Thursday, July 21, 2011

Nutrition for the frugal 3

And finally to carbohydrates. This is a confusing one, and usually gets broken up into 2 to 3 groups---grains and legumes, vegetables, and fruits. Carbohydrates are basically sugars, but they're sugars our body needs to work right.

Grains and legumes (and potatoes) are the starchy ones. They supply calories and slower burning energy, and many of them supply at least some protein and fat, helping support those parts of your diet. That's one of the reasons that they're often treated separately from fruits and vegetables. They generally are not nearly as high in most vitamins as the fruits and vegetables, but you do get a lot of B vitamins and fiber from most of these.

Fruits supply a lot of energy in the form of simpler sugars, and tend to be very high in some vitamins, plus the fiber. The same for vegetables, though they're mostly high in a different group of vitamins and may or may not have much fiber. Eating these alone will tend to give you a lot of energy...briefly. Then you'll usually be ready for a nap.

No matter how badly you want to lose weight, don't eat just the fruits and vegetables. That's like piling up a handful of twigs, dousing them with kerosene, and wondering why they flare up and burn to ash in just a few minutes. Include some legumes and grains and at least a little fat---some avocado or a boiled egg or some low-fat milk or yogurt.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Nutrition for the frugal 2

Which leads me to fat. It has such a bad reputation these days, why should we eat any? Well, first, fat acts a kind of slow burning fuel for the body, so a little helps give you more energy. Second, many nutrients can't be used properly in the absence of fat, and it's not clear whether stored fat works nearly as well (or at all) for that purpose. In other words, if you don't have a little fat with your meal, you might as well not have eaten the calcium and vitamins A, D, and E, as well as other fat-soluble nutrients.

If you're worried about heart disease, replace animal fats with vegetable fats. If you're worried about calories, just make sure you include at least a little with every meal. Keep in mind that removing all fat from the diet can actually cause you to gain weight (an odd but true fact). Vitamin E not only needs fat to be digested, it's almost impossible to get it at all from non-fat sources. Keep in mind that most breads include a little fat, and there are unusual sources like avocados.

I would suggest avoiding hydrogenated fats such as those in shelf-stable peanut butter and in margarine. I think in recent years these have been connected to several health problems themselves. I use the kind of peanut butter that's just ground peanuts and has to be refrigerated after opening. More expensive, but no hydrogenated fats, and the taste is SO much better.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Nutrition for the frugal 1

I started yesterday with an explanation of complete vs. incomplete protein, and together with a discussion I had with my oldest about nutrition and poverty in the US, reminded me that people in the US actually know very little about nutrition. When I was a kid, they used the 4 food groups and/or a pie chart; more recently they've used a food pyramid, and generally the schools seem to think that's enough information. I remember even as a kid being a bit offended when my teacher told me that a glass of milk could either count as a dairy or a protein food for the day, but not both. That implied that if the body used the calcium in milk, it couldn't use the protein and vice versa, which is absurd.

Let me start by reminding you that I'm not a trained nutritionist, just a self-educated one. A better simplified explanation is that foods provide three main things: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. They tend to be classified by what they provide the most of. Lean meat is mostly a protein, but it usually has some fat. The same with dairy. Whole wheat bread supplies a lot of carbohydrates, but it does have some protein and fat. Some fruits and vegetables supply almost entirely carbohydrates, but most of them are very high in vitamins and minerals that you don't get from the high-protein or high-fat foods.

The estimates of how much protein you need in a day varies, but despite what writers say, it's the food people are mostly likely to skimp on, particularly women. I like to aim for 60 grams in a day, which isn't as hard as you might think, but I focus particularly on protein at breakfast. My favorite nutrition writer (one who wasn't afraid to REALLY explain nutrition in detail) suggested that studies supported 22 grams of protein at breakfast as an ideal, along with a small amount of carbohydrate and fat, preferably including some fruit.

Why? This level of protein, when supported by the other foods, after "fasting" all night, raises your blood sugar to a good level (lots of energy) and keeps it high through lunch. Less protein, especially if replaced with sweetened foods, tends to give you a high level for a short time, then drops below what it was before you ate, making you very tired. If that happens, even a high protein lunch won't get that energy level back. But if you had that good breakfast, then a light lunch with at least a little of each, you should keep that energy level all day. A high fat breakfast, on the other hand, will raise your energy some and sustain it, but not nearly as much as the high protein breakfast.

Think of the carbohydrates like twigs for a fire. Fat turns the twigs into longer-burning logs, and protein is like a draft control, supplying just enough air to burn well without so much that it burns out too fast. Not a very good analogy, but you get the idea...

Protein for the frugal

Ami asked for an explanation of complete proteins, so here's the "quickie" answer; keep in mind this really over-simplifies it (which sounds funny since my post runs on so long), but it's enough information for practical use.

To "build" protein, there are a number of amino acids necessary (called the essential amino acids by some writers). Some your body can produce from other nutrients, some it can't, but if it doesn't have all of them, it can't produce the protein that your body needs. And it has to get all of the ones it can't produce at about the same time, within about an hour I believe.

Meat, eggs, milk, soy and most nuts are complete proteins, that is, their protein includes all of the essential amino acids your body can't produce. If a meal includes a serving of one of these, you can probably use all the protein in the meal. There are other foods whose proteins include some but not all of these essential amino acids. These include grains---corn, wheat, rice, barley, millet, and oats--- and legumes---peanuts, beans, peas, and lentils. These are incomplete proteins. However, the protein in the grains mostly lack the amino acids that the legumes have and vice versa, and they can "complete" each other.

That means if you eat a slice of whole wheat bread (a grain) with peanut butter (a legume), you've given your body all the amino acids at one time. Beans and brown rice or split pea soup with whole wheat bread or corn tortilla with black beans are other examples of combinations. And if you have an incomplete protein with a complete protein, you're fine too. I can't recall right now where sunflower and pumpkin seeds fall, complete or incomplete, and there are a few others.

This probably sounds complicated. But it's really a lot simpler. If you have food from at least two protein groups (meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes) at a meal, you should have a complete protein. Drink a glass of milk or soy milk with every meal, and you won't need to think much about this.

Just a note: there are a very few research studies that suggest your body might store the incomplete proteins for later combination, but I believe a lot of other research contradicts that. Probably safer to go with the more conservative one hour figure (and I aim to get them at the same time when possible).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Simple snacks

These are the simplest of healthy snacks, those that even complete non-cooks should be able to manage.

Popcorn is a favorite, simple and low-cal, and very cheap...if you avoid the microwave type. If you get a hot air popcorn maker (which seem to be making a bit of a comeback), you can buy popcorn in large bags for less than a box of the gourmet microwave popcorns. And you can completely control how much butter and salt you use. I say butter intentionally because we've found that margarine tends to make the popcorn turn soggy while butter does not. And if you want fat free, keep in mind that all microwave popcorn adds some fat, while none is required for hot air popping.

Crisp cold raw vegetables. Carrots, cucumbers, celery, cauliflower, mushrooms, brocolli, zucchini, radishes, onions, green peppers, and ripe (red, orange, or yellow) peppers all are quite good served raw. Cherry tomato or low-juice tomato slices are also good, but have more potential to be messy. Serve with a simple dip---I like to mix 2 parts plain yogurt and 1 part olive-oil based mayo with a bit of seasoning (things like onions, chives, parsley, dill, salt, pepper). Or use salsa. Carrots and celery are quite good with a little peanut butter. Pick vegetables that are in season and don't overdo the dip, and this is not only nutritious but cheap and filling.

Fresh fruit. Grapes, berries, sliced apple, pear, pineapple, and bananas can be eaten with a sweet dip...I like plain yogurt with some honey stirred in. Again, pick things in season and go light on the dip for nutritious, cheap, and filling.

Berries and milk. This is one of my favorite desserts, something I only get to enjoy for a few months of the year. Wash the berries. Cap them if they're strawberries, and slice large strawberries into quarters. Put the berries in a bowl, pour on enough milk to cover. Crush and add some unsalted nuts and toss on a few chocolate chips. Sprinkle a little sugar on top if the berries aren't very sweet. A cup of berries is about 45 calories, half a cup of skim milk is about 45, a 1/4 cup of nuts is about 50 calories, and add a few chocolate chips and some sugar, and you have a great dessert for between 175 and 200 calories. You can mix several types of berries and nuts or have just one kind of berry and nut each. I leave off the sweeteners sometimes when berries are really cheap and have a bowl for breakfast with a slice of peanut butter toast.

Peanuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds. These are generally pretty cheap and fairly nutritious. Peanuts are not a complete protein, I'm not sure about the other two, and if you're watching sodium, you probably should consider avoiding the salted varieties.

Dried fruits. These can be a bit expensive, other than raisins, and sometimes dried cranberries, but a great energy source if you like them.