Thursday, October 8, 2009

Heading Home

I woke up this morning, my last in Baltimore, feeling refreshed and energetic. I had been thinking a lot about Dr. David Katz's keynote speech at the Planetree conference the day before and his simple advice: Eat. Not too much. Mostly plants. And his entreaty to move more. It's a very Planetree idea: Prevent disease before it starts with exercise and healthy eating.

I set out to enjoy a brisk walk around Baltimore's inner harbor and a healthy breakfast. One of these was easier to manage than the other.

It was a beautiful, breezy day at the harbor. The sun was warm and the clouds few. It felt good to walk after several days of sitting in meetings.

I opted for Panera Bread for breakfast -- a strawberry smoothie and a yogurt parfait. Sounds healthy, right? Wrong.

One of Dr. Katz's points was that just because a product looks healthy, and the label claims it's healthy, doesn't necessarily mean it is healthy. The Yogurt parfait sign claimed whole grain oats and 4 grams of fiber, but left out the 12 grams of fat and 29 grams of sugar. A close look at the nutritional information for a grilled breakfast sandwich of egg and cheese revealed that the two items were not that different nutritionally. The sandwich offered a few more calories and a lot more sodium, but only one gram of sugar and 18 grams of protein.

The smoothie numbers were even more surprising, with almost 300 calories and a whopping 48 grams of sugar.

Dr. Katz recognizes that our society makes it very difficult to make nutritious choices. He advocates that everyone become a "food detective" and look beyond the front of the box to the small print on the nutrition label.

As a step toward addressing this societal deficiency, he and other nutrition scientists have created a system called NuVal. The Boston Globe reported last month, "Using an algorithm, NuVal takes the 'good’' nutrients, such as fiber, folate, and vitamins, and divides them by the 'not-so-good’ ingredients, including sugar, sodium, and trans fats to determine the score. Items are not weighed equally, as it depends on their effect on health outcomes. For example, trans fats can lower a NuVal score significantly...

"The NuVal system is available at more than 500 supermarkets across the country. The company expects to more than double that over the next year and expand into chains beyond Price Chopper in Massachusetts. So far, NuVal has rated over 30,000 products across the supermarket, including beverages, dairy, produce, meats and more. NuVal scores are on the shelf tags, next to the price of items, so consumers can calculate immediately how much nutrition they are getting for the price."

It's a pretty interesting idea and if it catches on, might go a long way toward demystifying food labels and making it easier to choose healthy foods.

Until the NuVal system makes it to the rest of the country, Dr. Katz says that it's best to choose foods with the fewest ingredients on their labels -- broccoli, for instance has only one, while some breakfast cereals have dozens. And watch out for partially hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup.

Please understand, I'm not picking on Panera Bread. They use organic non-fat yogurt in their smoothies and offer other good choices. And Panera provides their nutrition information online and in the store for anyone who asks for it. Not all restaurants do.

It really just means we all have to be aware and look beyond advertisements to find the best choices for ourselves and our families.

I saw a sign on my loop back to the hotel that made me smile. It was a sign for the Baltimore Public Works Museum. Over the sign, it read in smaller letters, "The Surprisingly Interesting..."

It pays to read the fine print.

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