Home » Archives for Marcia Bristow

Author: Marcia Bristow

How is Your Sleep Hygiene?

Submitted by Ashley Simons

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Sleep is often taken for granted and undervalued. While it is recommended that adults receive 7-9 hours of sleep per night, only about 48% of adults actually achieve an amount of sleep that falls within that range.1 As for the remaining adults, 26% receive an average of 6-7 hours per night and the other 20% obtain 6 hours or less.1 This is a huge problem considering that sleep deprivation can be a stepping-stone to a variety of health issues including heart disease, hypertension, cerebrovascular disease, and obesity.1,2 Sleep hygiene refers to practices that enable people to achieve optimal sleep quality.3

Our sleep quality has diminished over time, coinciding with people working more and increased use of technology.1 Work, family, and other obligations can often take up most of our time, leaving sleep as more of a luxury rather than the necessity it is. Both the quantity and quality of sleep are important. Stress is often a contributor to poor sleep quality and can derive from a variety of circumstances, such as phone alerts in the middle of the night as well as uncompleted assignments or tasks.4 With adequate sleep we think more clearly and efficiently throughout the day. When sleep deprived, it is easier to make poor lifestyle choices, especially regarding food. A sleep-deprived brain may actually crave foods that are high-calorie and promote weight-gain.2

If you keep your brain deprived of its 7-9 hours, you could be putting yourself at risk for a variety of health complications.1,2 Some of the leading causes of death are related to heart health, which sleep directly impacts.1 People often rely on caffeine, which correlates to poor sleep.5 A study on college students demonstrated that those with poor sleep hygiene also drank caffeinated beverages regularly.5 Poor quality of sleep often leads to consumption caffeine – a cycle that can be difficult to break.5 Stimulants, like caffeine, can keep you alert day and night. Caffeine dependence and ongoing lack of sleep can be hazardous to your health.

There are several techniques to enhance sleep hygiene. Engaging in meditation practices such as abdominal breathing and guided imagery or establishing a daily exercise routine and healthy eating pattern can be useful in decreasing stress and increasing sleep quality.4 Decreasing or eliminating consumption of caffeinated beverages can substantially improve sleep quality.4,5 Sleep is essential and making time for it will help to improve your overall health.1,2

References:

  1. Covassin N, Singh P. Sleep duration and cardiovascular disease risk. Sleep Medicine Clinics. 2016;11(1):81-89.
  2. Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications. 2013;4.
  3. Buysse DJ. Sleep health: can we define it? Does it matter? Sleep. 2014;37(1):9-17.
  4. Royal K, Hunt S, Borst L, Gerard M. Sleep hygiene among veterinary medical students. J Education and Health Promotion. 2018;7(1)47.
  5. Lohsoonthorn V, Khidir H, Casillas G, Lertmaharit S, Tadesse MG, Pensuksan WC, Rattananupong T, Gelaye B, Williams MA. Sleep quality and sleep patters in relation to consumption of energy drinks, caffeinated beverages, and other stimulants among Thai college students. Sleep and Breathing. 2014;17(3):1017-1028.

Is It Ever Okay to Eat Added Sugar?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Sugar is one of the most vilified nutrients, and not without reason.  Sugar provides calories and carbohydrates that can fuel your muscles and brain, but on its own sugar doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals, or fiber.  When eaten in excess, it can contribute to weight gain and the development of Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.  Because of this, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating no more than 10% of your calories from added sugar.1 Some people take this even further, resorting to desperate measures like cleanse diets or avoiding all carbohydrates (since these are broken down into simple sugars during digestion).  Even if you try to keep a more balanced approach, you may find yourself worrying about the “sugars” line on the nutrition facts label, wondering if it’s ever okay to eat food that contains added sugar.

The answer is yes!  While it’s true that eating a lot of added sugar instead of nutrient-dense foods can harm your health, foods that contain sugar can fit into a balanced meal pattern. This is especially true if the sugar helps you eat other nutrient-dense foods.  For example, many people find plain yogurt too sour and prefer to get some protein and calcium from flavored yogurt that may be sweetened with sugar.  Sprinkling a little cinnamon and sugar over an apple is a great way to enjoy some fiber and vitamin C.  Using a salad dressing that contains a little sugar can help you enjoy a variety of fresh vegetables.

Sugar is also an important source of fuel for your body.  Your muscles and brain use glucose, a simple sugar, for energy.  Not having enough of this during the day can leave you feeling tired or shaky.  While your body breaks down all carbohydrate-rich foods (grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products) into glucose, if you need a quick source of fuel you may be better off eating something that contains sugar alone.  This is especially true if you’re going into an intense athletic event.  Food is digested more slowly when it contains fiber, fat, and protein, and it’s best to avoid these nutrients before or during an athletic event to prevent stomach problems.  Instead, one of the following will give your muscles quick fuel during activity:2

  • Jelly beans
  • Gatorade
  • Crackers with jam
  • Dried fruit
  • Toast with honey
  • Yogurt with fruit
  • Low-fat granola bar

These types of snacks are also convenient to carry and can be eaten relatively quickly, so the won’t slow you down.

Completely avoiding sugar can also set you up for even stronger food cravings that may become harder and harder to resist.  In one study, people who were dieting to lose weight had more cravings than those who were just “monitoring” what they ate to maintain their weights.  The more they restricted their food choices, the more cravings they experienced.  On the other hand, those who didn’t restrict any particular foods reported fewer cravings.3 Other studies have shown that people who feel guilt after eating sweets, especially chocolate, feel less control over their food choices and have more difficulty maintaining their weight in the long term.4 This suggests that allowing yourself to enjoy a small amount of something sweet when you’re really craving it will be better in the long run, because you won’t have to manage as many cravings in the future.

Avoiding sugar takes its most extreme form as Orthorexia Nervosa (ON).  Although it isn’t officially recognized as an eating disorder, ON is considered a form of disordered eating in which someone is so fixated on eating “healthy” foods that it actually damages their overall health and wellness.5 Someone with ON may start out by avoiding added sugar but eventually move towards avoiding entire food groups they consider unhealthy or “impure.”6 Not everyone who is concerned about added sugar is destined to develop ON, but it is important to be aware of this possibility and remind yourself to be flexible in your food choices.  Sugar can have a place in a balanced meal pattern, especially when you are enjoying sweets as part of a celebration or social event.  This won’t lead to negative health consequences, but avoiding certain foods or feeling guilty after eating them could.

Instead of completely eliminating added sugar from your meal pattern, incorporate it in moderation.  Recognize that sugar can be valuable if it helps you

  • satisfy an occasional craving
  • enjoy nutritious foods
  • or get quick fuel during a strenuous workout.

When eating added sugar, eat consciously and savor the experience.  If you’re having trouble balancing sources of added sugar with other, nutrient-dense foods, make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian who can help you enjoy sugar in moderation while meeting your nutrient needs.

References:

  1.  A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns – 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines – health.gov. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/chapter-1/a-closer-look-inside-healthy-eating-patterns/#callout-balance. Accessed June 11, 2018.
  2.  Archer E. In Defense of Sugar: A Critique of Diet-Centrism. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. May 2018. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2018.04.007
  3.  Massey A, Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite. 2012;58(3):781-785. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.01.020
  4.  Kuijer RG, Boyce JA. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014;74:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013
  5.  Orthorexia | National Eating Disorders Association. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia. Accessed June 7, 2018.
  6.  Dunn TM, Bratman S. On orthorexia nervosa: A review of the literature and proposed diagnostic criteria. Eat Behav. 2016;21:11-17. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.12.006

Let’s Talk About Fats

Submitted by: Jessica Ball

Edited by: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Fats have always been a controversial topic, even though everyone needs dietary fats to survive. Fat in our body is more than just stored calories; it is in the membranes of each of our cells. Even our nerves need fats to be healthy!1 There are two main types of fats in the foods that we eat: unsaturated and saturated fats. Each has a separate effect on how fat is utilized in our body.

Fat is carried through the bloodstream by two different types of cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) and low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). LDLs are messier in their delivery of fats. Their spilling contributes to fatty buildup and narrowing of your arteries, increasing your risk of heart disease.2 However, this excess fat from LDLs is cleaned up and brought to the liver by HDLs. This reduces the possibility of buildup in your arteries and chance of chronic illness.2

Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature and include olive and canola oil. Also, nuts, avocados and fish oils are nutrient-dense sources of unsaturated fats. Including these types of fat in your diet increases HDLs and lowers LDLs in your blood, which has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease.3.4 Saturated fats are easy to identify because they are typically solid at room temperature. Meat, dairy and other animal products contain saturated fats. However, not all saturated fats are found in animal products. For example, palm oil and coconut oil are plant sources of saturated fats. It is important to limit consumption of these kinds of fats because they may decrease HDLs and increase LDLs in your blood and ultimately contribute to heart disease.3

Coconut oil, a plant source, has 50% more saturated fat than butter.5 So what’s all the fuss about coconut oil if it has such a high amount of saturated fat? Some recent studies have found that coconut oil is less efficient to digest than other fats, so it might promote the rate at which you burn calories and contribute to fullness. This may slightly promote weight loss, but the majority of studies are done on animals so the effect on humans is unclear.Coconut oil may increase HDLs, like unsaturated fats, and also increase LDLs, similar to saturated fats.5

Here’s the bottom line: eat more of the high-quality unsaturated fats, such as nuts, seeds, oils, fish and avocados. Moderate your intake of coconut oil, full-fat dairy, unprocessed meats and other saturated fats.

References:

  1. Harvard Health Publishing. The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between – Harvard Health. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-truth-about-fats-bad-and-good. Accessed May 8, 2018.
  2. HDL (good), LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/HDLLDLTriglycerides/HDL-Good-LDL-Bad-Cholesterol-and-Triglycerides_UCM_305561_Article.jsp. Accessed February 16, 2018.
  3. Willett WC. Dietary fats and coronary heart disease. J Intern Med 2012;272(1):13-24.
  4. Willett WC. The Mediterranean diet: science and practice. Public Health Nutr 2006;9(1a).
  5. Coconut oil – what’s behind the “health halo”. Today’s Dietitian. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/1016p32.shtml. Accessed February 16, 2018.

Carbohydrate Back-Loading and the Importance of Evidence-Based Nutrition Recommendations

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

In the world of nutrition news, the topic of carbohydrates is one of the most confusing and controversial you’ll find right now.  Depending on the source, the recommendations range from entirely avoiding all carbohydrates to limiting yourself to certain types but not others.  If you’re following the trends, you might have heard about carbohydrate back-loading for losing weight and preserving muscle mass.  In regards to this blog, I am reminded of a quote I once read, “Be careful what you read, you might die of a misprint someday!”  Regardless, here is the information on Carb Back-Loading.

Carbohydrate back-loading is detailed in a book by John Kiefer, a “training and nutrition consultant” whose qualifications include having “read over 40,000 medical research papers covering various facets of human biology.”1 In short, Kiefer advises to avoid eating any carbohydrates until immediately after an evening workout that focuses on resistance exercise.  After the workout, you should eat large quantities of carbohydrates, especially “junk” carbohydrates because they have a higher glycemic index and will be more readily absorbed into your muscles.1

Foods like white bread, potatoes, candy, and sugar-sweetened drinks are said to have a high glycemic index because they raise your blood sugar quickly after you eat them.  Foods with a low glycemic index contain a mix of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber, and will cause your blood sugar to rise slowly and stay more even over time.  Kiefer actually says to avoid carbohydrates with a low glycemic index after a workout.  He says they will create a prolonged increase in blood sugar levels, which will prevent your body from releasing growth hormone while you sleep and therefore limit the amount of lean tissue building that would occur overnight.  On the other hand, he argues, the blood sugar crash that occurs after eating high glycemic index foods will ensure that your overnight growth hormone release will be normal.1 The problem with this theory is that blood sugar levels still remain high several hours after finishing a high glycemic index meal, and blood sugar may even return to normal more quickly after eating a meal that contains more fiber and protein, and thus has a lower glycemic index.2

Kiefer also claims that your cells are most insulin-sensitive in the morning, so when you eat carbohydrates at this time your body quickly stores them in both your muscle and fat cells.  He says that skipping breakfast and avoiding carbohydrates during the day will promote fat burning by preventing your body from storing calories in fat cells, and by allowing another hormone, cortisol, to stimulate fat breakdown. When you do eat during the day, he recommends continuing to avoid carbohydrates, instead focusing on lean meat and low-carbohydrate vegetables like asparagus, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini, and bell peppers.1

With this argument, Kiefer is overlooking a few essential points about the cortisol.  Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s released when the body needs energy.  It does trigger the breakdown of fat stores, but it also stimulates the breakdown of muscle to be used as energy.  Eating carbohydrates prevents muscle breakdown because the body uses those carbohydrates for energy first.  Kiefer also implies that muscle protein breakdown doesn’t happen unless cortisol is “constantly elevated like during chronic stress,”1 however, this is untrue.  Cortisol acts on all cells, and doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle when converting stored fuel into usable energy.  Additionally, to ensure that there is plenty of fuel in the bloodstream cortisol actually increases your appetite, which would make it much more difficult to avoid eating during the first half of the day.3,4

Kiefer’s final major argument is that you should do resistance training at night because resistance training makes your muscle cells able to absorb carbohydrates without needing insulin.  Since your other cells are least insulin sensitive at night, waiting to eat carbohydrates until after a resistance workout would ensure that those carbohydrates are stored only in muscle.  While he does include protein-rich foods in the post-workout meal, he only highlights the importance of eating carbohydrates to replenish muscle glycogen stores to prepare for the next workout. Training earlier in the day wouldn’t have the same impact, because your cells would be more sensitive to insulin and you would end up storing carbohydrates in both your muscle and fat.1

In addition to the factual inaccuracies scattered throughout Kiefer’s argument, the entire theory of carbohydrate back-loading goes against most nutritional biochemistry knowledge.  To begin with, once the body has reached its capacity for carbohydrate storage in the muscles, liver, and kidneys, any additional carbohydrates eaten will be stored as fat no matter when those carbohydrates are eaten, or if they are high or low glycemic index foods.  This means that even after a tough resistance workout, people still need to be conscious of the amount of calories they take in to prevent those calories to be stored as fat.  Furthermore, insulin will still be released when you eat carbohydrate-rich foods after a workout.  It’s possible that your muscle cells would take in more of the carbohydrates than your fat cells at this time, but there is no way to simply “turn off” the storage of carbohydrates in fat.

At the same time, there are many studies that directly oppose the idea that you should eat all of your carbohydrates at night.  One study in particular showed that dietary-induced thermogenesis, or the number of calories burned by digesting food, was higher when the majority of food was eaten in the first half of the day, and people eating larger morning meals lost almost twice as much weight during the course of the study than those who ate larger evening meals.5 Another study suggests that people who eat a high-carbohydrate breakfast every day are more likely to maintain weight loss and less likely to experience food cravings throughout the day.6

Throughout the book Kiefer takes an aggressive tone that seems to imply that anyone who questions his plan simply doesn’t have enough discipline.  He tells condescending stories about people who have “incorrectly” followed his carbohydrate back-loading plan, belittling the efforts that they did make without offering any suggestions for how they could make the plan effective for their lifestyles.  It’s well known that the mindset of being either “on” or “off” of a diet actually has worse health outcomes than creating sustainable lifestyle changes that fit within a person’s preferences.  The type of dichotomous thinking that Kiefer encourages ultimately leads to more weight gain, less enjoyment of food and eating, and can even trigger an eating disorder in someone who is predisposed to developing one.7

All in all, carbohydrate back-loading is an interesting idea that is ultimately not backed up by nutrition science.  Instead of trying to follow a restrictive eating pattern developed by someone whose main credential is having read research studies, listen to the recommendations that are known to be true.  Focus on creating a balanced meal pattern that allows you to feel satisfied and enjoy the meals you’re eating while staying within your calorie and macronutrient needs.  That meal pattern will include:

  1. A variety of whole grains that provide carbohydrates to fuel your workouts, in addition to fiber and other vitamins and minerals
  2. Fruits and vegetables that are full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants
  3. Lean protein to help build and maintain your muscle mass
  4. Fish, nuts, avocados, olive oil, or other unsaturated fat as sources of healthy fat

Keep in mind, you can always seek out a Registered Dietitian to provide you with individualized recommendations tailored to your lifestyle to ensure that you’re meeting your unique needs as best as possible.  After all, just because a program or plan works for one person does not necessarily mean it will work for you.

References:

  1.  Kiefer J. Carb Back-Loading Manual for Total Body Fat Control. 1.0. John Kiefer; 2012.
  2.  Yalçın T, Al A, Rakıcıoğlu N. The effects of meal glycemic load on blood glucose levels of adults with different body mass indexes. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2017;21(1):71-75. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.195995
  3.  Christiansen JJ, Djurhuus CB, Gravholt CH, et al. Effects of Cortisol on Carbohydrate, Lipid, and Protein Metabolism: Studies of Acute Cortisol Withdrawal in Adrenocortical Failure. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2007;92(9):3553-3559. doi:10.1210/jc.2007-0445
  4.  All About Cortisol. Precision Nutrition. https://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-cortisol. Published March 2, 2009. Accessed May 14, 2018.
  5.  Raynor HA, Li F, Cardoso C. Daily pattern of energy distribution and weight loss. Physiol Behav. February 2018. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2018.02.036
  6.  Jakubowicz D, Froy O, Wainstein J, Boaz M. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids. 2012;77(4):323-331. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2011.12.006
  7.  Palascha A, van Kleef E, van Trijp HCM. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol. 2015;20(5):638-648. doi:10.1177/1359105315573440

Ice Cream with a (Health) Halo?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

It’s not uncommon to have a craving for something sweet at the end of the day, and many people now satisfy that craving by turning to a low-calorie ice cream.  In 2017, Halo Top beat out household names like Breyers, Hood, Haagen Daas, and even Vermont’s own Ben and Jerry’s to become the number one selling brand of ice cream in grocery stores.1 Halo Top’s claim to fame is their low-sugar, low-calorie ice cream that contains between 280 and 360 calories and 20-24 grams of protein per pint.2

When you compare Halo Top’s nutrient content to that of other ice creams on the shelves, it’s easy to see why people gravitate towards this option.  A ½-cup serving of their vanilla bean contains 70 calories, 2 grams of fat, 6 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein.2 On the other hand, ½ cup of Ben and Jerry’s vanilla bean contains 250 calories, 16 grams of fat, 20 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of protein.3 Ben and Jerry’s is working on a low-calorie version of their own called Moo-phoria, but even that doesn’t compare to Halo Top.  A ½-cup serving of Moo-phoria Chocolate Milk & Cookies contains 140 calories, 4.5 grams of fat, 15 grams of sugar, and 3 grams of protein.4

Halo Top keeps their calorie and sugar content so low because their ice cream is primarily sweetened with erythritol, a low-calorie sugar alcohol.  Sugar alcohols are molecules that have a similar structure to regular sugar, so they still taste sweet but aren’t metabolized the same way sugar is.5 Some sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, have the reputation of causing digestive problems.  These sweeteners aren’t absorbed in your small intestine, so they continue on to your large intestine where they are broken down by your gut bacteria, which draws water into your intestine and causes diarrhea.  Unlike those sugar alcohols, most of the erythritol you eat is absorbed in your small intestine, entering your blood stream where it circulates for a while before you excrete it in your urine.6 This means you’re a lot less likely to get an upset stomach after eating it.

Erythritol is also lower in calories than other sugar alcohols.  While regular sugar contains 4 calories per gram and xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, one gram of erythritol contains only 0.24 calories.  Studies have also shown that it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels or increase insulin release, making it a potential alternative for people with diabetes who want something sweet.5,6 In one study, 20 subjects ate meals that contained table sugar and meals that contained erythritol.  Researchers found that erythritol didn’t affect the satiety hormones released after eating, and subjects’ blood sugars did not rise as much after eating the erythritol meal.  Additionally, the amount subjects ate at their next meal didn’t differ when they ate food with table sugar or erythritol.  This was a small study, so more research is needed to confirm these findings; however, they’re significant because previous research has found that people eat more later in the day after consuming other low-calorie and artificial sweeteners like aspartame.7

Taken together, all of this suggests that Halo Top could be a good alternative to other, higher-calorie sweets, especially if you’re working to lose weight, maintain weight loss, or monitor your blood sugar.  However, be careful not to get swept up in the glow of Halo Top’s health halo.  You might say a food has a health halo if it seems to have more nutritional value than it actually does because marketing highlights one particular nutrient it contains (low-calorie, high-protein, etc.) or a certain quality of the food (local, organic, etc.).8 When people see foods marketed this way, they tend to over-estimate the health benefits they provide and underestimate the calorie, fat, or sugar content.  Halo Top’s marketing draws on the health halo effect by putting the spotlight on its lower calorie and higher protein content, making people forget that it is a highly processed food that doesn’t contain any other nutrients, like vitamins, minerals, or antioxidants.

At the same time, Halo Top’s advertising heavily implies that it is the only dessert you can eat without feeling guilty about your food choices, while encouraging you to eat the entire (4 serving) pint in one sitting.  The idea that you should feel guilty for eating certain foods is counterproductive not only for your overall health, but also for weight maintenance or loss.  Feelings of guilt after eating “treats,” especially chocolate, are associated with higher amounts of dysfunctional eating, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and body dissatisfaction.  Additionally, people who associate chocolate with feelings of guilt tend to gain more weight and have less confidence about choosing and preparing healthy meals than people who have a neutral attitude towards chocolate.9

Halo Top may satisfy a sweet craving, and those 60 calories and 6 grams of protein per ½ cup serving may fit into a meal plan that meets your calorie needs, but could a better choice be made?  Absolutely.  A more balanced approach would be to choose a dessert with more nutritional value that doesn’t promote the idea that you’re doing something “wrong” by indulging in sweets.  Homemade silken mousse with a scoop of protein powder and ¼ cup of fresh raspberries, a baked apple stuffed with ¼ cup cooked quinoa and topped with ½ cup of Greek yogurt and 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts, or one of these oat bran banana muffins topped with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter would all provide similar calories and protein with more vitamins and minerals than a pint of Halo Top.  This way you can satisfy your craving, savor the experience, and get more nutritional value per serving.  Give it a try!

References:

  1.  Halo Top Is Now the Most Popular Pint of Ice Cream in America | Food & Wine. http://www.foodandwine.com/desserts/halo-top-most-popular-ice-cream-pint-in-us. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  2.  Dairy Flavors. HALO TOP. https://www.halotop.com/flavors/. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  3.  Vanilla Ice Cream | Ben & Jerry’s. https://www.benjerry.com. https://www.benjerry.com:443/flavors/vanilla-ice-cream. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  4.  Moo-phoria Light Ice Cream. https://www.benjerry.com. https://www.benjerry.com:443/flavors/moophoria. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  5.  Erythritol – Like Sugar Without The Calories. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/erythritol. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  6.  What is erythritol? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318392.php. Accessed March 26, 2018.
  7.  Overduin J, Collet T-H, Medic N, et al. Failure of sucrose replacement with the non-nutritive sweetener erythritol to alter GLP-1 or PYY release or test meal size in lean or obese people. Appetite. 2016;107:596-603. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.09.009
  8.  Tierney J. Health Halo Can Hide the Calories. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/02/science/02tier.html. Published December 1, 2008. Accessed April 9, 2018.
  9.  Kuijer RG, Boyce JA. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014;74:48-54. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.013

My Meal Kit Experiment

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Meal kits definitely take the guesswork out of cooking dinner.  Signing up for a subscription to a meal kit means that every week, you’ll receive a box with all the ingredients you’ll need to make 2-6 meals that serve 2-4 people.  There are lots of different meal kit services available.  After writing this blog, which breaks down the features of some (not all) popular meal kit options, I decided to try some of them out for myself.  Here are my impressions of each one.

Green Chef – $26.98 for the first week, $71.94 – 98.94 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Spanish Egg ‘n’ Hash with Saffron-Porcini Spices, Potato, Carrots, and Arugula
  •        Tamari-Glazed Salmon with Wasabi Edamame, Rice and Pickled Ginger, and Bok Choy
  •        Italian Mushroom Bowl with Lentils, Tomatoes, Kale, Basil Pesto, and Parmesan Fricos

Green Chef was the first meal kit I tried, and it was certainly impressive.  The ingredients were familiar but prepared in ways that I had never tried before, so the recipes felt novel.  Even so, the cooking techniques required were not difficult.  None of the recipes took more than about 45 minutes to make and they were easy to follow.  Many of the vegetables were also sent pre-cut, which helped reduce the cooking time even more.

The three recipes were very filling, averaging about 600 calories per serving.  Additionally, some of the plastic containers used for packaging were re-useable, so it didn’t feel like the meal kit generated a lot of waste.

The most significant downside to Green Chef is the cost.  After the introductory rate, the omnivore plan is about $80 per week.  The vegetarian plan is the least expensive option at about $72 per week.  It’s also important to note that Green Chef does not allow you to choose the specific recipes you’ll receive each week, although you can change your dietary preferences to exclude a certain ingredient if you don’t like one of the recipes you’re scheduled to get that week.

Sun Basket – $33.94 for the first week, $71.94 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Salmon in Parchment with Shiitakes and Mango-Cucumber Salad
  •        Miso Ramen Bowls with Braised Tofu and Bok Choy
  •        Quinoa and Kale Fritters with Sweet Potato-Mushroom Hash

Sun Basket did not disappoint with the variety and flavor of their recipes.  The number of ingredients each recipe called for felt manageable, and every meal was delicious.  Pre-made spice blends, sauces, and marinades helped to add an interesting dimension to each meal.  Out of all the meal kits I tried, Sun Basket introduced me to the widest range of new flavors.  A third bonus of this service is that Sun Basket sends you the recipes for all of the week’s possible recipes, so you could potentially re-create them on your own if you feel inspired.

These recipes were also very satisfying, averaging about 550 calories per serving.  I easily shared one among three people and did not feel like I had under-eaten.  The meals were also relatively high in protein, ranging from 16-44 grams per serving.

Some of the recipes I made with Sun Basket were rather challenging.  The recipes required a lot of steps that were not always the easiest to follow.  One recipe in particular took almost two hours to finish.  For this reason, Sun Basket would probably be best for two people cooking together, or for someone who has more time to spend perfecting a meal.

Blue Apron – $24.94 for the first week, $59.94 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Spiced Cauliflower and Jasmine Rice with Poblano Pepper and Cilantro-Yogurt Sauce
  •        Crispy Buttermilk Catfish with Roasted Delicata Squash
  •         Spicy Poblano and Mushroom Quesadillas with Baby Romaine and Avocado Salad
  •         Penne Pasta and Beef Bolognese with Pecorino Cheese

Although I only ordered one box for my introductory week with Blue Apron, I arrived home to find that the meal kit service had mailed me three!  The customer service representative who answered my confused phone call was highly amused by the situation and told me that I could keep all three boxes for no additional charge.  I later received a handwritten card thanking me for being a Blue Apron customer.

These meals were all very straightforward, with the recipes broken down into simple steps that included photos to follow along with.  It took between 30 and 45 minutes to make these meals, and they were easy to complete by myself.

Similar to the other meal kit services, these meals averaged about 630 calories per serving.  Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that any of these recipes introduced me to any new spices, ingredients, or cooking techniques.  The recipes also seemed to be lacking in whole grains, which was reflected in their relatively low fiber content of 7-12 grams per serving.  I was also surprised by the number of times the recipes stated to “season with salt and pepper.”  This direction appeared between four and seven times in each of the recipes I was sent, and I would have preferred to see the recipes flavored with herbs or spices instead.

Plated – $31.85 for the first week, $71.70 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Roasted Vegetable Tikka with Toasted Naan, Sautéed Spinach, and Coconut Chutney
  •        Fish Tacos with Avocado Sauce and Crunchy Slaw
  •       Maple-Roasted Delicata Squash with Burrata and Quinoa-Arugula Salad

Of all the meal kit recipes I tried, the Roasted Vegetable Tikka ended up being my favorite because of the delicious blend of spices and the variety of vegetables it included.  I found that each recipe contained a pleasant balance of flavors and textures, and I appreciated the combination of raw and cooked vegetables in each meal.

Overall, the recipes were relatively easy to follow.  The directions were broken down into six steps, and each step was accompanied by a photo.  It took about an hour to finish cooking each meal.

The dinners Plated provided could easily have made leftovers or been divided among three people, averaging about 830 calories per serving.  This would be important to keep in mind if you are working to reduce your calorie intake.  Aside from this, the most significant downside of Plated is that the majority of the ingredients are sent in plastic bags.  These can be recycled at most grocery stores, however, it would be ideal if they could provide some reusable containers instead.

Purple Carrot – about $45 for the first week, $72 – 78 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Refried Butternut Tacos
  •        Fall Vegetable Hash
  •        Loaded Burritos

Purple Carrot is an entirely vegan meal kit service.  When I signed up, I immediately skipped the first week of delivery and didn’t get the introductory discount they offer, which would be important to keep in mind if you’d like to try this service.

Without knowing ahead of time, it would have been difficult to identify that these recipes were all vegan.  The recipes were unique and required me to use ingredients in ways I would never have considered before.  For example, the tacos were topped with roasted grapes, adding an element of sweetness that nicely complemented the butternut squash.  That recipe also led me to try plantains for the first time.

The recipes were broken down into six manageable steps and were fun to cook.  I really enjoyed the combinations of ingredients they put together, especially because the result was that I tried many new vegetables that I wouldn’t usually have cooked with.  This meal kit would be an excellent introduction to vegan cooking for someone who is typically a meat-eater.  As an added bonus, almost all of the containers Purple Carrot sends are re-useable, so this meal kit feels less wasteful than some of the others.

These meals could easily serve more than two people, averaging about 800 calories per serving.  It was surprising to see that the recipes’ protein content ranged from 8 – 39 grams per serving.  I had expected that a vegan meal kit service would make an effort to provide high-protein meals each night rather than allowing such a wide discrepancy.

Hello Fresh – About $20 for the first week, $59.94 for subsequent weeks of 3 meals for 2 people

Recipes Made:

  •        Shepherd’s Pie with Mushrooms, Peas, and Roasted Carrots
  •        Bell Pepper and Black Bean Quesadillas with an Arugula and Heirloom Tomato Salad
  •        Butternut Squash Agnolotti with Kale in a Sage Brown Butter Sauce

Hello Fresh’s recipes were fun to make, taking about 45 minutes each.  The recipes were not complicated, and it was easy to follow the six-step directions.  Overall, the meals I made with Hello Fresh felt like familiar comfort foods, and it would probably be impossible not to find something you like in their recipe database.

This meal kit service advertises that their recipes are approved by a Registered Dietitian, and this is reflected in the meals’ nutrient facts.  The recipes average about 600 calories per serving and contain a variety of vegetables.  Hello Fresh would be a great choice for someone looking for quick, delicious dinners.  I was a little disappointed that the recipes didn’t include a wider variety of herbs, spices, or unusual ingredients, as it felt like the recipes sent by the meal kit were very similar to the types of dinners I would prepare on my own.

Final Impressions

My meal kit experiment was a lot of fun.  Meal kits definitely make dinner preparation a lot easier by reducing the amount of time you will spend planning meals, shopping for ingredients, and actually cooking.  For the most part, the recipes are all broken down into simple steps, which can really help increase your confidence if you don’t always feel comfortable cooking new things.  Best of all, meal kits offer a low-risk opportunity to try unfamiliar foods.

Each meal kit service offers its own variety of positives and drawbacks, and the service that works for one person may not be ideal for someone else.  If you’d like to try a meal kit, think about the amount you’re willing to spend each week and the types of recipes you want to make.  If you’re having trouble making up your mind, pick a few you’d like to try and make up your mind after you’ve sampled some.  Just make sure you skip one meal kit on the weeks that you’re getting the other one delivered.  If you’re not sure about keeping the meal kit, it’s also a good idea to skip the next few weeks after you order the introductory box.  You can always go back and “un-skip” them later, but this way you will have time to cancel the service before you’re locked-in and charged for the next week’s box.

Stomach Growling? Blame Ghrelin

Submitted by: Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by: Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

It’s an unfortunate fact that, when it comes to losing weight, many people end up re-gaining the weight they lost and sometimes more.  This trend is common with crash diets where people temporarily restrict certain food groups and/or carefully control calorie intake.  This dietary trend often leads to resuming old eating habits once the diet is “done”.  However, even people who make gradual dietary changes and incorporate more activity into their lifestyles may be unable to maintain weight loss.  One study found that only about 1 in 6 people who were overweight or obese were able to maintain a 10% weight loss for over a year.1 This difficulty maintaining weight loss could be related to a hormone called ghrelin.

Ghrelin is a hormone produced by the stomach when food has not been eaten for a period of time. Ghrelin is then sent to your brain to stimulate your appetite.  High ghrelin levels also promote the storage of energy as fat tissue.  After eating, ghrelin levels decrease the hunger signal and a sense of fullness or satiety results.  When someone purposefully eats less to promote weight loss, ghrelin levels go up throughout the day and aren’t as impacted by eating.2 One particular study found that ghrelin levels increased by 24% after people dieted for six months, and other studies suggest that ghrelin continues to increase as diets go on.3 This phenomenon was once critical for the survival of our hunter/gatherer ancestors, since it signaled the need to find food when it wasn’t readily available, and helped humans store calories to draw upon in a time of famine.  Now that food is plentiful, ghrelin may be more problematic than helpful.

Researchers have been looking for eating patterns that might help prevent this increase in ghrelin to make long-term weight loss sustainable for more people.  One study measured ghrelin levels and food cravings in people following meal patterns designed to facilitate weight loss.  One group ate three low carbohydrate, high protein meals each day, and the other group ate a high carbohydrate breakfast and low carbohydrate, high protein lunch and dinner.  The two groups ate the same number of calories each day.  Researchers found that people experienced fewer food cravings and had lower ghrelin levels when they ate a high carbohydrate breakfast.  The low carbohydrate breakfast group lost slightly more weight during the course of the study, but regained more than half of the weight they lost within four months after the study ended.  On the other hand, the high carbohydrate breakfast group continued to lose weight after the study ended, losing an average of 45 pounds over 8 months.2

Getting enough sleep, choosing a balanced meal pattern, and engaging in regular physical activity can all help keep ghrelin levels low.  Studies suggest that lack of sleep promotes ghrelin production, leading to hunger and cravings throughout the day.  Increased muscle mass and regular protein intake have also been associated with lower ghrelin levels.3

People working to lose weight should meet with a Registered Dietitian, who will provide support and recommendations tailored to their unique lifestyle.  A dietitian will calculate the number of calories someone needs to eat in a day and collaboratively develop a meal plan that will facilitate weight loss while the person to meets their calorie and nutrient needs.  Through this collaboration, the dietitian will discover times of the day when their client might feel more hungry or crave certain foods and develop strategies to help them prevent hunger, distract themselves from the craving, and achieve their weight loss goals.

References:

  1.  Montesi L, El Ghoch M, Brodosi L, Calugi S, Marchesini G, Dalle Grave R. Long-term weight loss maintenance for obesity: a multidisciplinary approach. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes Targets Ther. 2016;9:37-46. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S89836
  2.  Jakubowicz D, Froy O, Wainstein J, Boaz M. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids. 2012;77(4):323-331. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2011.12.006
  3.  Ghrelin: The “Hunger Hormone” Explained. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/ghrelin. Accessed January 29, 2018.

Artificial Sweeteners and Your Brain

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

From sugar-free candy to diet soda, artificial sweeteners are everywhere.  Whether you’re trying to limit your sugar intake to lose weight, you have diabetes, or are working to promote your overall health, you might choose foods made with artificial sweeteners because they contain fewer calories than foods made with sugar.  Unfortunately, recent studies have shown that consuming artificial sweeteners may not actually be as health promoting as you might think.

When you eat sugar, a pathway in your brain is activated that ultimately causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that signals pleasure.  Dopamine is considered an essential part of the reward pathway in the brain, and it’s part of the reason that sugary foods taste so good to people.  Your brain releases dopamine when you take the first bite of something sweet, but as you continue eating it your body releases other hormones to signal that you aren’t hungry anymore.1,2

Recently, researchers have investigated how artificial sweeteners, which taste sweet but do not provide your body with any calories, might impact this reward pathway.  It appears that the reward pathway is only fully activated when a sweet taste is accompanied by calories.2–4 Researchers found that hungry mice consistently chose food that contained real sugar, and therefore also contained calories, instead of the artificially sweetened food.  They believe this is because the hormones signaling that you are no longer hungry are only released when the sugar in the sweet food you eat is converted into glucose for your cells to use as fuel.2

If you regularly consume artificial sweeteners, it appears that the reward pathway in your brain could be thrown off so food that contains real sugar will become even more rewarding, making you want to eat more in general.5,6 This may explain why people who consume more artificial sweeteners tend to have a higher body mass index, and people do not tend to lose much weight by switching from caloric to artificial sweeteners.  The pleasant taste of the artificial sweeteners activates the dopamine reward pathway, but because that taste is not accompanied by calories the pathway is not turned off.  As a result, you will continue to look for food until you’ve satisfied your body’s need for calories.7

Research in this area is still evolving, so it will be important to continue learning about new findings related to the influence of artificial sweeteners’ on the brain’s reward pathway.  In the meantime, limit the amount of artificial sweeteners you consume.  Choose whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible.  If you’re a diet soda-drinker, consider switching to unsweetened iced tea or sparkling water flavored with a splash of fruit juice or infused with some fresh fruit.  This will help you stay hydrated and you might find that you have more energy as a result.  If you’re craving a sweet snack, try some fresh fruit with nut butter, a handful of trail mix that contains raisins or other dried fruit, or some yogurt with a little granola.  These foods will satisfy your craving while providing other important nutrients, making them great options for anyone looking to manage their weight and promote overall health.

References:

  1.  Murray S, Tulloch A, Criscitelli K, Avena NM. Recent studies of the effects of sugars on brain systems involved in energy balance and reward: Relevance to low calorie sweeteners. Physiol Behav. 2016;164:504-508. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.04.004
  2.  Kirkwood C, Kirkwood C. Tricking Taste Buds but Not the Brain: Artificial Sweeteners Change Brain’s Pleasure Response to Sweet. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/mind-guest-blog/tricking-taste-buds-but-not-the-brain-artificial-sweeteners-change-braine28099s-pleasure-response-to-sweet/. Accessed February 26, 2018.
  3.  Brain cannot be fooled by artificial sweeteners; higher likelihood of sugar consumption later — ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/09/130922205933.htm. Accessed February 27, 2018.
  4.  Tellez LA, Ren X, Han W, et al. Glucose utilization rates regulate intake levels of artificial sweeteners. J Physiol. 2013;591(22):5727-5744. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2013.263103
  5.  Green E, Murphy C. Altered processing of sweet taste in the brain of diet soda drinkers. Physiol Behav. 2012;107(4):560-567. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.05.006
  6.  Why artificial sweeteners can increase appetite — ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160712130107.htm. Accessed February 27, 2018.
  7.  Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. Yale J Biol Med. 2010;83:101-108.

Going Keto: Does the Ketogenic Diet Improve Athletic Performance?

 

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

Carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for your brain and muscles.  When you eat carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, dairy products, or sweets, they are converted into glucose and either used to provide immediate fuel for your muscles and brain, or stored as glycogen to be used for fuel later.  Conventional recommendations suggest that everyone get 45-65% of their calories from carbohydrates to ensure there is enough fuel to support daily activities and exercise.  For the average person who needs 2000 calories per day, this might mean eating around 250 grams of carbohydrates; for an athlete with much higher calorie needs than the average person, this could mean eating closer to 400 grams of carbohydrates per day or more.  The ketogenic diet, however, has people questioning whether carbohydrates are really the ideal fuel for athletes.

On the ketogenic diet, people get 75-80% of their calories from fat and 12-20% of their calories from protein, and eat less than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day.  It was originally designed as a therapeutic diet prescribed to children with epilepsy.  When your brain doesn’t have glucose to use for energy, your body converts fat into compounds called ketone bodies, which the brain can use for fuel.  People have begun following the ketogenic diet with the idea that it will force the body to burn fat for energy instead of carbohydrates.  Since the body stores more fat than glycogen, this would allow the athlete to perform for longer without needing to eat more carbohydrates before running out of fuel.1

There are very few scientific studies looking at the impact of the ketogenic diet on athletic performance.  From these studies, it appears that people following the ketogenic diet will experience adaptations that allow them to burn about twice as much fat during exercise than those following a typical high-carbohydrate diet.1–3 It’s not clear whether this actually results in any performance benefit.  Additionally, some studies contain design flaws that prevent readers from drawing any firm conclusions.

For example, one study placed 20 male endurance athletes into either a high-carbohydrate diet (HCD) group or a low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet (LCKD) group based on their typical dietary intake.  The researchers found that people in the LCKD group burned more fat during exercise, increased their peak power during a sprint, and lost significantly more weight than those in the HCD group.  When the data is looked at more closely, though, it becomes apparent that the participants in the LCKD group started out with a significantly higher body fat mass than those in the HCD group. At the same time, the men in the HCD group were only provided with general guidelines about following a high-carbohydrate diet, but the LCKD group received sample meal plans and shopping lists to help them follow the ketogenic diet.3 Having more information about the diet they needed to follow and starting with a higher body fat mass makes it more likely that the men lost weight simply as a result of following a more regimented diet, and makes it impossible to claim that any improvements in physical performance are due to diet alone.

Another commonly-cited study looked at endurance runners and triathletes who consumed a ketogenic diet for almost two years and found that they burned almost twice as much fat during activity than athletes eating a typical diet.  The study didn’t measure the impact of the ketogenic diet on the athletes’ physical performance.2 There is a risk of research bias in this study, however, because it was funded by Quest Nutrition and the Atkins Foundation.  Quest Nutrition makes low-carbohydrate sports nutrition products, and the Atkins Foundation is run by Dr. Robert Atkins, the same individual who created the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet.

One study does examine the impact of the ketogenic diet on both fat burning and exercise performance.  Like the others, the researchers found that subjects following a low-carbohydrate diet did burn more fat during exercise.  However, the participants on the ketogenic diet needed to take in more oxygen while they exercised because the body uses more oxygen to turn stored fat into energy than it does to turn glycogen into energy.  As a result, the athletes’ overall physical performance was worsened by the ketogenic diet.1

Taken together, these studies show the need for more, well-designed research on the impact of the ketogenic diet on athletic performance in addition to its influence on the body’s ability to burn fat.  Until that research is available, it is best to continue following the evidence-based recommendation to use carbohydrates to fuel your workouts.  Fuel up on whole grains, low-fat dairy, and fruit before a workout, bring snacks to keep you energized during exercise, and make sure to eat plenty of carbohydrates and protein to help recover from your activity.

References:

  1.  Burke LM, Ross ML, Garvican-Lewis LA, et al. Low carbohydrate, high fat diet impairs exercise economy and negates the performance benefit from intensified training in elite race walkers. J Physiol. 2017;595(9):2785-2807. doi:10.1113/JP273230.
  2.  Volek JS, Freidenreich DJ, Saenz C, et al. Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners. Metabolism. 2016;65(3):100-110. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2015.10.028.
  3.  McSwiney FT, Wardrop B, Hyde PN, Lafountain RA, Volek JS, Doyle L. Keto-adaptation enhances exercise performance and body composition responses to training in endurance athletes. Metabolism. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2017.10.010.

Simplifying Dinner, One Meal Kit at a Time

Meal Kit Service Unique Features Weekly Cost for 3 Recipes Serving 2 People Meal Plans/ Dietary Preferences Select Your Own Meals? Additional Features
Hello Fresh RD-approved recipes $59.94 Classic Plan

Veggie Plan

Family Plan

Only with Classic Plan Wine club – 6 bottles of wine per month for $89

Manage subscription on an app

Blue Apron Sustainability-focused $59.94 Two-Person Plan

Three-Person Plan

Yes Wine club – 6 small bottles of wine per month for $65.99

Purchase kitchen equipment with recipes

Manage subscription on an app

Green Chef 90-95% certified organic

Offset 100% of carbon emissions

$80.94 Omnivore

Carnivore

Vegetarian

Vegan

Gluten-Free

Paleo

Keto

No, but can adjust dietary preferences to change weekly meals Website includes informational articles, such as kitchen safety and safe food handling tips
Sun Basket 70% certified organic $74.93 Chef’s Choice

Lean & Clean

Paleo

Vegetarian

Gluten-Free

Yes Website includes blog with informational nutrition articles
Plated Antibiotic-free pork and poultry Hormone-free beef

Organic whenever possible

$71.70 Two, Three, or Four servings per night Yes Add dessert to your weekly meals for an additional charge

Manage subscription on an app

Home Chef Cook up to 6 meals per week

Sources ingredients from three family-owned companies

$59.70 Cook between two and six meals per week for two, four, or six people Yes, from 11 options Add a fruit basket, smoothie, or “premium meal” for an additional charge
Purple Carrot Plant-based meals $72.00 Three meals per week for 1-2 people

Two meals per week for 3-4 people

High-Performance Meals

No High-Performance Meals created with Tom Brady and designed to be higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

For many people with busy schedules, meal kits provide an easy answer to the question, “What’s for dinner tonight?”  When you subscribe to a meal kit, all the ingredients you need to make several recipes are delivered right do your doorstep, pre-portioned in the amounts you will need to make each recipe.  Meal kits have become popular recently, and there are many different services available.

Each meal kit service ships you an insulated box every week containing all you’ll need to prepare your recipes.  When you select your recipes you’ll have the opportunity to see the nutrition facts information for each.  The recipes’ calorie contents range from 500-800 calories in each meal kit service.  For the most part you can recycle all of the packaging, bring the insulation to an industrial composting facility, and save any ice packs they provide to re-use later on.  The services all assume you have some basic ingredients on hand, like salt, oil, and butter, so these will not be included in your box.  If you’re thinking of trying a meal kit, read on to learn the differences between each service and find out which one would be right for you and your family.

Hello Fresh1 – $8.74-9.99 per serving, includes shipping

Hello Fresh appears to be the only meal kit service with recipes that have been approved by a Registered Dietitian.  There are three plans you can choose from, depending on your dietary preferences and the number of Hello Fresh meals you’d like to make each week:

  • The Classic Plan includes meals with meat, shellfish, and produce.  This plan provides three or four recipes per week that serve two or four people.  This is the only plan that allows you to choose the recipes you will make.
  • The Veggie Plan includes vegetarian meals that contain plant-based protein and whole grains.  This plan provides three recipes per week that serve two or four people.
  • The Family Plan is designed to provide quick and easy-to-prepare meals that a variety of audiences will enjoy.  The plan includes two or three recipes per week that serve four people.

Some recipes include Pesto Panko Chicken with Green Salad, Honey-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Sweet Potatoes and Green Beans, and Spiced Dijon Salmon with Apple Arugula Salad and Couscous.  Hello Fresh has an app you can use to view the recipes you’ll get for the next week (and choose them if you have the Classic Plan), decide when you want your box to be delivered, and manage your account.  They also offer a wine club in which you can receive 6 bottles of wine per month for an additional $89.  These wines are designed to pair with the recipes provided.

Blue Apron2 – $8.99-9.99 per serving, includes shipping

Blue Apron was the first meal kit service offered, and as a result their website seems to be the most comprehensive.  Sustainability is an integral part of their message.  Blue Apron claims to promote sustainability by using grass-fed and pasture-raised beef, seafood recommended by Food and Water Watch, livestock raised without antibiotics or hormones, and food produced without genetic modification.3 Like Hello Fresh, Blue Apron also offers several different plans:

  • The Two-Person plan provides either two or three recipes per week that serve two people.  Exclusively vegetarian recipes are only offered through this plan.
  • The Family Plan provides two, three, or four recipes per week that all serve four people.

Once you select and purchase a plan, you will be able to tailor your dietary preferences and choose the recipes you would like to receive.  Some of Blue Apron’s recipes include Sweet & Spicy Beef with Wonton Noodles, Basil Pesto Spaghettini, and Roasted Chicken with Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes and Sautéed Carrots.

Blue Apron also has an app where you can find recipes and view how-to videos if you need help with any cooking techniques.  Additionally, for $65.99 per month you can sign up to receive six bottles of wine.  These bottles are 2/3 the size of a typical bottle of wine and are designed to be shared by two people.

Green Chef4 – $10.49-14.99 per serving, shipping not included

Green Chef was rated the best meal kit service by USA Today because the recipes were the most flavorful, convenient, and fun to make.5 90-95% of Green Chef’s ingredients are certified organic and the service claims to offset 100% of their carbon emissions through sustainable practices.  Green Chef also offers a wide range of menu options in either a two-person or family plan, both of which have the same per-serving cost.  The two-person plan provides three recipes that serve two people, and the family plan provides two recipes that serve four.  Only the Omnivore and Carnivore menus are available on the Family Plan.

  • Omnivore includes meat, seafood, and vegetarian meals.  You can choose not to receive meals that contain beef, poultry, lamb, shellfish, fish, or game if they do not fit into your preferred meal pattern.
  • Carnivore provides meat or seafood in each meal.
  • Vegetarian provides meat-free meals that still include dairy and eggs.
  • Vegan includes only plant-based protein.
  • Gluten-Free provides two meat or seafood and one vegetarian dinner per week, all of which contain no gluten.
  • Paleo does not include processed foods, grains, legumes, or dairy, and instead is high in meat and vegetables.
  • Keto offers low-carbohydrate meals that don’t contain dairy or grains.

Once you select a plan and set your dietary preferences, Green Chef will automatically select two or three recipes that you will receive.  This is different from Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, which allow you to select your recipes from a list every week.  You can change the recipes you are scheduled to receive by changing your dietary preferences; for example, if you do not like the beef recipe one week, you can modify your dietary preferences to exclude beef for that week.  Some of Green Chef’s recipes include Tamarind Glazed Tempeh, Moroccan Chicken Tangine, or Spanish Egg’n’Hash.  Their recipes provide a variety of different vegetables and grains.

Sun Basket6 – $9.99-11.49 per serving, shipping not included

Sun Basket states that 70% of their ingredients are certified organic and hope that all ingredients will be organic by the beginning of 2018.  They claim that all of their meat and poultry is antibiotic-free, their lamb, chicken, and poultry are pasture-raised, their dairy products and eggs are organic, and their seafood is certified for sustainability by the Marine Stewardship Council.  You can choose between the Classic Plan that provides three recipes per week that serve two or four people or the Family Plan that provides two, three, or four recipes per week that serve four people.  Within these, you can also choose one of several meal plans:

  • Chef’s Choice provides a variety of meat, seafood, and vegetarian dishes.
  • Paleo includes recipes that do not contain grains, soy, corn, dairy, and gluten.
  • Lean & Clean limits meals to 550 calories per serving and does not include gluten, dairy, or added sugar.  This meal plan is not available on the Family Plan.
  • Gluten Free includes meat, produce, and gluten-free grains.
  • Vegetarian includes produce and plant-based protein.

Like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, you can choose your recipes for the week from a larger list after you select your meal plan.  Some of Sun Basket’s recipes include Steak Salad with Romanesco Vinaigrette, Burmese Salmon Salad with Lemongrass and Apple, and Chorizo and Tomatillo Chili with Coconut and Lime.  Each recipe should take less than thirty minutes to prepare.

Plated7 – $9.95-11.95 per serving, shipping not included

Plated allows you to choose from 17 recipes each week, offering a little more flexibility even though they do not provide meal plans for specific diets.  Their pork and poultry are raised without antibiotics, beef is raised without hormones, seafood is sustainably caught, produce is seasonal, and ingredients are organic whenever possible.  Plated allows you to choose two or four recipes per week and gives you the option for two, three, or four servings per recipe.

Once you sign up for a plan you will be able to select the recipes you’d like to make.  You can also add or subtract recipes each week.  Some of their recipes include Sticky Sesame Cauliflower with Vegetable Fried Rice, Spaghetti and Chicken Meatballs with Creamy Cherry Tomato Sauce, and Crispy Flounder with Miso Ratatouille.  Plated also offers telephone support, so you can give them a call if you get stuck while preparing any of their meals.  You can also add dessert for an additional charge.

Home Chef8 – $9.95 per serving, shipping included when spending over $45

Home Chef allows you to choose between 11 recipes per week.  When you select your meal plan you will be able to choose ingredients you want more often (such as vegetables), and any ingredients you’d like to avoid (such as meat, dairy, and mushrooms).  Home Chef will automatically choose three recipes for you based on your preferences.  If you are vegetarian or have other dietary restrictions, your options will be more limited because there may be only two or three recipes that meet your dietary need available that week.

Although this service doesn’t offer specific meal plans to choose from, it does allow you to purchase more meals per week than any other meal kit service.  With Home Chef, you can order between two and six meals each week that serve two, four, or six people; most of the other meal kit services provide a maximum of three or four meals per week.

Some of the recipes include Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Spaghetti with Tomato Bruschetta, Sirloin Steak alla Modena with Potatoes and Broccoli, and Cod Amandine with Wild Rice Pilaf.  Home Chef’s recipes may not contain as many vegetables and whole grains as the recipes of other meal kit services, which may be important to consider if you are thinking of purchasing six meals per week.

Purple Carrot9 – $10-13 per serving, includes shipping

Purple Carrot provides 100% plant-based recipes, making this a good option for vegetarians or vegans.  One of this company’s objectives is to introduce people to a wider variety of plant foods, and their website cites many health benefits of choosing a plant-based diet.  Other reviewers appreciated the fact that the recipes provided a lot of leftovers and said the meals provided delicious flavors and textures.5 Purple Carrot offers three possible meal plans:

  • Three meals per week for 1-2 people
  • Two meals per week for 3-4 people
  • Three “high performance” meals per week for 1-2 people.  These meals contain more protein and are all gluten-free and are created in collaboration with Tom Brady based on the diet he follows to enhance his performance.

Once you sign up for a plan, you will not have the option to select the recipes you receive.  Some of Purple Carrot’s recipes include Ginger Tofu with Broccolini and Carrot Dressing, Thai Coconut Rice Bowl with Roasted Carrots and Cilantro-Mint Chutney (from the Performance Meals), and Mediterranean Eggplant with Chermoula and Apricot Couscous.  The nutrition information for each recipe is available online.

The Bottom Line

Meal kits can be a great time saver by reducing the amount of time you’ll need planning meals, buying ingredients in the grocery store, and actually cooking.  They might also reduce food waste since you are given the exact amount of each ingredient you need.  This would be especially helpful if you’re an adventurous eater who likes to try new foods but doesn’t know what to do with the “extra” you have left over after preparing a recipe.  You can also look at the nutrition facts for each recipe before you finalize your menu for the week, so you’ll be able to choose the meals that best meet your needs.

You may be more interested in one meal kit service or another depending on your food values, dietary preferences, and degree of control you want to have over your menu selections.  Each service offers around $30 off for your first week and you have the option to suspend or cancel your membership at any time without any additional cost.  If you’re having trouble deciding which service fits best with your food preferences, consider trying a few of them before you make the final decision.  No matter what, you’ll be introduced to new foods and have fun in the kitchen!

References:

  1.  Our Weekly Meal Plans | Fresh Food Delivery | HelloFresh. https://www.hellofresh.com/food-boxes/. Accessed September 18, 2017.
  2.  Blue Apron: Fresh Ingredients, Original Recipes, Delivered to You. https://www.blueapron.com/. Accessed September 14, 2017.
  3.  Blue Apron: Fresh Ingredients, Original Recipes, Delivered to You. https://www.blueapron.com/pages/vision. Accessed September 18, 2017.
  4.  Green Chef: Organic. Delicious. Delivery. https://greenchef.com/home. Accessed September 14, 2017.
  5.  Leonhardt M. This Is the Best Meal-Kit Service on the Market Right Now. Money. http://time.com/money/4856342/best-meal-kits-value/. Accessed September 18, 2017.
  6.  Sun Basket | Healthy, Organic and sustainable Meal Kit Delivery. https://try.sunbasket.com/?offer=A-LQSEM35&SCID=GCPC&utm_source=Adwords&utm_medium=LQSEM&utm_campaign=NB:General:EC:S:G&utm_term=MID&test=&sl=&utm_audience=Classic_CC&utm_adset=Text&akd=213199086882+kwd-12836190414+c. Accessed September 14, 2017.
  7.  Plated | Cook more. Live better. Plated. https://www.plated.com/?utm_medium=search&utm_source=google_brand&utm_campaign=PR_Newengen_Brand_Plated_Meal_Delivery_v2+l_DE1+a16b&utm_term=plated%20meal%20kit&utm_content={AdGroup}&cvosrc=ppc.google.plated%20meal%20kit&cvo_creative=218843050933&cvo_pid={AdGroup}&cvo_campaign=PR_Newengen_Brand_Plated_Meal_Delivery_v2+l_DE1+a16b&cvo_crid=218843050933&matchtype=e. Accessed September 18, 2017.
  8.  Home Chef Meal Delivery Service, Fresh Ingredients to Cook at Home. Home Chef. https://www.homechef.com/sign-up/welcome. Accessed September 18, 2017.
  9.  Purple Carrot | How it Works. https://www.purplecarrot.com/how-it-works. Accessed October 3, 2017.