Saturday, October 15, 2011

McDonald’s vs. the Pantheon (Spoiler Alert: The Pantheon won)

About a month ago I was vacationing in Italy – or more accurately, eating my way across Tuscany. Tuscany is known for amazing food – fresh tomatoes and pasta, cured meats, and cheeses that will leave you wanting once you’ve returned home. The typical dish is simply prepared with great care and fresh, local ingredients. It’s hard to find bad food there. But you can find American fast food.

 European taste buds are slowly becoming somewhat more westernized. Seeing the Golden Arches in Europe is no longer as unusual as it once was. Even Rome, with its ancient historical ruins, is home to several McDonald’s. In fact, when you arrive by train in the Rome termini, a McDonald’s is right there to serve you. The first time I visited Rome several years ago, I went to visit the Pantheon – the ancient temple in the heart of the historic center of Rome.  And across the piazza from the Pantheon there stood a McDonald’s. 

 The juxtaposition of the ancient temple to the gods and the modern temple to processed pressed meat was disturbing. My reaction had nothing to do with nutrition or health and everything to do with the culture of food. After all, the slow food movement, which promotes local, traditional cuisine eaten in a relaxed atmosphere with family and friends, was born in Italy.  It is the antithesis of American food culture. So imagine my glee upon returning to the Pantheon this trip to find no trace of the McDonald’s across the piazza. 

 Was the demise of the McD’s the result of Roman rejection of a food culture that threatens the Italian way of life? A triumph of slow food over fast food? I doubt the Pantheon McD’s was not profitable – too many tourists flock to the area. So what happened? I searched the web looking for the precise reason and found nothing.  So I am left only with the satisfaction that this one time, fast food failed. I doubt that this story will end with the fall of the McDonald’s empire in Europe. Or even signal a slowing of the spread of that empire. But one can hope.

 *Disclaimer: I have to come clean here. On this very same trip, I did eat at the McDonald’s in the Florence train station on my way back to Lucca after a day trip to Venice. It was late. I was hungry. We needed to catch the train. Don’t judge me.

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Healthy Eating for the Body and the Budget

This is probably not big news to most of you:  eating healthy foods can be expensive. And last week, yet another study confirmed this. But the researchers looked at healthy eating in a more creative way than I’ve seen in other studies. They surveyed almost 1300 people using “food frequency” questionnaires. They then compared the foods people were eating to the 2010 Nutrition Guidelines and also estimated the cost of their foods. Turns out, the people who were meeting the nutrition guidelines for getting key nutrients like potassium, fiber, calcium spent more money on their foods than those who were not meeting those guidelines.

For those you of you who are science and policy geeks, you can see the study here:

The researchers also found that potassium was one of the most expensive nutrients to get at recommended levels. High potassium foods are getting a lot of press these days as evidence continues to mount showing diets high in potassium can lower blood pressure and the risk of heart disease, stroke and death in general.

And here’s another fascinating finding from this study – the higher your diet is in saturated fat and added sugars, the lower your food costs!

So what does all this mean? While this study shows that healthy eating is more expensive, other studies show that it depends on your choices and ability to spend more time cooking and preparing your foods. Convenient healthy eating may be where costs jump.

But the most important conclusion the study’s authors reached, in my opinion, is that when we as health professionals and healthy policy makers set forth diet guidelines and advice, we must start taking budgets and practical issues into account. Too often, we just say “eat more fruits and vegetables to get more potassium”. But we need to help people make economic, healthy choices. For instance, one of my favorite foods is the avocado. It’s very high in potassium and also pricey. But potatoes and bananas – two great sources of potassium as well – are much easier on the budget. We need to make the healthy choice the easier and economic choice.

I welcome your comments and suggestions on eating choices that are both healthy for the body and the budget.

Beth Kitchin MS RD
Assistant Professor of Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tell Us Something We Didn’t Know

Don’t get me wrong. The new Consumer Labs Report is great, but it’s nothing we didn’t know: cheap, store-brand multivitamins are just as good, and maybe better, than multis that are more expensive. released the report on Wednesday of this week. The Consumer Lab scientists looked at three things:

1. Did the multivitamins contain the amount of certain key nutrients that the label says it does?
2. Did the multivitamin dissolve in a solution that is similar to the stomach environment?
3. Was the multivitamin contaminated with lead?

The good news is that none of the supplements had levels of lead that were over the Consumer Lab’s strict limit. The bad news is that 13 of the 38 multivitamins did not get approval from Consumer Labs. For instance, Centrum Chewables failed the test because it had 173% of its claimed vitamin A amount. All One Active Seniors only had 2% of the beta-carotene that the label claimed. Only one multi – Alpha Betic – failed the dissolving test.

Many of the approved multivitamins were cheap. Walgreens One Daily for Women cost only $0.06 a day – that’s $1.80 for a month’s supply! Compare that to the ridiculously over-priced GNC Women’s Mega 50 Plus at $0.53 a day 9 (almost $16 a month) and the choice is a no-brainer. Other inexpensive high scorers included Rite Aid Prenatal Tablets, One A Day Men’s Health Formula, Equate Mature Multivitamin 50+, and Member’s Mark Mature Multi.

The take home message? If you take a multi, don’t spend more than a few bucks a month. Store brands that you can get at CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, or your favorite grocery store are just as good as their high-priced health food store cousins.

Beth Kitchin MS RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Battle of the Diets: And the Winner Is . . .

Consumer Reports (CR) has not rated the diets in 4 years. But their new report is out and has some surprises. Let’s start with a look at how CR rated the diets and then unveil the winners and the losers.
CR did a thorough job of looking at research studies to come up with their tops picks. Here are the major criteria:
  • Consumer Reports Diet Rating Criteria:
  • Overall Nutrition
  • Balance of Calories from Fat, Carbs, and Protein
  • Fiber and Sodium
  • Weight Loss
  • Dropout
As is typical with CR, they were very thorough and methodical in their evaluation. I was very impressed the long-term weight loss was a point that they looked at. Too many times people say a diet “worked” because they lost weight on it. But I’ve always said, if you couldn’t keep the weight off, then the diet really didn’t “work”.  

CR then gave each of the diets an overall score based on these criteria and nutrition guidelines. Here are the top diets and their overall scores:
    1. Jenny Craig = 85
    2. Slim Fast = 63
    3. Weight Watchers = 57
    4. The Zone = 54
    5. Ornish  = 48 (tie)
    5. Atkins = 48 (tie)

Some points:
  • Jenny Craig got major points for good overall nutrition, excellent very low dropout rates, and good overall long term weight loss. 92% of the participants stuck with the plan and had an average weight loss of 8% of their starting body weight after two years. 
  •  Weight Watchers has a major study getting ready to come out so they may have scored higher if that data was out.
  • Slim fast got a good score for overall nutrition and weight loss but had a very poor dropout rate.
  • The Zone lost out on long term weight loss.
  •  Interestingly, Ornish and Atkins scored the lowest. These two diets are polar opposites – Ornish is too low in fat and Atkins is too high which is why they both lost points! 
Does this mean you should run to Jenny Craig to lose weight? Not so fast. The best diet is the one that is nutritionally sound AND that you can stick with
I would love to hear anyone’s comments on these diets – if you’ve tried them, what your experiences were.
Beth Kitchin MS RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Worst Diet Tip #1: Don’t Eat Bananas, Carrots, Grapes

On this week’s Good Day Alabama nutrition segment, I talked about some of the worst diet tips I’ve heard. My number one pick was “don’t eat bananas”. Years ago, I overheard a conversation as I was trying on clothes in the dressing room of my favorite vintage/consignment shop (Zoe’s in Forest Park in Birmingham, Alabama). A well meaning but ill-informed patron was advising someone who wanted to lose some weight to give up bananas. She went on to explain that bananas were high in sugar and would make you fat. Somehow, I resisted the temptation to run out of the dressing room screaming “don’t listen to her, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about”. But why would she make such a ridiculous recommendation? Is there any truth there?

It is true that the calories in fruit come from sugar. That sugar is fructose. But that doesn’t mean that fruit is bad for you or will make you gain weight. There is solid research that foods that are low in calories that weigh a lot (meaning high water content and fiber) are filling and can lower the number of calories you eat. Whole fruits and vegetables – including bananas, carrots, and grapes – fall into this category. This is the basis for the very successful weight loss of the Volumetrics diet and our own UAB Eat Right program. The research shows that we eat the same weight of food every day. So if you want to lose weight, eat food that weighs a lot and is low in calories. You’ll fill up fast, get fewer calories, and over time, probably lose some weight!

Bottom line: bananas are nutritious, low calorie, travel well, and make a great food for people trying to lose weight.

The other bottom line? When it comes to weight loss, everyone thinks they are an expert. But beware of well-meaning experts – you could end up with bad advice.

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD

Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Not-so-bad “Bad” Food

The other day at lunch, I faced a familiar chip dilemma: sun or potato? Sun Chips have the advantage of a healthier image- they’re whole grainy with a wholesome, outdoorsy name. The amount of fiber in a bag of Sun chips is an impressive 4 grams and the label brags that they have 30% less fat than a bag of potato chips.

But sometimes you just want the potato chips. And if you need to rationalize your choice (other than they taste good) here’s your excuse: potato chips are a good source of potassium. Yes, it’s true. The bag of chips I ate had 520 mg of potassium – that’s more than a banana. Getting a lot of potassium – at least 3500 mg a day – can help lower your blood pressure. And while the chips had twice the calories than the banana, they tasted better than a banana with my sandwich. They were also a good source of vitamin C to boot.

So, the next time you choose the potato chips and feel a bit guilty – just think of all that potassium you’re getting. You can find out more about potatoes and potassium and about the power of potassium on the UAB Nutrition Trends Website:!

Beth Kitchin, MS, RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Monday, January 10, 2011

Can't Finish It? Freeze It!

A typical conversation between my mother and me revolves around what foods we have recently successfully frozen. We don’t like to waste food in our family so we’ll try to freeze just about anything for fresh keeping and later use. While most people know you can freeze sauces, soups, casseroles and vegetables, people always seem surprised when I tell them I have successfully frozen most of the following foods. With the exception of the frozen bananas after a power outage, I have had success with freezing:
  •  Milk: Going out of town once for a week with half a container of milk left in the fridge, I just put the entire carton in the freezer. When I got home late in the evening a week later, I put it in the fridge for safe, bacteria free thawing and the next morning, there was milk for my cereal – albeit with a few ice crystals. When you freeze milk, you have the number of days left on it as on the day you froze it.
  • Cheese: One of my favorite brands of mozzarella cheese (it actually tastes close to the stuff my Italian Grammy used to get us) comes pre-sliced in 10 fairly thick slices. The problem is, I can’t eat it all in just a few days. It’s a high moisture cheese so it goes bad more quickly than hard cheese and gets that slimy texture and nasty ammonia smell. So, I take the slices I know I won’t eat, separate them with wax paper, put them in a Tupperware-esque container, and stick it in the freezer. It lasts for months and I can take out as many slices as I want when I’m ready. Shredded cheese right in the bag freezes very well too and lasts months.
  • Bread: I love fresh bread from local bakeries. Locally baked breads lack preservatives so they get moldy more quickly. So I freeze the whole loaf and just pry off the slices I need.
  • Cranberries: If you like cranberries at any time of the year besides Thanksgiving, then buy a bunch of bags of fresh cranberries and toss them right in the freezer. That’s right – you don’t have to do a thing. I’ve used them up to 6 months later to make cranberry bread and cranberry compote.
  • Bananas: Until you learn the art of only buying the number of bananas you need, freeze them as is – right in their skins - when they get too dark and squishy. You can take them out later, let them thaw, and mash them up for banana bread. A word of caution here. I did this once and then the power went out and I forgot all about them. The stinky banana goo that leaked into the freezer was not pretty so you may want to wrap them up in plastic wrap or put them in a Tupperware before freezing!
  • Herbs: I have frozen sturdy fresh herbs like rosemary in plastic baggies.
  • Bacon: I’ve recently taken to buying local bacon at my neighborhood market by the quarter or half pound so I can keep in the fridge for quite some time. But if you buy larger packages, just wrap the unused, uncooked bacon up in foil and freeze it. If you’ve got lots of it, separate it with wax paper into smaller portions first, then wrap it in aluminum foil and freeze.
  • Pesto: I confess I’ve never frozen pesto myself. I always seem to be able to eat what I’ve bought relatively quickly. But for people who successfully grow tons of basil in the summer (I successfully kill mine yearly), and like to use up all that basil by making pesto, freezing it in ice cube trays is a brilliant solution. Just cook up a pot of pasta, take out a frozen pesto cube and toss it in, and voila! Dinner!
Freezing food is quick and easy and most frozen foods easily last 4 to 6 months in the freezer without any drop in quality. Let me know if you have successfully frozen some unusual foods or any tricks you use to make it more convenient!

Beth Kitchin MS RD
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham