Wednesday, October 7, 2009

What's In Your Lunch Box?

(This is part 2 of a series about making healthier food choices...)

In my previous post, I began this series by taking at look at breakfast foods.  Understanding that 60% of the average American’s diet is made up of processed foods, let’s now look at what the “typical” American’s lunch is:

Lunch is usually eaten as an afterthought.  It is wedged between morning meetings and afternoon appointments, ingested behind the wheel en route to the next “important” thing, or consumed while standing over the kitchen sink.  Rarely do we enjoy and savor our midday meals like our European cousins, thoughtfully preparing or appreciating a meal that nourishes, as well as delights us.  In our world, “delight” would not be a word many of us would consider synonymous with “lunch”.  “Lunch” most often comes wrapped in plastic or paper, packaged in cardboard or Styrofoam (what IS that Styrofoam stuff, anyway??), and drenched in fats, sugars and empty calories.  “Inhale”?  Maybe, but “delight”?  No.

So what is actually in those bags of carryout?  More often than not, there are TONS more calories, fat and sodium than you realize.  Eating at the mall food court?  Did you know that just one slice of Sbarro’s thin crust pepperoni pizza contains 730 calories, 37 grams of fat and 2200 mg of sodium (the recommendation for sodium intake EACH DAY is no more than 1500 mg)?  Headed to TGI Friday’s with the gang from work?  Don’t order the chicken sandwich thinking you are getting something “healthy” just because it’s not the burger.  This sandwich has over 1300 calories and 78 grams of fat!  Eating salad for lunch?  What’s in that dressing? Odds are there are sugars (even the dreaded High Fructose Corn Syrup), thickening agents and artificial colorings and flavorings.  One of the worst types of lettuce salads you can order out is a Caesar salad.  At Chili’s, their Caesar salad with grilled chicken weighs in at over 1,000 calories, 76 grams of fat and more than 1900 mg of sodium.  According to Men’s Health Magazine, a study conducted by the University of Arkansas concluded that the average diner underestimates their calorie count by up to 93% when eating out.

Another reason to think twice before eating out is the fact that you really don’t know what is in that food.  Most states do not require restaurants to publish the ingredients in their foods in a way that is easy for the consumer to review prior to eating.  MSG (monosodium glutamate) is one of the worst food additives, yet most commonly used, in processed and restaurant foods. MSG is a flavor enhancer.  If you are eating something with a “lemon sauce”, MSG will have been added in an attempt to not have to use so much lemon.  If a meaty taste is desired, MSG will make a dish taste meatier.  There is research that supports the fact that consuming foods containing MSG have actually caused sudden cardiac death due to arrhythmia or coronary artery spasm (MSG is a major source of cardiac irritability, yet no one’s death certificate lists, “cause of death:  MSG”). That’s not exactly how I envision concluding my “relaxing” lunch break.

At home, there is a lot of prepackaged, processed food being consumed, too.  Frozen pizzas, frozen single-serving lunches, boxed rice or pasta mixes and nitrate soaked deli meats with “cheese foods” are easy main courses.  Downing vegetables doused in ranch dressing or dipped in High Fructose Corn Syrup laden catsup assures that a steady stream of chemical infused, nutrient-light, calorie-dense foods continues coursing through our digestive systems into the afternoon.

How often are those lunch choices mindfully considered?  Of course, we need foods that are easy to prepare, but why do we most often opt for the ones that are the worst for us?

Food labels and advertising constantly vying for our attention (and dollars) beckon us with promises of foods that are easy to prepare, will make us and our loved ones really happy when consumed (remember those Kool-Aid commercials where all the children cheered and clapped when the Best Mom In The Neighborhood brought out the Kool-Aid?) and fortify us with “8 Essential Vitamins and Minerals” and “Whole Grains”?  Food companies know that our stomachs can only hold so much food, volume-wise, so they spend TONS of money trying to convince us that their products are the ones that we NEED to be eating.  Some of the companies with the biggest advertising budgets spend the least on their ingredients.   We buy their pitch: hook, line & sinker.  The “little guys” don’t have the budgets to compete.  Have you ever seen an ad on TV for an apple?

Just because something is sold in the produce section, however, does not mean that you should be eating it.  The little carrots that are so cute and easy are actually stubs of misshapen bigger carrots, prettied up to sell after being soaked in a solution that contains some chlorine  to keep them “fresh” in the bag longer.  I don’t think chlorine is something anyone should be consuming – EVER –especially our kids who are most often the recipients of those cute little mini-carrots.

Think a little bit more about what you are eating for lunch.  If you have a few spare seconds before you run out the door, consider grabbing a couple of pieces of fruit, or cut up some fresh veggies to accompany your “convenience foods” for lunch.   The healthiest options are those involving as many “real” foods as possible (foods closest to their original form) and items that have the fewest ingredients in their ingredient list.  The BEST are those you have prepared yourself.  Give it a try.  Your body will thank you for it!

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