Monday, April 11, 2005

You Are What You Eat, Whether or Not You Know What You're Eating

Back to the donuts. If I eat enough okra or other it’s-good-for-you fare during the week, I don’t feel too bad about the occasional donut. However, if I’m having the sort of day in which a donut is the only thing that’ll cheer me up, it’s donut city, for which I’ll probably feel guilty later but when in Rome you eat spaghetti, when I’m in the dumps, I eat donuts.

Sometimes the question isn’t where but what. Is okra actually good for you or not? It’s green and repulsively slimy, which is often a dead give away of high nutritional content, but I’ve discovered a more reliable way than guessing (because sometimes green and slimy just means rotting). NutritionData’s Nutrition Facts Calorie Counter is easily my favorite nutrition-oriented web site. I couldn’t care less about the calories, but I’m always wondering what specifically is good (or not so) about what I’m putting in my mouth.

Let’s take barley for example. The other day the woman at Arabi talked me into a pearled barley salad with corn and diced red peppers, spiced with dill. I told her I’m not that into dill, but she sold me with “barley’s great for you.” As she packed it up for me, I wondered—is it? I know it’s a grain. I know grains are good for you, but some are better than others. But wait, aren’t grains starches? Aren’t starches not so good for you? Back at my desk, I plugged into NutritionData—upper right hand corner, enter food name, and hit food search button.

Results. In this case we get “cereal grains and pasta,” “breakfast cereals,” “soups, sauces, and gravies,” and “baby foods.” Under cereal grains and pastas,” we get “barley flour or meal,” “barley malt flour,” “barley, pearled cooked,” “barley, pearled raw,” and “barley.” Clicking on “barley, pearled cooked,” one learns it’s a good food, earning three of five stars: “This food is very low in Saturated Fat, Cholesterol, and Sodium. It is also a good source of Dietary Fiber and Manganese.”

We also get a nice visual with the Nutrition Facts box that we’re used to seeing on packaged foods as well as a “Caloric Ratio Pyramid.” For the super hardcore, there are tables that contain nitty-gritty detailed food composition breakdowns, including nutrients per serving, nutrient density, and protein quality. These breakdowns are way more information than I need; in fact, I admit they are largely nonsensical to me so I skip right over them. Instead, I scroll to the very bottom of the page where resides the other key piece of information I like to know: “Better Choices,” i.e. lists of alternative foods that may be more supportive of your dietary goals, whether you’re trying to lose weight or gain it, which I think is really cool. Each food also gets a nutritional density rating that mirrors the star system used at the top of the page and a fullness factor rating.

The 5-star rating system is based on editorial opinions of NutritionData and is not intended to replace the advice of a nutritionist or healthcare professional. "No food is completely good or bad for you. Optimal nutrition depends on your individualized needs and the combined nutritional benefits of all foods that you consume. Any opinions expressed on the analysis page are based on calculations derived from the Daily Reference Values (DRVs), Reference Daily Intakes (RDIs), and recommendations of the FDA."

This is an extremely dynamic site loaded with useful information that can be used in myriad ways. My curiosity never goes deeper than what I’ve just described, but I’m super impressed with the wealth of information and the different ways in which its accessible. So who’s behind this treasure? Some cute little couple in Arizona: Ron Johnson, a fitness expert, engineer, and inventor, who has consulted for "some of the world’s foremost fitness and nutritional products companies, " and Lori Johnson, a certified personal trainer and weight loss consultant. They use raw data from the USDA's National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference with additonal info from restaurants and food manufacturers. The exact source for each individual food item is listed in the footnotes of that food's analysis page.

My second runner up for food info is The George Mateljan Foundation’s World’s Healthiest Foods. The WHF has a different tack, which is “to show you a healthier way of eating that's enjoyable, affordable, quick and easy to fit [into] your personal needs and lifestyle." You get food tips, menus and recipies, and a mini-essay on the food of the week (this week it’s green peas: “They contain 18 health-promoting nutrients that qualify as excellent, very good or good according to our Quality Rating System.” The recipe always incorporates the food of the week, hence this week we have “lemon flavored fish and sweet peas … a great combination of flavors that takes only 25 minutes to prepare! It also provides 101% of the daily value (DV) for selenium, 85% DV for vitamin B-12 and 85% DV for protein.”

Like NutritionData, there’s a lot going on here, most of which I under utilize. I don't need as much help with selecting, preparing, and enjoying my food as I do just knowing what's in it. The WHF is also more community-oriented, with “George welcom[ing] you to interact with him and the Foundation by asking questions, sharing ideas and even supporting the cause of the Foundation. ” George’s bio is rather lengthy, but suffice it to say that he created the first company to produce healthy convenient prepared foods in the United States. The year was 1970, the company was Health Valley Foods. He’s put his 30+ years of expertise into his eponymous foundation. I subscribe to the newsletter, which admitedly I look at irregularly. I don’t go to the site often, but it’s a nice resource of which to be aware.

Next: washing it down.


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