Nuts: The Nutritional Powerhouses That Are Good For the Waistline

A reader chastised me for leaving something very important out of last week’s almond butter post.  And she was right.  This is a family nutrition blog after all.

Besides making great nut butter, almonds–and other nuts–pack a nutritional wallop.  Small but mighty!

Can you identify this nut in its shell?

Can you identify this nut in its shell?

Lot’s of good stuff, including:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Antioxidants
  • Omega 3 essential fatty acids
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Folic Acid
  • Magnesium

That’s quite an impressive list.

I have to admit that, even knowing this, I kept my distance from nuts. Because, while they’re healthy and all, they also contain a sizeable amount of fat.  Up to 80% of a nut is fat.  And while these are predominantly good fats (the heart healthy unsaturated kind), the calories do add up.  I was sure I could get more bang for the buck elsewhere.

Lucky for me, and anybody else who thought nuts would make them fat, the evidence proves otherwise!  For more information on studies that show nuts actually can help you lose weight, check out Dr. Michael Gregor’s post.

Here’s the catch.  You knew that was coming, right?  Nuts are really good for you–in a heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cholesterol lowering way.  In moderation.  We’re talking about an ounce or so.  Depending on the nut, that could be a small handful, or it could be just a few.  It also means you have to eat them in place of other fats–not in addition to them.

There is a lot to be happy about:

  • They’re filling!  My typical breakfast these days is an ounce of nuts and a piece of fruit to go with my morning tea.  I find I don’t need that mid-morning snack anymore.
  • Nuts are portable.  Grab an ounce and you’re out the door.  Nothing to prepare and nothing to clean up.
  • There’s lots of variety.  You’ll never get bored.  I switch from one kind to another day by day to mix things up. 

Here’s some useful information from the North American Vegetarian Society:

nuts_seeds_chart-smWhat about feeding nuts to kids?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies as young as 6 months can eat nuts ground up and in other foods–as long as they aren’t showing signs of any food allergies or have a family history of food allergies.  And whole nuts are fine for children age 4 and up.  They are filling and provide greater nutrition than snacks like crackers and pretzels which contain refined carbohydrates.  Parents magazine has a great article on safely feeding nuts to children which includes several kid-friendly nut recipes.

So, yeah, I’m feeling liberated.  I’m eating nuts, guilt free (!), and life is good.  My current nut of choice?  Pistachios.

What nuts are you eating?

Nuts get most of a shelf at our house.

Nuts get most of a shelf at our house.


A Tale of Two Plates

Meet MyPlate. It takes the place of the USDA‘s outdated food pyramid that was so confusing to so many.  It was definitely a step in the right direction.  It doesn’t focus on servings, which can be confusing. Instead it shows how much of your plate a food group should cover.  But it leaves out a lot of important information.

And as Harvard Health Publications points out, “a hamburger or hot dog on a white bread bun with French fries and a milk shake could be part of a MyPlate meal – even though high red and processed meat intakes increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer, and high intakes of refined grains and potatoes make it hard to control weight.”

The USDA's baby.

The USDA’s baby.

Now I’d like to introduce you to MyPlate’s renegade sibling.  The Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate.  The resemblance is there, but it’s what’s on it that’s a game changer. It spells out the types and quality of the food we should be eating.  Food industry lobbyists had nothing to say about it.


Here’s the big picture:

1.  Healthy oils are good for the heart.  Limit butter and trans fat.

2.  Vegetables and fruits, in all their colorful variety, should make up 1/2 your plate.  Potatoes don’t count.  They have the same effect on our blood sugar as consuming refined grains and sweet treats.

3.  Eat whole grains–like whole wheat breads and pastas.  Limit white bread and rice.

4.  Choose healthy proteins like fish, poultry, beans, and nuts.  Steer clear of red  and   processed meats because eating these on a regular basis can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and colon cancer.

5.  It’s a water glass!  Limit dairy to 1 or 2 servings a day, and avoid juice and sugary drinks.

There’s even an icon to remind you to stay active.  Eating healthy foods and getting your body in motion is what it’s all about.

As a parent, I appreciate all the help I can get in making sense of the large amounts of science based nutrition out there.  I want the specifics.  And I want it from an organization with no commercial ties to the foods it’s suggesting I eat.  This is the plate I’ll be eating from…

Rice: Proceed With Caution

Due to the tremendous interest in Monday’s post on arsenic in rice, I felt it needed a follow-up.  There’s a rumor going around that organic rice has no arsenic.

I wondered about this too–but thought it odd that Consumer Reports wouldn’t have noted that in their findings. That would have been a simple way to deal with the problem, right?Just eat organic.  The truth of the matter is somewhat different.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration weighs in on this issue in an FAQ section about arsenic in rice on their website:

Do organic foods have less arsenic than non-organic foods? 

The FDA is unaware of any data that shows a difference in the amount of arsenic found in organic rice vs. non-organic rice. Because arsenic is naturally found in the soil and water, it is absorbed by plants regardless of whether they are grown under conventional or organic farming practices.

Currently, there is no federal maximum on arsenic in food. The FDA said it hopes to complete its assessment by the end of the year to set science-based limits.

That said, based on the current data, the FDA is not recommending changes by consumers regarding their consumption of rice and rice products.  They encourage consumers to eat a varied diet that includes other types of grains for the best possible nutrition.

From what I have read, however, there are no long term studies of low doses of arsenic. That would be something well worth knowing.

And because young children and infants are quite vulnerable the American Academy of Pediatrics has this to say:

While additional research, including the results of the ongoing FDA study, will be needed to provide detailed recommendations, the American Academy of Pediatrics believes that at the individual level, offering children a variety of foods, including products made from oats and wheat, will decrease children’s exposure to arsenic derived from rice. In addition, if parents raise questions about arsenic in juice products, they can be reminded that it is not necessary to offer children any juice in a well-balanced, healthy diet; and that for years the AAP has recommended limited intake of all sweet beverages, including juice.

Another finding is that rice grown in California has lower levels of arsenic overall than rice grown in south-central states where arsenic was used as a pesticide in the cotton fields.

Personally, when I buy rice in the future, I’ll purchase it from an environmentally conscious California based company from the San Joaquin Valley–Lundberg Family Farms.  They’ll be implementing a 3 year arsenic testing plan to not only measure levels of arsenic in their rice but also to determine what that means for the health of the consumer.  That’s means something to me.

There are no absolutes at this point.  I’d like to hear what other families plan on doing.  What do you think?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Rice

Rice.  It has a dark side.

And we’re not talking black or red varieties.  All rice–even that paragon of virtue, brown, has a skeleton in it’s closet.

It’s the carcinogen, arsenic.  Rice is especially good at absorbing arsenic from the soil and the water it’s grown in.  In tests by Consumer Reports, many common rice products contain concerning levels of arsenic including:  rice baby cereal, rice crackers, pasta, cereal and drinks.

Here I’ve been encouraging everyone to eat brown rice as opposed to white.  Well, turns out that  brown rice has higher levels of arsenic than white–even with all of its other nutritional advantages.  Arsenic tends to concentrate in the outer layers of the grain–much of which gets “polished” away when producing white rice.

And what about our kids?  Should you be concerned?

I would.

According to Consumer Reports, if a baby eats rice cereal twice a day, which is very common, her risk of cancer doubles. Kids should have no more than about one serving of rice or rice pasta a week–and the serving size is pretty small.  Given that we have lots of grain alternatives this seems easy enough to do. Check with your pediatrician if you’re not sure.

These are the things that I plan on doing:

1.     Move over rice and make room for other tasty, delicious grains.  We’ve been experimenting with other types of grains for a while now.  Farro, millet, quinoa, barley and bulgur all make regular appearances at our table.  They’ve made credible understudies for rice, but now we can give them a starring role.  Try them and see what you think.

2.     Consume less rice and fewer rice products.  Especially if you eat more than two or three servings of rice each week  These include rice drinks, rice cakes (I have to admit I keep a bag of these in the car at all times for impromptu snacks) and rice cereals.  And, of course, rice itself–especially brown!

3.     Reduce arsenic content by cooking rice differently.  Consumer Reports recommends rinsing rice thoroughly before cooking.  Also, use a 6 to 1 ratio of water to rice and drain excess water after cooking.  You can rinse away up to 30% of the arsenic in this way.

Lots of other things have arsenic too–like fruits and vegetables and even our drinking water.  We can’t stop eating and drinking everything.  But we can and should be cautious.   Consumer Reports is a well-respected source, and I will definitely be making some changes in my family’s rice consumption.

To learn more about arsenic and how you can decrease your child’s exposure, check out the website of the Environmental Working Group.

Ease up on the rice cakes, Robin.

3 Ways to Ensure Your Child Doesn’t Have a Drinking Problem

We all probably identify fast food, potato chips, and candy as some of the bad boys contributing to the current obesity epidemic.  But would you believe juice?  Really?

A genuine wolf in sheep’s clothing, juice has a lot in common with another oft consumed beverage, the much maligned soda.  Juice and soda.  Soda and juice.  What could they possibly have in common?

Sugar, that’s what…

Pediatric obesity specialist, Robert Lustig, said in the HBO documentary Weight of the Nation, “There is no difference. When you take fruit and squeeze it, you throw the fiber in the garbage. That was the good part of the fruit. The juice is nature’s way of getting you to eat your fiber.”

Right about now you’re probably shaking your head in disbelief.  We were raised on the stuff.   We believed it to be a nutritious alternative to sugar-sweetened drinks–health in a glass.  Full of vitamins and minerals…  Well, some anyway. Still skeptical?

An 8 ounce glass of either this root beer or this apple juice contains nearly the same amount of sugar–the juice edging the soda by a gram.  That’s almost 8 teaspoons of sugar.  Yikes!

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:

  • 0-6 months: no juice
  • 6 months-1 year: 1-3 oz
  • 1-6 years: 4-6 oz
  • 6-18 years: 8-12 oz

It’s really easy to drink way more sugar than you think so pay attention to amount.  Calories add up quickly.  Choose 100% fruit juice and beware of “cocktails”, “punches”, and “drinks”. This is a good indicator that sugar has been added to the mix. In other words, read the label!

And 100% or not, try diluting your juice with some plain or carbonated water to make a real thirst quenching drink with less sugar.  Have you heard of the Sodastream?  It makes sparkling/seltzer water in seconds.  It’s going on my Christmas wish list this year.

Answer the following questions to find out if your child has a drinking problem.

Does your child eat a well-balanced diet including fresh fruits and vegetables?

Is your child’s mouth generally free of cavities?

Is your child at a healthy weight?

Hopefully, you answered yes to each question. If so, then just follow the juice guideline recommendations.  If the answers were no, then it might be time to go on the wagon.  Cutting way back or even eliminating juice would be a good idea.

Bottom line. Should you eat an orange or drink it? Given a choice opt for the real deal. A piece of fruit will give you more nutrition and fewer calories. Treat juice as a treat and not as a liquid replacement for water.

Don’t Supersize Me

Have you ever measured out a serving of ice cream? It is equivalent to one half cup. It came as quite a shock to me when I read the label on the carton to discover that I was eating enough servings for at least 4 people.

My portion size, what I chose to eat, was considerably larger than the actual serving size which is the recommended amount for a specific food–in this case, ice cream. Big scary difference…

Serving size, along with a high quality diet and exercise, is an important part of the holy trinity of good health. The three work together to keep our weight in check and our bodies healthy. Portions need to scaled down to avoid overeating and weight gain.

WedMD has an easy to understand, printable guide to help us visual learners put it all in perspective. Serving sizes for various foods are compared to actual objects. For example, a serving of chicken would be about the size of a deck of cards.

TIP: Gather up as many of the objects as possible to keep in a basket in your kitchen to teach your kids (and yourself!) how to estimate serving size as you prepare and serve meals.

Once you have a handle on estimating serving sizes, you can compare them to the portions you consume and adjust amounts as needed.

So, enjoy your food. Just less of it! Here are three ways to do that at meal times…

1   Use smaller plates. The truth of the matter is that plate sizes have expanded in diameter over the years. According to Nutrition Diva, Monica Reinegl, the ever growing size of our dinner plates correlates almost exactly with rates of obesity. And for most of us, if it’s on our plate, we’ll eat it!

2   Don’t go back for seconds. Take what you need the first time around. Wait at least 10 minutes before you decide you absolutely have to have more. Chances are your brain will have received the message from your stomach that it’s had enough…

3   Alright, this tip is an extension of Tip 2. If you don’t already do it, try mealtime conversation. No t.v., no texting or taking phone calls. No reading either (yes, it’s a good habit but not at the table). It’s a great way to mindfully enjoy food, connect meaningfully with family members, and slow down to give yourself time to recognize that yes, you are full. It works–and it’s fun too.

For the kiddos, things are a bit different. Smaller helpings work well to help teach them to recognize when they are full, but if they’re still hungry, they can ask for more…

So, careful with those servings.  Especially with ice cream.  But in the case of vegetables (I’m such a nag)….More is better!

What your mother always told you . . .

Did she tell you to clean up your room? Turn that music down? Take out the garbage? Possibly.

But I’m absolutely certain that at some point in time she told you to eat your vegetables!

And I’m quite sure that you worry about the very same thing with your kids. After all, eating fruits and vegetables provides lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber which are essential to good health. Not to mention they help fill you up without a lot of fat and calories and reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases to boot.

So, imagine a circle representing your dinner plate. Draw an imaginary line through the middle of the circle bisecting it into two equal halves. Now, load up one half with imaginary fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designed this easy to follow graphic reminder of what we should be eating.

5 servings a day, minimum… More is better… This is the standard, one size fits all recommendation. For more specific numbers based on age and gender check HERE.

It might seem like a challenge to fit them all in, but don’t feel overwhelmed. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

1. One or two at every meal. Servings that is… And try one at snack time for carbohydrate energy with protein for holding power.

2. Double up! Instead of taking an extra slice of garlic toast have a second serving of salad for example.

3. What’s growing in your area? Shop in season. Vegetables will taste better and, as a result, will be easier to consume. Visit the farmer’s market, roadside stand, or check out locally grown produce at the grocery store.

How do you fill your plate with fruits and vegetables?