Random Thoughts – Randocity!

How important is nutrition education in Schools?

Posted in food, Health, nutrition, school by commorancy on January 3, 2019

Stalks2Happy New Year, Randocity Readers! Welcome to the first post of 2019. Here’s a topic that’s been boiling for quite some time, but never quite mashed it into a written article. With the new year comes resolutions. Considering this is typically a new year resolution, it’s the perfect time to roll this article out. This topic is something I think that public schools and even colleges need to rethink. Let’s explore.

Growing Up, Food Choices and School

One of the things that more or less caused me lots of angst throughout grade school (and even into college), as I now reflect on it, was the lack of mandated nutrition education. I grew up in Houston and went to public school there and later went to college up state. At the time I was in grade school, I obviously didn’t know any better about nutrition and wouldn’t have challenged the ‘establishment’ even if I did. No, I was clearly in the dark on this topic.

One thing that I can definitively say about Houston ISD was its serious lack of food education. While there were classes available like Home Economics, these classes were far less about nutrition and more about how to prepare a meal and not burn it and not cut yourself. You know, the logistics of using pots and pans, cooking in the oven, using a blender or food processor, time budgeting and how to handle kitchen cutlery safely. As I said, logistics. While these are incredibly valuable kitchen safety and functionality education conversations, they have nothing whatever to do with smart food choices or in understanding healthy nutrition.

No, there was no such class available in elementary, junior high (now called “middle school”) or even high school. In fact, the cafeteria’s food choices served to the kids was actually some of the worst, least nutritional meals I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. They were edible, yes, but just barely.

Not only was the school remiss in teaching proper food education, the school entirely failed in feeding the students a proper meal that would aid in the nutrition learning process… which is really the most important part of any nutrition program. If you’re falling asleep in class because you ate the wrong foods, then perhaps it’s important to teach better food choices to avoid this outcome?

Unhealthy Choices

Before I dive deeper, let’s talk about the weird food choices from my school’s cafeteria. While I don’t recall exact meals served in my elementary school, I do recall the pints of milk that nearly every student bought and drank each day… sometimes two. Mostly I missed what was served each day due to the fact that I rarely bought a meal from the cafeteria. My parents packed me a lunch each day. However, what the cafeteria served was one from a set menu each day. One day might be pizza, another day might be hamburger and another might be Salisbury steak. If they served any fruit with the lunch, it was usually in the form of Jello. Oh, how I hated the school’s Jello. For whatever reason, it always had a very hard top “crust” that formed on the Jello that resembled more of chewing on rubber than a food product. Horrible.

As I said, I thankfully missed much of that nutritionally deficient and poor quality food fare as I rarely bought food from the cafeteria. Throughout elementary school, my parents made and packed my lunch in lunch box or bag and I would only purchase a pint of milk to have something to drink with my lunch.

When I did rarely eat a meal at the elementary school cafeteria, pretty much any meal served was either way overcooked, under cooked or simply tasted like a really bad 70s frozen TV dinner. I recall that the food mostly tasted of cardboard (little flavor from that grade C or D food). There was absolutely no care in the quality or the nutritional value of the food. It was simply supplied to “feed” the kids and, hopefully, get them through the rest of the day (at the cheapest cost possible).

It’s not that my bagged lunch was so much better, though. I mean, how many days in a row can you eat a bologna and cheese sandwich, some chips and/or maybe an apple or banana? Yep, that’s pretty much what my parents packed… that or peanut butter and jelly. It was a meal that needed to withstand no refrigeration. By the time we were ready to eat lunch, it was room temperature and was, well, not that tasty.

It was definitely a meal that left me wanting. Peanut Butter and Jelly offered its own share of problems, such as solid sustenance. Peanut butter is tasty enough, but it’s no where near filling enough to substitute for actual protein. The Jelly is just glorified fruit sugar. Jelly simply gave you a sugar high that would eventually drop so low as to make you tired and sleepy. Peanut butter and jelly was, in fact, one of the worst meals I could have eaten. I’m not necessarily speaking for others, but for me that meal didn’t work out. Thankfully, I almost always got lunch meat on a sandwich. Better, but obviously not best. It was almost always a sandwich so they wouldn’t have to pack silverware or containers. Occasionally, they might use the thermos in my lunch box to pack some soup, but that also lacked in being filling as PB&J… mostly because it was usually Campbell’s soup.

I don’t fault my parents as they really didn’t know better. Their food education throughout their schooling was as poor for them as it was for me. They made these food choices for us kids even though it wasn’t always the smartest of choices. It was mostly out of cost value or convenience (read speed). I can certainly understand them not wanting wake up two or more hours early to prepare cooked meals for us, then still be required to go to work later. I get it. But it also meant nutrition that didn’t fulfill our nutritional requirements. The cafeteria meals were hot and cooked, but not always that fresh or tasty. Either meal type left me wanting.

Middle and High School

As I moved into junior high and high school, my stance on nutrition only got marginally better. What I mean by that is that in junior high, I ate most of my meals by buying a cafeteria lunch. I rarely brought in bag lunches at this point. I guess, my parents were tired of having to make a meal every day and I was certainly tired of eating nearly the same sandwich every single day. So, I began buying meals at the cafeteria. Not the best choice I could have made in hindsight, but I definitely remember these meals.

These cafeteria meals consisted of a poor quality protein, including fried chicken, chicken fried steak and gravy, pizza (very, very bad pizza), spaghetti, Salisbury steak, hamburger (tasted like it was frozen) and other similarly horrible entrees. Everything served tasted as if it had been frozen solid an hour before. Our rectangular 4 or 5 compartment trays would also be fitted with a horribly overcooked and/or canned side dishes (i.e., green beans, corn, peas, etc) and a desert (Jello, ambrosia, carrot raisin salad, etc). Sometimes one of the tray slots would be filled with bread. The choices and food combinations were questionable, but always predictably the same. Because the school lunch program published its monthly meal schedule in advance, you could avoid the days when the worst foods were served… which was pretty much every day.

As I moved into High School, the whole lunch food dynamic changed for my first 1.5 years (before the school moved to a new location). Because my high school had no cafeteria at all when I started as a freshman, we had to fend for ourselves at lunch. Yeah, I know, it’s weird. Because of this dilemma at the school, a few of the faculty took it upon themselves to run to Del Taco or some other fast food place and buy a bunch of burritos or hamburgers, bring them back and sell them to us. I’d occasionally used this option when I didn’t have much time between classes. Again, nutrition was a second thought. It was less about feeding the kids a proper meal and more about getting the kids fed. It’s that cattle mentality.

Thankfully, our school campus overlapped with part of Houston Community College’s campus. Because HCC had a culinary program (such that it was), the students were tasked with operating an eatery and, thus, there was a school operated cafeteria on the top floor of their classroom building. Occasionally, I would end up there to eat lunch and, I will say, for the first time I had a reasonable quality and tasty lunch. It was probably even somewhat nutritious as they had a salad bar that I occasionally used. The bar was expensive because it was “by the pound”, but the ingredients were always freshly made and tasty. For me, it was a treat to eat this kind of food for lunch rather than burritos.

The last half of my high school years, the school had moved out of that facility and into a “new” building. I put that in quotes because while it was “new” it was horribly lacking in design and it was incredibly small for a high school building. I’m not sure what HISD was thinking when they designed it. I digress.

Anyway, we were again dependent on HISD to provide us with meals. This basically meant, we had to fend for ourselves because, once again, the food was total garbage. Instead of the cafeteria where you ask them to plate foods from a buffet bar, this was a walk up window and there was a fixed menu. One day it might be hamburgers, another day it might be pizza and another day who knows what crappy concoction they would sell us. The food was horrible, salty, sugary and greasy all at the same time. Yet, that’s what they served us at a similar (or sometimes higher) price to McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Del Taco or Wendy’s. In fact, because we had been so spoiled by being allowed to leave the campus for lunch during those 1.5 years at the older campus, we still took the opportunity to leave the campus to go get lunch. However, many of us ended up over at 7-Eleven because it was on the next block over and we could walk there and back in less than 10 minutes on our strict 30 allotted minutes. Fast food places required hopping into a car and driving for at least 5-10 minutes in addition to waiting on the order during a busy noon lunch crowd. You ended up eating your meal in the car on the way back because you had maybe 5 minutes to eat it if you waited until you got back.

None of these were terribly smart food choices, but this is what choices we had as students. Choices that could have been made better if we had had some nutrition classes to teach us better eating habits and had had better food choices served to us in the cafeteria. Or better, offer the students (at least in junior high on up) a real kitchen facility with microwaves to allow us to make our own lunches and offer up a fridge system to store our lunches until lunch time so the lunches aren’t sitting out for 4 hours without refrigeration.

Junk Food, Candy and Time Management

Candy bars, soda and generally sugary junk foods were common staples in my lunchroom beginning in junior high (7th grade). This was in addition to vending machines… which you couldn’t use during lunch because we were captive in the lunch room (doors were basically locked) and the vending machines were in the hall a fair distance away. If you managed to walk buy one during class exchange, you could buy and stock up before lunch, leaving it in your locker. If you did leave the lunchroom to go to the vending machine and were caught, you got detention.

In junior high, there was the cafeteria line which served “hot meals” on trays with very long lines, but there was also a concession booth in the back of the lunchroom that served foods like hot dogs, candy bars, chips, soda, granola bars, gum, candy with a much, much shorter line. It was basically the prepared stuff you’d find at a 7-Eleven or at a movie theater (minus popcorn).

Why is this important? During junior high school, the lunch line was so long, if you weren’t at the lunch room early, you’d be waiting to get your meal for upwards to 25 minutes in a very long line. The cafeteria workers were incredibly slow and it took even longer to pay for your meal due to the “meal program” slowness. Because the lunch lasted 30 minutes on the dot, that meant 5 minutes or less to woof down your meal.

This is an important point. Having enough time to eat a meal is just as important as the food that’s being served. The school didn’t care that it took students upwards to 25 minutes simply to buy their meal. Woofing down a meal in 5 minutes doesn’t offer enough time to properly chew your food. It just doesn’t work. Again, naïve school administration. It wasn’t my fault that my class was the farthest away from the lunchroom and let out last, yet I was constantly penalized with excessively short amounts of time to eat my meal if I chose to buy a meal from the line.

This meant three choices: bring your lunch, 5 minutes to eat or junk food available almost immediately. There were many times were I opted for the junk food so I could at least have 15-20 minutes to sit down and relax before the next class. It wasn’t the greatest choice, but it was “the lesser of those evils.” Junior high school ultimately taught me how to eat fast AND eat junk, but never eat nutritiously.

When I got to high school, the high school’s lunch window (toward the latter half of my time there) sold both a combination of meals and junk food. You made the choice when you got to the window. Because this window wasn’t part of the “official” HISD lunch program, you’d only find out what was being served the day of. This meant asking when you got to the window and then making a choice to buy or not. If you chose not, then you’d have to leave the campus and find a meal elsewhere. Believe me, the “meals” being served from that cafeteria window were some of the most questionable I’d ever had in school. Not only was the food expensive, it was simply horrible quality food. I walked away empty handed and ended up at 7-Eleven far too much of the time. Ultimately, it was trading one bad choice for another. But, at least it was something I could eat.

However, because of lunch period time constraints, sometimes there was no choice. As an example, one of the “meals” my high school lunch window regularly served (more than twice a week) was a Frito Pie. You know, pouring chili over the top of Fritos and topping it with cheese and onions. Yeah, such great nutrition there, if you consider salt, carbs and grease as nutritious. If you wanted fruit or salad, I can’t recall them ever selling that. Because these healthier choices of foods are more perishable than canned, frozen and bagged items, they didn’t want to keep it in the kitchen. Oh, how I longed for the days of the HCC cafeteria. In fact one or two times I decided to drive over there and eat instead. It wasn’t that far from the new school, but it was a hassle to leave and make it back on time. Instead, I’d usually make my way to 7-Eleven to their cold case and buy something prepackaged or to get a piece of fruit. Even then, towards my final year, the school office was trying to enforce not leaving the campus at lunch time. There’s no way that was not going to happen. Many of us still left to picked up lunch from 7-Eleven or McDonald’s or Wendy’s… just try and stop me.

In my senior year, one of the stickler academic instructors tried to hassle me one day for going to 7-Eleven. I simply told them I was on an errand for another instructor, which was a common request. He had to shut up and go away. Thankfully, it was my senior year and I could finally get away from that crap food.

Nutrition Education

The problem with public schools is that while they do a decent job at teaching the academic basics of history, math, biology and general science, schools typically neglect food science and fail to embrace the holistic idea of how food acts on the body. Students might learn about this topic if they happen to have parents who work in that profession, but many won’t learn it from school… which means most students didn’t learn it during my time in school. Today, schools may have added some nutrition classes, but I kinda doubt they’re where they need to be… teaching only the barebones basics and still serving questionable quality meals.

The closest that schools came to nutrition education at the time I was there was Home Economics (or whatever they might be calling it today). Home Economics is less about food and nutrition and more about the logistics of navigating a kitchen safely, knife handling, food prep, using kitchen appliances and timing of cooking so that all of the food lands on a plate at or close to the same time. It might have even included a discussion on budget shopping. That’s not nutrition, that’s logistics.

Basically, I learned nothing about food or nutrition until into my late-30s. I learned about it on my own slowly, which allowed me to better understand some of the problems I was experiencing to better my own quality of life through better food choices. To some degree, I still struggle with this only because of the lack of formal education around food and nutrition, thanks mostly to the lack of public education in teaching this important knowledge area.

Unfortunately, I moved from one type of “school” to effectively another when I took my first job at a theme park. Because the food being served there was only marginally better than my school’s food, I still didn’t learn about food and nutrition while working there. The food choices there were also questionable… and mostly consisted of a hamburger and fries. The park simply didn’t treat nutrition as anything important. It was more important to serve foods that people liked instead of supporting healthy nutritious choices. As employees, we had to suffer through with that food rationale geared towards park guests.

As employees, we also had no kitchen or fridge facilities to store our foods. If you wanted to bring something from home, you had to bring a small cooler yourself and then find a place to store it. Coolers only marginally worked because of the high outside temperatures during summer. For folks who worked in food service, they might be able to store a brought lunch in their restaurant’s fridge if the manager allowed it. That was only a perk for those specific workers. The general staff was offered no such kitchen facility when there was plenty of park space to build and offer such a lunchroom location.

Food is Energy

It’s clear, food is the energy needed to keep the body working. As they say, “You are what you eat.” That is a fairly accurate statement. Food is about balanced nutrition including balancing carbohydrates, proteins and fats in combination with vitamins and minerals. It’s also about understanding which foods contain which vitamins and minerals and understanding which specific foods fall under carbohydrates, fats and proteins by eyeing the food. For example, a hamburger patty is both fat and protein with very little carbs. A hamburger bun is almost all carbs with some fats. When you add vegetables, such as tomatoes and onions, this is primarily where vitamins and minerals come in.

Candy bars are primarily sugar and fats with a bunch of fillers, flavors and cocoa.

It’s really easy to write this now only because I’ve come to understand what is what. But, when you’re 5-18 years old, you don’t learn this. Like a foreign language, students learn best during these early years. Why this information is not imparted to children at that age just doesn’t make sense.

If I had been taught nutrition during my early school years, I could have moved into my 20s much more informed, with a healthier weight and ultimately made better food and nutrition choices during college years. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Nutrition Classes

Nutrition is not a hard topic to grasp the basics. For example, understanding the Nutrition Facts label, understanding how to read an ingredient label and understanding what foods fall into which category (fats, carbs, protein) is actually mostly easy today, thanks to the standardized nutrition labeling requirements.

I guess schools thought that the Nutrition Facts label was so simple to understand that there’s no need to teach anything. Well, that’s not true. There are plenty of gotchas when reading a Nutrition Facts label. Sometimes it’s not about what’s on the label, it’s what’s missing from the label, such as food combinations.

Also, it’s quite important to offer sufficient time to consume the food in combination with supplying fresh, high quality meals is what would help the students to perform their best. For a timing example, the short 30 minutes offered to eat lunch in the cafeteria and the 10-15 minutes to woof down breakfast during the first class of the day. Teaching kids to eat fast is not a smart choice. Eating smart and chewing it properly is the smarter choice. As an example, sweet laden breakfasts causes the body to fight against sleepytime as insulin crashes because of the 150g of carbs during breakfast or lunch. This is why understanding smart nutrition is so important… such as how the foods act on the body.

For those students who have diabetes or require special dietary needs, these students become well versed in what to eat and what not to eat because of severe health consequences. Though, temptation is always there, there are severe consequences if they cheat. Kids with diabetes or food allergies learn these consequences early. Why does it take this level of consequence for kids to learn? Why can’t this type of information make its way to the general population of students? Setting up a nutrition class is not that hard to design, but it does require funding by the school. I guess schools just don’t feel that this level of nutrition education is important. It’s a short-sighted point by the schools.

Equipping our Kids for Success

Giving our kids every opportunity to succeed in life should be the goal of every school. Yet, withholding such vital information as how to eat properly in a world full of bad food choices simply doesn’t make any sense.

We teach students about such things as history to help prevent history repeating itself, yet we give students no tools to help manage food, nutrition and their body. Food can make or break the body. As a child, the body is very resilient to the fillers and chemicals placed into junk food. As we age, the body becomes less tolerant to these. This means that as our kids move into becoming young adults, then adults, many will forever struggle with weight issues and food related health problems… because they were given no tools in school.

By failing to equip our students to identify and avoid problematic foods, we are leading some of our kids down a path that will fail them. Knowing history, math, biology and science is great, but it doesn’t fully equip our kids to survive in the world, particularly when it comes to food choices.

Kids need to learn to make smart food choices in elementary school. They need to understand the difference between eating green beans or a salad over mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. They may not like green beans or salad, but they need to understand the positive benefits they could experience by eating them. Kids that age may not want to explore foods like these that early, but with a proper class, we could entice kids to want to explore these foods and become excited over them. This is the benefit of offering food choices and nutrition classes.

Bullying, Obesity and Kids

Much of the reason kids bully one another due to body weight issues. It might be that the kid is too thin and lanky, but it’s just as likely they’ll be overweight or even obese. Thin or fat are two sides of the same coin, usually resulting from improper relationships with food and simply not understanding nutrition. Being overly thin could be a metabolism thing, but it might also be the food choices. Being obese is also a metabolism problem in relation to food choices.

Weight loss or gain starts in the kitchen. The body needs proper nutrition based on the body type. If you’re predisposed to gaining weight, then that requires a different course of action with food than if you’re thin trying to gain weight. It’s all about tailored nutrition.

As I said above, the young body bounces back easily even when the wrong foods are being eaten. This is why kids can be both overweight and still be considered ‘healthy’. At that point, it would be considered a degree of health. Healthy isn’t simply a specific number. There’s variation between levels of health. You can fall under healthy with medical tests, but still feel awful, have aches and pains, sleep poorly and generally feel crappy overall. That’s a degree of unhealthy. Even kids can suffer from this problem.

Growing up, I couldn’t sleep more than 5-6 hours at a time. That wasn’t a sleeping behavior problem alone. That was a food and nutrition problem. When I eat properly at the proper times during the day, I can sleep for up to 8 hours, but generally hit the 7 hour mark before waking. I still struggle with proper nutrition. Today, that’s less about naïvety than time constraints.

It’s also important to understand moderation and variety in food consumption. Eating the same food day in and out may be tasty, particularly if the food is Pizza or Mac and Cheese, but that doesn’t make it a healthy food habit. It’s easy to become deficient in nutrition if you’re not getting balanced foods… like eating a piece of fruit or vegetables at some of the meals. It’s also about cooking and raw foods. Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked.

The point is, teaching a proper food lifestyle from an early age can mean better body image, feeling better, more energy and a more positive outlook when at school. By eating only junk food and sticking to a diet that consists of the same foods over and over, the body may not be getting what it needs to concentrate in class or getting proper sleep. This can mean irritability, irrational behavior and perhaps leading to bad grades or being a troublemaker. Eating properly cannot in any way fix mental health issues, but it can improve health and well being, including mental well being. This is why it’s important to give students every possible tool to help them not only succeed in school, but have life tools to help them succeed into adulthood.

Raw vs Cooked

School cafeterias always cook the food until it’s overcooked. However, eating raw fruit or vegetables is a very good way to add more vitamins and minerals to your diet. Because we’ve recently had a spate of problems with raw vegetables (i.e., Salmonella or E.Coli), many people feel that they should be cooking their vegetables. Cooking vegetables is great, but it also strips some of the important nutrients from the food. This is why it’s important to include both raw and cooked vegetables in your diet. If you’re concerned over Salmonella or E.Coli, then lightly steam the vegetables. Let them remain mostly raw, but give them enough hot steam time to kill off any outside bacteria. Try to keep that vegetable as raw as possible. If a green vegetable has turned a dull yellow-green, then it’s overcooked. Green vegetables should remain a vibrant green color even when steamed.

To eat fruits and vegetables raw, wash them with at least water. Better, wash them in a diluted vinegar solution (3 parts water to 1 part vinegar). The vinegar won’t damage the produce and also won’t in any way preserve it, but it will kill off almost all of the bacteria and pesticides (and any remaining soil). You can also buy commercial produce wash solutions like FIT or Veggie Wash, but these can be more expensive than plain vinegar.

If you’re really concerned about this problem, I’d suggest visiting your local farmer’s produce market and get to know your local growers. Ask them how they manage their crops, the kinds of pesticides they use, the kinds of fertilizer they use and also ask about their general produce storage and handling practices (make sure they’re keeping the produce properly stored, such as chilled and that they are packed separately from other vegetables).

Shopping for produce also gives you the opportunity to take your children with you and let them pick out produce that is appealing to them. Shopping lets them explore the fascinating world of fruits and vegetables and lets them pick them up, touch them and see how they feel. It’s a way to get your kids interested in more than chicken nuggets, pizza and mac and cheese. Children are naturally curious explorers. Let’s let them do what they do best and explore the world of fruits and vegetables through new eyes. They may not like everything they try, but that’s okay. They’ll find at least something that they like. Kids are also more likely to like it if you let them choose rather than trying to force the foods on them. Food exploration is an important tool to entice children into trying fruits and vegetables. If you take them to a farmer’s market, many produce vendors cut up and offer fruit samples right there. This gives your child a chance to try the fruits right at the market.

Buying local produce, you can typically avoid many of the problems you find with the large commercial growers who supply your local supermarkets… and that includes supermarkets like Whole Foods and Sprouts, even as much as they tout fresh, healthy, whole foods and produce. Buying local doesn’t necessarily get you better tasting produce, but many times it does. For example, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries in the supermarket are often bland and not at all sweet. Buying from a local grower, many times you’ll find much, much sweeter berries at or less than store prices. But, it’s really less about the price and more about the quality of the nutrition. It’s also about food exploration.

College

When I moved onto college, not much changed in terms of food quality. Our college cafeteria treated food towards students like someone might treat feeding pigs on a farm…. just throw some random slop out there and they’ll eat it.

My college cafeteria food clearly created some of the worst food I’d ever experienced at a school. In hindsight, the food itself was probably not much worse than HISD’s food… it was the extremely poor food handling practices that made it much, much worse. For example, when the college cafeteria served hamburgers, they would cook the meat in advance, place them into some kind of flavored water solution and leave them overnight in the fridge. Then they’d pull the metal hot table bins from the fridge, unwrap them and place them onto a hot grill to heat them up for the day.

Not only were the hamburger patties not fresh, they tasted weird. I think I only ever ate one or two before bowing out of that mess. Now keep in mind that the college forced a meal plan on every incoming freshman and sophomore who lived in the dorms. I can understand why they forced it. The food was so grade D that there was no other way they could sell that trash to anyone actually willing to pay at the register. On these bad hamburger days, I’d make my way to Whataburger, who always cooked at least grade B burgers fresh to order… none of that weird floating in hot water grade D nonsense.

It also meant that, for the first time, I had the option to make better food choices for myself. Food choices that not only worked for my budget, but that also provided fresh hot nutritious meals; meals that didn’t leave me feeling lethargic, sleepy and generally crap. That not to say I didn’t occasionally overindulge and get that way, but I began learning much more about nutrition on my own while in college. I also began learning because due to the crap way I had been taught to eat my meals in 5 minutes in junior high (reinforced by my first job) and the kinds of food I’d been taught to eat. I had also begun experiencing digestive problems.

At the time, I’m quite sure the college offered nutrition classes because of their various athletics and Kinesiology programs, but I didn’t take any of these classes. Though, I’m certain they were offered. In hindsight, I probably should have taken at least one class just to find out what I didn’t know. Unfortunately, my college degree already kept me busy. My degree plan just didn’t have any room after I’d filled in all of very few electives with classes that helped me graduate faster. However, my public school days definitely offered no nutrition classes. There was simply nothing available. If I had wanted to take a class like this, I’d have had to do it after school on my parent’s dime. My parents wouldn’t have agreed to this. Though, even in junior high, I was aware of services like Weight Watchers… and I’d even considered joining. I simply had no spare time (or spare money as they required you to buy into their food).

In high school, there were sex ed classes, but there were no nutrition classes… definitely none at my high school. In junior high, if there was any nutrition conversation, the extent of it was in a biology class, usually offering a very academic overview… being less about proper nutrition than the sheer basics about how food works on the body. There were zero nutrition classes available during elementary school, the most formative time when children should be exposed to proper nutrition.

Sure, we understand what tastes good (ice cream, Cheetos and Coke) and what tastes bad (broccoli and liver), but that’s such a basic understanding for a child, it’s just surface understanding of food, but completely skips healthy nutrition. It’s just a “I like this, but I don’t like that” kind of preference… which has nothing at all to do with making healthy food choices or nutrition.

No, it seems many public schools completely ignore nutrition and just how much healthy eating contributes not only to weight, but also to overall health, mental health, well-being and focus. That’s not to say that we should eat nothing but Kale salads with sprouts. Moderation is the key, eating healthy means making choices that allow the body to feel its best, act its best, look its best and be its best. Splurging on ice cream or soda or pizza or fried chicken is fine, occasionally. Everyone needs moderation in their diet. These should be rare events rather than every day. Treat them as ‘treats’, not as ‘staples’.

Controversial Topics, Making Choices

Nutrition is kind of a “he said, she said” world. Because there are so many foods (real and fake) on the market, every food industry wants an edge to get their product to sell. For this reason, this is why there’s all of these conflicting food topics… such as eggs are good, then eggs are bad, then eggs are good again… and so on. This has happened with salt, eggs, shrimp, avocados, sugar, saccharin, food dyes, food additives and even Coke. This is why schools probably shy away from setting up classes.

If you set up nutrition class, you’d have to decide which side of the fence you’re on… or at least so a school might think. This means that they might need to side with the egg industry that “eggs are good”. But then, some parents might not like that their child is being taught that.

Schools prefer to avoid this kind of confrontation with parents, particularly vocal parents who might do damage to the school. This is a misguided reason not to include a nutrition program in the curriculum. It would be simply easy to avoid this problem. You don’t spout the marketing rhetoric at all in the class. For something like an egg, simply offer what an egg is made of, the nutrition it offers and let the student (and parents) decide if the food belongs in the child’s diet. Don’t even bring up the industry politics of the egg. The point to school is to create an environment for critical thinking. After all, critical thinking is what we’re expected to do as adults. We need to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions. No one can really make a choice about their own body but each person. This is the very message that needs to be driven home in any nutrition class. Basically, don’t blindly listen to an advertisement that says, “Eggs are good” or, “Eggs are bad”. Come to your own conclusion for yourself. If you eat an egg and it doesn’t agree with you, then clearly eggs are not for you. If the parents are strict vegans and they project that onto their children, then eggs may not be for the child.

Teaching students to listen and pay attention to how their own body reacts to eating a food is the only way that student can make an informed choice. For example, if drinking milk equals upset stomach and indigestion, this could mean lactose intolerance. This is the perfect example of listening to your own body. If you try something and your body reacts in a way that you don’t expect, perhaps you eliminate that food from your diet.

That’s the key element that needs to be taught in a nutrition class. That’s smart food choices. That’s choosing foods based on how your body reacts to it. We are not taught to do this as children. But, it’s something we learn going into are 30s and 40s when we can put 2 and 2 together. We learn which foods work for our bodies and which do not. Most of us learn this by trial and error. Some of us never learn and continue to feed our bodies with foods that make us sick and sicker.

Nutrition Concepts

This is why it’s important to introduce nutrition concepts early in a child’s life. Get them thinking about it in 5th, 6th or 7th grade. By this point, most children have probably experienced getting sick by eating some sort of food. Learning by experience is an important tool that schools can leverage in any nutrition class. Teaching young children about these concepts early will help them use critical thinking skills in the future… a valuable tool that can be used for a whole lot more than food choices and nutrition. It may even save a child’s life for critical food allergies.

For example, when I was aged 10-12, I never put 2 and 2 together about food. My parents would drop me off at the YMCA for a summer camp program. We would be out and about on a bus the whole day. I was packed a bag lunch, just like at school. Every day when we arrived back at the Y and before being picked up, I’d have a raging headache… every single day. One thing that I would get nearly every day was a chocolate candy bar from the vending machine when we would get back. Because we ate promptly at noon, we had no other food for the rest of day from then until around 5PM when I got picked up. I was rather hungry when we got back to the Y, particularly if we had run around outside most of the day. I’d save up the 35¢ or so for the candy bar and buy one most every day.

It never dawned on me that it was likely both the chocolate and the sugar rush that either caused or exacerbated the headache. I can’t say it was a migraine as it didn’t last overnight. Looking back now, I’m almost certain it was a sugar related headache. It might have been low blood sugar due to not eating much after our lunch or it could have been the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar from the precipitous insulin rush. It might have also been that I already had the headache and chocolate bar doubled or tripled its effect.

Since I was never diagnosed and because I had no classes in nutrition, it was only guesswork for both myself and my mother. She always found it curious that I had these, but it was never investigated because it was gone the next morning. If I had had nutrition classes during my time at public school, I might have been able to find the trigger and, with my parents help, eliminate the problem so that I could come home each day after camp feeling just fine with fond memories of what we had just done that day. Instead, most of what we did at camp is just a blur because the headaches seems to have not allowed those memories to “set”. Keep in mind that just a few years later, I worked outdoors every day and rarely, if ever, had headaches at the end of the day. I also didn’t eat candy bars after working. It’s one of life’s critical thinking skills that you must learn when considering nutrition and how nutrition and food affects each of us. This is an important lesson that could be taught much earlier to students, but isn’t.

Grade School Today

It has been a while since I’ve attended grade school, so I will concede it appears school districts have implemented some food science and nutrition programs. It seems that HISD is now offering a Breakfast in the Classroom program which allows students to eat at their desks during morning announcements. Unfortunately, what is served is limited to a single entree item. Students are also given a short amount of time to consume the food. If what’s offered is not something a child can eat (i.e., diabetes, allergies or autism), then they go hungry for the morning. I’d also include that some example meals include Turkey Sausage Egg Sandwich, Beef Kolache, Yogurt, Chicken Biscuit and Strawberry Oatmeal Breakfast Bar as the ‘main entree’. Along with this ‘entree’ portion, the students are served regular or skim milk and a selection from: apple juice, an apple, Craisins or similar fruit (basically, something sugary).

While having the students eat breakfast in the classroom isn’t something that happened in my school days, starting the day off with these fatty and sugary foods isn’t a recipe for focus because the foods served are sometimes too rich to start the day. The school should start the day with fresher whole ingredients that satisfy student hunger better with less emphasis on sausage egg biscuits, dried sugary fruits, breakfast bars and apple juice. You can serve these kinds of rich foods once a week, but not every single day. Serving these as “treat” foods gives the students something to look forward to… or better, offer the students a menu and let the parents and/or student pick their morning breakfast in advance. If the student fails to choose their breakfast, then serve them the ‘selected’ entree of the school’s choice. Letting the parent decide what their child eats at school allows the parent to head off health problems with their child.

HISD also claims to be helping students learn about food and nutrition. Here’s an excerpt from HISD’s web site about its nutrition education program:

Houston ISD is committed to teaching food literacy and food inclusion through a nutrition-focused curriculum. Food literacy starts with understanding where food comes from. It then expands to understanding relationships with food. This begins at a personal level; how different foods can be beneficial to the body and how some foods do not have any benefits for the body. This includes an openness to trying new foods and seeking out exposure to new foods. The relationship with food expands to cultural preference with foods, understanding both personal culture and others’ cultures and how that impacts food choice and why preferences vary between cultures. Expanding even further, food literacy includes the relationship with food/agriculture on a global, environmental, and economical scale. Food inclusion promotes a pattern of healthy choices that are flexible enough to fit into many cultural preferences and promote balance, variety and moderation. Overall, this means making delicious choices that benefit your body. The message of health should promote a positive relationship with food, avoiding messaging that use fear instead of facts. Nutrition Services aims to educate our students in the classroom, in the garden and in the cafeteria.

Unfortunately, I can’t find any information on HISD’s web site that discusses its class offerings, its class content, how or when the students can take these classes (i.e., are they electives?, are all grade levels required to learn this?, etc), or even if this curriculum is required by the students. It’s good that HISD has itself learned the effect that food has on students in focus, but I’m not sure that what’s being served to the students and what is taught encourages students to eat healthy meals and understand why some foods are to be considered ‘good’ and some are considered ‘bad’. It seems most of what HISD has implemented is more being driven by bad press against the school district and keeping up with competing school districts than actual commitment to the importance of food.

What HISD has done so far is definitely a step in the right direction. However, it’s nowhere near getting the importance that it needs in the classroom. Food and nutrition is equally important to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses. Food and nutrition clearly falls under science, but it is almost never treated with the same level of importance as a biology, physics, chemistry and others. Teaching the students the importance of food in the world may lead one of these students into a food breakthrough that helps out the world. That can’t happen when students aren’t properly exposed to the importance and role of food in everyday human life.

Sure, we must eat food to live. That’s the very basics of food. Food science goes well beyond that by enabling students to become productive adults who might create a food invention that can feed the hungry of the world. Yes, food keeps our own bodies fueled, but food science education can bring about positive food changes in the world. Only these new fresh eyes can see what adults cannot.

Other ISDs

In researching this article, I’ve found many larger ISDs also offering Breakfast in the Classroom programs. For example, New York and Los Angeles both have BIC programs. In the case of LA Unified, the students basically do all of the work from retrieving the food in a cart, to serving themselves, to cleaning up and returning the cart. Here’s a video that describes Los Angeles Unified School District’s program:

Of course, this doesn’t mean every school district offers a BIC program yet. Many still do not. They may offer breakfast in a cafeteria, but apparently participation in cafeteria breakfasts is as low as 30%. It makes sense, arrive at school early to eat breakfast or sleep in longer? I’d say that one is a no-brainer. No student wants to get to school any earlier than they absolutely have to. However, serving breakfast in the classroom is a smarter approach because it means students don’t have to show up early to eat breakfast. Students are already be in their first class by a certain time anyway and eating breakfast during that dead 10-15 minutes while the teacher is performing morning attendance, making announcements and getting their daily plans together is a smarter way to use that time. Though, it is also costlier because someone needs to pay for the meals. I would hope that students could bring their own meals from home and are allowed to eat those instead of eating the supplied food if they so choose.

If I could have eaten food during the first 15 minutes of my first class, I certainly would have taken advantage. However, at the time, my school had a strict no-eating-in-the-classroom policy. Though, some of us did sneak eat when we had the chance. We didn’t do it often because the penalties were pretty severe if caught. It also meant less food to eat at lunch.

While I’m all for the Breakfast in the Classroom program idea, the way it’s currently implemented is a bit lacking both from a nutrition perspective and definitely from a tailored nutrition perspective. In the case of food, one size does not fit all.

Health begins in the Kitchen

While performing exercise improves the body’s conditioning, it doesn’t always help with weight loss. There are many people who exercise every day and never lose any weight. Why? Because their nutrition is wrong. Many people mistakenly believe that exercising equals weight loss. That’s not true. Weight loss begins in the kitchen, not at the gym. To lose weight, you have to eat smart. Eating smart means understanding your body’s energy requirements for the day. In fact, you can lose weight simply by changing your food lifestyle.

I write, “food lifestyle” instead of “diet” because the word “diet” has negative connotations. It also has connotations to mean “temporary”. Meaning, you do it for a short time, lose the weight and then go back to “regular eating”. That doesn’t work. That’s also a recipe for the Yo-Yo problem. Weight goes down, then weight goes back up. In fact, the Yo-Yo problem is actually worse on health than staying at a consistent weight, even if somewhat overweight.

To lose weight, you need to change your thinking about food from “dieting” to making food lifestyle choices. What “lifestyle choices” means is changing the way you think about and eat on a permanent daily basis. For example, drop the candies, cakes and sugary foods from your diet entirely and adopt a cheat day system. Make the healthy foods your primary goto foods. If you want to snack, grab carrots, celery, broccoli and cherry tomatoes instead of a granola bar, a breakfast bar, chips or even cereal.

Adopt a don’t buy it attitude. If you keep the “bad” foods at a minimum around the house, you can’t cheat on them. No ice cream in the freezer? You can’t eat it. No cookies? You can’t eat them. And so on. This is a healthy food lifestyle. Instead, keep carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes around. Keep oranges, apples and bananas around. If you have these around the house, then you’ll eat them if you really want a snack.

Better, don’t snack and wait until your next full meal. Sometimes it’s only an hour away. In fact, if you’re an hour or less away from your next meal, get some water and wait for that. In fact, water is a good quencher. If you think you’re hungry, go get some water and drink it first. You might find that that satisfies your hunger for long enough to get you to your next meal. If you do find that you really do need a snack, grab something fresh (fruits and vegetables) over something packaged (chips, granola, breakfast bars, cereal).

For the cheat day, you can eat out, eat ice cream or basically eat anything you want, though I always recommend eating in moderation. Don’t stuff yourself to the point of being sick or uncomfortable. Eat until you’re no longer hungry, not until you are “full”… there is a difference. This allows you to partake in holiday meals, birthday meals and other special occasions. Leave these decadent foods to the special occasions, not your regular meals. Also, don’t skip meals because you’re “not hungry”. Eat something anyway… it doesn’t have to be a lot, it just needs to be enough to keep your body regular. If you want to eat a cookie or a piece of cake occasionally, that’s fine. It shouldn’t be everyday. If you’re single eating alone, don’t buy a gallon of ice cream or full sized pie. Buy smaller portions and individual sizes.

Food Combinations

Without getting into a ton of nutrition detail here, eating certain foods together is more likely to encourage weight gain than eating these foods an hour apart. For example, drinking milk together with cereal is a great way to gain weight. There’s fat (and sugar) in the milk and sugar in the cereal. The sugar in the cereal and milk act on the body to release insulin which then prompts the body to uptake the fat in the milk into storage via adipose tissue. This is especially true when you consider what other foods you might have already eaten that day. You don’t want to encourage the body to store fat. You want the encourage the body to use the fat stores that are already there, this reducing weight.

There are many food combinations that can lead to fat gain. There are also food combinations that lead to fat loss simply by eating certain foods together or eating certain foods far apart (or not at all).

Of course, calories also matter. Calories are a unit of energy consumed versus expended. Unless your body is in a near constant calorie deficit, you could gain weight by consuming the wrong foods together.

There are two ways to get into a calorie deficit. The first is obvious… exercise. The second is through food choices. Exercise doesn’t guarantee a calorie deficit because you can still consume more calories than you have expended. For this reason, exercise doesn’t guarantee weight loss… only a calorie deficit does, and that is achieved in the kitchen, not in the gym.

Kids, Food and Obesity

Armed with that information, let’s bring it full circle. Food isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation. Offering the same Breakfast in the Classroom meal to all students may not be the smartest nutrition approach for every student and may still lead to obesity in some students. For example, if a student already ate a huge breakfast before coming to school, they may still consume the BIC food simply because it’s there. This encourages overeating. The BIC program in no way polices the student to find out if they have already eaten a meal for the day. It simply assumes that every student hasn’t eaten before coming to school. Many haven’t, but some have.

This is a lax approach to nutrition for the students. If the school wants to be responsible for maintaining a healthy student weight, then they should be responsible for all of the meals for the student during their charge. The parents should refrain from serving the student any food other than dinner… and even then, the school should provide a nutrition plan for the student so that the parent knows what and how much to serve the student at the end of the day as a guide. Of course, the parent is free to do whatever they want, but that encourages obesity if they do.

When creating exercise programs for the students, the school should take into account the nutrition being fed to the students and offer exercise programs that work in concert with the amount of food being served. This means that the students will receive a balanced amount of exercise against food intake and lead the student to maintain their body weight.

If a student is overweight or obese, the school needs to have a nutrition counselor on staff who can tailor a meal program to help the student get back into a healthy weight by tailoring their meals to lead to that outcome. This means a tailored breakfast and lunch program. Once the student is back at their correct body weight, put the student onto the balanced nutrition program to maintain that weight.

Right now, the schools are simply throwing standardized food at the students to help maintain attendance (primary goal) and keep the students awake and focused (secondary goal). Those goals, while commendable, don’t aid the student into a healthy body weight. The schools aren’t taking a holistic approach to food, exercise and nutrition to not only keep students focused, but also to help the students maintain a healthy body weight for their height. A holistic approach is a smartest approach for the students health and well-being. School districts are still no where near this level of holistic understanding of food and nutrition for students. If the schools were to tailor food programs to an individual student’s needs, healthy body weight can be achieved and maintained giving bully students one less piece of ammo against fellow students. More than the bullying, it teaches the student how to maintain a healthy body weight going into adulthood (the most important aspect). Empowering students with understanding of proper nutrition and how to manage their own bodies will give them a huge edge when getting a job.

Being overweight or obese can affect your chances at landing a job. Being at a healthy body weight gives you that extra first impression you need when interviewing for a job. Don’t think for a moment that being overweight isn’t considered by a hiring manager. If a specific job requires a certain level of mobility, movement and carrying capacity, a hiring manager might not consider someone who is overweight or who appears overall unhealthy. Weight discrimination is real in the job market. Learning how to manage weight early in childhood and in the teens goes a long way to maintaining that weight into adulthood. Children who fail to be taught this are at a disadvantage when becoming an adult.

Schools need to consider a holistic and individualistic approach to food and nutrition when putting together their food and exercise programs for students. One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to nutrition and exercise.

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Obesity Overtaking America

Posted in Health, health and beauty, Uncategorized by commorancy on December 13, 2009

You’ve heard all about this issue in the media. But, what you may not know is that this issue is now even reaching into the military (including our armed forces in Iraq).  The Pentagon has reported that obesity has doubled since 2003 in the US Military. Here are people who are actively serving for our national security and they’re becoming obese.  I always thought that army food wasn’t that great and was designed to keep the troops’ healthy.  I guess that’s not happening.

Some people attribute stress to the obesity epidemic in the US.  But, who or what is to blame for the growing waistlines?  Clearly, people do need to take responsibility for what they eat.  On the other hand, the human body does not come with an owner’s manual.  So, these two issues combined with the media, the food industry, so-called professionals, easy access to foods and misinformation lead to the waistline growth.  Which one is to blame?  They all are.

Food Industry

I know we all want to blame and, in some cases, even sue the food industry for this issue.  In some cases, lawsuits may even be warranted.  However, each person needs to take responsibility for their body.   Unfortunately, in some situations it may not be possible to purchase and eat your own foods. You may end up being in a semi-captive situation where you eat what you are given and have no access or say in the foods that are served.  In these cases, that establishment is to blame for feeding you poor quality food choices.  This may be the situation in the military.  This situation may also follow for lower income families who need to eat, but cannot afford to purchase produce due to its higher costs.

However, when the person can purchase their own food, make their own food and then eat that food freely, that’s where self-responsibility must take place.  You can’t blame the food industry when you have choices.  Basically, as a consumer, you must take responsibility for your food choices.  But, even more than that, you need to take responsibility for your body.  You can’t push your growing waistline off onto food manufacturers because you made the choice to eat their food.  There may be other liabilities that you can call the food industry on, but it isn’t personal responsibility for your body.

Food manufacturers do, on the other hand, provide loads of misinformation on their food items, so you have to become an intelligent and informed shopper to avoid these FDA-endorsed yet very deceptive food labels.  Note that deceptively labeled food items would be a liability for the food manufacturer except for the fact that the FDA has endorsed and approved those mislabeling practices. So, while you may want to sue the food manufacturer for mislabeling, you simply cannot.  These practices are definitely legal.  But, that doesn’t make them right, helpful or help you make an informed choice.  That said, you need to understand how to read the labels and discard the useless deceptive information and to determine just how nutritious something really is for you.

Three types of macronutrients defined

Of the three types of main nutrients your body needs, these are protein, carbs and fats.  Protein consists of meats, fish, eggs and is also in other products like milk, cheese, nuts and beans.  Fats consist of oils and is in foods including butter, avocados, nuts, fish, meats and table oils.  Carbs may be the hardest to identify in foods, but consist of both starches and simple sugars.  Starches include corn, rice, wheat, barley, sorghum, rye or any other type of grain.  Simple sugars include any granulated sugar (sucrose), fruit sugars (fructose) and dextrose (included in some food items). Sugar Alcohols should also be considered a simple sugar of sorts and these include maltitol, xylitol, mannitol (or any other sugar ending in ‘ol’).  Other sugars include maltodextrin and oligofructose among others.

All sugars ultimately become glucose in the body.  So, eating that piece of bread is ultimately the same as eating a piece of candy.  The only difference between candy and bread is the amount of fiber it contains.  Most finely granulated white flour is really no better than sugar and digests with similar speed.  With white flour based foods, you might as well be eating straight sugar.  Eating ‘whole wheat’ based items may slow down the digestion some, but that’s all dependent on the amount of fiber.  Most ‘whole wheat’ items may be partially made with white flour, so be careful with that.

Basically, your plate needs to consist of proteins, fats and carbs in the proper quantities to keep the body balanced.  Too many of any one of these nutrients and your body will compensate by becoming fat or having other issues.

A Society of Grain

The grain industry has a huge hold over our food supply.  You simply look at the average American meal and you will see one thing that dominates the plate: grains.  These include primarily include corn, wheat and rice.  But, there is also barley, rye and sorghum.  These grains are then made into items such as bread, crackers, cakes, cookies, cupcakes and pasta.  Once added to the plate, these items consume at least 25-50% of our dinner plate and probably 50-100% of our snacks.

Starchy vegetables

On top of these heavily starchy grains, we add yet another starch to our plates in the form of a potato and corn.  Yes, corn is both a grain and a vegetable depending on how it’s used.  So, between the bread and the potato, our dinner plate now contains probably 50% or more starches.  If you add corn as a side dish, that’s even more starch and makes up for at least 75% of the meal.  But, starch and starchy vegetables aren’t the complete answer to obesity.. even if the low-carb diets would like you to think so.  We’ll come back to the starch and weight relationship shortly.

Vegetables

In the vegetable category which should consume at least one-third of the plate, we should be serving green leafy vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce, swiss chard, spinach, mustard greens and similar.  Other vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, onions, garlic, soybean (green), green beans, leeks, etc.   Unfortunately, many people choose to skip this portion of the meal.  But, this portion needs to consume at least 25% of the plate (and actually, these should consume the most).  The reason they should consume the most is that they are high in fiber, low in calories and fill you up. Unfortunately, many vegetables can also cause flatulence and other intestinal issues (due to higher amounts of fiber).

Protein portion

Of the rest of our plate, we reserve the protein portion of the meal.  This includes foods such as, obviously, meats like beef, chicken, eggs, pork, turkey, fish and other seafood.   For vegetarians, there are other sources of proteins such as legumes, soy and other vegetable proteins and even milk (if lacto-vegetarian).

Beans

Legumes should be catagorized separately because they are both a starch and a protein at the same time.  So, while it’s great that they contain protein, they are also fairly starchy.  So, eating them in addition to other starches only serves to undermine any sensible weight loss approach.  So, be careful when adding beans to your plate.  Beans include white beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, English peas, sugar snap peas, peanuts, refried beans, black beans, Lima beans, fava beans, etc.  It’s pretty easy to identify a bean on the plate just strictly due to its consistency and texture.  Beans also have one additional side effect that can be unpleasant in a lot of people: gas.  So, if you know you are intolerant of beans, be careful adding them to your plate.

Fruits and Nuts

Fruits should be considered a sugar (carb) combined with fiber.  So, when adding these in, understand that they add to your total calorie intake as well as your sugar intake for the day.  Nuts are considered both a protein and a starch.  So, again, add them into your total protein and carb intake for the day.  Fruits, like vegetables, are far lower in calories than nuts.  So, you can add more fruits to your diet (assuming you aren’t carb intolerant or diabetic) and reduce your calorie intake.  Nuts, on the other hand, are high in calories.  So, eating lots of nuts can add a lot more to your calorie intake than you think.

Dairy

Dairy products (cheese, milk, milk-based products) can be reasonably high in both calories and carbs (lactose), so be careful when adding lots of dairy to your diet.  Yes, diary does contain calcium and vitamin D (fortified), but you should try to find other ways to add calcium and D to your diet than through dairy.

Junk Foods & Soda

When trying to readjust your diet to be more healthy, you really have to get rid of these from your diet.  Junk foods are those that add calories without substance.  They may make you ‘feel’ good while you’re eating them, but the sugar high that you get and the subsequent weight gain isn’t wanted.  So, avoid junk foods.  Junk foods include potato chips, pretzels, bread (more than one piece per meal), crackers, Triscuit, Wheat Thins, cookies, cakes, cupcakes, rolls, biscuits or anything basically that uses refined white flour.  Refined white flour needs to be removed from any healthy diet.  Junk food also includes straight sugar based candies like hard candies and candy bars.  It also includes pies and ice cream. If you need baked goods, then make them from nuts, coconut or other alternative flours than refined white and wheat flours.  Note that whole wheat flour isn’t.  If the flour is ground to a powder, then it is not whole.  This is yet another label that mislabels the food.  Anything that’s ground to a powder consistency is refined to the point where it takes no digestive processing.  Note that I also include Pizza and Hamburgers in the junk food category because the food contains 40% or more refined wheat based flours.

As for commercial sodas, avoid them.  If you must drink sodas and want to be frugal, buy a SodaStream carbonator and carbonate your own water.  A SodaStream will save you money over time and prevent you from having to carry home heavy bottles of soda water.  If you can afford the costs and want to deal with carrying heavy bottles home, buy soda water in liter bottles.  Then, use your own sweeteners (like Stevia) and flavorings (like Vanilla) to create your own homemade sodas.  This avoids the acidic issues of commercially produced sodas and it also avoids the unnecessary preservatives and additives that are placed into commercial soda flavorings.  It also avoids the added sugars and potentially unhealthy lab created sweeteners.

Resting body caloric needs

The number one issue when it comes to weight gain or loss is how much to eat.  The suggested daily calorie allotment on the Nutrition Facts label of foods usually shows a 2000 calorie a day and sometimes a 2500 calorie a day value. This labeling implies that this is the number of calories YOU should be eating.  In fact, this assumption is incorrect. You cannot know how many calories per day that your body needs unless you get evaluated by using a device that measures your resting caloric needs.  One such Resting Metabolic measuring device is called the BodyGem.  This device measures several things at once through a mouthpiece where you sit and breathe.  As the devices are quite expensive, they can be found at better health clubs like 24 Hour Fitness.  As part of getting a membership, 24 Hour Fitness will measure your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) with the BodyGem. For example, my resting body caloric needs were tested at 1700 calories per day.  Even more than this, you need to understand what that number represents.  Is that the number at which the body will stay in equilibrium (i..e, no gain and no loss)?  Or, is that the number at which the body will gain or lose weight?  This information was not made clear to me.  So, getting yourself tested is only half of the battle.  You need to make sure you understand what that number represents.

Calorie?

Many people just assume that people know what a calorie represents.  In fact, most people don’t.  One calorie is the amount of food it takes to raise one liter of water one degree when that food is burned.  So, they burn the food in a controlled environment and then determine the how many calories the food is based on how much it raises the water temperature.  Note, however, that burning food is not an identical process the body uses to convert the food into energy.  Burning something is a combustion chemical process.  The body doesn’t use combustion to convert the food into energy. Instead, it relies on lock and key chemicals (solvents) to dissolve the molecular bonds of the foods. Thus, a calorie is only a representative measure of how the body works.  It’s symbolic and is allegedly equivalent enough that it works.  So, we’ve all taken for granted the calorie and what it represents when it may, in fact, not be as accurate as we would like.  For the sake of argument, however, we will assume that the calorie as measured is accurate for the purposes of this article.

Unrealistic labeling

Unfortunately, the FDA and the food industry are both working together to keep the public misinformed.  It’s unfortunate, but the food labels are really not there to help consumers.  The Nutrition Facts label is probably the only label on the package that you can trust as far as sheer numbers go.  So, what is inaccurate about the labeling?  Well, let’s start with the numbers of servings.  Realistic labeling for a small package of chips should state 1 serving per package.  Instead, many food manufacturers break down what should be a single serving into multiple servings.  So, you might find that single serving package stated as 2.5 servings.  So, the entire nutrition facts will only show you the amounts for 1 sub-serving of that bag of chips (which is about 1/3 of the package).  Ok, so who’s going to eat 1/3 of a package and put it away? For many reasons, this labeling idea is stupid.  First, it’s a single serving package and should be treated and labeled that way. Second, no one will store 2/3 of the package for later consumption as it will be stale in only a few hours.  But, the casual consumer might not look at the number of servings and assume that they ate 80 calories when they, in fact, just ate ~240 calories.

The numbers of servings issue is but one on the label.  In addition to the above, the Nutrition Facts lists total Daily Value (DV%) based on a 2000 or 2500 calorie per day diet.  Again, you need to know if your body gains or loses fat based on those assumptions.  If your body gains at 2000 per day, then you shouldn’t be using those DV values as a guide.  You will need to calculate your own Daily Values for yourself based on the Nutrition Facts panel.

Other mislabeling issues include the front of the package.  Again, based on the number of servings they put into the Nutrition Facts panel, they can then say ’80 Calories Per Serving’ on the front of the package.  This then makes the consumer assume that because it appears to be a single serving package that the entire package contains 80 calories. Again, mislabeling at its finest.

What it comes down to is read the Nutrition Facts label closely and read two pieces of information: Numbers of Servings and Calories Per Serving.  Then multiply that out in your head to find out how many REAL calories are in that package.  Remember: Numbers of Servings * Calories Per Servings = Total Calories in package.  Always determine this before you put that food into your cart.  What you think may look like 80 calories may end up being 500 calories.

Eating Out

With laws being enacted in many states requiring restaurants to put nutritional information on the menu, you can now see that Pepper Encrusted New York Strip with Penne Pasta and Spinach is 1500 calories.  1500 calories!  That’s nearly my entire daily allotment of calories in one meal!  Combine that with their 800 calorie desert and you’re well over your daily recommended intake with one single meal!  That doesn’t even take into account breakfast and lunch you ate earlier.

Weight Loss

It’s simple, to lose weight you need a calorie deficit.  That means that you take in less calories than your body expends in a day.  With a calorie deficit, the body reaches into its fat stores to provide energy.  This means you can’t eat that 2300 calorie meal combined with breakfast and lunch and expect to lose weight.  It won’t happen.  In fact, that’s the recipe for weight gain.  This will, over time, add pounds to the hips and give you the spare tire that you don’t want.  It makes you buy bigger clothes and feel bad about yourself.  But, the food industry feeds other industries including the health industry, the insurance industry, the hospitals and on the other side, the food industry itself, the restaurant industry and even the clothing industry (as you get bigger).  So, eating more and gaining more weight gives you incentive to spend more money on health and weight related issues (including gym memberships, supplements, weight loss fads, diet supplements and so on).

The simple truth about weight loss: you lose weight through a calorie deficit.  You have to eat less than your body expends.  Yes, this means you need to remain hungrier than you’ve ever been.  But, hungry means your body is losing weight.  You can’t lose weight without being hungry at times.  But, the desperate hunger you feel initially will subside over time as your body pulls from the fat stores and gets used to less calories.

Calories per day

This is yet another misnomer.  We think of our bodies in terms of a 24 hour period and how many calories we shove into it during this period.  This is wrong.  The body doesn’t know the concept of a day (or a 24 hour period).  The body utilizes a continuous cycle of processing.  When you eat, you interrupt the fat loss process by adding external calories.  Once those calories are finished being processed by the body, the body can then go back to utilizing internal calories from its own stores.   This means smarter eating.  When you do eat, eat foods that process completely to give maximum nutrition and then allow the body to go back to processing internal stores. This means smaller meals more often to reduce food processing times.  Large meals keep your body processing external foods far longer.  With a larger meal, there is a large likelyhood that your large meal will still be processing once you start your next meal.  So, your body never gets into fat loss mode between meals.

Instead, you need to think of your body as a constant processing machine.  It doesn’t recognize a 24 hour day.  It continually processes.  So, you need to think about eating foods not in a 24 hour period but on a continuous basis.  So, about every 2 waking hours you should eat a small meal.  That’s the necessary amount of time it takes to process the small meal. You do not need to eat while sleeping.  In fact, the sleep fasting period lets your body burn fat. However, if you go too long between meals, the body may go into survival mode and conserve.  Adding a small meal keeps the body aware that it is receiving external fuel and helps prevent survival conservation mode.  Note that the body’s conservation mechanism can help you lose weight (as well as gain it), so you need to understand how to manage that by eating small meals.

Lower Calorie Foods

By reading the Nutrition Facts panel closely (including numbers of servings) you can accurately determine if that food fits within your calorie requirements.  For example, you can eat that cookie if you want.  But, if you’re looking at 200-300 calories per meal, that 160 calorie cookie is over half of that meal.  You can do it, but you need to readjust your meal intake accordingly.

Eating Out Continued

Once you get into eating smaller meals more often, you may find that eating out is a thing of the past. It’s almost impossible to find restaurants that will serve you a 200-300 calorie meal.  Most average meals in restaurants are around 800-1200 per meal.  You can limit this by leaving food on the plate, but that’s a waste of money.  If you’re with friends, they may think you’re odd not eating an entire meal.  I find it simpler to make meals for myself at home.   On the other hand, you do need a cheat meal occasionally to keep the body off-guard and kick it out of survival conservation mode.  So, your cheat meal should be a ‘standard’ meal you will find at a restaurant, in addition to your 200-300 calorie per meal meals every 2 hours. You should add a cheat meal no more than once per week.

Starch and Weight

Because starch is a big staple on our plates, we must acknowledge the role it plays in our health.  We cannot deny that starchy foods are a contributor to our obesity.  Most starchy foods are combined with fat and that’s a recipe for fat storage.  The reason, starchy foods raise blood insulin levels and insulin is a carrier to bring the fat into our cells for storage.  So, the more insulin the body produces, the more likely you are to store fat.  When combined with an overly large calorie meal, these body processes are perfectly aligned to store the fat in our cells.  Because we continue to eat the same way day in and out, we do not give our bodies a chance to release the fat.  So, more and more storage of fat is added and never removed.  Thus, we get fatter and fatter to the point of obesity.  As a result of this, we need to put starch into perspective.  This means, reducing the amount of starches you eat at a meal and reduce their overall importance in the meal itself.

Losing Fat?

If you’re committed to losing the fat, you need to understand the body’s food and survival mechanisms, food labeling, foods that work for you and nutrition.  Our bodies were designed to be hunters and gatherers.  That means we eat meals when we find foods in the wild.  Once we find them (or hunt them), we would basically eat smaller meals more often rather than sitting down for a big meal.  We would also expend our energy engaging in food search. The body’s internal processes have not changed since the days of the hunters and gatherers.  But, our meals and energy uses have.   We now eat more calories in one sitting than ever in human existence.  We sit on couches watching TV, web surfing and playing video games.  The body just can’t cope with the excessive calories and, thus, adds the fat to the stores for future famine.  In fact, eating too many calories triggers the body’s survival conservation mode by storing the fat for famine situations.  The famine situation never comes, so we get fatter and fatter.  Just as not eating enough food can trigger storage conservation, so does eating too much.

There is a middle ground where you need to eat small meals to keep the body’s food processing active, but not enough food to kick in fat storage mode.  This is the balance in eating that you need to observe.  The balance is in calories that you eat, but not always what you eat.  The specific foods that you eat fills in the blanks for vitamins and minerals.  Limited calorie intake prevents fat storage and encourages fat store release.  Note that as our foods have become more calorie dense, they have been lacking in vitamins and minerals.  So, you may find that you need to add supplements for vitamins and minerals.  I recommend individual vitamins in gelatin capsules versus packed tablets containing recommended Daily Values (which could be inaccurate).

On a final note, once you get to your target body shape and weight, you will need to find your equilibrium mode to maintain that weight.  To do this, increase your calorie intake for each meal and eventually you will find that equilibrium. You will also need to eat more food the more active you become.  If you drastically increase your daily activity, you will need to compensate for that activity by increasing food intake to prevent, again, survival conservation mode (among other health issues that could arise).

Disclaimer:  This information is not intended to be used to as a diagnosis, to diagnose or as a diet.  It is strictly to be used for information purposes.  You will need to find your own way to lose the weight.  These suggestions may work to help you understand the body’s processes, but you will need to choose the foods that keep you healthy and let you lose the fat.  Everybody’s body is different, so this information may not work for you.  You should also consult with a doctor before launching any calorie restricted diet to determine any pre-existing conditions prior to dieting. This information is provided as is.  All risk of use of this information is assumed by the reader.  This information is copyright 2009 Randosity.  All rights reserved.

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