Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Better School Food and Better Food Safety - Heading in the Right Direction At Last

President Obama signed the School Nutrition Reauthorization Act, which will add six cents to the production costs of each school lunch. This may sound like chump change, but it actually buys an historically significant upgrade to child nutrition. Think about it. As one example, since whole grains sell for a higher price than refined grains, that extra six cents times the number of meals served at school may mean that kids will eat whole wheat bread (replete with B vitamins, iron and fiber) vs. white bread (of lesser nutritional value) more often. It means that school food service managers can afford to feed kids a bit better each and every day. And that's bound to make a difference over time. Thirty-one million American kids eat school meals every day, with school breakfast and lunch providing 2/3 of their daily nutrition.

The Reauthorization Act will also likely translate into tighter USDA regulations that limit total calories and grams of sodium per meal,but increase the number of fruit and vegetable servings at each meal. It will be up to the USDA to take public and expert input plus evidence-based recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and write a set of doable, but meaningful regulations that make bold changes to school lunch.

This, combined with the recent food safety legislation that is likely to be signed into law, are commendable steps towards helping ensure and/or repair the health of American children. Remember, these are the same kids that we predict as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and other overweight-related conditions in their lifetimes. It is better nutrition that will help them to avoid this fate.

From my vantage point as a registered dietitian (RD) and nutrition educator, it seems that our legislature is heading in the right direction when it comes to child wellness--at last.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Mediterranean Diet –for Real

    My perception of the Mediterranean Diet was probably similar to that of most Americans: eating plenty of rice, lentils, red wine, hummus, diverse vegetables and small portions of fish and meat. That was the picture in my head until I took my third trip to both France and Israel—two Mediterranean nations—over the past two weeks. This time around, I sat back, and observed not only the French and Israelis, but my own family and how they ate when offered food.

    I suppose that I always "got" the food part. Many of the foods listed above are staples for me. And I've always tried to serve lentils, plenty of greens, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes—even those grown in our family garden—to my kids and husband. But there's more to eating Mediterranean style than just tossing some lentils on a salad or having a glass of Merlot with dinner.

    The part that most Americans leave out--not because we reject it, but simply because it's not really part of American mainstream food culture--is the slow eating, a preference for seasonal food, and pure enjoyment of meals with family and friends. We also leave out the distinctly different portioning of the various food groups. Mediterranean plates are heaping with plant-based grains, fruits, and vegetables, and offer meat in proportions that seem like a "side dish" to most Americans.

    Sure, France and Israel, in many respects, are worlds apart culturally. But they share a number of foodways. First, food is taken seriously in these countries. It's not something you grab and snack on as you run down the street to your office. It's something to which you devote time to savor and to really taste. (When you actually taste your food, you'd be surprised at the flavors you can detect.)

Second, the meal is about more than sustenance. It's about celebration and enjoyment. In France, I sat down with my husband and two small kids to have a several course meal at a "nothing fancy" brasserie near our Montparnasse hotel. We enjoyed cantaloupe soup (delicious), stuffed mushrooms (also great), a simple salad, and then steak with pepper sauce and French fries. We had a half-bottle of red wine between us adults, and enjoyed every minute of it. We people-watched, held hands and caught up with each other and watched the passers-by. The kids enjoyed the food less, but did enjoy dining al fresco and the rare Coca-Cola that we allow them when on vacation. Not at all French, but somehow highly pleasing.

I am suspecting that the reason that this trip altered my thinking on Mediterranean food was that I had to get my kids to enjoy Mediterranean food as much as I and my husband do. And you know what? It wasn't easy. American kids are used to the very narrow category of fare that we've called "kids food." This category includes some of the foods highest in saturated fat, salt, cholesterol and sugar known to mankind. I have never allowed my kids to make these foods the bulk of their diets, but the security of seeing the foods on a menu in a country in which nothing seems familiar would be enough to make them dive into nuggets and fries all week long.

Fortunately, in this part of the world, there are no "kids'" foods—at least not at restaurants. There's only "food." And I like it that way. So I think that my kids were pretty hungry for several days, despite having plenty of food choices around them. If my kids would just try even a few of the various foods that are new and unfamiliar to them, they would get healthy doses of all the nutrients they need and they'd probably feel a lot better. They are opening up a bit after eight days in the Med region (out of pure hunger, I think), so there's still hope that they'll eat lamb, eggplant, and other delightful treats. They are also learning to slow down and enjoy time with their family while eating. After all, they've have no choice. They can't leave until we pay the bill!

It may be too much to hope for that my kids will go home asking for the foods they've experienced here. But I believe that this exposure—this opening of the mind and the observation of alternative foods on their plates—is a learning experience in itself. I am seeing that each time a plate appears before my kids (ages 7 and 3), their curiosity piques a bit more. At some point, they'll recognize these dishes as "normal," although it may not be until they are adolescents or adults. Without this real Mediterranean experience, these dishes may not have made the same impression. I am hoping that at least the 7-year-old will remember them.

There are nutritionists who would bemoan their kids' rejection of many of the healthy foods that these countries have to offer. I am actually thankful that my kids can experience them and taste them if they choose. Since I can't force-feed my kids, I simply encourage them to eat the foods and I explain why these foods are so terrific for the body. I hope that someday my kids will crave the same flavorful, fresh, healthful foods that they saw in France and Israel during their childhood. I have a feeling that it's a matter of palate maturity. My son is already digging pita and cheese. Well, it's a start!

So, parents, don't give up on trying to get your kids to keep plants top of mind while filling their plates—wherever in the world they may be. Keep eating your healthful foods, setting a great example, and presenting a variety of healthful foods—even if they are unfamiliar—to your kids. Exposure can be a key to future interest, tasting and then, if all goes well, regular consumption.







Thursday, July 15, 2010

House Committee Passes Child Nutrition Bill...Now Move It, Congress!

Today, the House Education & Labor Committee passed a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill that solidly backs better nutrition for America's school children.

According to a press release by Margo Wootan, Nutrition Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the bill, Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act, H.R. 5504, would eliminate junk food from schools, strengthen school food quality standards and provide funding for better nutrition education.

The children of this nation need all of these provisions desperately. Most school lunch quality standards have not changed since 1990, and the standards for vending machine snacks have not changed since the 1970s. We know that much of what kids are eating today is high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods. We need to put new choices in front of kids, but the choices need to be healthful.

Helping teachers, school lunch staffs, and school administrators learn how they can model optimal food choices and exercise behaviors would also help schools provide instant, affordable nutrition education. And the American Dietetic Association has programs to put nutrition experts (Registered Dietitians) in schools to help kids learn about how they can make healthful food choices for life.

Contact your federal House Representatives and Senators and voice support for (H.R.) 5504 and Senate Bill (S.) 3307, which commonly support bold child nutrition measures.

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Lot of Fat People

This is going to sound just plain mean, but it must be said. I saw a lot of fat people on a middle-Atlantic, East coast beach this weekend. And as a Registered Dietitian and nutrition educator, I am not happy about it.

In fact, after living in New York City and suburban New York for over 10 years now, the difference in body sizes between the relatively fit people I'm used to seeing and this particular group of people--when in bathing suits--is shocking.

I'm not talking about a little bit of pudge here or there, or a beer belly on some middle aged folks. I'm talking about downright clinical obesity and in some cases, what medical practitioners call "morbid obesity"--the kind that your doctor will tell you can kill you.

I'm not worried about aesthetics here. I'm worried about health care risks. I'm worried about people who will be staying in hospitals on our children's tax dollars because they will be too sick to work and will need extensive treatment for the large number of illnesses related to obesity--diabetes, kidney disease, some types of cancer, heart disease, and the list goes on.

Last year, the U.S. spent $147 billion on health care whose primary cause was excess weight, according to the CDC. This number is growing steadily each year.

As someone who is advocating for better school food and nutrition education in schools, I wonder: How can parents who are dangerously overweight possibly supply the crucial link between good nutrition at home and good nutrition at school? Are they even thinking about nutrition?

Are so many of us Americans so fat that, when we look around, we have no reason to give pause to our unhealthful BMIs because so many other people look exactly the same way?

I am certainly not attacking anyone. In fact, I do not lay the largest proportion of "blame" on these individuals at all. Powerful food marketing, a lack of places to walk in U.S. towns, bountiful, cheap and fattening food, and myriad other reasons have led to the obesity epidemic. These people are, in large part, its victims.

But if we ask our Congress, then our communities, then our teachers and then our kids to believe in good nutrition and maintaining healthful body weights, we have to show not only in words, but in our actions and our own waist sizes, that we truly believe this is ideal.

At present, our teachers feel defeated because they tell kids that junk food is lousy for their health, only to find the same kids showing up at school with a soda and chips for breakfast. Do the parents eat the same breakfast? When they buy these foods at the store or supply the money for their purchase, what goes through their minds?

This is food for thought. And it's non-caloric. Chew on it a bit.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

F is for Fat

According to a new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, this year obesity levels climbed in 28 states. Now over two-thirds of states have at least 25% overweight or obese citizens. The highest growth in overweight was among children 10-17. Perhaps most sadly, over 80% of Americans polled realize that obesity is a serious problem in the U.S., but few know what to do about it.

The Senate has addressed this issue and has agreed on a Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill. Now the House must act.

Congresswoman Marsha Fudge (D-OH) hosted a Congressional briefing on childhood obesity and emphasized the disproportionate number of minority children affected by this devastating problem.

And last week the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on H.R. 5504, "Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act." The panel of speakers represented diverse sectors: the military, health insurance, the food and restaurant industries, and agriculture.

Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Texas Blue Cross, Blue Shield compared the relatively low cost of allocating more funding to the school lunch programs to the high costs of health care that will may result if kids become obese.

Major General Paul D. Monroe (Ret.) highlighted that a full one-fourth of American youth are not fit enough to serve in the military. To any historian of the nation's child food assistance programs, this is the ultimate shock. One of the primary reasons that President Truman signed such programs into law was that many eligible military recruits were thin and undernourished -- not fat and overnourished, as they are today.

The House promised to begin marking up the bill after July 4th. However, the deadline for reauthorization is September 30. If there's no bill by then, America's kids will continue to live with an out-of-date set of dietary guidelines.

We've got to let Congress know what we want: healthy kids now.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cooper Nutrition - Eat Green and Eat Greens: Dietary Guidelines Need Public Comment

Cooper Nutrition - Eat Green and Eat Greens: Dietary Guidelines Need Public Comment: "The USDA/FDA have released the report on the proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For 30 years, the U.S. has issued the Guideline..."

Dietary Guidelines Need Public Comment

The USDA/FDA have released the report on the proposed 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For 30 years, the U.S. has issued the Guidelines and the accompanying Food Guide Pyramid every five years. Together, these tools are designed to help Americans know what and how much food makes up the optimal diet. As cynical as some of us can be about the shape they ultimately take, they are valuable because they do contain input from experts, they are opened to public comment, and they do pass through multiple agencies for approval before they are released.

Predictably, the Guidelines recommended that Americans drp their daily sodium intake from 2300 mg to 1500 mg. The Guidelines authors realize, however, that it will take years for the American palate and marketplace to adjust to this level. There were some nice surprises in the Guidelines draft as well, such as recognition of omega-3 fatty acids and a focus on the overall diet.

A bit disappointingly, the document contained little emphasis on getting food assistance programs, including school lunch programs, up to speed with current science. There was also little mention of nutrition education, which is necessary in order for the public to reduce the nation's obesity levels.

It's still amazing, however, that the food and nutrition regulations many food assistance programs, including for school lunch, have not changed significantly since 1990. We have so much more knowledge on nutrition now than ever before and we ought to be applying it to the diets of our kids.

In September, a vote on Child Nutrition Reauthorization will update school lunch and other food assistance programs. Thankfully, the Guidelines are out and can help guide recommendations. Even more importantly, the Institute of Medicine made evidence-based recommendations to the USDA for updated school nutrition earlier this year. With both of these updated guides available, hopefully the Child Nutrition bill will give kids the best of what we know about food and health.

Since kids are our future, everyone benefits when they are healhy. The Dietary Guidelines draft is open for public comment right now and you can post a comment easily by going to www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Once on the page, go to the bottom and click on the "leave a comment button."

Having worked in Washington and witnessed first-hand that it's only the squeaky wheels that get the grease, I can't emphasize the importance of taking a minute to post a comment in support of new, up-to-date child nutrition regulations. It will at least tell the USDA that someone is watching!