Give Traffic Light Labeling the Green Light

Yesterday I wrote about traffic light labeling abroad. But what about bringing it across the Atlantic to the shelves of our grocery stores?

You may have seen the story yesterday (very timely!) about front-of-the-package labeling becoming more of a reality here in the US in the next few months. Unfortunately there seems to be some disagreement between food makers and grocers and the government when it comes to what should be included on the front package labeling. Should only those unhealthy nutrients be included on the front? Or should the food manufacturers also be able to include healthy nutrients?

That’s what the front-of-package label is designed to look like. It does have sugar, salt, saturated fat, and calories per serving. All good info to know when you’re looking at a product. But also notice that it’s not in color and it still has numbers that can be difficult to understand with no context. Great. This cereal has 12 grams of sugar per 1 cup serving. Is that high? Is it low? Does that mean it’s a healthy cereal? No one knows for sure unless they can provide their own context. That doesn’t make it any more convenient for a shopper who is in a rush.

See how there’s also a label for “fiber.” Fiber is definitely not an unhealthy nutrient – it’s a critical carbohydrate that helps keep you…ahem…regular.

And the majority of Americans don’t get even half as much fiber as they need in their daily diet. So it’s good. But putting healthy nutrients on the front label is a major sticking point in this program moving forward. The program that the food industry introduced yesterday allows the food makers to display up to two healthy nutrients on the front of the package; the eight they can choose from are: potassium, fiber, vitamins A, C, and D, calcium, iron, and protein. All are indeed great, healthy nutrients.

But the government – and the Institute of Medicine – doesn’t think those healthy nutrients should be displayed. They have two reasons for discouraging the inclusion of positive nutrients on the front label: first, shoppers might be misled into buying something when it is actually not a healthy choice; second, food makers might unnecessarily fortify foods that aren’t healthy just so they can put a positive spin on an unhealthy food. Either way, it’s not a good outcome and it doesn’t move us closer to healthiness.

So why hasn’t the FDA tried implementing the traffic light labeling in the US? They were apparently interested in trying it, but the food industry resisted because they were afraid it would scare customers away. And they’re probably right. It would scare them away from eating crap that’s loaded with ridiculously high quantities of sugar, salt, and fat. We still have to eat, but we don’t have to eat processed, artificial food. We would still have to buy food, so their profits wouldn’t drop (provided they make food that doesn’t kill you) and as a result we would be healthier.

Going along with what I wrote about Wal-Mart taking a great first step in promoting health with their initiative to reduce the levels of fat, sodium, and added sugars in their own brand, traffic light food labeling is a MAJOR opportunity for them to take yet another step in the right direction.

While some in the food industry are resisting (and admittedly I don’t know if Wal-Mart has put its two cents in on the matter), Wal-Mart could step up and mandate that all the food in their stores have the traffic light label. What they should do is to encourage their own store brand and even major suppliers, like Kraft, to put these color-coded labels on the food. Instead of it being a negative, they could start a campaign that promotes healthy choices by using the traffic light labeling. This should be promoted as an aide to help people who are nutritionally ignorant in making healthier food choices.

So instead of being worried about losing customers – which probably won’t happen at Wal-Mart, let’s be honest – there should be an emphasis on getting their customers healthier. If they start the trend, there is no doubt other corporations and grocery stores will soon follow suit. And that seems like a great first step in the long road to healthiness.

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Red Light, Green Light: Making Food Labeling Easier to Understand

We’ve all been there: in the aisle of a Giant or a Safeway (or Publix for all you lucky people who have those nearby), figuring out what food we want to buy and comparing the nutritional facts of two products. Some people buy foods out of habit and always get the same thing. I like to mix it up, though, so each week I compare new items I want to buy with the ones I bought the week before. Since I’m studying nutrition and wellness, I understand the unnecessarily confusing food labels like this one:

But what about the vast majority of shoppers who either don’t know what vitamin A does? Or, more realistically, don’t care how much sodium is in their soup? There HAS to be a better way to get people to make better food choices! People shouldn’t have to decipher a formula to figure out how many grains of rice are in one serving (perhaps a slight exaggeration on my part, but it’s frustrating!). Well, it turns out there is a better way! An increasing number of grocery stores and food manufacturers in England have come up with a great way to make it easier for shoppers to make informed, healthy choices.

Meet the traffic light food label! A label found on the FRONT of the packaging with a color-coded system that makes making healthy choices easier. This awesome idea is designed to make it less-stressful for rushed shoppers to make healthy choices at the store without having to decode the nutritional facts on a food label. It’s simple and it’s straightforward – a great combination.

The nutritional idea behind traffic light labeling is that to be healthier, people should cut down on fat (especially saturated and trans fat) and lower their intake of foods with added sugars and excessive amounts of sodium. As you can see on the label, these 4 unhealthy nutrients are singled-out: fat, saturated fat, sodium, and sugar. Based on the amounts of each nutrient per serving in the food, there is a corresponding color: red, yellow (or “amber” – apparently people in the UK don’t run yellow lights, they run “amber” ones – ?!), and green.

As you would expect, red means there is a high amount of the nutrient, “amber” means the levels are somewhat acceptable, and green means that the food has low levels of that unhealthy nutrient. Obviously the more green you see, the healthier the food. This color-coding makes it much easier for the shopper to compare two items simply by looking at the front of the package; if they want to investigate the items further, they can still look at the label on the back.

Which one do you think is easier to read?

I think seeing the info on the front is much, much easier and more convenient. And I think the majority of people would also lean more in that direction. So what? Can it work in the United States?

I think it absolutely can. So now I’m going to leave you guys in suspense. Tomorrow I’m going to write about a huge opportunity for companies in the United States to further their health promotion initiatives using the traffic light labeling system. Stay tuned!

A New Running Route around the National Mall

So I’m working on a post (will be up tomorrow) but in the meantime, here’s a route I like to do when I need to get away from my desk for a bit. I call it my 4 Mile Lunch Loop. For those of you who work/live downtown, I’m sure you know how running on the Mall is such a unique and amazing experience; and for those of you who haven’t tried it yet…get out there and go for it! I know it’s cold, but gear up and go!

You can make variations on this route by going here, entering 20001 as the zip code and then mapping your route! Have fun with it! Post variations as comments if you can, so other people who may be reading can see where you’re running.

Sounds weird to say – but way to go Wal-Mart!

Ok this post is going to be a change of pace. A bit more serious, perhaps. About a great initiative started by a corporation in conjunction with First Lady Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move campaign. If you generally are anti-Wal-Mart (like me) please keep reading and give them some props for taking a HUGE step in health promotion.

In case you didn’t see, yesterday Wal-Mart announced a five-year plan to offer healthier foods and fresh foods at lower prices in their stores. As hard as it is for me to admit it, Wal-Mart is doing something great.

I am typically not a huge fan of superstores like Wal-Mart. They usually don’t have a great reputation for treating their employees well and they eliminate small businesses because of their outrageously cheap prices. In this case, however, I have to put that mentality aside and applaud this much-needed change in their policy.

I’m not going to write about the obesity problem in this country, or the alarming rates of high blood pressure, or cholesterol, or any other diet-related health issues. Let’s just say that we have a problem. A preventable problem. We cannot avoid some health issues, but ones that are directly related to what we eat can be minimized. And it’s not that hard. Wal-Mart is taking a positive step in a healthy direction.

While the changes won’t (and can’t) happen immediately, Wal-Mart is aiming to reduce sodium by 25% and eliminate added trans fats and added sugars by 10 percent by 2015 in foods that are packaged by their brand, “Great Value.” Food like rice, soups, canned beans and unhealthy snacks like chips all fall within the target zone. Also, and maybe more importantly, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables are going to be lowered, thereby making these healthy options more affordable.

Another part of the proposal is to address the extremely important issue of food deserts (typically rural and lower-income urban areas that don’t have convenient access to grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables). Here’s a map of food deserts in Washington, DC (click to make it larger):

While it pains me to think this probably means building more Wal-Marts, if it means giving underprivileged and malnourished people access to affordable fresh and healthy foods, I’m for it. That’s a pretty good trade-off.

There will always be critics of Wal-Mart. People are already saying the sugar reduction didn’t go far enough, mainly when it comes to sodas – a valid point – but we have to start somewhere. This is a phenomenal first step for an enormous company that sells food to millions of people. If successful, people will be able to buy healthier foods, and the same people who previously could not afford fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy options (like foods made with whole grains, for example – also a part of the proposed program) will be able to buy these foods and hopefully lead healthier lives. If Wal-Mart can do it, other huge companies and leading grocery chains can do it too.

We can reverse the trend toward obesity in this country. I know we can. And clearly Wal-Mart (with Michelle Obama and the Let’s Move campaign’s help) knows it plays a huge role in changing the way we eat and the way we feel. So way to go, Wal-Mart!

RunFreeDC to RunFree…NAPLES!

In December, Mal’s mom told us that she was planning a wedding shower for us on January 16 down in Florida. Mal is from Marco Island so obviously when I heard South Florida in January I got excited. At the same time, she suggested that we take a look at a race that was going on that same day in nearby Naples. We checked it out. It wasn’t an easy 5K…it was a half marathon!

We did sign up because the thought of running a race in warm weather suckered us in, but we were somewhat nervous about it. Since crossing the finish line of the Marine Corps Marathon on October 31, neither one of us had run more than 7 miles. And this was almost DOUBLE that distance. The website (check it out HERE) says it’s a flat and fast course, so we decided to go for it.

We sign up. The weekend rolls around and we fly down, completely unprepared yet excited about running our first race in 2011. The excitement of the wedding shower was temporarily put on the back burner, as we had to focus on the race and be sure to feel as mentally prepared as possible.

Instead of going through a usual (and highly recommended) training program, Mal and I used positive reinforcement and encouragement as our training; things like “we can do this!” and “we’re so awesome for doing this!” and also a bit of “are we really doing this?!” just for good measure (that mentality made its appearance about 5 minutes before the starter said GO). Our preparation was definitely not as effective as getting in some long runs, but better than nothing!

We had to get up OBSCENELY early (5:00am). And we were up late the night before watching the Packers beat up on the Falcons. GO PACK GO! So we weren’t working with a lot of sleep. I had my patented ClifBar and banana as my pre-run food and with that we were out the door, ready to run!

The race started at 7:00am. The race organizers (for some reason) did not give out the timing chips when we picked up our packets, so they said to be in Naples – about a 30 minute drive from Marco Island – at 6am. Clearly that wasn’t happening. We got there around 6:30, walked right up to the table, and got our chips. Now the reality of the situation was setting in. Especially when we saw the starting line.

Can you see it in our eyes? The “Can we do this? Are we crazy? I can’t believe we’re running this random half marathon” look? The fear in our eyes?! Luckily, almost before I could answer these very legitimate questions, we were off!

The scenery along the course was beautiful! Some HUGE beachfront houses, and lots of palm tree-line streets

That one was around mile 7. We were still feeling good at that point. We later ran by some water, also surrounded by palm trees, around mile 10

We were starting to become painfully aware of our lack of training by this point. We were running at a decent pace (considering we hadn’t run anything close to this distance in about 2.5 months) and we were somehow able to maintain it throughout the race. Slow and steady, steady and slow…and finally after about 2 hours the finish line was in sight!

We crossed at about 2 hours 1 minute for around a 9:18 min/mile pace! We did it!

Got our medals

Stretched for a few minutes in beautiful Cambier Park – right near the finish line – and then made our way back to Marco Island for a nap, some beach time

and our wedding shower at 4:00pm!

All in all, an amazing weekend that was jam-packed with all kinds of fun! Next race for us is the Love the Run You’re With 5K on February 13. Anyone else running it too? Comment and let me know! Sign up if you’re not already registered! Here’s the link.

 

Small Changes for 2011: Stop Drinking Soda!

Americans LOVE soda. To the tune of about 13 billion gallons a year. We’ve heard it all before. “Soda is bad for you!” “Don’t drink soda!” Yeah, ok. But why should we stop?

I rarely ever hear an explanation of why soda is bad for you, apart from “it makes you gain weight.” That’s definitely true, but there are so many more reasons to not drink the sugary carbonated liquid. It also has high fructose corn syrup, which is so incredibly bad for you. But people know that. So weight gain is the go-to anti-soda attack. That’s great. Here are four OTHER reasons to avoid the stuff that can make you feel better and healthier immediately:

Reason #1: MONEY!

It doesn’t grow on trees. We all know that. How much does a soda cost? Anywhere from $1 to $2 in those vending machines that rip you off. Add that up. Let’s say 1 Coke a day at $1, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year. Right there you’re at $250 a year. And that’s not including any soda you buy at the grocery store or when you go out for lunch. What else could you use that money for? How about enough food for many, many healthy meals; or a gym membership for 5 months; maybe some new running gear and a new pair of shoes? You get the point. Spend the money on something better that makes you healthier, not sicker!

Reason #2: It causes dehydration

Most sodas have caffeine in them.

Caffeine is a diuretic, which means when you drink it, you urinate more than you would under normal circumstances. If you drink caffeinated soda instead of water to replenish these liquids lost through urination, you are going to continue to go to the bathroom without adequately hydrating yourself. In other words you’ll be severely dehydrated. It’s a vicious cycle that has no end and soda is the culprit! Drink water! It’s better for you and your body will thank you.

Reason #3: Soda gives you bad teeth

There’s acid in soda. And not just a little bit. Tests conducted on different sodas concluded that the levels of acid in most sodas are high enough to wear away at the enamel on your teeth, which can lead to tooth decay. The study found that some sodas have a pH of 2.5.

If you think back to high school chemistry, the pH scale runs from 1 to 14, with neutral being 7 (drinking water), acids being 1-6, bases being 8-14. Battery acid comes in at a pH of 1. I would go with the beverage that doesn’t rip your stomach apart!

Reason #4: Artificial Sweeteners in Diet Sodas

This one is the most important and the most misunderstood. For those of you who justify drinking diet soda by saying it has no calories and no sugar…well there’s no nice way to put it: diet soda is just as bad. In fact, it could be even worse for you.

I’m not even talking about the alleged cancer connection to some of the fake sugars. There are new studies out there that suggest that drinking diet soda might lead to an increase in food intake from other sources. In these studies (done on animals, like rats) drinking diet sodas without food can trick the body into thinking it is getting calories from something sweet, like sugar; when those calories do not come (since the artificial sugars have little to no carbs), the body then – understandably – craves food.

In other words, you get hungrier when you drink diet soda. This leads to an increase in calorie consumption (probably with unhealthy, high-calorie foods), which can lead to weight gain. All in all, diet sodas end up making you eat more than you normally would, and therefore negates any perceived “benefit” from drinking the diet option.

 

So there you go. Just a few reasons to put the soda (and diet soda) down and opt for something a bit less…artificial. Drink water! You’ll save money, lose weight, feel better and have more energy! That way, you’ll feel more motivated to go running or go to the gym!

Eat Breakfast!

What’s the most important meal of the day? Breakfast! You’re literally breaking your nightly fast, meaning your body needs food to fuel itself for the rest of the day. So start the day the right way and eat a good, healthy breakfast!

Eating something when you wake up is the key to a healthier you, both in the long-term and the short-term. How, you say? Long-term, your risk for developing type II diabetes and heart disease decreases; it can also be a great way to help you control your cholesterol (provided you eat the right foods). In fact, a recent study linked eating breakfast regularly to a longer lifespan (there were other factors too, but regular breakfast eating was a major variable). Conclusion: eat breakfast! It may help you live a longer, healthier life!

In the short-term, a balanced breakfast gives you a natural, healthy energy boost (which all of us can use in the AM). Breakfast kicks the day off right by helping you get your daily value of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Finally and perhaps best of all, by breaking the nightly fast with a healthy breakfast you are boosting your metabolism and prepping your body for the rest of the day; in other words, taking the time to eat a bowl of oatmeal or healthy cereal in the morning can be a great way to maintain a healthy weight.

Breakfast can be tricky if you’re trying to squeeze in a morning workout. But as I said in a previous post, the key is eating a small snack before the workout and then eating your full breakfast once you’re done. So what should you eat in order to maximize the benefits of breakfast? Here are a few options:

Whole grain cereals provide great energy and tend to be low in sugar. I read in the Washington Post that women should get no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day and men should get no more than 38 grams a day. Some sugary cereals surpass the 25 grams IN ONE SERVING! Always look at the label to be sure there isn’t a ridiculous amount of sugar in your cereal. Kashi 7 Grain Flakes are an ideal breakfast food:

Only 5 grams of sugar per serving! Along with 6 grams of fiber and 6 more grams of protein! That means it will keep you full and boost your energy without giving you a sugar rush. Top the cereal with some fresh fruit and some skim milk and you’re off to a great start! A good rule of thumb about cereals is that if the cereal changes the color of milk to some unnatural, fluorescent color, chances are that cereal isn’t a healthy, low-sugar option.

Other good breakfast options include plain instant oatmeal (topped with slivered almonds – for some protein – raisins and cinnamon), yogurt (Greek yogurt is ideal – very high in protein and low in fat content – but the flavor and consistency take some getting used to, so regular fat free yogurt is also good choice), and whole wheat toast with peanut butter and banana slices. You can also consider eating en egg. Eggs are great because they’re filling so you’re less likely to snack on something unhealthy later in the morning. Quick word of caution though: those of you with high cholesterol might want to only eat eggs once or twice a week, or choose to eat an egg substitute instead.

So eat up in the AM! Any of these options will have you well on your way to a productive, healthy day!