Rethinking healthy starts with rethinking nutrients.

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This year looks to be pivotal for rethinking healthy. At the highest governmental level, the FDA has committed to release new guidelines for label claims. As the FDA commissioner put it earlier this year:

“Healthy” is one claim that we believe is ripe for change … Traditionally, we’ve focused primarily on the nutrients contained in food in considering what is healthy. But people eat foods, not nutrients. This is why we’re asking the important question of whether a modernized definition of “healthy” should go beyond nutrients to better reflect dietary patterns and food groups …

Emphatically my answer is yes.

An FDA mandate for nutrient claims only covers consumer packaged goods. And maybe even restaurant menu labels at some point in the future. But what the FDA decides makes a packaged food healthy permeates the general food ecosystem. When FDA defined healthy in the early 1990s as low fat and low sodium, low fat reigned supreme for a decade.

Nutrients are important. No argument here on that point. As a dietitian and culinary nutritionist, I spent a couple years learning just how important they are. But so is food. And taste. And culture. And tradition. Not to mention enjoyment. So I applaud the decision to acknowledge that food is as much a part of a healthy pattern as nutrients. Defining healthy as the sum of the nutrient parts is called a reductionist perspective.

The problem with a reductionist perspective.

Reducing a food to the sum of its nutrient parts tends to skewer the meaning in a negative direction. Especially when, as was the case in the 1990s, healthy was defined in terms of 4 nutrients to avoid:  sodium, cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat.

Now feast your eyes on my shrimp and greens salad pictured above. Note the variety of vegetables on the plate: a generous handful of arugula, a dark green vegetable, some radicchio, a couple of small tomatoes, and some sliced scallions. The greens make up the bed for those lovely freshly steamed wild caught North Carolina shrimp.

Remember that under the original concept of healthy, food did not count. Well, those pristine steamed shrimp are salty. All shrimp are salty. Shrimp live in the sea and the sea is salty. When healthy was measured by counting milligrams of sodium per 100 grams, shrimp are automatically knocked out.

Remember too under the original concept, palatability did not count. Salads taste better when they are served well dressing, but a couple of tablespoons of fine olive oil and sherry vinegar added too much fat and saturated fat.

In other words, the only way to make this plate healthy under the original concept was to remove the shrimp, hold the vinaigrette, and serve the greens naked.

This reductionist view of healthy did a lot of damage. Is it any wonder so many folks rejected such a austere approach and labeling a food healthy became the kiss of death?

What a difference a couple of decades makes.

A lot has changed since 1994. That’s the year the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act became law and the draconian nutrient content claim for healthy was cast in regulatory cement.

In 2016, The FDA released a preliminary working document indicating their thinking on revising the nutrient criteria for labeling food healthy.

Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food Products: Guidance for Industry.

And with the release of the most current Dietary Guidelines in 2015, a healthy pattern took precedence over unhealthy nutrients.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. … The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines provides five overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns, recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern, and acknowledge that all segments of our society have a role to play in supporting healthy choices.

So what do these changes mean for my shrimp and greens salad?

Bottom line is that my simple little salad of greens, tomato, shrimp, and vinaigrette just got a whole lot healthier.

Thanks to revised thinking from the FDA, the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats is now more important than just the grams of saturated fatty acids. Olive oil, although it does contain a significant franction of saturated fatty acids has a stellar ratio of almost 6 to 1.

And thanks to the Dietary Guidelines, the pattern and the whole plate are now important. Food counts and you get bonus points for more fish like shrimp and more dark green vegetables like arugula.

We’re not there yet, but my sense is we may actually be moving in the right direction.

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Will 2018 be the year I can finally eat healthy?

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Healthy eating has been in a state of transformation now for the last couple of years. It’s hard to date exactly when the sea change started but we’ve gradually been moving away from low fat, restrictions, and deprivations.

During the 1990s healthy really was synonymous with low fat, restrictions, and deprivations. That was decade when restaurants stopped using the word because they quickly determined that labeling a new menu item heart healthy or low fat was the kiss of death.

Home cooks and creative chefs have probably never paid all that much attention to nutrition guidelines and, just between you and me, I never cooked low fat at home even though I did my nutrition studies during the 1990s. But mainstream Americans embraced carbohydrates and sugar and cut out the fat.

I knew things were happening in the academic community when I started seeing studies like these here and here and here.

And if I were asked to provide pivotal dates, I would cite the publication of the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines because of the implicit acknowledgement that the sum may be greater than its individual parts.

Previous editions of the Dietary Guidelines focused primarily on individual dietary components such as food groups and nutrients. However, people do not eat food groups and nutrients in isolation but rather in combination, and the totality of the diet forms an overall eating pattern.

Or perhaps the FDA decision to exercise enforcement discretion as the agency reviews labeling criteria for manufacturers who want to label their products healthy.

But when I see a statement like the one below from a restaurant consulting group suggesting deprivation and restriction need no longer be a necessary component of healthy eating, I begin to think 2018 may actually be the year when the pieces fall into place. Healthy Dining is a San Diego based restaurant consulting group. Here’s that quote from the CEO from a recent blog:

There’s a new trend in healthy eating and restaurant dining, and it is leaving behind restriction and deprivation in favor of savoring great meals at restaurants that support a healthy lifestyle.

So you may be wondering what all this has to do with my lovingly prepared and very tasty chicken tagine pictured above?

Well let me explain. Even by current liberalized criteria, my tagine is not technically healthy.  Despite using quality ingredients and significant amount of vegetables to compliment the chicken thighs, my cooking uses more olive olive than is currently recommended.

Since the 1990s when those draconian criteria were cast in regulatory concrete, many of my zealous colleagues have dutifully taken classic recipes like the one I used for the tagine and made adjustments to the proportions to restrict fat, saturated fat, and sodium.

Relief is in sight however. To their credit, the FDA has acknowledged the need to revise that criteria. And I say congratulations. Maybe a little late, but better late than never …

What will the new criteria look like?

Hopefully a better way to asses the food and nutrition values of a dish like the one pictured above. We need a scoring system that awards points for making half the plate vegetables plus positives like fiber and protein. Then we need that same scoring system to balance those positives against sodium and saturated fats.

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Do we need a food based nutrition label?

 

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Since the first release of the Nutrition Facts Label, healthy has been a nutrient based construct. Recently, the FDA agreed to review and revise the regulatory criteria for healthy and the new regulatory requirements could be released as soon as this year.

When I posed a question to a group of dietitians asking them if healthy should be food based or nutrient based, to my surprise, my colleagues all favored food based. When I asked for examples however of a food based scoring system, no one volunteered.

So I decided to investigate and went out looking for scoring options. I found three. Then using one of my favorite recipes, I ran three sets of numbers. Here’s are the results using my home baked pumpkin pie pictured above.

NUTRIENTS

If you’ve ever tried to make sense out of a Nutrition Facts Label, you already know the label is not easy. Deconstruction is based on the belief that the best way to understand something is to break it into parts. This view of healthy assumes individual nutrients are what counts and the parts are more important than the whole. Deconstruction has dominated the healthy labeling conversation for the last 30 years.

Using a simplified format Facts Up Front , here’s what deconstruction looks like:

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The “get less” numbers for a modest piece of my pumpkin pie are 3.5 grams saturated fat, 65 milligrams sodium, 22 grams sugars.

What do those numbers and percentages mean? As one astute observer shared with me “I have zero idea what the … label on the boxes means and generally ignore them … “

Making a decision based on a string of unconnected numbers with no context or big picture is hard, even for someone like me who understands nutrition. At best the process is confusing. At worst no one pays attention.

FOOD GROUPS

Food groups have been part of the healthy eating conversation since the USDA released farmer’s bulletin No. 149 in 1916. More recently, the USDA developed a scoring system to determine how compliant or non-compliant Americans are when it comes to following government guidelines.

The Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores sample days, market baskets, or menu offerings at a fast food restaurant and, since it scores both food groups and nutrients, it’s a hybrid system. Unfortunately, the HEI is not helpful for my purposes.

Besides being kludgy and very complex, the system is not intended for scoring a single item like a pumpkin pie. And I’m still left making a decision based on grams of saturated fat and added sugars, along with 1/8 cup pumpkin and 1 ounce-equivalent whole wheat flour. No big picture. No synthesis. Still just a string of unrelated numbers.

HYBRID

I need a algorithm that gives me a single score based on both food groups and nutrients. Wishful thinking perhaps, but consider what just happened in France last year.

In October 2017, the French government officially sanctioned Nutri-Score, a hybrid system for front of package labeling. Originally developed out of the in the UK, Nutri-Score is now been adopted in France on a voluntary basis.

Nutri-Score is different from Facts Up Front and here’s how.

First, Nutri-Score is weight based using 100 grams instead of serving size. Second, food groups are included in the score. Third, positives are balanced against negatives to produce a single color coded grade. Now that’s what I call a simple, straightforward, and very cool scoring system.
76CA7999-F737-4E01-8AAF-7D25AC17882FSo I said to myself, maybe I can make a little algorithm modeled after the Nutri-Score. I gave it my best shot. And I succeeded. My home crafted quite delicious pumpkin pie did okay.

Using this algorithm, my pumpkin pie scored a “C plus” or “B minus” depending on ingredient amounts entered. Translating that grade into a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a food score of 6 or 7.

And I’m thrilled. I’ve put together a scoring system that works on a recipe basis. Here’s how it works. Identify negatives, nutrients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Then identify positives, food groups like vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts plus nutrients like protein and fiber. Then balance negatives against positives to get a single food score.

METRICS

My ingredients are always carefully sourced and minimally processed. For the crust, I use whole wheat pastry flour and a grassfed whole milk yogurt / olive oil combination in place of butter. As for the pumpkin purée, I use a canned product with no fillers or flavor enhancers. Food score for my pie was helped by having a healthier fatty acid balance, a moderate amount of added sugars, protein from eggs and milk, and more fiber from the whole grain.

Guaranteed, it tastes just a good as it looks and if you’d like me to send you a copy of my recipe, please message me via LinkedIn or Facebook.

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Looks like the French are up to mischief again …

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Something happened in France at the end of last year.

The French government officially endorsed Nutri-Score on October 31, 2017 and that beautifully designed 5 color graphic pictured above because the official voluntary front of the package scoring system in France.

Why voluntary? Because France as a member of the European common market is not allowed to mandate a food label. However, several large French food manufacturers have already agreed to start using Nutri Score and a couple of enterprising young French entrepreneurs have already launched an app that reads barcodes and scores products.

Americans are used to French influence. Think French restaurants. Or Bordeaux wine and Brie cheese. Or Jacques Pépin. And most Americans are familiar with French food. We suspect the French eat perhaps a little more butter and cheese than most of us think is healthy. And we may also suspect the French have a more casual approach to food that allows for enjoyment without guilt. But I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that consumer package labeling is not the usual place one looks to for French inspiration.

Besides, why look to France when we have our own version of a front of the package label.  Ever notice those little boxes with numbers and percentages on the front of packaged foods as you’re walking down a supermarket aisle? Sometimes there is just one box. Usually there are four boxes. Sometimes up to six boxes. Here’s what our Facts Up Front label looks like

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The first box always lists calories per serving. The next three boxes provide information on nutrients to limit in the diet: saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. Subsequent boxes if they appear are used for nutrients to encourage.

The two systems reflect two very different approaches to the same problem. One isn’t necessarily easier or better than the other. A shopper who wants to choose healthier packaged items can succeed with either system. But because the approaches are so different, I decided to compare the two, detail those differences, and share my discoveries with you.

  1. The French system is color coded. Facts Up Front is not. So let’s say right up front that the color range makes the label more intuitive. Dark green indicates a healthier choice. A lighter shade of green and oranges in the middle. At the end, a deep reddish orange to indicate not so healthy choices.
  2. The French system is weight based. Facts Up Front is portion sized based. Our American system works well for comparing two brand of potato chips or whether or a portion of potato chips with a portion of an energy bar. The French system is based on a consistent weight and helps consumers compare calorie density and percentage weight. For example potato chips usually are 500 or more calories per 100 grams whereas most granola bars are closer to 400 calories per 100 grams.
  3. The French system sums up multiple nutrient numbers and presents the consumer with a single color coded score. Our American system puts 4 or more discrete values on the front of the package and it’s up to us put a picture together.
  4. The French system scores food groups. Our American system scores only nutrients. The combined weight of fruits, vegetables, legumes, or nuts is summed as a percentage of the total weight. The higher the percentage, the more points a product earns. Our American system focuses exclusively on nutrients, more specifically the nutrients to limit or avoid. There is a place for nutrients to encourage like fiber or protein or potassium, no mechanism for scoring a food group.

So there you have my run down of the differences. The best labeling strategy of course is that strategy that works for you and most folks tend to like the strategy they are used to. So most Americans will feel more comfortable with out American portion sized system and most French people will feel more comfortable with the French weight based system.

As for me I’m intrigued with the concept of including food groups in the scoring algorithm. Especially if those foods are intact whole foods. Fascinating idea and one worthy of more thought …

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Calorie Counting and Thanksgiving

photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons
photo: Thanksgiving Turkey, Tim Sackton via flickr creative commons

Not sure how you feel about this one, but the folks I spend Thanksgiving with have absolutely no interest in counting the calories on their Thanksgiving plate. They want to gossip and tell jokes and watch football and relax and most of all enjoy the day. No politics. And no calories. Should yours truly even mention the word, I would be chastised, ostracized, shunned, and censored.

Now I love to talk about calories. I actually went back to school to study nutrition so I could learn how count calories on my Thanksgiving plate. I’ve subsequently learned the hard way however that talking about calories is not appreciated. Especially at Thanksgiving. But I do like to check for Thanksgiving calorie counts that circulate in the blogosphere around this time of the year.

Clearly aimed at the shock and awe effect, the highest count I’ve ever seen was 4500 calories. Having worked with clients diagnosed with eating disorders I know it’s physically impossible to fit that many calories into a normal sized stomach and to accomplish the goal requires purging. That many calories is possible over the course of a day. Professional swimmers or football players eat that much or more on a regular basis. But not at a single sitting.

The New York Times published a good read by Tara Parker Pope back in 2012 How Many Calories Do We Really Eat at Thanksgiving? She also questioned that shock and awe number and put together her own gluttonous Thanksgiving plate which she detailed in the link. Best she could do was about 2500 calories.

One of my favorite classics cookery books The Good Housekeeping All-American Cookbook was published in 1989. The book documents American cooking and American celebration meals. The date is crucial because calories were just beginning to appear in recipes but counting had not yet been politicized and calorie shaming was still in its infancy. The editors at GH just ran the numbers and shared results with us. Refreshingly honest and transparent. Adding up the calories for that gorgeous Thanksgiving spread, the number comes to just under 1900 calories.

EatingWell is one of my favorite food magazines. It’s written for readers who are as interested in good taste and they are in good health. The magazine ran a cover story in 2012 “A Simple Celebration” which qualifies as the most austere Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever seen in print – 1074 calories.

Calories aren’t so prominent for Thanksgiving 2017. Here’s a smattering of what just came up in a google search. Count your blessing, not your calories … Burning off that 1600 calorie meal … Forget the calories and add on flavor … Couldn’t find a single shock and awe sensational number this year.

Putting calories into perspective is a healthy move. I like counting because calories are my metric of choice for portions sizing. But shaming and sensationalizing are not healthy and I’m happy to see both going away. Accurately counting calories is not easy. Accurately assessing how much folks actually eat is not easy. And of course figuring out how what folks eat relates to their health is wicked hard. So this year I’m thankful to see less shock and awe calorie counting. It’s about time.

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French Macarons and Added Sugars

 

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris. @gourmetmetrics

McDonalds Pastry Selection, Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
@gourmetmetrics

 A beautiful pastry selection. Wouldn’t you agree?  We took the picture during a recent trip to Paris. And yes the pastry selection really was in McDonalds. And yes that McDonalds really is on the Champs-Élysées just about a block down from the Arc de Triomphe.

Now check out those 6 plates in the center. Those are plates of French Macarons. See the two plates in different hues of green. Then a plate of vibrant pink. And two more plates of chocolate-browns and one of cream. All beautifully sculpted and artfully arranged. All perfect. And all tasting deliciously sweet.

If you were standing in front of that gorgeous display, how many would you eat? Just between you and me, I don’t have a well developed sweet tooth so a good French macaron is almost too sweet for me. One or two is all I can eat at a time.

Now if you have a well developed sweet tooth and are feeling an irresistible urge to indulge, here’s the good news. You don’t have to go to Paris to savor the delicacy. There are stores in New York and other metropolitan cities dedicated to Macarons. Specialty manufacturers have picked up on the trend and providing packaged Macarons in stores and via the internet. Websites like Food Network or Epicurious also feature recipes for making Macarons at home.

The cookie is sweet, light, airy, and dainty. Made with sugar, almond meal (no flour and therefore no wheat), egg whites, cream, butter, and flavorings, the list of ingredients is straightforward and simple.

Had I been at a McDonald’s here in New York, calories for these Macarons would be easy to access. Several cities including New York City require it and McDonald’s has decided to be proactive posting nutrient information in restaurants and online. But Paris has no such municipal regulations so no calories and no other nutrient data.

Based on comparing data from boutique providers and recipe nutrient tags, here’s my guesstimate for my two French Macarons. Weights can vary of course but depending on selection one can expect 5 to 6 Macarons per 100 grams. So for calories let’s say 70 to 80 per each or 140 to 160 calories for two.

As for sugars, it’s safe to assume the carbohydrate is all added sugar. The other ingredients (almond meal, egg whites, cream, butter) are not carbohydrate sources except for just a whisper of lactose from the heavy cream. Good news for celiacs and those with a wheat allergy because Macarons are both gluten free and contain no wheat. Bad news for folks with a nut or milk allergy.

But who really cares? I do. But I’m a self confessed nutrition nerd. So who else cares?

A group of committed health professional food activists care. They believe their duty is to help others eat better and healthier. They care a lot. Then there’s a group made up of food manufacturers and restaurants. This group cares too but for completely different reasons.

Now you may be asking what does all this have to do with French Macarons?

Like so many other packages on the shelf, there’s added sugars in French Macaron. Quite a lot of added sugars actually. Sugar by weight is over 40% of the macaron’s total weight. Or calories from added sugars are over 40% of the total calories. However you measure it, that’s a lot of sweet.

The government has already spent significant resources constructing the new regulations. Manufacturers are now being asked to spend significant dollars to research and update their labels. Soon it will be our turn. Were consumers willing to invest the time to read and understand labels, the investment would be easy to justify. Especially if the information transmitted resulted in a decrease in obesity rates.

But here’s the catch. Will listing added sugar grams on the label discourage folks from eating too many French macarons? That’s the crucial question. Personality, I don’t think so.

Do you think the folks who just love these sweet delicate little treats will pay much attention and eat less?

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OMG Did my Roast Chicken Just Get Healthier?

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Here’s a picture of my beautifully roasted chicken right out of the oven.

Now feast your eyes on that lovely crispy skin. Like my granddaddy always said “Skin’s the best part.” And my granddaddy was always right.

Not everyone agrees however. Many health professionals along with some of my zealous colleagues still advise us to discard the skin. Current USDA MyPlate handouts and the 2015 Dietary Guidelines continue to recommend “lean” proteins. And lean always means skinless chicken breast when referring to poultry.

Now I’m not sure how you’ve done it, but for me I’ve always served my roast chicken with skin intact. My foodie friends and the chefs I know also honor the whole bird. Besides being absolutely delicious, the skin protects the chicken as it roasts keeping the meat moist and flavorful.

Officially we’ve been a fat phobia nation for a while now. Back in 1980 when the first dietary guidelines were published, Guideline #3 said it all: avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

But another 10 years passed before the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) authorized the FDA to regulate labels for packaged foods and we actually start having food rules. Now I’m the first to agree that a few good rules isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but some of these rules like criteria required for labeling a food healthy were draconian.

Industry insiders used to joke that the surest way to guarantee a food offering failed was to label it healthy and health messaging started to develop a reputation as the kiss of death. Using low fat as the most significant market for a healthy food meant avocados were not healthy. Neither were nuts. And even a simple green salad vinaigrette dressing could not be labeled healthy.

Like all research, nutrition science continued to forge ahead and a better understanding of fats began to emerge. The low fat kiss of death criteria however remained cast in regulatory concrete.

Then in September 2016, the FDA announced its intention to review the rules for healthy. The process is going to take years, but in the meantime, we have this interim statement:

Foods that use the term “healthy” on their labels that are not low in total fat should have a fat profile makeup of predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats (i.e., sum of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are greater than the total saturated fat content of food).

Since most folks don’t even know that these rules exist, it’s worth asking what difference does it makes. Most of my foodies friends for example are not paying much attention and could care less what the FDA decides to do.

Being an RDN however I really do care and here’s why.

Dietary rules and guidelines impact public policy. They are written into federally mandated programs like school nutrition. They regulate nutrition labels on packaged food. And effective next year, the rules will be extended to restaurant menu labels.

But getting back to my roast chicken, the FDA interim statement has a significant impact on whether or not it’s healthy to eat the skin.

The fats in my roasted chicken are primarily in the skin with the rest marbled into the leg muscle. That’s why the skinless breast was lauded in the first place. Dry and tasteless but no fat.

Now let’s take a closer look at the fat profile for a roasted chicken. Total fat is composed of saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated added together equal total unsaturated fats. When we compare the two values, we can determine which type of fat predominates. Are there more saturated fats? Or more unsaturated fats?

Some folks find it easier to think in terms of a ratio. My roasted chicken has a good ratio. For every gram of saturated fats, we have over 2 grams of unsaturated fats. Clearly the unsaturated fats predominate. And that ratio looks pretty good to my eye.

The FDA doesn’t directly regulate recipe tags, but folks like me who develop recipe tags need to keep a watchful eye on the rules. Personally I have mixed feelings. On one hand, I would prefer that the FDA did less micro-managing. On the other hand food manufacturers need to be held accountable and a few good rules helps keep them honest.

But I’m thrilled the FDA has decided to review and revising the rules. It will probably take a couple of years before they decide what those revisions will be, but in the meantime it looks like my roasted chicken most certainly did get a little healthier.

BUY GOOD STUFF.    The breed of the chicken determines the flavor. My preference is a chicken that grows slowly. Heritage breeds are grown here in the states but most are descended from a French breed called cou nu or naked neck. This “slow grow” bird takes almost twice the time to reach market weight. The birds are not cheap because they require more feed, fuel, water, and land per pound of meat to sustain their growth. But for folks like me who appreciate a really flavorful bird, the extra dollars are well spent.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS.  Nutrition Facts per 5.5 ounce serving roast chicken: 350 calories, 21 grams fat, 0g carbohydrates, 38 grams protein. That serving size reflects 1/8 of a whole chicken that weighed  about 4 pounds as purchased raw.

Fat breakdown for those 21 grams total fat is 6 grams saturated and 13 grams unsaturated (5 grams poly and 8 grams mono). In other words, unsaturated fats predominate in a ratio of 2.2 to 1.

 

 

 

 

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Do You Like Your Salads Well Dressed?

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Summer is the season for salads.

The northeast is hot and humid during July and August and the last thing anyone feels like doing is spending hours in a hot kitchen. We want cool and refreshing. And we want it now.

Local farmers markets provide a variety of fresh greens. After that, it depends on what is available, seasonal, and handy.

But whatever you decide to throw in, please don’t be stingy with the salad dressing. Salads don’t make it to my table unless they’re well dressed.

Pictured above is a salad I put together recently. Red leaf Boston lettuce, small tender inner leaves of an escarole, some avocado, a couple of hydroponic tomato, a scallion, one whole chopped cucumber, a hard cooked egg, some nice canned tonnino, some chickpeas, and one of my favorite Italian imports, Roman artichokes that still have their stems intact.

For the vinaigrette, I make my own with California cold pressed Arbequina olive oil, imported sherry or wine vinegar (7 – 8% acidity), and salt. And I used a very generous tablespoon of my artisan vinaigrette for each 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) salad.

Wait a minute! You’re a dietitian aren’t you?  Isn’t your job to remind us not to use too much oil and to cut back on salt?

My more zealous colleagues do just that. Especially those who work in weight loss or food addiction. Other colleagues separate healthy fats from unhealthy fats but will still recommend restraint. But not me. So I’m the first to admit that what I’m about to say is controversial.

Because flavor reigns supreme at my table, I use LOTS of vinaigrette because my well dressed salads tastes better than a salad topped a skimpy amount of dressing or worse some of that fat free stuff.

Putting an irresistibly delicious salad on the table makes it easy for folks to eat more vegetables. And getting folks to eat more vegetables is what we want right?

Found a wonderful quote in my facsimile edition of The Original Picayune Creole Cookbook originally published in 1901. The book says it is an old Spanish proverb. Who knows? Whatever the source it’s makes good culinary sense.

To make a perfect salad there should be a miser for vinegar, a spendthrift for oil, a wise man for salt and a madcap to stir all these ingredients, and mix them well together.

So please unless you’re committed to a low fat diet or limited fats to promote weight loss, don’t worry about olive oil. The fats in olive oil are mostly unsaturated and have a favorable fatty acid ratio.

Salad greens and vegetables are rich in potassium, fibers, and phytonutrients. Plus carotenoids are better absorbed in the presence of fat. Add some protein to your well dressed salad as I did with a locator mix of tuna, egg, and chickpeas. Serve with crusty whole grain bread and voilá a complete meal.

We normally eat about 2 1/2 cups or so for a meal or roughly 500 calories per plate not counting bread.

COUNT WHAT MATTERS

Heres how the conventional nutrition facts label looks for 1 cup of my well dressed salad:  16g total fat, 250mg sodium, 300 mg potassium, 6g total carbohydrate, 2g fibers, 0g added sugars, 10g protein.

We used to obsess about calories from fat and I’m so relieved the FDA has finally agreed to update the label. This well dressed salad clocks in at 68% calories from fat with a fat profile that reflects predominantly unsaturated fatty acids. Many of my zealous colleagues still obsess about sodium and, don’t get me wrong, for some sodium restriction is critically important. For most of us however it’s probably more important to take a look at how we’re using salt.

 

 

Healthy versus Healthy.

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Most of us agree now that healthy eating is important. This is new. Just a few years ago, labeling something healthy was the kiss of death. But times have changed.

Is it a seismic shift? Time will tell on that one, but observers agree that it’s big and important and requires attention.

The good news is we all want to eat healthy. The bad news is we can’t agree on what exactly healthy is.

Take supermarkets. The average supermarket has 45,000 individual items. At least that was what the Food Marketing Institute estimated when they did the count for 2013. And every one of those products has a label and many have additional certifications.

Or farmer’s markets. Plenty of good stuff to buy at least in the summer. But the produce is dirty and untrimmed and needs to be stored correctly and cooked. Not easy tasks without a good kitchen set up and lots of time to shop.

Or restaurants. Cooking not required. But you still have to make choices and decide what to order.

Now imagine how much harder all this is if you never took a home economics course or learned cooking skills? Or if you had never seen a farm or had a home garden? Or if you never met anyone who stocked a root cellar or made cheese or baked bread? We have a situation where one to two generations comes to the marketplace without these basic skills.

What to eat is a tough decision. And sometimes all you have to go on is an image or a label.

People may know the words they want but they need help translating the words to the table. Now this is good for those of us in the translation business. We can plate healthy to fit what the person says they want. And that’s good for business.

But labels are like metaphors. They stand for something in the real world. Think about it this way. In Ireland, grass-fed isn’t used as a marketing label. It’s simply the way it’s done. At least for now.

Accessible, normal things don’t need labels. But today’s consumers don’t bring basic cooking and food skills to the table and so they depend on labels.  Healthy is defined by so many different labels today that I could not find room to fit them all in the infograph. Like I say, it’s good for those of us in the translation business.

Confusion continues and labels sell products and marketing works.

And the bright shiny silver lining to the dark cloud of confusion is most people may actually really be eating healthier today. The competition between contenders for the best healthy diet is fierce, but as long as it uses real food and more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, at least the essentials will be in place.

Can we eat healthy and high fat?

summer flounder | gourmet metrics
summer flounder | gourmet metrics

 

Wednesday is fish night and summer flounder is what I served for supper a couple weeks ago. The piece I picked out weighing about 2/3 pound (300 grams) so at $15 a pound, I paid about $10.

At my table small is beautiful, so a little bit of protein goes a long way. Just the two of us that night and we split the flounder. That piece pictured above was my half. Cooked and ready to serve let’s say about 4 ounces (120 grams) which by American standards is on the skimpy side. But taste wise and protein wise (15 grams) it’s enough for me.

Some of my more zealous colleagues look at flounder as a low calorie / low fat option because the fish is so lean. Not me. Now I love flounder or fluke as some call it because the flesh is so delicate and the taste so subtle, but even this eater has to admit that all by itself flounder tends to be on the bland side.

My way to cook flounder is to pan-fry in olive oil, season with salt, kiss with pepper, finish with whisper of unsalted butter, and serve with a twist of lemon. Delicious but not low fat.

For the rest of the plate, steamed local spinach and farro. Local fresh spinach has plenty of flavor and to my taste at least needs nothing else, not even salt. I added some farro for whole grain carbohydrate but I took the picture before putting it on the plate. We finished off with a salad of finely diced kohlrabi, red Boston lettuce, Napa cabbage, and a couple of hydro-tomatoes dressed with my vinaigrette. And local blueberries for dessert.

The calorie count ran around 650 per person. Not a big meal by American standards but more than enough for us. It was a work night and we prefer not to have a heavy meal before going to bed.

Sounds pretty healthy doesn’t it? Let’s take a look.

Protein. A modest portion. Bonus points for seafood.

Vegetables. 6 different kinds of vegetables, total of 2 cups. Bonus points for dark green.

Fruit. Blueberries, rich in Anthocyanins, 1/2 cup. Bonus points for whole fruit.

Whole Grain. Farro is a wheat (not gluten free) and one of my favorite ancient grains. Bonus points for whole grain.

Fatty Acid Ratio: excellent which means more olive oil and less butter.

Sodium. 780 mg for the meal and 33% DV.

And for added value the meal qualifies as sustainable and affordable. In New York, flounder is local and not currently overfished. And despite the high price per pound, a modest serving size makes the cost manageable.

But there is always that question from the back of the room. How about fat? No problem. I’m a nutrition nerd and I always have the numbers. The percentage is above the recommended cut off which puts my meal into the high fat range. Not a meal for someone who needs to adhere to a low fat regime or who believes only low fat meals are healthy.

And because regulatory compliance is cast in concrete leaving little flexibility for humans to exercise judgment, labeling my meal healthy would be illegal.

It’s what I call healthy versus healthy.

And that’s why, when it comes to my own table, I exercise culinary judgment.

“Judgment is to law as water is to crops. It should not be surprising that law has become brittle, and society along with it.” The Death of Common Sense, Philip K. Howard, 1994