Archive for December, 2010

Is accurate calorie counting possible? A thought-provoking journey through the skeptical mind

December 30th, 2010

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weight loss is the result of following a simple formula. To get rid of excess body fat, all you have to do is “use up more calories than you take in. Since one pound equals 3,500 calories, you need to reduce your caloric intake by 500—1000 calories per day to lose about 1 to 2 pounds per week.” In other words, if you eat as many calories as you burn, you will maintain your weight, and if you tip the scale either way, your weight will fluctuate. But how do we know when we are in “energy balance?” How do we know how many calories we burn, or eat, and how do we know the estimates are precise enough to keep us in at or below our energy balance?

First of all, how is anyone supposed to know if they are eating 500 less calories every day? If you eat at a restaurant, how do you know how many tablespoons of oil are in the soup you ate? One extra tablespoon of oil is already an extra 120 calories. You can use various online tools to help you, but that implies that the portion size you are eating is the same as the one online, or that you can figure out the difference. A cup of pasta with a quarter-cup serving of alfredo sauce according to is 320 calories(spaghetti, alfredo sauce) . If we change the portions slightly, to 1.2 cups of pasta with .4 cup serving of alfredo sauce, we end up cosuming 445 calories. Even the most experienced dietitian would have trouble determining if their lunch had these extra 125 calories in it.

One can argue that when you are on a weight loss diet, you should limit the amount of times you eat at restaurants and focus on home cooked or pre-packaged foods or places that offer nutrition information to make sure you know what you are eating. However this may not help either. According to an article in the New York Times, menus in fast-food restaurants or on the packages of frozen foods are sometimes not accurate. When researchers tested food served in 29 chain restaurants and 10 frozen meals, they found that their calorie contents averaged significantly more than was listed. Some differences were startling: Denny’s grits, listed at 80 calories, turned out to contain 258.

The Food and Drug Administration allows a 20% margin of variation in the calories listed to the actual calories. So that 390 calorie Lean Cuisine Jumbo Rigatoni with meatballs you just bought may allowably be closer to 470 calories, not to mention the recent findings that the discrepancy may be even larger. It seems nearly impossible to accurately maintain this recommended 500 calorie reduction.  Perhaps setting more measurable goals is in order.

We think there is value in using pictures to keep track of what you are eating.  PhotoCalorie can help you estimate the calories and nutrients you are consuming, while keeping a photographic journal as well, allowing you to set more concrete goals, such as ‘reduce the number of fast food meals per week from 5 to 2.,’ or ‘stop eating dessert on the weekends.’

There is no substitute for keeping track of your approximate caloric intake.  When setting goals, however, it might benefit you more to take measurable steps in directions that you can control.

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Nutrition and Weight Loss

Healthy Eating Poem for the Holiday Season

December 26th, 2010

We are in the holiday spirit here at PhotoCalorie, and we hope you are too. Before you go over-board on those twinkies and soda children, take a whole-hearted listen to our healthy eating poem:

When trying to spread the holiday cheer,

there are more ways to do it than drinking beer.

Fruits and veggies are great for you

Peer pressure your friends to eat them too.

Sugar and soda may taste great,

But they make your little hearts palpitate.

Lebron james drinks water for fun,

That’s why he can bench press a ton.

Santa drinks a lot of beer,

which puts added stress on the joints of his reindeer!

So listen to us closely,

Boys and girls alike

When mommy brings cookies to you in bed,

Say “I want celery instead!”

Remember Moms: Love won’t make your kids fat. Cookies will:

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Food Industry packaging makes portion size estimations difficult

December 22nd, 2010

Estimating portion sizes is arguably the most important, yet difficult aspect of approximating your daily caloric intake. Simply stated, the inability to assess serving sizes yields inaccurate caloric estimations and potentially less weight loss, or more weight gain.

For these reasons, at PhotoCalorie we believe learning to estimate portion sizes correctly is the first step to achieving your goals. The best way to do this is by using your hands. Since weighing every food you eat is not a reasonable solution, hands offer a practical method that anyone can implement, whether at home or at your local Denny’s.

©2010 PhotoCalorie

The photos above are examples of how a hand can be an excellent measure for a variety of different foods. (More serving size photos, such as the ones above, can be found on our website:

For example, once you can memorize that 3 ounces of meat is about the thickness of a deck of playing cards and the size of your palm, all meats are at your mercy.  Steaks, chicken breasts, and salmon filets will be no match for your new portion assessment tools.

Unfortunately food industries and restaurants make this practice more difficult than it should be, serving your drinks and foods in giant packages, cups and bowls.

In dietary research, it turns out people have terrible trouble estimating their serving sizes. Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of nutritional science and human behavior at Cornell University, has demonstrated that as portion sizes increase, so too does your measurement error, and even developed a mathematical formula to predict it. Practically, this means that you are less likely to correctly estimate your portion size if you eat foods from the plates or cups they were served in.

Buying smaller plates and glasses and serving bowls can be very effective at combatting this. Despite sounding like a silly celebrity secret to weight loss, scientists studying food behavior consistently find that the size of the plate effects how much you eat. Basically, the bigger the plate, the more you eat. Doesn’t matter the type of food or type of person. Not even nutrition experts seem to be immune to unconsciously serving themselves more food if they have a bigger plate.

The same is true for serving bowls and liquids. People eating M&Ms or popcorn from larger containers eat more without even realizing it. In Dr. Wansink’s popcorn experiment, those given the large bucket of popcorn ate 53% more popcorn than the those given the medium bucket, even though the popcorn was stale!

Glasses and cups are no different. Even bartenders pour more liquid into a wider shot glass when asked to pour a shot. People asked to pour a cup of juice into a skinny or wide glass pour less into the skinny glass. You can read more about this research here.

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Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from Blind Tastings

December 20th, 2010

No! In fact it seems that the average wine drinker prefers expensive wines slightly less, than the cheap stuff. These are the results of  a study published by economists of the American Association for Wine Economists, entitled Do more expensive wines taste better? Evidence from a large sample of blind tastings.

Could this actually be possible? If people don’t see the price of the wine, they actually enjoy the taste of the cheaper wine? This is the conclusion from the more than 6,000 US blind tastings compiled by food and wine critic, Robin Goldstein, who concluded that “on average, individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In fact, they enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.”

To come to this astounding conclusion, researchers used wine ranging in price from $1.65 to $150. 506 participants tasted wine flights made up of 523 different wines, presented in a double-blind manner. In other words, neither the subjects or the people serving the wine knew which wine was which. After tasting the various wines, the subjects were asked, “Overall, how do you find the wine?” The subjects could respond with: “Bad”, “Okay”, “Good”, and “Great,” to which the researchers converted to a 1-4 scale.

The results for wine connoisseurs were different. Those categorized as “experts” were able to distinguish between cheap and expensive wines, although this result was only slightly significant.

This study was recently profiled on the Freakonomics podcast, and less recently in the New York Times Freakonomics Blog. Steven Levitt did a similar experiment years ago, during his time at Harvard:

On Tuesday afternoons we had wine tastings. I asked if I could be allowed the opportunity to conduct one of these wine tastings “blind” to see what we could learn from sampling wines without first knowing what we were drinking. Everyone thought this was a great idea. So with the help of the wine steward I selected two expensive bottles from the wine cellar and then I went down the street to the liquor store and bought the cheapest bottle of wine they had made from the same type of grape.

I thus had two different expensive wines and one cheap one. I tried to make things more interesting by splitting one of the expensive bottles into two different decanters. Thus, in total the wine tasters had four wines to taste, although in reality there were only three different wines, with one sampled twice by each taster. I gave them a rating sheet and each person rated each of the four wines.

The results could not have been better for me. There was no significant difference in the rating across the four wines; the cheap wine did just as well as the expensive ones. Even more remarkable, for a given drinker, there was more variation in the rankings they gave to the two samples drawn from the same bottle than there was between any other two samples. Not only did they like the cheap wine as much as the expensive one, they were not even internally consistent in their assessments.

There was a lot of anger when I revealed the results, especially the fact that I had included the same wine twice. One eminent scholar stormed out of the room stating that he had a cold — otherwise he would have detected my sleight of hand with certainty.”

Although much less scientific than the previous experiment, Levitt’s scheme came to similar results: Most people can’t tell expensive wine from cheap, which brings a smile to college students’ faces nation-wide.

Andre´ and 3-buck-chucks really are the highest quality beverages in the world!!

Dietary Research

New child nutrition bill makes everyone (except Sarah Palin) happy

December 16th, 2010

President Obama signed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 Monday, which gives child nutrition programs 4.5 billion dollars over the next 10 years. Despite its painfully uncatchy name, this bill has the potential to change school lunches forever.

Some topics and key points included in the bill:

Improves Nutrition and Focuses on Reducing Childhood Obesity

  • Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, the “a la carte” lunch lines, and school stores.
  • Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches.  This is an historic investment, the first real reimbursement rate increase in over 30 years.
  • Helps communities establish local farm to school networks, create school gardens, and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.

Increases Access

  • Increases the number of eligible children enrolled in school meal programs by approximately 115,000 students by using Medicaid data to directly certify children who meet income requirements.
  • Helps certify an average additional 4,500 students per year to receive school meals by setting

Increases Program Monitoring and Integrity

  • Requires school districts to be audited every three years to improve compliance with nutritional standards.
  • Requires schools to make information more readily available to parents about the nutritional quality of meals.
  • Includes provisions to ensure the safety of school foods like improving recall procedures and extending hazard analysis and food safety requirements for school meals throughout the campus.

For an entire description of the bill, please see the White House press release. The sample school lunch menus are available as well, comparing old meals, to the new culinary offerings this bill plans to provide:

After signing it, President Obama spoke about how important this bill is for the well being of our children, and also mentioned that “Not only am I very proud of the bill, but had I not been able to get this passed, I would be sleeping on the couch.” Hilarious! Here is the rest of the exchange between them, from the White House site:

MRS. OBAMA: And thank you, Mr. President — (laughter) — for that very kind introduction.  And all kidding aside, my husband worked very hard to make sure that this bill was a priority in this session.  And I am grateful to you.

THE PRESIDENT: Because I would have been sleeping on the couch.  (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: But I am thrilled to be here — we won’t go into that.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just say it got done, so we don’t have to go down that road.  (Laughter.) But I am thrilled to be here with all of you today as my husband signs the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law.

This bill has received overwhelming support from democrats, republicans, rabbis, pastors, and of course health experts, all quoted by the White House in their press release. Except Sarah Palin.

When she heard about government intervention in Pennsylvania, she stepped in saying “I had to shake it up a little bit,” Palin said at a school fundraiser, ” because I heard there is a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether most schools condemn sweets, cakes, cookies, that type of thing. I brought dozens and dozens of cookies to these students.”

She asked, “Should it be the government or should it be the parents?” that decide what our kids eat. Of course the parents should decide. That is, assuming the kids have parents, or parents that are involved in their lives. Nothing in this bill limits parents’ freedom to pack their children snickerdoodles and soda for lunch. But it does provide healthy alternatives for kids to choose from.

Considering the sky-rocketing rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, maybe Mrs. Palin is right. Maybe it is about time kids’ nutrition gets “shooken up.”

Nutrition and Weight Loss, Policy

Insights from my daily use of PhotoCalorie

December 13th, 2010

I have been using PhotoCalorie at every meal, compiling photos and descriptions of all the foods I have been eating. You can see my read-only journal here. The photos expand if you click on them, and clicking the food description will show you the nutrition for each food. Anyone with a PhotoCalorie account can now make a read-only journal they can share with whom ever they’d like.

I have learned that I usually don’t like to be typing on my phone while I am eating with other people. So I usually just snap a photo of my meal, and put my phone away. Then later that day, I log on to my PhotoCalorie account on my laptop and enter my description then. That way, when I click on the food, I have a large photo of the foods I ate with the example serving size page as a reference:

Now if you click on the “Show example serving sizes” link, this will pop up:

Now that I can see what a serving of different types of food actually looks like, I can do a much better job of estimating how much I’m actually eating. The chicken breast in the photo looks about 3 times as large as the 3 oz chicken breast in the example. That’s why I wrote “Grilled chicken*3,” which will calculate the nutrition for 9 ounces of chicken breast. Now to search for more foods, all I need to do is separate them by commas. The corn looks like it is about 1 and a half cups, and the broccoli about 1 cup. I also had a cup of water.

Therefore, the final search query is: “Grilled chicken*3, corn*1.5, broccoli, water.”

Some things I have discovered:

  • I generally seem to eat the same thing for breakfast each day, with some small variation
  • I drink a lot of coffee
  • I began taking more time setting up my meal for the photo, so it looks nicer when I go back and look at what I’ve eaten
  • I usually eat 2 plates of food for lunch and dinner ( The days that I don’t, I’m starving by 10pm!)

We’d love to hear any insights you’ve acquired from using PhotoCalorie!

Sign up for your free PhotoCalorie account, here, and share your journal with the world!

Nutrition and Weight Loss, Updates

Holiday Eating – Guest blogger Kara Lydon, RD

December 10th, 2010

The following post is a guest-blog by Registered Dietitian Kara Lydon.

As a new registered dietitian working in bariatrics, this year, more than ever, I am realizing how the holiday season can be a huge struggle for people fighting to lose or maintain their weight. It makes sense because what’s the focus around holidays? FOOD! In fact, food is often the primary topic of conversation when discussing the holidays. This can make the holiday season stressful or uncomfortable for people who struggle with their weight.

The holidays should be a time to enjoy family and friends and reflect on what we are thankful for. It should not be a time to worry about gaining weight. But with the average American Christmas dinner containing thousands of calories, it’s no surprise people are concerned.

Maintain your weight this holiday season by following these tips:

  • Eat breakfast and lunch the day of your dinner feast. If you starve yourself leading up to your holiday meal, you will over eat and end up consuming more calories than you would have had you eaten regular meals throughout the day.
  • Keep up the exercise! Research shows that those who exercise are more likely to maintain their weight.
  • Remember it’s only ONE meal. Thanksgiving or Christmas should not last a week. Enjoy the meal and then go back to your regular eating patterns the next day. Say NO to leftovers!
  • Focus your holiday plate on nutrition basics – load up on protein and veggies to keep you full and satisfied for little calories.
  • Save your calories for the foods you enjoy! Choose your foods wisely. Why take Grandma’s jello salad when you know it’s not your favorite? Pick the holiday essentials you can’t live without and savor them!
  • Don’t deprive yourself. If you want a piece of pie, have a piece of pie for Christmas’ sake! Opt for a smaller slice, or limit yourself to one dessert if you don’t want to go overboard.
  • Watch those beverages! Alcohol, punches, and ciders can add 800 calories to your meal if you over do it. Focus on eating your calories this holiday season, not drinking them.
  • My favorite tip: focus on family, not food. Enjoy the company of family and friends this holiday season. Make this time of the year about something other than food.

This holiday season, I am looking forward to spending some quality time with family and friends. I also look forward to making my delicious pumpkin bread pudding.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy holidays,

Peace, Love, and Food,


Kara Lydon, is a Registered Dietitian who believes that nutrition is a fundamental piece in achieving health and wellness. She maintains her Peace, Love, and Food blog reflection of a life based around food, nutrition, and wellness, providing you tips along the way on how to lead a healthy lifestyle.


New weight loss pill, Contrave, close to approval

December 9th, 2010

A new drug for weight loss called Contrave is close to approval, which has its makers, Orexigen Therapeutics, and overweight people very excited. However, this would not be a ticket to sit on the couch and eat junk food all day. Contrave was tested as an addition to an intense exercise and diet regimen.

The study involved 793 obese patients. Those treated with Contrave showed a significant reduction in body weight. Data from the intent-to-treat (people assigned to drug group, whether they completed the study or not) population demonstrated an average weight loss of 20.3 pounds, or 9.3 percent of patients’ baseline body weight, vs. 11 pounds, or 5.1 percent, in the placebo arm. The completer analyses showed an even greater reduction, with Contrave-treated patients losing an average of 25 pounds, or 11.5 percent of their baseline body weight, compared to 16 pounds, or 7.3 percent, on placebo.

According to current guidelines for a weight loss drug to be effective, the difference in weight loss between drug and placebo should be at least 5 percent, and Contrave’s difference to placebo was 4.1 percent. The most common adverse event associated with treatment was nausea, which accounted for much of the 25.9 percent discontinuation rate in the study.

These somewhat promising results come with a price. Subjects taking the drug also had slightly higher blood pressure and increased heart rates. The panel suggested a study looking at the long term heart risks of the study, but it is allowed to happen after the drug would be released to the public – not before. A Cardiologist on the panel, Sanjay Kaul, voted against Contrave. “The 13-7 vote is going to create a buzz in the press reports and not accurately reflect the tepid enthusiasm for this drug,” he stated. To read more about this, click here.

Is this modest increase in weight loss worth the potential side effects Contrave may have on the heart?

Nutrition and Weight Loss

Obesity surgery to become the new weight loss tool for millions more people

December 6th, 2010

America is at a turning point for how we deal with obesity. Until recently, weightloss surgery has been a last resort measure, reserved for the very obese. It appears that this will soon change. Allergan, a pharmaceutical company, is pushing to lower how obese someone must be in order to qualify for lap band surgery. Currently, people who qualify for obesity surgery have failed to lose weight through diet and exercise and have a B.M.I., of 40 and above, or 35 and above if a person has at least one serious health problem related to obesity. Allergan wants to lower that to a B.M.I. of 35 with no associated health problems and to 30 with such problems. This past week, the advisory board for the Food and Drug Administration voted 8-2 in favor of this idea.

This change would represent what seems to be an utter failure of the ‘eat less, exercise more‘ recommendations we have heard so much. It is troubling that we must resort to such a drastic measure. Lap -band surgery has been very successful in the past, especially for weight loss and diabetes. But like with all surgeries, there are major risks associated. You can read more about this here.

Do you think this is a necessary step to slow down the seemingly unstoppable obesity epidemic?

Nutrition and Weight Loss

Senate Passes Historic Food Safety Bill!

December 1st, 2010

The Food Safety and Modernization act passed yesterday with strong bi-partisan support. This is a very important day for our food supply, which was hardly regulated previously. The FDA has many new regulatory powers, a few of which are listed below.

  • The FDA now can demand a recall of foods if they find contamination
  • Imported foods will now have more control over food imports, including increased inspection of foreign processing plants and the ability to set standards for how fruits and vegetables are grown abroad. (Currently, the FDA only examined 1 pound for every million pounds of imported foods!)
  • Conduct more frequent inspection
  • Shut down facilities in consistent violation of safety regulation
  • Access records to determine the source of an outbreak

Hopefully the tainted meat, spinach, and peanut butter are a thing of the past! For more on this historic bill, click here.

Food Safety