During my 1970s childhood in South Dakota, my mom used to order something called the "Diet Plate." Common in most Sioux Falls–area and greater-Minnesota region restaurants, it consisted of a scoop of cottage cheese, a couple of canned peach halves still dripping syrup, a hamburger patty, some iceberg lettuce, and a sprig of parsley. Hungry yet?
While delicious by mid–20th century Midwestern standards, it wasn't nearly as calorie-restrictive as you'd think when compared to the chicken-fried steak and baked potato my dad was eating across the table. Still, the perception was that this was diet food, most likely because each element in the Diet Plate had a vague resemblance to another healthier foodstuff (except the hamburger, that is).
It'd be nice to think we've transcended the South Dakota Diet Plate. Sadly, this isn't the case. Even today, there are dozens of foods we fool ourselves into thinking are healthful when in truth they do nothing but pad our hips and arteries. Here are 9 of the worst offenders on your grocery store shelves.
It starts out as good stuff. Fat aside, there's the calcium and protein you find in all milk products, along with probiotics, which make it easier to digest for those with lactose issues. The only problem is that straight yogurt can be pretty bitter, so manufacturers load the stuff with sugar and masquerade those carbs as fruit in an effort to make the whole thing more palatable. Have a look at most flavored yogurt and you'll find the second ingredient to be sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. One container of Yoplait® Original Strawberry has 170 calories, with 5 grams of protein and 33 grams of carbohydrates, 27 of which are sugar. Oddly enough, these are the exact same nutrition facts for Yoplait's other, less healthy-sounding flavors, including Key Lime Pie and White Chocolate Raspberry.
Solution: Buy plain yogurt and flavor it yourself. You'd be amazed at how far a handful of raspberries or a tablespoon of honey will go to cut the bitter taste.
Whole-grain wheat is better for you than refined wheat. By keeping the bran and germ, you maintain the naturally occurring nutrients and fiber. But, for some reason, manufacturers constantly come up with new ways to lead you back to the refined stuff. One of their latest tricks is to refer to refined flour as "wheat flour" because, obviously, it's made of wheat. But just because it's wheat-based doesn't mean it's not refined. The distracted shopper can mistake this label for "whole wheat flour" and throw it in his cart. Another loaf of cruddy, refined, fiberless bread has a new home.
Solution: Slow down when you read the label. That word "whole" is an important one.
Just because you made the switch from red meat doesn't mean you're in the clear. Three ounces of raw chicken breast, meat only, has 93 calories, 19.5 grams of protein, and 1.2 grams of fat. Three ounces of dark meat (wings, thighs, and legs), meat only, has 105 calories, 18 grams of protein, and 3.6 grams of fat. It may not seem like much, but it adds up.
Solution: Go for the breast, and while you're at it, ditch the skin. It's nothing but fat.
Any food swimming in juice or "light syrup" isn't good for you. Furthermore, most canned fruit is peeled, meaning you're being robbed of a valuable source of fiber. Frozen fruit is a little trickier. Freezing preserves the fruit itself, but some manufacturers add sugar during the freezing process to preserve color and taste.
Solution: Read that ingredients list! You want it to say fruit, water—and that's it.
"What?!" you declare. "There's light syrup in canned string beans too?!" Nope—actually, they add salt to preserve this produce. A half-cup serving of canned string beans has approximately 300 to 400 milligrams of sodium.
Solution: Many companies offer "no salt added" options. If you can't find one to your liking, go frozen instead—many of these don't contain salt. Or better yet, buy what's fresh and in season.
Grind up peanuts, maybe add a little salt. How hard is it to make that taste good?
Apparently, it's so difficult that many companies feel compelled to add sugar or high-fructose corn syrup into the mix. Why? I don't know. Some manufacturers, such as Skippy®, are up front enough to admit this and call their product "Peanut Butter Spread," but many others still refer to this sugary concoction as good old "peanut butter."
Solution: Read the label. (There's a theme emerging here.) Considering real peanut butter has one ingredient—two ingredients, max—it shouldn't be too hard to figure it out.
The range in the nutritional value of store-bought juices is massive. On one end, you have "fruit drinks" with barely any actual juice in them. On the other end, you have fresh-squeezed, 100% preservative-free juices like Odwalla® and Naked Juice®. But no matter which you choose, it's important to remember that it's never going to be as healthy as whole fruit. And if you're trying to lose weight, it's a flat-out bad idea.
First off, it's been stripped of fiber, so you absorb it faster, which makes it more likely to induce blood sugar spikes. Secondly, you consume it faster and it's less filling, so you're more likely to drink more.
There are a few instances when juice is okay. For example, a home juicer can make predominately veggie-based drinks that are loaded with vitamins and minerals and lower in calories. If you're using this as part of a supervised juice fast, or you're trying to target a particular nutrient while concurrently not trying to lose weight, go for it. Otherwise, it's simply not worth it.
Solution: If you must buy it, go fresh-squeezed, but you're usually better off just skipping it entirely.
As is also the case with canned veggies, you're entering a sodium minefield. Half a cup of Campbell's® Chicken Noodle Soup has about 37% of the recommended daily allowance—and who eats half a cup?
Solution: Read those labels carefully. Most companies make low-sodium versions.
Dressing by definition is supposed to be fatty, and thus, highly caloric. You use a little bit of it, and in doing so, you get a healthy hit of the fats you need for a nutritionally balanced diet. Unfortunately, people prefer to buy fat-free versions so they can drown their greens while avoiding excess fat. Nothing's free. All this stuff does is replace the fat with carbs and salt, so you've basically gone from pouring a little healthy unsaturated fat on your salad to dumping on a pile of sugar.
Solution: Make your own salad dressing. One part vinegar and one part olive oil with a blob of Dijon mustard makes an awesome vinaigrette. And here's another trick: Make your salad in a sealable container, add a tiny bit of dressing, and shake it up. It'll coat so much more than tossing will.
And finally, make that salad with romaine lettuce, spinach, or some other nutrient-rich leafy green. As far as we're concerned, nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce should have gone the way of the South Dakota Diet Plate.
Note: Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
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What's with all the obsessing over protein lately? It seems like half the western world thinks too much protein will destroy their kidneys, make them pee ammonia, and rot their insides. The other half shovel down tons of the stuff, believing massive protein consumption is the only path to achieving epic hugeness.
There's a thin thread of truth to both of these assumptions, but for the most part they're oversimplifications. Let's set the record straight.
Protein is made up of amino acids, the body's primary building blocks. Muscles, bones, skin, internal organs, and enzymes—and much more—are all made of protein. Protein also regulates fluids and pH.
For your body to function at its best, it needs 20 different amino acids, 11 of those your body makes. The other nine—known as "essential amino acids"—come from your diet. (There used to be eight, but it was recently discovered that adults can't synthesize histidine.) Any protein that contains all nine essential amino acids in adequate levels is called a "complete protein."
Complete proteins are important because amino acids work as a team. If you're low on one essential amino acid, the rest of them can't do their jobs at an optimal level.
The easy answer—and some of you aren't going to like it—is to eat animal products. Just like us, animals are made of protein, including the nine essentials. (We're made of them too, technically, but we need to continually replenish them via diet.)
Luckily for those of us who aren't into the whole "animal hostility" thing, there are plenty of complete protein sources out there that are plant based. Hemp and soy contain all nine essential amino acids. You can also eat a combination of legumes (beans and peas) and grains to get all the essential amino acids. The classic example of this is rice and beans. (For the record, you don't need to eat them together. Just get them both at some point during the day.)
Of course, there's also the middle road. Eggs and dairy are both good complete protein sources.
From a dietary perspective, any complete protein will get the job done. It's what comes with the protein that you need to consider.
Eggs are a perfect example. Egg whites are about the purest source of protein you'll find in nature. No fat and minimal carbs. (Very few vitamins or minerals though, if you're keeping score.) Sometimes, that's pretty useful. You'll find egg whites in the P90X® and INSANITY® Nutrition Plans because we're trying to target exact macronutrient amounts.
The yolk, however, changes the game considerably. There's a little protein in yolks, but they're mostly fat—and they're loaded with micronutrients. So if you're looking for the maximum health benefit, your best bet is to eat the whole egg. But when you do that, it's important to note that you're getting a protein and a fat source.
In fact, most animal products will have a balance of fat and protein—and some of that fat is super-valuable. Fish, particularly salmon, anchovies, and sardines, are loaded with good, essential omega-3 fatty acids.
Plant-based protein tends to go the opposite direction. They're loaded with carbs. That's why a high-protein, vegan diet is almost impossible unless you want to fill up on isolated protein powder the whole day. I don't know about you, but I prefer getting most of my nutrition from real food, as opposed to a bunch of tubs.
Hold on, tiger, I was getting to that. When you get into sports nutrition, choosing specific sources of protein matters more. In fact, you're generally better off looking to supplements as opposed to whole foods.
When considering sports performance, dairy cows don't generally come to mind (unless you're a cowboy or you're just weird), but whey and casein—the two proteins derived from milk—are terrific supplements.
Whey protein is the fastest absorbing, making it great for quickly delivering protein into muscles after a workout so they can begin the recovery process. Before bed, casein is best. Because your muscles absorb casein slowly, it will feed them all night long. While the musclehead theory that the body catabolizes muscle in sleep unless you eat protein before bed is silly, current research shows that a little sleepy time casein can aid recovery.
You might also want to consider branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) if you're an exerciser on a P90X or INSANITY level. BCAAs appear to be the go-to amino acids for energy production in muscles during strenuous exercise. Also, a number of studies show that they inhibit muscle breakdown during intense exercise.1
Um, no. Unlike carbs and fat, the body has no way of storing protein. We are not protein camels. Excess amino acids are not turned into bonus muscle, nor are they "peed out," so emulating Eric Cartman is not the way to go, even if you want to look like beefcake. If you eat more protein than you need, it's converted into either glucose or adipose tissue (fat). In order to convert protein to glucose, it goes through a process called deamination, which produces ammonia, which is toxic to our cells, so it's converted to a substance called urea and excreted through urine. We don't pee out excess protein, just its stinky byproduct.
You're right. I'm geeking out. The general scientific consensus is that you can use about 30 grams of protein (for amino acid functions) in one sitting. That's about 4 ounces of meat. Of course, if you're larger than average, that number increases.2
Over a day, you need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. (Plenty of Internet "experts" confuse kilograms with pounds on this one. Pesky metric system. To determine your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.) If you're a heavy exerciser, that number climbs, peaking at 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, according to International Society of Sports Nutrition.3
Odds are, if you exercise regularly, you're somewhere in the middle, somewhere around 1.5 grams. If you're injured, sick, or really broken down, eat more protein. You need raw materials to repair yourself!
Remember, the body doesn't convert excess protein into giant muscles. And there are other issues that come up with overdoing protein for a prolonged period. This is one of the reasons we typically suggest people don't want Xers to go past six weeks on the Phase 1 Fat Shredder.
When you eat a protein-centric diet, you're also eating less carbs and fat, both of which tend to be the primary transports for vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and a host of other goodies. Also, going protein crazy can cause metabolic acidosis, when the body's fluids become overly acidic.4 So a brief high-protein phase for weight loss is okay, but don't go too far beyond a month or so. Finally, if you have existing kidney issues, a very high-protein diet can be harmful as the kidneys play a huge role in processing protein.
Protein is neither a magic muscle elixir nor a toxic kidney killer. If you're trying to get huge, realize that those tubs of targeted amino acids will only benefit you if they're part of a balanced diet. If you're trying to lose weight, stop avoiding fruits and veggies because they're "carbs" and eat less junk food (i.e., refined carbs). As is the case with most things, a good diet is all about balance.
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"Ask the Expert: How Many Calories Should I Be Eating?"
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In my mind, the only thing more painful than being an overweight child is being the parent of an overweight child.
As a recovering chubby kid myself, I still remember the constant schoolyard torment. (The name-calling variations were endless, but to this day, "fatso" still makes me wince.) The thought of my own daughter going through that is horrific. Luckily, she exercises regularly and eats reasonably well, so she doesn't have this issue.
Despite the fact that childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last three decades, heavy kids are still two to three times more likely to be bullied than their thinner peers.1
Then there are the health concerns. Weight issues can trigger cardiovascular difficulties, diabetes, bone and joint problems, and sleep apnea. According to the CDC, 70% of obese children ages 5 to 17 have either high blood pressure or high cholesterol. In other words, our kids are at risk of having heart attacks.2
So, what can we do? The solution is obvious. We need to get our kids to exercise daily and eat right.
A strategy that simple would be great . . . if we were raising dogs. When my dog gets a little chubby, I cut back on the kibble and take him for a few extra walks. Kids don't work that way. They have considerably more free will, not to mention they're under massive social pressure. Furthermore, you have the psychological hurdles to contend with. Calorie-deprivation diets should only be done in extreme circumstances under a dietician or nutritionist's supervision. Putting a child on a "diet" for weight loss sends a message about food that might lead to a lifetime of nutrition-related issues, including eating disorders. In fact, current research shows that restricting calories can actually cause kids to eat even more when they get the opportunity. The same holds true for junk food. Strictly denying it makes it all the more tempting.3 Think back to when you were a kid—how excited were you about doing exactly what your parents told you to do? Not so much.
And your attitude is crucial too. Tell a child that he or she is fat and you run the risk of being seen as another bully.
Fortunately, there are several very effective tools in your parenting toolbox that you can use to help your kids get healthy. Here are a few—we'd love to hear yours as well. You can email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pushing a child to drink water while you guzzle soda is the epitome of hypocrisy, yet I see this happen all the time at my daughter's school. Dr. William Sears points out in his great nutrition guide, The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood, "Children copy what their parents do, and they carry into adulthood their knowledge about the way their parents did things . . . Much of what kids learn in the early years of life will influence their behavior for as long as they live." If you want a healthy, fit family, start with yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, if you push a kid too hard, it'll backfire, so don't be a food Fascist. Instead, talk to them about good and bad choices. Find out what fruits and vegetables they like and make sure to always have those on hand. If they're old enough to know their way around a kitchen, teach them how to prepare them. Give them opportunities to make good choices and commend them when they do. Positive reinforcement can go a long way.
They're going to be exposed to junk food; it's a curse of the modern era. Stop fighting it and instead try to offer some balance. The dinner table is a great place to apply this practice. Serve a healthy meal, but don't force your child to eat it. And don't make threats like, "Eat your asparagus or you can't watch TV!" If they don't eat it, they don't eat it. They'll survive. One way to make sure your kid eats something nutritious is to always provide at least one sure-fire healthy food with each meal. For my daughter, as long as there are broccoli or cucumbers on the table, I know healthy produce will make it into her system.
Another method is to let your child have a say in what's on the table. Beachbody's Manager of Nutrition and Culinary Development, Ani Aratounians, always sets out at least two nutritious choices that satisfy the same need. "For example, I'll give them a choice of either a salad or steamed green beans," Aratounians explains. "They'll end up picking one."
If your child refuses to eat the nutritious meals you make, don't resort to mac n' cheese just to get some food in their system. You can always offer other healthy foods later on if dinner didn't work out, but your child, especially your overweight child, isn't going to die of starvation if they miss a meal because they're being stubborn.
I'm being a little subjective here, but nutrition is fascinating. I have yet to meet a kid who didn't want to know what food does inside the body. Start with this fun fact: the human digestive tract is 30 feet long. (That one always knocks them dead when I teach at schools.)
There is no shortage of great books that teach kids about nutrition. Three of my favorites are:
- Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food by Eric Schlosser and
Charles Wilson. A youth-oriented take on Schlosser's savage attack on the
junk food industry, Fast Food Nation.
- Omnivore's Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat, Young Readers Edition
by Michael Pollan. A great primer on nutrition that urges kids to become "food detectives."
- Good Enough to Eat: A Kid's Guide to Food and Nutrition by Lizzy Rockwell. A simple,
informative picture book for new readers.
But more importantly, talk to your kid. Read nutrition facts on boxes. Discuss why an apple is good but ice cream every day is bad. I allow my daughter to eat school lunch once a week, but I've also explained that many school lunch programs form chicken nuggets out of old battery hens from factory farms who can no longer produce eggs, and make them palatable by grinding them into paste and adding fillers. Oddly enough, she rarely elects to eat school lunch.
Getting the kids off the couch (or away from their phones) is the other challenge. For the most part, children have insane metabolisms. And when they're doing strenuous exercise, their ability to burn calories skyrockets. According to Dr. Sears, the average 70-pound child burns about 2,000 calories a day. If they're active, that goes up to about 2,300–2,500. That's a lot of food! If your child is overweight, there's just no need to formulate a calorie restriction.
You just need to provide healthy meal and snack options, and then get them out on their bike, onto the soccer field, or into the swimming pool. Weight loss will be inevitable. If your kid isn't motivated to do any of those things on their own, make it a family activity.
Helping your child get to a healthy weight isn't going to be as easy as helping Fido drop a few pounds, but it's easier than helping an adult lose weight. By the time you're a grown-up, you're hardwired in your tastes and the way you eat.
Furthermore, you're dealing with decades of stress, hormone imbalances, and abused organs. Then there's the fact that most people have jobs that prohibit hours and hours of fun and exercise.
Most kids don't have those problems. They're open books, hungry for guidance—and they have lots of time to exercise! Helping your kid lose weight can be a stressful experience given what's on the line, but it can also be an opportunity. The best ways to help your child all require communication, cooperation, and fun. As you take this journey together, you could come out as a happier, healthier family.
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(Makes 4 servings)
The FDA suggests cooking chicken to a temperature of 165° F. Chicken will continue to cook after it is removed from heat, so we recommend that it be removed from the grill at 160° F to prevent drying out.
Nutritional Information: (per serving)
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P90X/P90X2 Nutritional Information:
Body Beast Nutritional Information:
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