Monday, May 30, 2011

Organic food, only a click away.

As my last post described, eating fresh veggies (and some fruit) is the cornerstone to any healthy diet from the USDA guidelines to the Paleo Diet and so on. With all I’ve read and learned over the past couple of years, I am fully convinced that seasonal local produce, grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, is best for our personal health and the health of people in farming communities. It is also the most sustainable way of growing food now and for years to come. In the past, accessing organic (or beyond organic) foods was challenging due to lack of availability and the corresponding high price. Nowadays, there are many options for even the busiest people to get high quality, fresh, organic foods.

Joining a CSA* is great option, but I’ve recently stumbled across something that may be better for busy people who want organic food but don’t want to add an extra chore like picking up a CSA box or taking a trip to the farmers market. There are now several online businesses that allow you to place a customizable order online and have the food delivered to your doorstep. Many of these businesses focus on organic foods and offer more than just produce. These services can actually eliminate your weekly shopping trips altogether.

With a little bit of internet searching, I was able to find organic food delivery options throughout the country – from the SF Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle, to Austin, D.C., Chicago, and more! Some online stores work directly with local farmers and strive to supply most of their food from within the region. Others are more focused on variety and meeting the demands of customers even if it means getting produce from Mexico or beyond.

Each service allows customers to place orders that arrive as frequently as once a week. The specific foods you receive can be changed each week online through your account. Those services that provide more than just produce allow you to search for foods based on allergies, such as wheat or dairy intolerance, which can make shopping much easier. All of the services I viewed deliver food to your doorstep even if you are not at home. Care is taken to preserve food that may be left out for hours. If you prefer to keep your food indoors you can give them a key to your house or garage.

Planet Organics, which delivers to the SF Bay Area, focuses heavily on locally-sourced foods. In addition to produce, they offer meat and seafood, eggs, milk, and processed organics like cereal and pasta. Planet Organics uses about a dozen labels to quickly identify vegetarian options, common allergens, certified organic foods, and even grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products. Another neat option is the ability to add products to a favorites list. If you really love blackberries, for example, you can add them to the list and receive blackberries anytime they are available. They also offer recipes with ready-made groups of ingredients (called meal kits) that you can add to your shopping list. The interface is easy to use and your food delivery is very customizable. The minimum purchase is $32.

Here are a few other doorstep organic companies that deliver outside my area:

  • Greenling: Based out of Austin, TX, these guys seem very passionate about working with local farmers and getting healthy produce to the people of Central Texas! If you live in Austin, this sounds like a great option for local organic produce and locally-sourced artisan products at a minimum of $25 per box. They even have gift cards with seeds in them, so you can plant them after use. Neat!

  • SPUD: With delivery areas in the SF Bay Area, Seattle, L.A., and several cities in Canada, SPUD was certainly the flashiest site I found. While they do offer some local organic produce, you have to do a bit of searching to isolate these options. SPUD is probably a good option for people who just want healthy food and lots of processed food options, like waffles and juice, and aren’t too worried about where their food is grown.

  • Suburban organics: This company delivers to many east coast areas including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and parts of New York and Maryland. They offer mainly produce, all of it organic. In summer months, the food is mostly local (unless you request things like bananas and mangoes, which will never be local). In winter, though, they rely on shipments from Mexico and South America. Again, this is a good option for people who are mostly concerned with having easy access to organic food. Suburban Organics also partners with Door-to-door Organics, which has hubs in and around Colorado, Kansas City, Chicago, and Michigan.

There are many components to eating ethically. Human health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability are all important aspects of a truly ethical food system. Organic bananas or out-of-season tomatoes are not the best options when it comes to the environment. Processed organic products and organic produce from industrial-scale monoculture farms are other examples of foods that live up to the label of certified organic but probably offer little improvement in sustainability over their conventional counterparts. Despite these shortcomings, restoring the health and well-being of our population is a worthy goal. Organic home delivery offers an opportunity for more people to access fresh and healthy foods, and local or not, that is a huge step forward.

* - Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs link farmers and consumers directly. Typically, you commit to purchasing a certain amount of food (produce, meat, etc.) each week. A box is delivered either to your home or to a central drop-off location. CSAs offer food that is currently being harvested, so it’s the easiest way to get seasonal fresh food. I am a member of the CSA at Eatwell Farm, which delivers one box every two weeks to a location near my work. I get several kinds of fruits and veggies plus a half dozen eggs. You can read more about my motivations for joining a CSA in this post, and about my experience with the Eatwell Farm CSA specifically in this post.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How sweet it is.

(Acknowledgement: This post was greatly improved by the input of nutrition-guru, Tess McEnulty. Thanks, Tess!)

Go to any bookstore, pick up any lifestyle magazine, or watch pretty much any talk show, and you will get advice on how to eat. Most of this advice mimics the USDAs new food pyramid and nutrition guidelines. We are all familiar with this advice: eat fewer calories, avoid foods that are high in cholesterol or fat (especially saturated or trans fats), and eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and dairy.

Perhaps you have also heard that unprocessed foods are better than their processed counterparts. Oranges, for example, are better for you than orange juice according to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. Local, organic, and seasonal are also associated with healthy foods. These fruits and vegetables have to make it to consumers quickly or they spoil. That extra freshness likely translates to higher nutrition.

Despite all of this information, we still have an increasingly obese population. Certainly some people simply choose to eat poorly. But we all have friends (or even have experienced this ourselves) who seem to follow all the rules and still have trouble losing weight. In recent years, several theories have come out suggesting that perhaps our idea of what constitutes a healthy diet is actually flawed. Three notable people at the center of these investigations are Gary Taubes, Robert Lustig, and Loren Cordain. In many ways, their conclusions are similar, but each one has focused on a different aspect of why and how we gain and lose weight.

Forget about calories. And fat. Oh, and cholesterol too.

Science writer, Gary Taubes, has done extensive research into the scientific case linking the consumption of fatty foods and cholesterol to obesity and heart disease. As reported in his 700-page book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Taubes found the so-called evidence unconvincing. Instead, he learned that our bodies’ ability to regulate blood sugar seems to hold the key to keeping us healthy. The connection between fat storage and insulin response is better at explaining why certain cultures are healthier than others. Consuming refined carbs and sugars, which play a large role in our Western diet, triggers an insulin response and ultimately lead to metabolic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

When it comes to losing weight, Taubes dismisses the notion of calorie counting. We often think of weight loss, or more specifically fat loss, as an equation. How much you weigh equals the calories you take in minus the calories you burn through regular activity or exercise. If that were true, simply reducing calorie intake or increasing calorie burn should lead directly to fat loss. However, if your body chooses whether to store or burn fat based on hormones and insulin levels, then reducing calories won’t necessarily allow you to lose more fat. The key is to keep your insulin levels low, so that your body responds more sensitively to insulin and is willing to give up the fat.

The best way to keep your insulin levels low is by vastly reducing your intake of refined carbs and sugars. Eat as much as you want, but eat the right foods: plenty of vegetables (especially the green leafy kind), quality animal proteins, nuts, and nut butters. Legumes, whole dairy, or whole grains are probably fine for most people, especially those at their target weights, but they may inhibit weight loss.

A recent article in Men’s Journal (my dad sent me a copy), covered Taubes’ diet guidelines in a bit more detail than I will here. They offer recipes, a sample week-long meal plan, and this Taubes-style food pyramid.

Endocrinologist and professor, Robert Lustig, is also concerned about the effects of insulin resistance on weight and health. He is focusing mainly on the effects of fructose, the type of sugar found naturally in fruit and honey and in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which now appears in many processed foods from soda to bread.

Fructose is processed in the liver, which Lustig believes can only handle so much fructose at one time. When we eat fruit, the fiber it contains helps the liver process the fructose – not the case when we consume fructose in other forms such as soda and other sweetened beverages. In a popular YouTube video, Lustig explains that over-consumption of fructose can lead to liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and eventually, obesity and it’s accompanying problems. Unlike the average 15g of fructose that most people would get from daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, today’s teens average 72g per day from other sources like soda and junk food.

So yummy, a cave man could eat it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Loren Cordain is one of the main proponents of The Paleo Diet. The philosophy behind Paleo is to consume only those foods that we have been eating since before the agricultural revolution. The foods we survived on as hunter-gatherers are the foods we evolved to consume, so our bodies are better able to tolerate them and utilize their nutrients. The Paleo Diet differs a bit from the Taubes-Lustig paradigm. People following the Paleo diet do not eat grains, dairy, or legumes. The refined carbs and sugars that Taubes and Lustig are warning us about are certainly excluded in this diet, but starchy vegetables and fruit are considered okay in moderation.

There is now a great deal of work looking into why exactly the classic hunter-gatherer foods are healthy while many newer ones are not. Research suggests that some agriculture-based foods contain so-called anti-nutrients. These are natural defense mechanisms that certain plants employ to keep from being eaten. Despite our cleverness at making these foods edible, they may actually lead to many chronic health problems such as auto-immune disorders, asthma, and more.

Switching to a Paleo diet may sound rather daunting especially compared to the typical American diet. It took me about a year to transition from pizza and soda to a veggie-centric diet. Slowly but surely, though, anyone can make the switch. Even with all the changes I have made, this trio of nutrition experts has caused me to wonder just how healthy my diet really is.

How do I stack up?

Based on the USDA guidelines, I eat a healthy diet. I consume a lot of vegetables, cook most of my meals, and haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant or ordered a restaurant burger in years. But how much sugar is in my “healthy” diet?

The following table shows what foods I typically eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus snacks and dessert. While some of my food choices would certainly be Lustig-approved (my English muffin plus peanut butter has a mere 1.5g of sugar), nearly all my snack choices have 13-19g of sugar despite being healthy-sounding foods. If I chose the lowest sugar option for each meal and had only one snack, my total sugar intake for the day would still be close to 30g. With the highest-sugar options, my daily intake of sugar would be nearly 120g!

Unfortunately, there is no USDA daily recommended intake of sugar. The American Heart Association does have a recommendation though: 20g of added sugar per day for women and 36g for men. Even my lowest sugar options would be too high by this measure. And although many of my sugars are from fruit (so not added sugars), one granola bar is basically my whole sugar allotment for the day.

Another way of visualizing sugar is by comparing it to things we perceive as being sweet treats. The website, Sugar Stacks, goes one step further by showing popular foods next to the equivalent number of little white sugar cubes. My daily sugar intake is on par with a liter bottle of soda, 2 Rockstar energy drinks, or 2-3 bags of Skittles. On the one hand, that seems like a lot sugar for natural healthy foods. On the other hand, a college freshman who consumes a couple of energy drinks has ingested as much sugar as I eat in a whole day! Either way you look at it, we are getting a lot of sugar.

Knowledge is power.

My sugar intake is lower than the average American, who apparently consumes a staggering 90 pounds of sugar each year (that’s >100g every single day), but it may still be too high. Now that I know, I can make better choices. For example, topping my salad with 2T of fresh blueberries rather than 1.5T of raisins would reduce my sugar intake by 8.6g. Sticking with black coffee or tea instead of a latte reduces it by 17g. And eating my tuna salad over mixed greens with a little balsamic vinegar rather than as a sandwich saves me another 5.4g - and I get my greens!

Snacking seems to be my worst area. Here are some easy snacking alternatives that would really make a difference in my diet. Rather than a granola bar or fruit (13-19g of sugar), I could eat:

  • 2T hummus and 1 chopped carrot, 5g
  • Trader Joe’s Roasted seaweed snack, 0g
  • 1/2 English muffin with 1T peanut butter, 1.5g
  • 1/4 cup raw almonds, walnuts, or cashews, 0-2g

Cordain, Taubes, and Lustig offer a glimpse into a real-food loving future. Imagine, you can eat all you want and not get fat. You can enjoy a big juicy steak, cashews, avocados, even scrambled eggs and bacon. You can stop worrying about cholesterol and calories. All you have to do is give up the sugar. Sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

Additional resources:
- Gary Taubes recently wrote an article in The New York Times about Lustig and his work
- The recipes for my dinner options have been featured in previous posts: 15-minute fish and hearty black bean stew

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Eat by numbers.

Nutrition has been making the news a lot lately, and for good reason. Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are becoming increasingly prevalent. The rise in childhood obesity is especially disturbing. According to the Center for Weight and Health in Berkeley, 11% of California’s children are obese – defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 95th percentile or higher. Over 30% of adolescents in California are obese or in danger of becoming obese (>85th percentile).

The problems are obvious, but the solutions aren’t so clear. We know we need to get more exercise and change our diets. Unfortunately, what constitutes proper nutrition and healthy food can be difficult to discern. Marketing schemes further muddy the waters because products marketed as healthy in one respect are often quite unhealthy in another.

If we want truly healthy foods to be readily available, we have to demand them as consumers. That means we need the public to understand what foods are healthy and be able to quickly and easily evaluate foods when they shop. People may not always choose healthy options (and that’s fine), but they should be able to know what choice they are making.

Easy access to clear information is the idea behind NuVal, a new food rating system. Designed by doctors, foods are ranked using a mathematical algorithm that compares the nutritional pros and cons of many grocery store products. A food product with a rating of 1 has virtually no nutritional value; a 100 is the best score. The goal is to have the NuVal score printed alongside the price in the grocery store, giving people a clear way of determining the best product based on their nutritional and economic values.

Scores for a selection of foods are shown on NuVal’s website. Blueberries, broccoli, tomatoes, mangos, and certain brands of frozen winter squash, fat free milk, and wheat bran cereals are some of the best scoring product, with scores between 91 and 100. Unsurprisingly, crackers, cookies, and salty snacks make up most of the bottom.

What’s especially powerful about this type of labeling system is that it allows people to easy identify nutritious foods despite the creativity of food marketers. I found several healthy-sounding foods with pathetically low scores. Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multigrain crackers received a score of only 2; Cheetos at least got a 4. Kashi Strawberry Fields cereal scored an 11, beating out Cap’n Crunch by a mere 1 point. There are even a few canned vegetables that perform incredibly badly, probably due to excess sodium.

The NuVal system seems like a great idea, but it is based on one interpretation of what it means to be healthy. The current algorithm seems to follow the big picture USDA guidelines. As quoted from the USDA website, the recommended diet:

  • Emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products;
  • Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts; and
  • Is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt (sodium), and added sugars.

Over time, we may determine that the diet recommended for the USDA and adopted by NuVal is not as complete. For example, the Paleo diet has been gaining traction lately, especially in athletic communities. Pioneered by Dr. Loren Cordain, the Paleo diet recommends that we minimize our intake of fruit due to its high (albeit natural) sugar content and avoid grains and dairy, which humans have only starting eating relatively recently.

For now, though, the NuVal approach seems like a good first step. Perhaps some day, the majority of foods at the grocery store will score high on the NuVal chart, and then we can worry about further distinguishing the best options from the good options. Only a few stores have incorporated the NuVal scoring system so far. You can find the stores on their website as well as info on recommending the system to your local store.

NuVal will not be the sole solution to our nutrition problems, but it is the first system I’ve seen that could really empower consumers to make healthy choices and vote with their dollars every time they go to the store. Having the scores so prominently displayed is also likely to generate interest in nutrition issues and hopefully engage the public in the way our food system operates. And that’s a pretty high scoring outcome in my book!