough for very active or athlete students[v]. While this might be true for some athlete students the majority will probably still receive an adequate one third of their calories through school lunch.

Overall the National School Lunch Program has been able to make a difference for many students since the Great Depression. Also during this recession more students made use of the reduced price or free lunch program, only in 2009 already there was a national rise of 6.3%[vi] . While the program might still be far from perfect, hungry students have been able to pay better attention because of breakfast or lunch available at schools and my hope is that the discussion will stay alive and more improvements will follow.

Restructure the commodities program

New Regulations Aimed at Healthier School Lunches: Will they Work?

“You may have heard about a change coming in school lunch this fall. It is true! After much research on school meals … the USDA announced new government regulations that will substantially change school meal requirements for the first time in decades”[i], this is the opening line the Palo Alto Unified School District uses under their link to Meal Plans.

Fall 2012 is here and public schools need to implement the following rules among others:

  • Offer fruit and vegetables as two separate meal components,
  • Offer vegetables at lunch and offer fruit at both breakfast and lunch.
  • Half of the grains offered should be whole grains, with further increases over time
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties;
  • Limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size
  • Increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.[ii]

If implemented like this; schools will be able to showcase healthier meals and hopefully increase children’s received nutrition from school meals.

All good intentions succeed or fail with what the children will consume from these meals. Marketing might become an even more important part of school lunches. One 2-year pilot study done by Punam Ohri-Vachaspatie, PhD, RD, Lindsey Turner PhD and Frank J. Chaloupka PhD in Boston Middle Schools researched if making use of a chef while preparing healthier school lunches would make a difference on school lunch consumption. During the study the control site of Boston Public Schools would for example serve a meatball sandwich on a refined wheat roll, prepackaged grilled cheese with refined wheat, chicken nuggets and tuna salad on white bread. That day the chef initiative school would serve whole wheat pasta and meatballs with homemade lower-sodium sauce, low-fat grilled cheese on whole wheat bread, baked seasoned chicken and tuna salad on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato and onion. Canned fruits and vegetables were replaced with fresh or frozen items and the chef initiative sites would include seasoned brown rice and whole wheat rolls instead of white rice or refined wheat rolls. A plate waste study was done in which leftover foods were separated out and weighed to determine actual consumption. Students who went outside to consume their lunch were not able to participate in the study.

The conclusions of this 2 year study were that on average similar amounts of food were eaten at both the control sites and the chef initiative sites, but more whole grain and more vegetables were consumed at the chef initiative sites and consumption of fruit was similar at the different sites. Milk consumption stayed high while there was limited access to chocolate milk at Chef Initiative schools and consumption of milk did not decrease when skim milk was the only option[iii]. These are hopeful signs, but further studies are necessary, since possible added cost of preparing of the healthier meals were not included in the study, secondly there was no information if these offered food choices had a deeper impact on students home meals. Lastly, more studies are needed to determine if healthy school lunches make a difference in children’s overall health.  Stay tuned for more articles about school nutrition…

How Hard is it to Make Change to School Lunches?

http://www.usgreenschools.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/MargreetAdriani.jpg Margreet Adriani, B.S. Dietetics, is the Nutrition Educator at the Health Education Council in Sacramento, California

 

When the Los Angeles School District decided to change their school menu, they went all out. They stopped offering strawberry and chocolate milk and offered 1% fat milk and fat free milk.  They left behind pizzas, hamburgers and chicken nuggets in favor of vegetarian curries, Jambalaya and Pad Thai; items that were approved by students beforehand.  However, a few weeks into the program participation in the school menu had dropped and students brought corn chips for lunch instead[i]. What happened? I can think of several things.

Some foods might have been unfamiliar and students didn’t try. Not everyone is adventurous to try new foods, certainly not if they haven’t been offered a variety of different foods before. Research has shown it might take about ten tries before liking a new food. When students were adventurous enough to try the new foods on the menu they might not have tasted the same as during the taste testing. The samples were made in small portions, hot from the stove or fresh out of the fridge. When offered at the whole school district these dishes were prepared in a central kitchen and sent over to the schools and reheated; changing the quality and texture of the meal. Or maybe students stopped eating the dishes because they felt that what might be okay to try once, might be less interesting to eat every day or weekly…

So what is a school district to do when they realize it is time for change?

Involve students at as many levels as possible. Besides sampling the new menu, let them evaluate the dishes, listen to their input, educate them on why they should be eating whole wheat or fresh vegetables. Have them grow vegetables they can harvest and eat, teach them about industrial farming and what is needed to have cheap corn available in the store, or why smaller local crops have more taste to it and can also show some blemishes on the outside.

This is a large task but there is help. Take, for example, Worldlink, a non-profit organization with over twenty years of experience in designing education. Worldlink has developed a program called Nourish. “Nourish is an educational initiative designed to open a meaningful conversation about food and sustainability, particularly in schools and communities. To inform and inspire the largest number of people, Nourish combines PBS television, curriculum resources, web content, short films, and teacher and youth seminars.”[ii] Curricula are offered for one class periods, one week or a multi week program.

As teachers you know that it takes time, effort and repeated exposure before new learning material sinks in, one baby step at the time. This is also what the Los Angeles School district realized; now they offer hamburgers on whole wheat buns, pizza only once a week and vegetarian options several times a week.[iii] Students are coming back to receive their meals from school and hopefully feel better nourished without headaches or irritation from eating little or nothing.