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Fit Family Challenge 2013: Ten Tips For Fast, Healthy, And Affordable Meals

I’m very excited to be the nutrition coach for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge again this year. In surveying the finalist families, I discovered that the two most important nutrition issues on their minds were cooking speed and food affordability. Far down the list were things like food allergies, weight loss, and nutrition basics.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. A new study showed that a healthful diet only costs an average of $1.50/day more than an unhealthy diet, and the additional cost is mostly related to the expense of leaner protein sources. So with a little bit of shopping savvy, you can change your family’s nutrition without breaking the bank.

Since busy moms and dads are always looking for ways to provide fast, nutritious meals for their children, I thought I’d provide some tips for doing so on a budget. These are strategies that I also use when I’m traveling across the country, working long hours at hospitals with only a microwave and small refrigerator available, and very little time for meal prep. If your day is frantic, and you don’t have much time to cook, then these tips are for you! (I’m not saying we’re going to win any culinary awards for these meals, but they are very practical. Please use your own favorite herbs and spices for flavor. I have added links throughout this post to show you examples of products I’ve used and like – but there are many other good ones out there!) :-D

1. Tupperware. Make sure you have lots of plastic storage containers (Tupperware or other brand) and baggies in various sizes. You can reuse the containers and portion out food into single serving sizes in advance. Don’t worry about finding containers that are “BPA-free” – they may cost more and fifty+ years of scientific studies (reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) have determined that they are safe for microwave use and food storage.

2. Prepare meals ahead of time. Set aside one day a week where you will fill containers and baggies with single serving sizes of 1) protein, 2) fruits/veggies, 3) nuts/fats, and 4) complex carbohydrates. Each meal should include one of each. Snacks can contain two or three of the four groups. Each family member can quickly grab portions for their meals, lunch boxes, or snacks, and you can make up plates for dinner by reheating them in the microwave.

3. Fast protein. Pre-cooked, grilled chicken or turkey strips can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of your local discount store. Four ounces of grilled chicken is a good serving size, and make sure you choose the chicken without sauce or chemical flavorings as your healthiest option. One serving takes about a minute to reheat in the microwave. Other great sources of protein include plain Greek yogurt (a serving is 1 cup), protein powder (whey, egg, or vegan sources), pre-packed hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna or fish in water, smoked salmon, and low-fat cheese sticks.

If you have a stove and 4-8 minutes to spare, quick-fry pork chops, lean beef, fish fillets, or egg beaters (plain, liquid egg whites in a carton are even better) with low-fat shredded cheese with a few chopped veggies can make a great omelet that’s fast and affordable.

You can make egg whites in a microwave (spray a microwave container with a little bit of pure olive oil cooking spray) and cook for one and a half minutes per serving. Top with salt, pepper, cheese, and maybe a little ketchup if you like that. Super fast, super healthy.

In a pinch, beef, pork, and natural turkey jerkies are very portable protein sources. However, they can be expensive, and you must look for the all natural varieties (not the jerky full of salt and chemicals at various truck stops across the country).

4. Fast fruits & veggies. Fruits are pretty easy because you can chop them up or peel them quickly, but if you don’t want to chop them too far in advance, pre-made fruit cups are a little more expensive, but very convenient. Make sure you choose the fruit that is packed in its own juice, not syrup.

As far as veggies are concerned, some can be enjoyed raw (celery, carrot sticks, lettuce, tomatoes etc.) but others need cooking. The fastest way to cook most fresh veggies is to steam them in a microwave. Stores now pack veggies (such as green beans, broccoli, and snow peas for example) in “steam-in bags” where you can just puncture the bag with a fork and then microwave the veggies for a couple of minutes. If you’re buying veggies in bulk, you can purchase  ”Zip n’ Steam” bags and use those instead. I’ve used these bags for everything from butternut squash to corn on the cob. They lock in all the vitamins and minerals that you may loose in a boiling or canning process.

Otherwise, frozen veggies are very convenient and are pre-chopped. Canned vegetables are also rich in vitamins (though they tend to lose the water soluble A&B vitamins so you’ll need to get those from your fruits or a squeeze of lemon in your water) and very easy to heat and are affordable.

5. Fast fat. Mostly, what I mean by healthy fats is nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils (especially olive). Fats are rarely cost-prohibitive and it doesn’t take much to “prepare” them. Healthier nuts and nut butters are plain (no sugar or salt added). Avoid candy-coated nuts, sugary spreads, or trail mixes that have “yogurt-covered” anything or chocolate added. Go easy on the dried fruit as it is a simple sugar. Cook with olive oil or olive oil spray when you can. Limit your animal fat intake (butter, high-fat cheese, lard, bacon) as it is not as healthy for you as vegetable sources.

6. Fast complex carbohydrates. I’m a big fan of brown rice. It’s very inexpensive and reheats well with a little moisture in the microwave. You can purchase the rice dry (this is the most affordable way, but you’ll need to cook up a big batch once a week), or pre-cooked in microwavable bags or containers. Brown rice grits, corn grits, cream of wheat, and oats all make quick, microwavable portions of carbs. Whole grain tortillas take 15 seconds to heat in the microwave and can be used as a wrap or side-dish. Whole grain breads, sugar-free whole wheat cereal, canned beans, hummus, and sweet potatoes (not in syrup) are all fast and affordable.

7. Drink water. It’s free, it’s everywhere, it has no calories. Water is the healthiest fluid source available, so make use of it. To save money, you can re-use plastic water bottles by refilling them with tap water. If your tap water doesn’t taste great, a squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice (along with keeping it colder) should solve the problem. Sugary sodas, juices, and energy drinks should be limited. Club soda, sparkling water, or diet sodas are a better choice if you are craving carbonation. Skim milk, almond, rice, or soy milk are healthy options as well.

8. Buy in bulk. So now that we have broken down the healthy, affordable diet into its four components and fluids – it’s time to stock up! Buying large quantities of your favorite non-perishable items can save money. Consider cost-sharing with another family, coupon-clipping, and price-shopping. Some items that you normally don’t think of as frozen goods actually store very well in the freezer – bread, tortillas, nuts, and bananas for example can last for months in the freezer. For a review of the best grocery items to buy in bulk, see this slide show.

9. Skip the organic food. Organic products are very expensive and do not provide a significant nutritional advantage over regular foods. You may wish to buy organic food to support your local farmers or because the items are fresher-looking or their packaged goods may have fewer preservatives or added ingredients, but don’t spend your last penny on organic foods because you think it’s the only way to keep your kids well-nourished. As far as reducing your potential exposure to pesticides, organic foods may reduce pesticide exposure by 30%, not exactly the “pesticide-free” level that some would lead you to believe. Most experts (including the FDA) agree that the amount of potential pesticide residue found on fresh fruit and vegetables is too low to pose a significant risk human health. Washing fresh produce with soap and water, or removing the skin, can further reduce levels if you have concerns.

10. Don’t waste money on vitamins and supplements. Although it seems like a good idea to provide your children with extra vitamins in pill-form, the majority of U.S. children and adults (according to large CDC nutrition studies) are not deficient in any vitamin or mineral. Our fortified food sources, even with sub-optimal diets, are doing a surprisingly good job of getting us all the nutrition we need. If your doctor has determined that you or a family member has a nutritional deficiency, then please follow their advice regarding supplementation. As for herbal supplements, be very careful of those since recent studies have shown that they often don’t contain the active ingredients on their labels and may even contain harmful allergens instead.

There are probably many other terrific ideas that you’ve discovered on the path to feeding your family quickly and affordably. Please share them on the blog so we can expand our creative meal planning together! I’ll be thinking of the Fit Family finalists as I enjoy my brown rice and green pepper chicken fajitas in my hospital microwave this week!

How Many Calories Do I Need? And Other Questions From The Boys & Girls Clubs Fit Family Challenge

This year’s finalists for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge are about to be announced. I’ve had the privilege of acting as nutrition coach for the semi-finalist families, and have had fantastic interactions with them about common nutrition questions. In my continuing Q&A series, I thought I’d share some of our email conversations:

Q: How many calories do I need per day, and how many should I eat to lose weight?

I like to use this Mayo Clinic calculator to get a rough estimate of daily caloric needs.   If you enter your height, weight, age, and activity level it will tell you approximately how many calories/day you need to maintain your weight. To lose one pound a week, you need to subtract 500 calories/day from that number. So, for example if the calculator suggests that you need 2000 calories/day – you should follow a 1500 calorie/day diet to lose 1 pound a week. Studies have shown that people who drop more than 500 calories below their daily maintenance needs have a hard time sticking to their diet. You may feel weak, trembly, and irritable if you cut down too low too fast. You will have to play with the amount a little bit since the calculator is not exact – if you don’t see the scale moving when you cut out 500/day, then you have to wonder if you’re counting calories correctly or perhaps if you have to go a little bit lower still. Unfortunately, the “reward” for losing weight is that you have to permanently eat less when you are at your desired goal because there is less of you to feed!

Q: What do you think about sports drinks? Do my kids need them when running races?

As far as sports drinks are concerned, their benefits are often over-hyped and exaggerated. That being said, I believe they do have a role in hydration during endurance sports like long distance running. When you do strenuous exercise for long periods of time (over 1 hour of effort) you lose a lot of body salt and minerals (electrolytes) in your sweat. It’s important to replace certain key electrolytes so your body doesn’t become depleted and begin to cramp. This is more likely to happen to folks running very long distances, such as marathons and triathlons. However, if it’s hot during your race, you could be at risk for dehydration and electrolyte loss as well.

Regular Gatorade (made by Pepsi Co.) has water, sugar, sodium, and potassium in it. Powerade (made by Coca Cola) has water, sugar, sodium, potassium and B vitamins. Powerade has a little bit higher sugar concentration, which could be an advantage on a long run. Both are reasonable choices for hydration during a race.

The rough rule of thumb is to take in 6-12 oz of fluid for every 20 minutes of running. Water is sufficient for runs that last less than an hour. Sports drinks (or adding electrolyte gels/chomps to water) are helpful if your run will last longer than an hour. It’s better to sip the water slowly at regular intervals than to dry to gulp it all down at one time. You may feel nauseated or have a “sloshy stomach” feeling if you don’t spread out your hydration.

Sports drinks can be quite expensive – and you can easily create your own at home. The World Health Organization has a simple recipe for rehydration fluids, and I found this (probably slightly tastier) version on a blog site.

Outside of endurance sports, I don’t see a physiologic need for sports drinks (with the exception of extreme sweating in hot weather or during illness with vomiting and diarrhea) – they can add unnecessary calories to your diet.

Q: Should I cut down the amount of salt in my diet?

Not necessarily. Too little salt, as well as too much salt, have both been shown to be unhealthy. If you’re eating a lot of fast food, you’re probably getting too much salt. If you cook for yourself and focus on fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean protein you may not need to cut back. Unless you have a kidney problem or very high blood pressure, salt is generally not dangerous for you. About 2.5g of salt/day (roughly a teaspoon full) is optimal, but for most people up to 4g/day probably won’t hurt (and at least one study suggests that heart disease risk doesn’t increase until the daily intake of salt exceeds 7g/day).

How Can I Get My Kids To Eat Healthy Food? More Q&As From The Boys & Girls Clubs

I’ve continued to have terrific email questions and answers with the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge participants. I thought I’d publish some of our conversations so that you can participate as well. The Lang family shared this image of their son eating dinner next to the latest USDA dietary recommendations “MyPlate” materials. A picture’s worth 1000 words, isn’t it?

This cute fella is a healthy weight, he is very athletic, and he’s also wondering where chicken nuggets, french fries, and pizza fit in to the MyPlate dinner plans… His mom asked me how to make more “kid friendly” healthy meals. Perhaps some folks reading this have some success stories that they’d like to share? Here’s what I had to say to the Langs and others…

1. My son doesn’t think the MyPlate suggested meals are kid friendly. What can we do?

I wonder if your son would be open to trying healthier variations of the foods he likes? You could make a pretty tasty pizza with whole wheat crust, grilled veggies, a little pesto or tomato sauce and some ham cubes (ham is much lower in fat than sausage or pepperoni) and low fat shredded mozzarella. You can get a pizza stone to help crisp the crust in a regular oven. The pizza would probably reheat well so you could make it in advance too.You can bread chicken strips and bake them (instead of frying them) to simulate healthy chicken “nuggets.” Same for fish sticks. You can try sweet potato fries for a healthier fry option – bake them in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. More nutritious, kid-friendly recipes may be found at

2. Do my kids need 8 cups of water a day?

As far as water is concerned, the amount you need really depends on how much liquid you’re getting from other sources (food, beverages) as well as how much you’re sweating (exercise), how hot/dry the environment is and how much you weigh. Eight cups/day is a very rough rule of thumb. Some people need more or less depending on the day. Unless you are doing extreme exercise (in the heat) that requires fluid replacement before you notice that you’re thirsty, thirst is a good indicator of whether or not you need to drink. Also, I’ll tell you a doctor secret – all you need to know about hydration is in your urine color. Urine becomes very concentrated (dark yellow) when you are dehydrated. If you drink enough water to keep your urine a nice light yellow, then that’s all you need.

3. What are the best vegan protein substitutes for meat?

Concentrated vegetable protein is primarily derived from soy (tofu and tempeh) and wheat (seitan). Nuts and seeds also contain some degree of protein, as well as beans, lentils, and rice. Tofu, tempeh, and seitan can be molded into burger and hotdog shapes and may be prepared to mimic meat flavors. Keep in mind that concentrated soy or wheat proteins may not agree with your intestinal tract (some complain of excessive gas and bloating). So if you have those reactions, at least you’ll know that it’s quite common.

4. Is it healthy to be a vegetarian? Is there such a thing as too much fruit and veggies?

Vegetarianism can be healthy, though it takes some effort to ensure that adequate amounts of nutrients are received – especially if you’re vegan (no dairy, no eggs). The most common deficiencies for vegans are iron, B12, calcium, Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and Vitamin D. (You can read more about how vegetarians can overcome these deficiencies here.) I guess my main concern with veganism is the low omega-3s. It is basically impossible to get enough omega-3 fatty acids from plant sources (certain seeds, you may have heard, have a good amount of omega-3 fatty acids but what they won’t tell you is that plant omega-3′s aren’t processed by the body so they remain inactive and don’t provide much benefit.) Omega 3 fatty acids form a protective layer on the outside of cell membranes by reducing inflammation. This is particularly helpful in the reduction of plaque build up in heart arteries, and reducing the risk of various dementias (such as Alzheimer’s) that have an inflammatory cause.

Excellent sources of omega 3 fatty acids are oily fish (sardines, salmon, mackerel, sea bass). This is why the American Heart Association (and recommend 2 servings of oily fish/week for optimal health. Vegetarians are missing out on this important benefit.

As far as eating too many fruits/veggies is concerned – I can’t think of too many potential harms from eating large amounts of fruits/veggies (other than weight gain if you really eat a lot of fruit – they have quite a bit of natural sugar). The real harm comes from excluding vital nutrients by eating plants exclusively (without a careful strategy to get the right plant sources of vitamins and minerals, along with omega-3 supplements).

Debunking Nutrition Myths With The Boys & Girls Clubs Of America

This year’s Fit Family Challenge competitors are smart, savvy, and full of great nutrition-related questions! I just finished a one hour conference call with 10 family finalists from across the U.S. and Hawaii. As part of their challenge to adopt healthy diet and exercise practices, they were asked to send me their most burning nutrition questions. One mom told me that her goal was “to teach her girls how to think critically” about health information. I was so pleased to see those values being promoted that I thought I’d share some of our mythbusting FAQs here on the blog:

1. I live in a community that doesn’t add fluoride to the public water supply. Do my kids need to take fluoride supplements?

Fluoridation of our water supply is considered to be one of the top 10 most effective public health initiatives of the 20th century. Enhancing the natural fluoride content of water results in up to a 60% reduction in tooth decay for kids! The cost to a community of adding fluoride to the water supply is about 50 cents per person per year, so it’s really quite affordable. I’m not sure why your community water hasn’t been fluoridated, but it’s estimated that about 1/3 of Americans still live in communities that haven’t supplemented their water with fluoride (so you’re not alone).

Our teeth use fluoride to strengthen our enamel – and we can get fluoride to our teeth in two ways: 1) from our blood stream (e.g from the water we drink, digest, and absorb) and 2) topically (e.g. from toothpaste). Studies have shown that it’s best to get fluoride via both routes for optimal enamel strength. For children living in areas where the water is not fluoridated, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends fluoride vitamins until at least age 16. There are two strengths of fluoride vitamins, and the dosage required depends on the fluoride levels in the local water supply (you can ask your local Water Department for that information if you haven’t already). Keep in mind that most children’s permanent teeth (with the exception of “wisdom teeth”) erupt by age 13 – and before that age there is no way to get fluoride to them except via the blood stream. So digesting fluoride (via water or vitamins) is critical to strengthen those teeth that haven’t broken through the gums yet.

For more information about fluoride, see this helpful ADA guide.

2. Should parents be concerned about hormone levels in milk? Is there an advantage to buying organic milk?

All mammals release trace amounts of hormones into their milk. Cow’s milk naturally contains a small amount of bovine somatotropin (bST) which is a protein that is quickly broken down by our stomachs when we drink milk. Some farmers give their cows additional amounts of the hormone to stimulate milk production. This rbST (or BGH) is virtually identical to naturally occurring cow hormones and the decades of research we’ve collected has been reviewed by the FDA (Food and Drug Association), WHO (World Health Organization), NIH (National Institutes of Health), AMA (American Medical Association), and ADA (American Dietetic Organization) – and all agree that rbST is safe for human consumption in the levels it occurs in cow’s milk. Interestingly, studies have shown that milk hormone levels in organic milk is essentially identical to levels in regular milk. There is therefore no advantage in buying organic milk insofar as hormones are concerned.

I believe that cow’s milk is safe and nutritious for kids (so long as they have no milk allergies or lactose intolerances). The milk/hormone scare is kind of an urban legend, so I wouldn’t be too worried about it. Your girls haven’t suffered any harm from drinking regular milk – and it’s great that you all enjoy the skim variety, by the way. Lower calorie options can help you maintain your weight over your lifetime.

For more information about milk and hormones please check out this helpful link full of research resources.

3. Are there lifestyle choices that I can make to reduce my risk of getting cancer? Can vitamins help?

You are right that there are lifestyle choices that can substantially reduce your risk (and your childrens’ risk) of getting cancer. However, there is no way to guarantee that you’ll never get cancer, no matter how carefully you control your diet and lifestyle. Nevertheless it’s an excellent idea to do what we can to reduce our risks. Cancer is actually a complicated collection of different diseases, and so specific behavior changes may reduce the risk of certain cancers but not others. For example, a high fiber diet may reduce the risk of colon cancer, but not skin cancer.

Also note that it’s very hard to prove that any one dietary change (such as consuming a larger amount of one particular vitamin or herb) has a direct impact on cancer risk. What works is sometimes more general (such as avoiding becoming obese). Here are some  behavior changes that have been scientifically proven to reduce cancer risks or prevent certain cancers:

1. Smoking cessation
2. Regular use of sunscreen
3. A diet rich in fiber (i.e.lots of fruits and veggies and whole grains)
4. Maintaining a healthy weight
5. Regular exercise
6. HPV vaccines (especially for young girls – can prevent cervical cancer) and hepatitis vaccines (can prevent liver cancer)
7. Drinking very little alcohol (no more than 1 drink/day)

Screening for cancer is also important – because catching a cancer early is often the best way to cure it. The most effective screening tests are:

1. Colonoscopies (for adults over age 50)
2. PAP smears (for sexually active women and women who haven’t had hysterectomies)
3. Physical exams to check for skin cancer, oral cancer, and testicular cancers

Mammograms and prostate blood tests are less effective at catching cancers early, but they are recommended by most medical professional associations.

I recommend reading this page at the National Cancer Institute for more information about avoiding cancer risk factors:

Multivitamins are not recommended for cancer prevention. Although it would seem that vitamins could help reduce the risk of cancer, large studies have shown that they do not reduce the risk of cancer, and may even increase one’s risk (especially vitamin E.) The best source of vitamins is healthy food – and their fiber benefits are excellent as well. For a nice summary of the unhelpfulness of vitamin supplements, please see this ABC News summary of recent research.

Follow Along With The Fit Family Challenge!

Tina Thompson, Mario Lopez, Dr. Val Jones

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) are about to kick off their annual Fit Family Challenge. The goal is to support families as they commit to a lifestyle of healthy diet, regular exercise, and strong moral qualities.  It’s called the “Triple Play” approach – a game plan for body, mind, and soul. I’m honored to be their “mind” coach again this year, and will help to shepherd 250 BGCA families from across the country. Five finalists will be chosen to compete in Los Angeles for the title of fittest family near the end of 2012. We have timed the competition to coincide with New Year’s Resolution planning, and hope that these fit families will inspire others to turn over a new leaf in 2013.

As part of my support for the competition, I’ll be publishing several blog posts (at Better Health and the Fit Family Challenge Blog) with evidence-based healthy eating tips for the families – and for anyone who wants to follow along with the Triple Play Fit Family Challenge. I can’t wait to see how lives will change – and how together we can tip the scales against obesity, disease, and unhealthy relationships. Please join the Boys & Girls Clubs in this important initiative.

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