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Can smartphones help us eat smarter?

Nowadays, there are apps on our mobile devices that will do virtually anything. They help us get organized, give us the news, entertain us, help us plan trips and allow us to connect with friends. One thing that has become apparent as I peruse the online app store for my latest download is that there are many, many apps devoted to food, nutrition, health and most importantly - weight loss. The apps count calories, suggest healthier foods, encourage exercise, plan meals and provide useful grocery shopping tips. With boundless technology literally at our fingertips, I wonder if apps can actually help the average smartphone-wielding consumer make smarter, healthier eating decisions.

What does the research show?
Students at Cornell University took part in a study where they were given a mobile phone app and asked to take photos of anything they do or don’t do that might be considered good (such as taking the stairs) or bad for them (such as making a late-night fast food run). They uploaded these photos into the mobile app then rated them based on their healthfulness. They were asked to do this at least five times a day. They could all review their previous posts and a portion of the participants could view posts uploaded by their peers. Most participants reported increased health awareness and self-control at the end of the study, particularly among the group that could see photos taken by their peers. The study was only two weeks long, and didn’t lead to any real behavior change, but the researchers believe there is potential for more significant change after long-term use of the app.

Taking matters into my own hands…
Armed with a smartphone and some reusable shopping bags, I set out to my local grocery store to conduct a food shopping experiment of my own. Prior to going to the grocery store, I downloaded a few free apps onto my iPhone that I thought would be useful on this shopping expedition.

Since saving money on groceries is high on my list of priorities, I downloaded the Food on the Table app, which claims to be a better way to plan meals and save money. After filling out a short profile, the app helped me plan a meal, organize a grocery list and take advantage of in-store coupons within minutes. I chose to make the butternut squash and black bean enchiladas recipe, and navigated the grocery store with my cell phone in-hand to find all of the necessary ingredients. As I perused the tortilla display, I made use of another app that I downloaded, the Shop Well app, to help me choose the healthiest option among the multitude of tortillas available in the grocery store. With this app I could scan barcodes of the various tortillas and was given a personalized food score of each product based on a profile I filled out earlier (listing my health goals and any medical conditions).  One package of tortillas turned up as a “medium” match for me. The app suggested another type of tortilla that would be a better match for my goals. Meanwhile, the Food on the Table app was telling me about a brand of tortillas that was on sale on that particular day. Of course they weren’t the same, so I opted for the healthier product over the on-sale product because the difference in price was marginal.

Butternut squash and black bean enchiladas
Next, I went home and prepared the meal following the directions on the app. After preparing the meal, I served up my plate of food and took a picture to upload into the Pic Healthy Photo Food Diary app. With this tool, I could upload my photo and rate how healthy (or unhealthy) my meal was, and let friends also be the judge (see pic on right). The idea is that friends can either cheer me on for making a healthy decision or call me out for a not-so-healthy meal choice. I’m still waiting for someone to rate my meal, but I can see how this could be fun and motivational if my friends were also participating, and we were all encouraging one another to reach our health and wellness goals.

I then used the Lose It! app to keep track of what I was going to eat and to determine the amount of calories in my meal. I entered every ingredient into the recipe section and came up with a calorie count and nutrient breakdown for the meal I was about to consume.  Granted, it was a little tedious, but a great process that made me really think about what I was about to eat. If I continue to use this app, I will certainly think twice the next time I chow down on a big meal or snack.

The meal I chose to make ended up being far too spicy for my taste (if only the app rated the meal based on heat!). Despite this unfortunate setback, the process was educational – and dare I say FUN?  It’s unlikely that I will go back to the grocery store and use my phone to scan products to identify healthy options (it’s far easier to use basic nutrition know-how to make these decisions – make half your grains whole, choose foods low in saturated fat, eat more fruits and vegetables, etc., etc). But I definitely enjoyed the menu planning app and appreciated being able to have new recipe ideas at my fingertips (even if my first choice was a bit of a disappointment!).

If you’ve made it a goal to eat healthier, exercise more and possibly lose weight in the New Year, then why not give one of the many mobile apps a try.  Even better, get your friends and family involved and download apps together that allow you to motivate one another to stick to your goals.  With all this technology at your fingertips, eating smarter may have just gotten a little easier!

Posted on Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 2:54 PM
  • Author: Brenda Roche

Mind your food

One morning more than a decade ago I tried an “eating meditation” in Silverlake, about an hour’s drive from UC Riverside. We were about ten people – more Buddhish than Buddhist – in a dark and quiet room, seated on stiff chairs around a menacing-looking table. Each of us was handed a strawberry and told to await instructions.

I had never participated in an eating meditation before. I wasn’t even sure what was involved. Did one eat and eat, and meditate at the same time with eyes closed? I had tried two other kinds of meditation before – sitting and walking meditations. A meditation focused on food intrigued me, and it was simple curiosity that motivated me to try it out.

The instructions, when they came, were simple: We could feel the strawberry, smell it, examine it closely, and, yes, eat it in micro-bites. What we had to ensure, however, was that this exercise was continuous, that we sat in place, and that we were still doing at least one of these activities at the end of a half hour. We could not gobble down the strawberry or ask for more. What would work best, if we were set on just the eating activity, was to nibble at it – preferably molecule by molecule. Needless to add, the focus of the silent meditation had to be the strawberry as far as possible, and nothing else.

The exercise was not easy. For the first few minutes some of us collapsed into giggles. Later, the exercise turned uncomfortable and awkward. But as the minutes dragged by at what seemed a glacial pace, the atmosphere in the room transformed, embracing a seriousness the meditation deserved.  I remember letting piece after tiny piece of strawberry linger on my tongue until I had “exhausted” the taste of each. I also remember closely scrutinizing the texture of the fruit, letting my fingers caress the rough skin, feeling the pattern of what, to my surprise, turned out to be hexagons wrapping the fruit, and marveling over the berry’s geometry and symmetry.

Until that morning, I had not examined a strawberry with such concentration, such patience. I had paid little attention to the small seeds piercing the surface, and had only barely noticed how the red hue deepened from the flat top of the fruit to the conical peak.  There were times when the strawberry felt heavy in my hand; at other times I had to gently squeeze the flesh to resurrect sensations and bring my mind back to the meditation.

After a while, so lost were we in the exercise that time seemed to cease and nothing in the world mattered more than the strawberry in hand. Indeed, the universe shrank – or had it expanded? – to just me, the strawberry and the meditation. Where I ended and the strawberry began was hard to say, and irrelevant.

After we emerged from the meditation, the recommendation we were offered was to do the exercise daily, starting with half an hour (we could increase the time with practice, if we wanted) and a food of one’s choice – anything small, such as a grape or a small candy. What was not said but unanimously understood was that this exercise could be an effective way to overcome excessive and mindless eating, the lesson being you didn’t need too much of a food you crave to enjoy it well.

To friends who tell me they wish to lose weight, I recommend the eating meditation. Even if it fails to reduce your weight, I inform them, the great benefit of the exercise is that you become mindful of what you eat, how much and for how long. To date, none of these friends told me they took on the challenge. Can I be surprised? Given how frequently food ads on TV, the print media, and elsewhere assail us, I cannot censure them. Sadly, here’s my confession: It has been many years now since I did this meditation.

For more information on mindful eating, read the February 2012 New York Time article Mindful Eating as Food for Thought.

Posted on Friday, January 6, 2012 at 1:07 PM

Beyond New Year's resolutions: tips for good health

Oh January 1st, how I hate you.  If you’re like me you’re still recovering from the month long holiday food hangover.  With three months until spring and swimsuit season on the horizon, you’re feeling the pressure to lose the winter coat!  As always, you make that infamous New Year’s resolution: TO LOSE WEIGHT!  

How many people do you know, including yourself, who swear that this is the year…

“Gym membership here I come!”

“I will not touch another carb for the rest of the year!”

“No sweets ever again… after this one!”

“I’m on a new diet, I eat nothing and when I feel like I’m going to faint I eat a cube of cheese!”

Okay the last one is my favorite quote from the Devil Wear’s Prada, but working in the health field I have found that sometimes people actually think that’s a solution. We find ourselves making resolutions that eliminate entire food groups from our diets, because we think it will help us lose weight. The thing most people don’t know or realize is that sometimes the absolutes we make can be very harmful to our health, and in the long run can actually cause us to gain the weight back plus more.

So this year, let’s make an attainable, realistic goal. Here are three tips selected from www.choosemyplate.gov, to have a healthy year!

  1. Put a positive spin on it – instead of saying “I can’t eat any sweets at all!” try a few “I will” statements on for size:
  • I will add 1 serving of fruits and vegetables to each meal.
  • I will make half of my grains whole.
  • I will choose water or low-fat milk more often.
  1. Build a healthy snack – instead of buying the expensive processed snacks, try these healthy tips:
    Fruit makes a great snack

Combine fruit and a dairy food for the morning munchies:

  • Apple and cheese
  • Banana and yogurt

Combine vegetables and a protein food for a p.m. pick-me-up:

  • Celery and peanut butter
  • Carrots and almonds

Combining these foods will help you stay fuller longer while increasing your nutrient consumption.

  1. Don’t discount physical activity – being healthy isn’t about just what you eat.  Adults need 30 minutes of physical activity a day and children need 60 minutes.  Just because you don’t have a gym membership doesn’t mean you can’t be physically active.  Remember that 30 minutes can be broken up throughout the day.

Here are some tips to increase your physical activity incrementally, without breaking the bank:

  • Start a walking club with your co-workers, neighbors or friends. You’re more likely to do it if someone keeps you accountable.
  • Do what you like!  If you hate to run, don’t do it.  There’s no use in driving yourself crazy doing something you hate.  If you like to dance, then turn the radio up and have fun!
  • Do stretches, exercises, or pedal a stationary bike while watching television.

Remember to always consult your physician before beginning a rigorous exercise regimen.

May your new year be full of realistic, attainable, resolutions! Keep it positive. Select healthy snacks that help you stay full longer. Get moving so you have more energy during the day.  For more information and health tips visit www.choosemyplate.gov.

Wishing you all a very healthy 2012!

Posted on Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 9:26 AM
  • Posted By: Shelby MacNab
  • Written by: Brittanny Zweigle

Heirlooms, civic agriculture and a New Year's resolution

Heirloom tomato cultivars - which can be found in a wide variety of colors, shapes, flavors and sizes - may not be practical for commercial production, but add interest to home gardens.
On this Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, it’s nice to sit with a cup of tea and a seed catalog, dreaming about a spring and summer garden. For 2012, I’ve decided to focus on heirloom varieties for my home garden. Spoiler alert for my family: there are packets of heirloom seeds tucked in your Christmas stockings, with extras for Memere and Pepere (who are grandparents and also grand gardeners).

“Heirloom” is an interesting term, and like the word “sustainability,” it means different things to different people. Recently, I read The Heirloom Life Gardener, a book written by Jere and Emilee Gettle. The Gettles are the co-founders of the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, which publishes a lush and incredibly informative seed catalog and has spun off a variety of gardening-related enterprises across the nation. The Gettles define heirloom seeds as being “nonhybrid and open-pollinated” and as usually having been in circulation for more than 50 years. Some heirloom seed types currently in use could have been found in Thomas Jefferson garden at Monticello. Some appear more recently, during the Great Depression, including the Mortgage Lifter tomato (who couldn’t use one of these in today’s economy?).

While reading the Gettles’ book, I began thinking once again about the relationship between land and the American character. I was inspired to pull some of my favorite books off the shelf and revisit them, to consider the notion of “civic agriculture.”

The term “civic agriculture” - coined by the former Thomas Lyson of Cornell - is used by some to refer to the movement towards locally based agricultural models that tightly link community, social and economic development. Models of civic agriculture include CSAs, farmer’s markets, roadside stands, urban agriculture, community gardens, and farm-to-school/farm-to-institution programs. I also argue that civic agriculture includes school and home gardens . . . any place where people seek to connect land to the development of community or as an expression of engagement or citizenship.

The civic aspect of agriculture is much older than the current local food movement; it hearkens back to our nation’s founding. The connection between land and democracy has always held real meaning in American culture. Jeffersonian ideals about the civic virtues and value of gardening and agriculture were prevalent and shaped American cultural and political life; the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created in 1862, was called “The People’s Department” by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln once told a group of Wisconsin farmers that as long as Americans knew how to cultivate even the smallest plot of land, that the nation’s citizens would be free from kings and moneylenders, free from oppression of all sorts.

Federal legislation such as the Morrill Act (we will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2012, and I'll be writing about that throughout the New Year) created America’s land-grant institutions, which still have as a primary purpose research and education in support of the nation’s agricultural producers. (Land-grant institutions through their Master Gardener programs also support home and community gardeners). The Homestead Act, also passed in 1862, and linked the cultivation of land to the protection of the Union and the expansion of democracy during the nation’s Civil War. You’ve heard this from me more than once: We were a nation of farmers at origin; we are still a nation of farmers at heart.

We farm, and we garden. Gardening links the myth and the practice of agriculture to one another. In practice, gardening is agriculture on a personal scale; it represents an individual's relationship to a specific piece of land. This is a kind of relationship worth investing in.

As the longest, darkest days of the year are upon us, as you celebrate the best things that family and hearth offer, and as you formulate your goals and hopes for the New Year, I hope that you’ll consider adding another resolution to your list: to embark upon a gardening activity, no matter how small, in 2012. Occupy the possibilities that gardens create at our homes, and in our communities.

Happy Holidays, and a Healthy and Prosperous New Year.

“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”

Posted on Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 11:34 AM

Los Angeles and the “Orange Empire”

Colorful orange crate labels helped to brand Los Angeles and Southern California as a new Eden, the land of sunshine and good health.
Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few people, including my parents, talk about getting an orange in their Christmas stocking when they were children. Apparently, this custom dates back many years. It was a special treat, in a time when oranges were expensive.

An interesting book called “Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden” by Douglas Cazaux Sackman tells the story of how oranges went from being an occasional treat to a mainstream part of the American diet. In fact, Los Angeles was once the center of the “Orange Empire” which developed into a massive industry in California.

Oranges were brought by the Spanish as they settled the missions, and the first sizable grove in Alta California was planted at the San Gabriel Mission, near Los Angeles, around 1804. Oranges were grown on a very limited scale until a frontiersman and entrepreneur named William Wolfskill decided to try growing oranges commercially, using seedlings from the Mission. His initial two-acre orchard was planted in 1841 in what is now downtown Los Angeles. During the Gold Rush, he was able to ship his citrus crop north to miners who were willing to pay a premium to protect themselves from scurvy.

The citrus industry in Southern California grew slowly at first, then really took off in the 1870s due to two innovations. First, a family in Riverside obtained two trees of an orange variety from Brazil. The fruit from these trees was larger, sweeter and easier to peel. This variety, which came to be known as the Washington Navel, created a surge of interest in growing oranges. In the same decade, the transcontinental railroad system connected to Los Angeles, and the very first railcar load of oranges, from the Wolfskill orchard, was shipped east in 1877. In the late 1880s, with the advent of refrigerated rail shipping, the growing citrus industry got another boost. Many new growers entered the citrus farming business, and numerous towns along the foothills of the Los Angeles basin were formed as the industry grew up in those areas.

“Centered on the Los Angeles basin, a vast citrus landscape was coming into being,” said Sackman (p.42). “In 1870, only 30,000 orange trees were growing in the state. Twenty years later, 1.1 million trees were producing fruit." By 1893, local citrus growers had organized themselves into the Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange, which later became known as Sunkist. Sunkist was instrumental in driving the demand for oranges, promoting oranges and orange juice as health aids, with national advertising campaigns beginning in 1907. Sunkist advertisements, along with colorful orange crate labels, helped to brand Los Angeles and Southern California as a new Eden, the land of sunshine and good health. This image helped to drive migration from to Southern California for many years.

Commercial citrus production in Los Angeles County began to decline after World War II, as orchards were rapidly sacrificed to the growing, sprawling suburbs of the Los Angeles basin. As recently as 1970, there were still more than 50,000 acres of citrus in the county; but today, most orange trees in Los Angeles are in backyards rather than in groves.

The citrus industry, still critical to California’s agricultural economy, has long since moved to other counties and other parts of the state. While there is no longer an “Orange Empire” here in Los Angeles, oranges are still a treat, especially if grown in our own backyards. As I prepare for the holidays, I know that today, an orange in a stocking might not be as special as it once was. But to pluck an orange off a tree, on a 75 degree day in December, still makes Los Angeles seem like Eden to a former Midwesterner like me.

Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 8:08 AM

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