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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Healthier Choices, step 1: more vegetables

B was a meat and potatoes eater. One day, B said "I'm eating a lot more vegetables now". And, at my house, I noticed B WAS eating more vegetables, and trying new ones, too. Beets, broccoli, beans. All in all, a better-balanced diet -- a better balance of nutrients. B is thinking about a balanced diet, not weight loss, but replacing some helpings of meat and potatoes with lower-carbohydrate vegetables means fewer calories, too.

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Healthier Choices -- step by step

When it comes to making dieting, some people like to go whole hog. Throw out the "bad food", get on the treadmill, buy a bunch of vegetables and a new cookbook, draw up a menu plan. Never look back. This worked so well for us, I highly recommend it. The parents lost a combined 75 pounds in a year (15 of those "accidentally"), while the kids are learning how to make up a balanced eating plan. Deciding "what to eat" got easier, and we learned a bunch of great new recipes. We cut back on salt and got more active (well, one of us did, anyway). It has been great. I cannot recommend the DASH Diet enough!

Dear B read the DASH book on our recommendation (and even read The DASH Diet Action Plan) but really didn't relish the idea of making such an abrupt change, eating so much more fiber, using new cooking techniques, and eating "weird food" while, at the same time, upping the exercise suddenly. It sounded like a recipe for pain and indigestion. Since the Dash Diet is just what B wants, I countered that it would be illogical NOT to make the change. B was merely amused by my Mr. Spock approach.

Then, B quite sensibly took a very different approach. B is aiming for more energy and improved health. And B will get there -- one step at a time.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Diet -- it's all in the portions

Melanie, at dietriffic, recently offered some tips on making a weight-loss diet work. I know that keeping track of portion sizes really makes things easier. I actually bring measuring cups to the table. These stainless steel cups belong to our "for the table" set. They make it easier to serve everyone the right amount. One cup of rice, one half cup each of two vegetables, a 3-oz serving of meat, and one cup of salad on the side. That's two grains, 2 ½ cups of vegetables, and our evening protein portion. A handy chart on the 'fridge (see below) reminds us what we should be aiming for in a day. Using standard portion sizes makes it all "deal a meal" easy.

source: MyPyramid intake patterns, MyPyramid customized dietary guide, DASH diet guidelines

I know that my 8 year old has had 1 serving of grain at breakfast, two slices of bread at lunch, a granola bar for afternoon snack, and only needs 1/2 cup of rice at dinner. The four-year-old only had one slice of bread at lunch, and so might want a whole cup of rice at dinner (but will probably get full, so I'll start with half a cup). They both get 3 half-cup servings of vegetables at dinner, which is good since the 8-year-old had 10 mini carrots at lunch. The three (or fewer) ounces of meat they will eat with their dinner goes with the bologna or peanut butter they have already eaten today to give them the protein they need.

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Beets are back down

Just as quickly as the price went up, it went right back down. Beets are once again an unbelievable bargain at Wegmans, at 99 cents a pound. How long can they keep that up?

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Green and Orange Ribbons with Fettucini

I really love mustard greens. The young greens are sharp and snappy in salads. Cooked lightly, they retain their bright green color and snappy, mustardy, zing. They are sometimes very sandy, and may need to be rinsed twice in a couple inches of water in the sink. They can be roughly stacked up and sliced into ribbons with a chef's knife

Here's a favorite dish I haven't made in a while -- Green and Orange Ribbons with Fettucini. It's based on a recipe I found in a beautiful cookbook ("Healthy Vegetarian Cooking", published by Barnes and Noble). Strangely, the main ingredient was omitted. And the fat and sodium levels were too high for me. So I made a few changes.

This recipe, with garlic and mustard greens, has a lot of zing. It also has one cup of vegetables and two one-ounce servings of grain per serving. Decrease the sesame oil if you wish to reduce fat even further. A vegetable peeler, mandoline, or the "slicer" side of a vegetable grater can create carrot ribbons quickly. Once everything is sliced, it all cooks quickly, so this dish can hurry up and wait until the "main course" is ready.

-= Exported from BigOven =-

Green and Orange Ribbons with Fettucini

Recipe By: Family Nutritionist
Serving Size: 4
Cuisine: Asian
Main Ingredient:
Categories: Vegetarian, Saute, LOW SODIUM, DASH, Vegetables

-= Ingredients =-
8 ounce Fettucini
1/2 tablespoon Olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoon Sesame oil
3 cloves Garlic ; crushed
2 Carrots ; peeled and cut into ribbons
4 cup Mustard greens ; cut into ribbons
1 tablespoons Low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons Sesame seeds

-= Instructions =-
Prepare fettucini according to package directions.
Toast sesame seeds in dry skillet as you heat it. Remove sesame seeds, add olive oil and garlic -- heat until you smell the garlic. Add carrot ribbons and sesame oil; saute until carrots are tender. Five minutes before serving, add mustard green ribbons and soy sauce. Cover tightly and steam over very low heat.
Toss vegetables to mix, sprinkle with sesame seeds, and serve over fettucini.

Nutritional Summary
Servings: 4: Serving Size: (203g): Calories: 363: Fat(g): 11: Sodium (g): 175

Food Group Serving(s)
DASH: Vegetables: 2.0: Fruits/Juices: 0.0: Dairy: 0.0: Grains: 2.0: Meat/Fish: 0.0: Seeds: 0.1: Fats: 1.5: Sweets: 0.0
USDA: Vegetables: 1.0: Fruits/Juices: 0.0: Dairy: 0.0: Grains: 2.0: Meat/Fish/Seeds: 0.1: Fats: 1.5: Sweets: 0.0

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Beets are going up

Here's a beet update: Recently, beets were 99 cents a pound at my local Wegman's. Now, they are up to $1.99 a pound! It's astounding! It makes me wonder how far those beets travelled. I'll be looking for a new source of beets!

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Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

The Produce for Better Health Foundation has begun a new campaign, "fruits and veggies -- more matters" to promote produce consumption. Apparantly the "5 A Day THE COLOR WAY" message (also developed by the Produce for Better Health Foundation) was too complicated or too intimidating (what with all those capital letters and whatnot). Maybe the PBH feels the emphasis on more, rather than on 5 servings of produce daily causes less guilt or oppositional feelings, and will result in increased produce purchases.

Of course, "5" is the magic number only for those getting about 2,200 Calories per day. Most of us need less. It is pretty simple to find out what you need. The next step is just figuring out when to eat all that produce. Don't wait for dinner -- it will just be too much food. And the TOO MUCH FOOD diet gets old as quickly as any other fad diet.

Here's how my favorite 8-year-old typically gets 3 1/2 cups of fruit and vegetables in a day:

  • A banana at mid-morning snack
  • Half a cup of applesauce and 10 mini-carrots with lunch
  • Half a cup of broccoli, half a cup of spaghetti sauce, and one cup of salad at dinner.

I should get 4.5 cups a day, so I can add to this:

  • 1/4 cup of raisins or 1/2 cup orange juice at breakfast, or half an orange after dinner
  • Increase broccoli to 1 cup, spaghetti sauce to 3/4 cup, salad to 1 1/2 cups.

This is all pretty easy to remember (even with little details like dried fruit counting twice as much and fluffy salad greens counting half as much), and even the 4-year-old is getting pretty good at food choices. Do we need more?

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Of pyramids and potatoes

For the past few years, I have been following the recommendations of the DASH diet developers, which are similar to the USDA recommendations. But I am always interested in other food pyramids. A British dietician, Melanie Thomassian, in her Dietriffic blog, presented the British food pyramid, which turns out to be more of a pie. Considering the popularity of savory pies in the UK, this seems appropriate. The UKFSA food pie groups fruits and vegetables together. The USDA and DASH food pyramids separate them, because they have different nutrient profiles. The UKFSA pie groups the potato with grains, presumably because they are similarly starchy. The USDA groups the potato with vegetables because, well, it is a vegetable, and (starchiness aside) is nutritionally most similar to other vegetables.

By putting the potato with grains, the UK food pie recognizes the potato's role as a staple food. The last time I visited (several years ago now), the potato was a part of "meat and three veg", a standard choice for the evening meal, highly desirable in a breakfast "fry-up", and often eaten at noon. In vast territories of the US, however, the potato fell out of favor during the low-carb craze. Grains are coming back into fashion, but the potato, excellent source of calcium though it is, is presented by the USDA as one of a "vary your veggies" menu. And, because it is not featured in the "eat more dark greens, orange, and dry beans and peas" advice, it is now pretty low in the vegetable rotation. Somewhere down there with kohlrabi and tomatoes, I suppose. But I suspect the potato is more popular than the USDA is letting on. Many restaurants still offer a choice of "potato, pasta, or rice" with the main course. McDonald's still sells a lot of fries. And Waffle House still offers hundreds of variations on the hash brown.

When I was growing up, there were only four food groups in the US. A potato was equivalent to a grain. These days, though, I am much more likely to have a grain (pasta, rice, biscuits, or bread) than a potato with the evening meal. Occasionally, I'll serve a grain AND a potato. It feels a little strange to me, but I do it any way. The DASH diet advises choosing tomatoes and dark green leafy vegetables for half of the weekly vegetable servings, and choosing a variety for the other half. I could still work a potato in there fairly often. Especially if it is a cold potato, which has "better carbs".

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Fresh Beets, Simply

Apparently, Beyoncé hates beets.[1] And so do a lot of other people. I suspect this is because they have been eating canned beets. Canned beets are pale and watery next to the real thing. Real beets are so much redder, sweeter, and more flavorful. And they are a hot new vegetable, being made popular in the US by four-star chefs at tony restaurants in DC and Manhattan. Who knew? At the supermarket, I never see them in anybody's basket but my own.

Why don't I see more people buying fresh beets? Do they not know what to do with them? Are they afraid they are too hard to prepare? Do they think they hate beets? I learned my mother-in-law thought she was not fond of beets when I served her a simple beet dish I learned from Julia Child ("Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home"). She had grown up on watery canned beets, and could only tolerate them prepared Harvard style -- plenty of sugar, vinegar, and cloves to make up for the missing flavors. She was amazed to find out how great beets can taste.

Most recipes begin by roasting the beets in a 350°F oven for an hour. And that is certainly delicious. The dry heat concentrates the flavor and the sweetness, and adds a little caramelization. But I don't always have the time, and, with the weather getting warmer, I don't always want to heat up my kitchen. So I follow Julia Child's advice -- I use the pressure cooker. A pressure cooker is a wonderful saucepot that speeds up cooking bean soups or whole hominy, but I use it much more these days for beets. Now that my grocery carries them all the time, I buy them practically every week. At 99 cents a pound, they are unbelievably cheap for something so delicious, so nutritious, and so beautiful. Pink fingertips seem a small price to pay.[2]

You will need a serving bowl, a dishwasher-safe cutting board, your favorite knife, and a pressure cooker. Bring home some fresh beets -- I like the 3 to 5 inch beets best because their skins slip off so easily after they cook. You'll need half an hour to cook the beets, 10 minutes to cool them, and another 5-10 minutes to prepare them for the table. You could start a day ahead of time, and refrigerate the beets as soon as you can get the cooker open.

Give the beets a quick rub-down in the sink. Cut off the greens just above the root. Save them to cook like chard. Snap off the tails. Don't cut into the beets -- they bleed. Add about an inch of water and a vegetable steamer to the bottom of the pressure cooker. Put the beets in, close up the pressure cooker, put the regulator on, and heat it up until the regulator starts regulating. Adjust the heat to keep the regulator happily spitting and hissing, cook for 30 minutes, then take the pot off the heat to cool down until the safety lock withdraws.

While the beets are cooking and cooling, prepare the rest of your meal. When practically everything else is ready for the table and the pressure cooker has cooled, open it and set up next to the sink. Get 3 or 4 beets out of the pot a time. They should be a little bit squishy. Slice off the tops, where the stems were attached. Trim out any hard spots and the edges of fissures. Using your fingertips, slip the skin right off into the bottom of the sink. It won't come off in one piece, but it should come off quickly. Underneath, the beet will look smoother and shinier than the dull skin. Slice the beets and tip them into the serving bowl.

I like a simple dressing, one that brings out the beet's natural sweetness and flavor. I have tried:

  1. garlic and kosher salt crushed in olive oil (Julia Child's recipe)

  2. olive oil and orange juice

  3. olive oil, balsamic vinegar, allspice, and vanilla, and a tiny pinch of salt

The third is my current favorite. Vanilla and allspice, balanced by the vinegar acidity bring out the sweetness without hiding the beet flavor. A very light coating of olive oil pulls it all together and enhances the mouth feel. This is as kid-friendly as Harvard Beets, but without the sugary syrup.

Once you master the beet basics, try something more sophisticated. Try roast beet, jicama, and carrot salad, or drizzle sliced beets with a blue cheese sauce.[3] On a typical weeknight, though, I stick with my standby. The kids eat it up, courtesy of Julia Child. Make plenty of extra, so your spouse can make Harvard Beets -- a fond childhood memory.

[1] Scholastic Star Spotlight -- Beyoncé
[2] Well, pink fingertips and beeturia, a phenomenon you may never have observed if you have not eaten fresh beets. Do not be alarmed. It is merely the red beet color tinting your bodily fluids. I never see this when I eat canned beets, but I always see it when I eat fresh beets.
[3] NPR: The Beet Goes On

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Chinese Ingredients -- Dangerously Unregulated

It isn't just dangerous chemical scrap in pet foods1. Chinese companies intentionally sold a poison in place of a common cold-medicine ingredient. At least 100 Panamanians died before the 260,000 bottles of medicine could be destroyed.2 And China has become "the source of most of the world’s fake drugs."5

In the US, we have come to depend on the FDA to ensure that our foods and medicines actually contain the ingredients claimed on the labels, that they are free of dangerous levels of chemical or biological contamination. But now we are importing large quantities of commodity ingredients from countries that don't share our history or expectations -- China never prosecuted or even closely examined any of the glycerine companies for their role in the Panamanian deaths.2 So we have to take action. The FDA has recommended drug makers to test every shipment of glycerine.6 A good idea.

In March, the FDA refused admissions for all vegetable protein products from China.3 One week later, China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine promised to begin inspection of vegetable proteins for export.4. This could help pet food makers (and perhaps human food and dietary supplement makers) feel more confident that they are getting what they paid for. They still might need to pay for more expensive protein assays that won't be fooled by high-nitrogen, non-protein additives like melamine scrap in their low-cost imported ingredients.

According to counterfeiting experts, "no amount of enforcement is going to stop" the distribution of counterfeit prescription drugs.5

If we suddenly had to stop importing all Chinese food and medicine ingredients, we would be unhappy with the effect on the economy. But it does make you stop and think. Why are these commodity ingredients such a big part of the global economy? Glycerine, vegetable protein concentrates, amino acid supplement powders. These are not whole foods. How about a bowl of New Orleans red beans and rice instead of some highly processed snack made with TVP and rice gluten?

1. Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China, New York Times, April 30, 2007

2. From China to Panama, a Trail of Poisoned Medicine, New York Times, May 6, 2007


4. "2 companies blamed for tainted pet food", China Daily, 2007-05-08.

5. "In the World of Life-Saving Drugs, a Growing Epidemic of Deadly Fakes", New York Times, February 27, 2007.

6. "FDA Advises Manufacturers to Test Glycerin for Possible Contamination", US FDA, May 4, 2007.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

More on Berries, Antioxidants and Alcohol

Image from Wikimedia Commons; it is freely available under GNU Free Documentation LicenseShelly Batts had the good sense to read the entire article instead of just the abstract. Her analysis in Retrospectacle is, therefore, much more valuable than mine. Turns out the berries are only exposed to the fumes of the tested compounds. Her summary of the article is an easy read, and includes a helpful chart and graph. She says 60% of untreated blackberries rotted, 47% of ethanol-trated blackberries rotted, and only 29% of allyl isothiocyanate-treated blackberries rotted.

What I have not seen is data comparing comparing antioxidant content of fresh berries (control and treated) to the 1 and 2-week old berries. If treatment with volatile compounds actually boosted antioxidant content (rather than simply protecting against decline), then there might be some merit in marinating the berries shortly before eating them. Though, of course, there is little benefit to the humans if they marinate themselves while eating berries.

The purpose of the study was to find ways to increase the shelf-life of berries. I don't really want to eat 2-week-old blackberries, even if less than a third of them are rotten. I prefer to buy them fresh locally or pick my own, and eat them within 3 days. They taste a lot better than berries picked for shipping from thousands of miles a way. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer food that tastes good. Even if that means I'm restricted to eating it in season.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Major News Outlets Misrepresent Food Study

Well, that sounds sensationalist, doesn't it? As Five Wells pointed out, it all started with "Fruity cocktails count as health food, study finds" in Reuters' Oddly Enough section. No matter that the piece completely misrepresents research published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. It is merely entertainment on par with "Drunk deposits horse in bank for night."

The nonsense was picked up as "Cocktails are good for you!" in a Manchester Evening News blog. The blogger has got it as wrong as Reuters did, but it's still not hard news, so that doesn't really count, does it?

Somehow, though, this piece has been promoted from "a bit of a laugh" to "news"

Anybody who had read the abstract of the research article would know that the researchers were investigating how various preparations, when applied to whole berries, can help prevent decay during storage at 10 °C (approximately 50 °F). After a week or two, treated fruits were in better shape than untreated fruits.

The conclusion seems to be that spraying berries with ethanol or one of several other anti-fungal preparations helps prevent decay. There is correlation with the fact that, after a week or two, these old but not-very-rotten fruits have higher levels of anti-oxidants than the untreated, rotten fruits.

At no time do the researchers compare just-treated berries with freshly-picked, untreated berries. They do not claim that dipping the berries in alcohol will instantly boost their antioxidants. They certainly do not advocate the drinking of strawberry daiquiri.

The earliest instance I have found of a news organization following up on the pros and cons of drinking alcoholic fruit drinks is Alcohol 'makes fruit healthier' from the BBC. They do repeat the nonsense that this study suggests that "having [berries] in a cocktail may make them even healthier", but did get a quote from a registered dietician pointing out that any health benefits would be outweighed by the damage done by drinking all that alcohol. Other news organizations, such as ChinaDaily (Fruit's healthier if you mix it with alcohol) and The Register (Alcohol boosts health benefit of fruit) seem to have picked up on the ever-so-slightly more nuanced BBC article.

When I do a web search for "fruit" or "strawberries" or "berry" paired with "alcohol" at nytimes.com, philly.com, or washingtonpost.com, I do not find this article. Are the journalists there better trained to check their sources, find experts to clarify confusing jargon, even email the principal contact listed right at the top of the article?

As for all of the other news organizations -- if we can't count on them to check for accuracy in reporting, aren't they just wasting our time?

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A more balanced granola

As I said in my last post, you have to beware of some of those "healthy" recipes, like the nutty high-fat granola recipe recently published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Why should you beware a recipe like this one? Because, even though the recipe is adapted from a book called "The Healthy Kitchen", each serving is high in calories, fat (including saturated fat) and sugar. For each serving of grain, the recipe provides 404 calories, including 21g (1.5 tablespoons; 6g saturated) of fat and 25 g (2 tablespoons) of sugar.

Looking for better alternatives, I consulted Alton Brown's Granola recipe. It provides 1 serving of grain for 353 calories, with 19 grams of fat and 25g of suger. A minor improvement. Surely, one could do better.

You could eat a Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bar, Oats and Honey flavor. That's 100 calories per bar (which come 2 to the pouch). Each bar has only 3g of fat (none of it saturated), 7 g of sugars. Eat the whole 2-bar pack, and you get close to 2 servings of grain, all for only 200 calories.

Or you could make your own. Most granola recipes taste like a very rich cookie. That's the sugar (white, brown, or honey, it's still a lot of sugar) and the oil talking. What you want to make at home will be closer to the Nature Valley product -- lower in sugars and oils.

What exactly is one serving of grain? According to mypyramid.gov, that is approximately 1 oz serving of bread, or the equivalent. How many cups of dry oatmeal is that? That's a little trickier to figure out. But http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/ can help.

  • Log in to mypyramidtracker, select "proceed to food intake".
  • In the text box under "Enter Food Item", type "oats, raw", and click the search button. Under "Search results", click the "Add" button next to "oats, raw", and click the "Select Quantity" button in the other half of the screen.
  • Now you'll be able to select a serving size of "1 cup", a "Number of Servings" of 100 (yes, 100) and click "Save and Analyze".
  • On the "Analyze Your Food" display, scroll down and click on Calculate MyPyramid Stats to find out that 100 cups of oats is equivalent to 285.7 1-oz servings of grain.

Result: 0.35 cups (approximately a third of a cup) of rolled oats per serving. That's a hassle, isn't it? I keep the results in an EXCEL spreadsheet so I won't have to go through that again. Similarly, I searched on "wheat germ, crude" to find out that a serving of wheat germ is approximately a quarter of a cup. And a serving of wheat flour is approximately .128 cup (2 tablespoons). Why did I look these up? I was looking at a low-fat honey granola bar recipe

-- Low-Fat Honey Granola Bars (foodgeeks.com) --
12 servings
1/4 cup quick-cooking oats
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. honey
1/3 cup dark raisins

That's less than 4 servings of grain in the entire recipe, or just about a third of a serving of grain per serving of grain per bar. I scaled the recipe by 3 and gave it a try. Bah! An oatmeal cookie with a play-doh texture. Wheat flour + liquid (honey) without fat = playdoh.

I'll try to come up with something.

  • A crispy, crunchy granola bar that tastes good
  • Not much over 100 calories per serving of grain (remembering that a serving of rolled oats contains 110 calories)
  • Not overloaded with sugar or fat.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Beware the healthy granola recipe

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an interesting article about how fast-food and convenience-food makers are vying for your breakfast dollar. It criticizes a few popular morning choices (McGriddles, McMuffins, and Starbucks' Venti Caffé Mocha with whipped cream), and offers a side bar (not available online) advocating more nutritionally balanced breakfasts you throw together at home in three minutes or less. Unfortunately, it also offers a Granola Recipe that (to quote the author) makes the denigrated 300-calorie McMuffin "look like diet fare".

Sure, the granola is chock full of natural, wholesome ingredients. But each serving (maybe 3/4 cup) provides over 400 calories. That's a nice snack if you are an iditarod musher, but a bit heavy in the cereal bowl for the rest of us.

By my calculations, each serving (maybe about 3/4 cup) amounts to about

  • 1 serving of grain
  • about an ounce of nuts and seeds, which counts as 2 ounces of meat (http://www.mypyramid.gov/pyramid/meat_counts.html)
  • 21 grams (1 1/2 tablespoons) of fat, 5 grams of which is saturated
  • 1 1/3 tablespoons of sugar
  • No dairy
  • No fruit or vegetables
I double-checked the weight per cup of the almonds, sunflower seeds, and coconut at the USDA and nutritiondata databases (just use this blog's nutrition data search bar to check for yourself).

Instead of this nutty, high-fat granola, I would choose:
  • 1 serving of grain: 1/3 cup oatmeal (prepared with 1 cup of water), 1 slice of whole-grain bread, or 1 cup of cheerios (60 - 110 calories)
  • 1 serving of dairy: 8 oz skim milk (93 calories)
  • 1 serving of fruit: 1/2 cup fruit (40 to 80 calories)

Total: under 300 calories. Save the nuts for an afternoon snack (1/2 oz walnut halves is under 100 calories).

How many calories do you need a day? How many servings of which foods do you need? Find out at mypyramid.gov.

(correction to serving size of rolled oats 4/24/2007)

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