Dinner at home: ideal vs. reality

According to the common nutritional wisdom, families who sit down together for home-cooked meals tend to be both healthier and happier, and research for the most part supports that this is true.

But when a group of sociologists decided to study what it really takes to prepare a family dinner, they learned that all is not well in the kitchen. In fact, moms reported feeling pressured to live up to unrealistic ideals and many felt the benefits of home-prepared food weren’t worth the hassle.

Utopia, meet Real Life.

Food gurus may romanticize about the love and skill that goes into preparing a meal and the appreciation with which it’s eaten, but “they fail to see all of the invisible labor that goes into planning, making and coordinating family meals, ” the researchers concluded. “Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.”

For their study, aptly titled “The Joy of Cooking?”, they spent a year and a half conducting in-depth interviews with a social and economic cross-section of 150 black, white and Latina mothers. They also spent more than 250 hours observing poor and working-class families as they shopped for groceries, cooked and ate meals.

They found mothers were strapped for time, sometimes working two jobs and unpredictable hours to make ends meet and with little energy left over to plan a meal, prepare it and clean up the kitchen afterwards while their children clamored for attention. “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t cook,” one mother bluntly told the researchers.

They discovered that in most of the poorer households they observed, mothers routinely did their own cooking to save money. But these women often were disadvantaged by kitchens that were too small and inadequately equipped – not enough counter space, a shortage of pots and pans, lack of sharp knives and cutting boards, and so on. One family living in a motel room prepared all their meals in a microwave and washed their dishes in the bathroom sink.

A common barrier was the cost of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, typical ingredients of a healthy meal. Some of the mothers didn’t have reliable transportation so they only shopped for groceries once a month, which limited the amount of fresh produce they could buy. Even in the middle-class households, moms fretted that the cost of quality food forced them to buy more processed foods and less organic food than they wished.

The final straw: family members who fussed, picked at the food or refused to eat what was served. The researchers rarely observed a family meal during which no one complained. In many of the low-income homes, moms resorted to making the same foods over and over rather than try something new that might be rejected and go to waste. For middle-class moms, the pressure to put healthy, balanced meals on the table often led to considerable anxiety over what they cooked and served.

Despite all this, is it possible for families to consistently prepare good meals at home and actually enjoy the experience instead of viewing it as a chore? Of course it is. But for many households, getting there clearly will be a slog.

When the reality surrounding the home-cooked meal is often at odds with the ideal, why then do food system reformers insist that the revolution needs to happen in the household kitchen? the researchers wonder.

They call the emerging standard for the home-cooked meal “a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy, home-cooked meal on women.”

Perhaps we need more options for feeding families, such as introducing healthy food trucks or monthly town suppers, or getting schools and workplaces involved in sharing healthy lunches, they suggest. “Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.”

How sweet it isn’t?

First it was fats, then carbohydrates. Now sugar has joined the ranks of nutritional villainy.

With Christmas approaching on a tidal wave of candy canes and gingerbread, one can’t help wondering: Is it OK to indulge in a little sweetness, or is sugar entirely bad?

There’s no denying a certain amount of hysteria when it comes to sugar. Critics claim sugar causes everything from hyperactivity to premature aging. A common – and inaccurate – belief about cancer is that cancer cells feed on sugar.

Some of this is hyperbole but there’s also a considerable amount of science that has examined the effects, both good and bad, of sugar consumption. Sugar has been linked, for instance, to increased risk of weight gain, diabetes and heart disease. Earlier this year, some U.S. health experts went so far as to declare that sugar is as addictive and dangerous as alcohol or tobacco and should be regulated accordingly.

Unfortunately it’s not always clear whether sugar itself is the culprit or whether something more complex is going on.

At least part of the reason why higher sugar consumption is linked to weight gain may simply be the extra calories. One of the issues with sugar-sweetened sodas and other beverages isn’t just that they contain lots of sugar, it’s that they often end up replacing water or milk in someone’s diet. Processed foods high in sugar also can be higher in fat and sodium, which are associated with negative health effects of their own.

A certain amount of sugar is necessary in order for the human body to function, but moderation seems to be called for here. Consuming large quantities of sugar each day also tends to be a marker for an overall diet that may not be optimal for health.

This brings us to the real vexation: the proverbial sweet tooth. Why do so many people love sugar and why can it be so hard to consume less of it?

I admit to not totally understanding the whole sweet tooth thing. If you were to invite me to your holiday buffet, I would go directly to the spinach dip and the shrimp cocktail. Cookies and candy, not so much. But this wouldn’t necessarily be the case for other guests.

There’s debate about whether so-called sugar addiction is real or imagined. Some studies have found clinical similarities between food cravings and drug dependence. A study published this year in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found, for instance, that when people binge on sugar-dense foods, it increases the amount of extracellular dopamine in their brain which has the potential to lead to addiction.

The authors wrote, “There appear to be several biological and psychological similarities between food addiction and drug dependence, including craving and loss of control.” They also note that for some people, consuming these foods is comforting and therefore might be regarded as a form of self-medication.

So far, however, the sugar addiction theory has mostly been tested on rats and mice, with implications for human behavior that are unclear at best. A 2010 review in the Clinical Nutrition journal examined the evidence and concluded there’s nothing yet in the literature suggesting that humans can become addicted to sugar or that sugar addiction plays a role in obesity or eating disorders.

The bottom line is that when it comes to “sugar addiction,” the jury still seems to be out.

In the meantime, here’s some guidance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2010 dietary guidelines recommend limiting consumption of added sugars and solid fats to somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of total daily calories. The American Heart Association suggests no more than 100 calories a day of added sugar for most women and no more than 150 calories a day for most men. That’s about 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men.

Here’s something else to keep in mind. For most Americans, the main source of the sugar they consume isn’t in that spoonful they dump into their coffee, or a homemade dessert or even a Christmas cookie. Most of our dietary sugar comes in the form of added sugar – sugars and sugar-based syrups that are added to food during processing. Although the tendency is to single out highly sugared products, such as sodas, as the problem, added sugar can show up in a variety that may not be readily recognized – chicken nuggets, for instance, or ketchup or children’s breakfast cereals, all of which are often surprisingly high in sugar.

So go ahead and have that reindeer-shaped holiday cookie if you want. If you’re worried about the sugar, just take one.

Holiday food guilt? Not on the menu

Writer Ragen Chastain can think of several things that would be more fun than being under holiday surveillance by what she calls “the Friends and Family Food Police”: a root canal, a fishhook in the eye… you get the picture.

Chastain, who blogs at “Dances With Fat,” tackled the subject last year of holiday eating and the well-meaning individuals who comment, nag or react in other ways to someone else’s food choices, particularly if that someone is overweight.

She clearly hit a nerve, because the comment section quickly filled with stories about people’s experiences at the holiday dinner table.

One woman was scolded by a cousin for eating high-carb carrots. Someone else was told “You don’t need that!” when she reached for the bread.

For others, the guilt tactics were more subtle – for instance, people asking them if they’d lost weight, or commenting, “I’m really being bad, I shouldn’t be eating this” while downing a sliver of pie.

Maybe it’s the food, maybe it’s the family dynamics, maybe it’s the emotional expectations we have for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Whatever the reason, there’s something about the holidays that can bring out the worst in people’s guilt and disordered attitudes about eating. When I Googled the words “holiday food and guilt,” there were 7.9 million results.

If you’re on the receiving end of the guilt tactics, how do you cope?

Chastain, who teaches workshops on self-esteem and the Health at Every Size approach and has written a book, “Fat! The Owner’s Manual,” advises deciding where the boundaries lie and what the consequences are for those who overstep them.

She writes, “I give people clear information, and several chances, but I don’t keep anybody in my life who consistently fails to treat me with the level of respect that I require.”

This might mean, for instance, simply saying “yes” or “no” if someone asks whether you really need that second helping of mashed potatoes – and then proceeding to eat it. Or it might mean giving a pointed response when someone gets too persistent: “I have absolutely no interest in discussing my food intake with you.”

Although much of the food guilt is aimed at obesity, it’s a minefield for other people as well. Thin people can be equally likely to have their weight commented on at the dinner table, or urged to eat more. And for those dealing with or recovering from eating disorders, holiday meals can be doubly difficult. Not only must they cope with food, and lots of it, but they may also be subjected to intense scrutiny over how much, or how little, they’re eating and whether they’re sticking to their prescribed meal plan.

This isn’t to say people shouldn’t try to eat sensibly for the holidays. The amped-up food choices can be difficult for those who have diabetes, need to limit their sodium or cholesterol intake, or simply want to watch calories.

Some tips from the Duke University Health System: Sample a little of everything but balance it with more fruits and vegetables. Stock up on healthy snacks for when temptation hits. Eat before a party to avoid overdoing it. Drink moderately. Don’t be afraid to say no if someone applies pressure to eat more.

The real question about food guilt is whether it actually works. According to a new study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the answer is no.

Researchers asked 1,000 study participants to evaluate several public health obesity campaigns by rating how positive or negative the campaign messages were and whether they were motivating or stigmatizing.

The best ratings went to campaigns that promoted specific health behaviors, such as eating more fruits and vegetables, and campaigns that encouraged people to become confident and empowered. Those that ranked the highest didn’t even mention the word “obesity.”

The least motivating? Messages that promoted shame, blame and stigmatizing.

Someone who truly cares about a friend’s or relative’s health should discuss it alone, at an appropriate time and in a way that invites dialogue, rather than shaming him or her at the dinner table, says Chastain. “Guilt is not good for your health. So I hope that if you choose to eat it, you also choose to enjoy it.”

School lunch and the vegetable strategy

Offer fruit and vegetables on the school lunch menu and kids will be inspired to try them, like them and maybe even start eating them on a regular basis – or so the theory goes.

But a new study has found this isn’t necessarily the case. Although bringing raspberries, asparagus, sweet potatoes and the like into the school cafeteria did seem to have an impact, the effect wasn’t particularly strong, researchers learned after scrutinizing the food choices of more than 26,000 children.

The study appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It’s one of the first times researchers have attempted to quantify whether school-based programs actually make a difference in how many fruits and vegetables children consume each day.

A bit of background about the study: It analyzed nearly two dozen previous studies involving a total of 26,400 children ages 5 to 12 in several countries, including the U.S., Britain and Australia. The researchers looked at two different kinds of food programs: those in which kids received free or subsidized produce, and those that included elements such as family and nutrition education and communicating with parents. They then compared them with school lunch programs that didn’t do anything specific to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption.

The results were interesting or dismal, depending on your point of view.

On average, children in school-based food programs ate about one-fourth of a portion more of produce. The effect was especially low for vegetables – only a tenth of a portion more, or the equivalent of half a spear of asparagus.

Notably, this wasn’t confined to school lunch programs in the U.S.; the researchers found similar results in Europe and Australia.

Counting juice as a fruit raised the average consumption a little higher but not by much.

It’s hard to gauge whether such small increases have an overall benefit on children’s nutrition. Perhaps it did help in some subtle, long-term way. Tracking whether these same kids also ate slightly more fruits and vegetables at home and whether they continued these habits into adulthood was outside the scope of the studies selected for the analysis, but even slight changes could have added up over time.

The researchers dug up some especially interesting conclusions regarding the strategies used by schools to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption.

It seemed to make a difference when schools included more education about nutrition and when they communicated more with families about nutrition. School garden programs also seemed to help.

There’s been a fair amount of study on what schools can do to get children to eat more fruits and vegetables. Should they restrict access to chips, soda and other less desirable foods in the hope that the slack will be picked up with fruits and vegetables? If kids are given more fruit and vegetable options, will they be more likely to try at least one of them? Does it work to offer rewards when kids choose fruits and vegetables in the school lunch line? What about marketing fruits and vegetables to make them cool and fun?

The evidence suggests that most of these strategies may help in some way, albeit moderately. But school lunch programs are only one component in a food environment that also extends to how children eat at home and what they see and experience in the community around them.

On the basis of the Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, it would be easy to conclude that school-based interventions are, at best, only mildly successful and perhaps not worth the effort. There’s another way of looking at it, though: In order to positively influence children’s eating behavior, there may not be the blockbuster solution that many are looking for. It more than likely will take multiple strategies on many fronts – each of them small but adding up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

Downsizing the mega-soda

If there was any doubt that New York City was serious about downsizing the giant sugary drinks sold at restaurants and concession stands, it was erased Thursday with the enactment of a new rule by the city’s Board of Health.

The rule places a 16-ounce limit on the size of non-diet sodas, sweetened teas and other sugar-laden drinks sold at restaurants, theaters, workplace cafeterias and other venues that offer prepared food.

Many public health experts have wrung their hands over the amount of sugared beverages consumed by the average American. Few entities, though, have gone so far as to impose an outright ban on super-sized drinks.

Those who support the measure see it as an important – and pioneering – step for public health. Here’s the take by the Associated Press:

They say the proposal strikes at a leading cause of obesity simply by giving people a built-in reason to stop at 16 ounces: 200 calories, if it’s a regular Coke, compared to 240 in a 20-ounce size. For someone who drinks a soda a day, the difference amounts to 14,600 calories a year, or the equivalent of 70 Hershey bars, enough to add about four pounds of fat to a person’s body.

Beyond the numbers, some doctors and nutrition experts say the proposal starts a conversation that could change attitudes toward overeating. While there are many factors in obesity, “ultimately it does come down to culture, and it comes down to taking some first steps,” said Dr. Jeffrey Mechanick, a Mount Sinai School of Medicine professor who has studied the effect of government regulation on the obesity epidemic.

The ban goes into effect March 13, assuming it isn’t struck down before then.

Supporters of the measure have a point. Soft drinks are large and getting larger. Consider the 7-Eleven Big Gulp series: The Double Gulp contains 50 (!) ounces – more than the capacity of the average human stomach. We have become culturally accustomed to supersized portions of everything from soft drinks to french fries to bagels, with the result that it’s increasingly difficult to gauge what a normal-sized serving should be.

But here’s the big question: Will New York’s ban on the largest sugary drinks actually make a difference in people’s health? The answer is not at all clear.

For one thing, the rule contains a multitude of exceptions. It doesn’t apply to beverages sold in retail grocery stores, vending machines or most convenience stores, allowing people to continue to buy their favorite large sizes without restriction.

It exempts beverages that are 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices, even though these can be, ounce for ounce, almost as full of sugar as a soft drink. (For a comparison, check out this chart compiled by the federal government; a 12-ounce serving of grape juice contains 12 teaspoons of sugar – more than a same-sized serving of either cola or root beer.)

Nor is there anything in the rules that prohibits consumers from short-circuiting the intent by simply buying more smaller drinks to equal a large one. And New Yorkers can continue to drink as much soda in the privacy of their homes as they please (at least for now).

Although this is, strictly speaking, a New York City story, it matters to the rest of us as well. Indeed, the Board of Health’s action has captured wide interest across the United States. Seattle lies the width of the continent from Manhattan, but when the Seattle Times offered an online poll on what readers thought of a similar ban in their own city, folks were quick to weigh in.

There’s considerable – and valid – debate over whether regulation and government enforcement are an appropriate strategy for influencing health-related behavior.

Ethically speaking, it’s a murky area. Should government be making people’s food choices for them? Do consumers have the right to make their own decisions about what they buy and drink, or is this outweighed by the public health impact? If the target today is sugared drinks, what’s going to be next?

In the months before the New York City Board of Health voted on the mega-soda ban, a handful of studies attempted to quantify what the health results might be. In one study that involved analyzing the receipts of 1,600 fast-food customers on the East Coast, researchers concluded that if everyone who had been buying a large-sized drink cut back to a single 16-ounce beverage, they would consume 63 fewer calories per meal. But at least 40 percent of consumers had to take this step, otherwise the impact would be negligible, concluded the study.

Finally, banning giant-sized drinks at some commercial venues does little to address other areas of health-related behavior that may be just as important – physical activity, stress, alcohol use and timely access to appropriate medical care, to name just a few.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how the soda ban plays out. Perhaps this is what it takes to begin changing a community environment into one that fosters better health – the proverbial snowball that gathers speed and mass as it rolls downhill. On the other hand, this is still an experiment with unknown results. It’s to be hoped that the New York City Board of Health will watch this closely and collect some real evidence to help decide whether it was worthwhile or not.

The snack habit

I’ve noticed it for some time, in a vaguely-paying-attention sort of way. But it wasn’t until seeing a news article in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis this weekend that it really hit home: For better or worse, snacking has become a mainstream American way of eating.

From the article:

Two studies from 2010 by University of North Carolina researchers looked at snacking trends between 1977 and 2006 and found that children now eat three snacks a day and adults snack twice a day. That is one additional snack for each group compared with 30 years ago.

Three square meals don’t exist anymore, said Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Packaged Facts, a publishing company that focuses on consumer product research. “Meals and snacks have become all blurred together.” The authors of the report concluded that “our children are moving toward constantly eating.”

What is up with all the nibbling between meals? More to the point, how did we get this way?

Finkel attributes it to the American on-the-run lifestyle which has led to the decline of structured mealtimes. Instead of sitting down to dinner together, dinner has become what you eat in the car on the way to work or soccer practice, he said.

Once you start noticing, the signs are everywhere that snacking is an eating behavior that’s widely accepted and even expected. Manufacturers have developed hundreds of “snack-sized” products meant to be eaten at your desk or on the run. Restaurants are open late into the night or, increasingly, 24 hours a day. Few kids’ events are complete anymore without a snack of some kind. Even diet plans now include recommendations for morning and afternoon snacks, on the assumption that this is part of people’s daily routine.

In an indication of how entrenched the snack habit has become, a study that appeared in Health Affairs in 2010 found that nearly one-third of the daily calories consumed by American children now come from snacks.

It all raises the question: Is this a trend we should be welcoming?

There in fact seems to be no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a snack. Are snacks a replacement for a full meal or are they something that’s consumed in addition to a meal? How many calories can a snack contain before it stops being a snack and becomes a meal?

There’s some limited evidence that “grazing,” or consuming half a dozen small meals a day, may be more effective for losing weight, curbing hunger and controlling blood sugar levels than the traditional three squares a day. But the research findings so far have been somewhat contradictory. At least two studies have found that for those who want to lose weight, what ultimately matters is how many calories they consume, not how often they eat. According to other studies, however, grazing can be beneficial, especially in helping people feel more sated throughout the day and less likely to overeat.

Grazing might also benefit some groups more than others. Athletes and active children often need snacks to replenish the calories they burn. Some studies involving older adults, an age group at risk of malnutrition, have found that large meals can be unappetizing for them and that they fare better on smaller meals throughout the day.

What it seems to come down to is the quality and amount of snacking that takes place. There’s a difference, after all, between snacking on carrot sticks vs. a bag of chips. And there’s a difference between snacks that are part of an overall healthy eating plan vs. snacks that add to one’s daily calorie load. Munching on something a few extra times a day might not seem like much but the calories can add up in ways that might astonish many people.

Left unanswered in all of this are the social implications of replacing structured mealtimes with grazing and snacks eaten on the run. Are we losing something when we don’t sit down at the table together, or doesn’t this really matter? What happens when the whole world becomes our dining room?

I’m not sure we’ve pondered these questions, and in any case it’s too late. This particular train has already left the station. The challenge, it seems, is how to manage this cultural shift in eating in ways that are healthful rather than toxic.

Eating gone wild: the unhealthy side of competitive eating

Watching competitive eaters cram dozens of hot dogs down their gullets is both mesmerizing and nausea-inducing.

Apparently few do it better than Joey Chestnut, a 28-year-old from San Jose, Calif., (his nickname is “Jaws”) who won his sixth straight title this week in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest by downing 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. (The second-place winner only managed a paltry 52 hot dogs.)

What is the deal with competitive eating? At one time it was a fringe activity most often found at local fairs and on college campuses. These days it has gone mainstream, with televised contests, cash prizes and competitors who actually train for a shot at stardom.

Somewhere in here is a commentary on America’s disordered cultural attitudes towards food. But that’s fodder for another day. What I want to know is: How on Earth do they do it? And how does the human body tolerate it?

The reaction of most in the health community seems to be: Speed-stuffing yourself with that many hot dogs (or anything else, for that matter; other competitive eating contests involve burritos, oysters, meatballs, jalapeno peppers or pie)  is not good for you.

Health experts have been speaking out for some time against the so-called sport of competitive eating. The American Medical Association views it as an unhealthy practice akin to binge eating, with possible long-term consequences.

ABC’s Good Morning America tallied up the excess fat and calories consumed on July Fourth by the Nathan’s Famous hot dog-eating contestants (or “gurgitators,” as they’re often called) and came up with some whopping numbers. For instance, a Nathan’s hot dog contains about 300 calories; by this measure, Chestnut gorged himself on 20,400 calories in just 10 minutes – 10 times the number of daily calories recommended for adult men by the USDA.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine told Good Morning America, “I’m not sure if eating that many hot dogs can damage your blood, but it will probably raise your cholesterol level temporarily. And it puts a strain on your body’s organs to handle that amount of calories, fat and sodium all at once.”

Someone susceptible to high blood pressure who downs such massive amounts of sodium “is really rolling the dice and could end up in the hospital,” Ayoob said.

Here’s what many of us would really like to know: How do the contestants avoid, um, experiencing what’s known as a “reversal of fortune”? Answer: Often they don’t. In most contests, eaters are disqualified if they vomit during the actual competition. Sometimes this is extended through a set time after the contest has ended – say, two minutes. After that, gurgitators may reverse without penalty.

For the record, Chestnut told the media after his chow-down that he felt “good” and was “looking forward to next year already.”

Sonya Thomas, the 100-pound winner of the women’s competition (45 hot dogs) admitted she began feeling sick during the contest but kept going.

For all the criticism of the excess surrounding competitive eating, there’s been surprisingly little actual study of its effects on the human body. In one of the few investigations into how competitive eaters manage to consume so much at one time, a group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted imaging studies of a speed-eating champion matched with a control subject.

They wrote that the competitive eater’s stomach was extraordinarily adapted to his sport: “Unlike the control subject, the speed eater had markedly altered gastric physiology that enabled his stomach to rapidly accommodate an enormous quantity of ingested food by progressively expanding until it became a giant, flaccid sac occupying most of his upper abdomen.”

Interestingly, he was not overweight – and it seems many of the top-ranked eating contestants are quite trim, despite their sport. He told the researchers, however, that he had lost the ability to feel sated after a meal, and that he followed strict portion control in everyday eating.

It’s unclear what these findings mean for the long-term health of competitive eaters. This was an extremely tiny study, involving only one participant. Nevertheless, the researchers raise some key questions: What happens as competitive eaters get older, perhaps struggle with willpower and begin to engage in chronic binge eating? What’s the long-term impact of having a chronically dilated stomach?

The researchers conclude that speed eating “is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior that over time could lead to morbid obesity, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for gastric surgery.”

So there you have it. Only one hot dog at a time for me, thanks very much.

Eating better, for less money

Does it really cost more to buy healthful foods? Maybe not.

According to a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods we think of as healthful are actually cheaper per portion than foods with higher amounts of sugar, salt and fat.

The report contradicts a rather long-standing belief among many folks that it’s more expensive to eat well – a belief bolstered by a number of previous studies that have found higher costs for healthful food choices.

So who’s right?

The answer seems to lie in how you calculate it. Most studies that examine food costs have used a standard metric: the cost per calorie. The USDA researchers decided to look at this a couple of different ways. They estimated the cost for each of more than 4,000 food items – 4,439, to be exact – and then crunched the numbers to come up with the price per calorie, price per edible weight and price per average portion consumed. They also calculated the cost of meeting the government’s daily ChooseMyPlate recommendations.

Here’s what they found:

- When the price is measured by the calorie, lower-calorie healthful foods do cost more – but this is mainly because of the math. It takes far more broccoli, for instance, to equal 500 calories than does a cinnamon roll.

- When the cost is measured by weight or serving size, healthful foods are generally the better bargain.

Our perception that the U.S. nutritional guidelines are unaffordable for many households may simply be a matter of the metrics, the study’s authors suggest. Price per calorie may be “one way, but not the only way, to measure the cost of a healthy diet,” they wrote.

Andrea Carlson, an economist and co-author of the study, told USA Today, “We have all heard that eating a healthy diet is expensive, and people have used that as an excuse for not eating a healthy diet… but healthy foods do not necessarily cost more than less healthy foods.”

She notes, “The price of potato chips is nearly twice as expensive as the price of carrots by portion size.”

There are many other factors, of course, that go into the consumer’s decisions in the grocery aisle. Some fresh fruits and vegetables genuinely are expensive, especially when they’re purchased out of season. For many people, the time and cost of preparation are a major consideration; it’s more work, after all, to rinse, trim, cut up and steam a head of broccoli than it is to pick up the phone and order a pizza. The metrics of cost per calorie vs. cost per serving or cost per edible weight also don’t address food availability, which is an entirely separate – and important – issue.

But there’s clearly more than one way of looking at food costs. Carlson suggests the best way to think of it is by portion size. “How much do you have to pay to put something on your plate?” she asks.

The kids are going vegan

Children’s books aren’t usually known for being controversial, but a new book about kids and veganism has touched off a storm of debate about everything from hunger to animal cruelty to large-scale farming and what it means for the choices children make about what they eat.

Disclosure here: I haven’t yet read “Vegan Is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action,” which came out last week, although I’ve read some excerpts and watched the promotional video. The author and illustrator, Ruby Roth, previously published a similar book, “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals.”

Written for ages 6 and up, “Vegan Is Love” is one of the first books to outline the vegan lifestyle and philosophy for children and show them how they can put it into practice. Some sample suggestions: “Ask your favorite grocery and clothing stores to carry more vegan products.” “Learn some vegan recipes (for food or even soaps and lotions) and share them with family, friends, and teachers.”

Roth says in a news release that she doesn’t mind the controversy that has erupted over the book. “It’s high time we engage youths in topics previously reserved for adults – democracy, supply and demand, and engaging ourselves in the public realm,” she says. “Fast food companies don’t think your kids are too young to be marketed to, agribusiness uses the word ‘sustainable’ to talk about GMOs, and marine parks and zoos want kids to believe they are conservationists. If you don’t educate your kids, someone else will.”

This isn’t how the critics see it, however, and many of them have been quite vocal about the book’s message. Some say the topic is inappropriate for children. Others point to some of the book’s illustrations, which include images of animals in crowded cages, and worry that children will be disturbed and upset.

“The main problem that I have with this book is that children are impressionable, and this is too sensitive of a topic to have a child read this book,” wrote Nicole German, a registered dietitian from Atlanta, on her blog. “It could easily scare a young child into eating vegan, and without proper guidance that child could become malnourished.”

I’m going to skip over the issues raised in the book about factory farming, animal testing and zoos, and focus instead on the nutritional concept of children and veganism: namely, whether it’s healthful or desirable for children to pursue a vegan diet.

As it turns out, the answer is yes – although nutrition experts caution that parents need to pay close attention to whether their child’s vegan menu is adequate and well balanced.

When a group of British researchers reviewed the pros and cons of vegetarian diets for children back in 1998, they concluded that these are no more likely to be bad for children’s growth and development than an omnivorous diet. They found that vegan diets are “more likely to be associated with malnutrition, especially if the diets are the result of authoritarian dogma.” But they also note that the main challenges to children’s eating habits are similar regardless of diet: lack of variety, lack of physical activity and too much reliance on packaged convenience foods.

The position of the American Dietetic Association is that “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence.”

This doesn’t necessarily help resolve the many other, and perhaps more thorny, questions surrounding children and veganism. When are children old enough to start making deliberate choices about the food they eat? How should omnivorous parents react if their child announces he or she wants to become a vegan? Inasmuch as food habits often contain an emotional component, how do we discuss them in a way that keeps the emotions to a minimum?

For all the commotion about childhood obesity and children’s food habits, it’s intriguing that a little book about veganism would raise such a ruckus. Maybe it’ll get the conversation going in a new direction.

A letter to Paula Deen

Paula, Paula, Paula.

By now, you’re probably tired of all the fuss – the criticism of your calorie- and cholesterol-drenched cuisine, your recent revelation that you have type 2 diabetes, your new contract with Novo Nordisk to pitch one of their diabetes drugs.

I’m not going to nag or get all judgmental on you. Others have already done so – for instance, chef and Food Channel host Anthony Bourdain who sarcastically tweeted this week, “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.” Or an editorial in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, which criticized you for promoting “a lifestyle elevating feeling good for a moment above everything else” and concluded, “It’s time for her to become a force for good instead of a force for fat.”

But I have to ask, Paula: What the heck were you thinking?

I’m a teensy bit embarrassed to admit that although I recognize your name and know you’re a celebrity chef/restaurateur who has written books and appeared on TV, I didn’t know much about your culinary style other than that it’s “Southern.” After the story broke this week, I looked up some of your recipes online and I was… well, taken aback, to say the least.

Deep-fried apple turnovers. Macaroni and cheese loaded with butter, sour cream, milk and cheddar cheese. A pie made with Twinkies. A “chocolate cheese fudge” containing half a pound of Velveeta, half a pound of butter and two pounds of confectioner’s sugar. Velveeta doesn’t belong in fudge, Paula. It isn’t even a food.

In some ways, though, I can’t help admiring you. From the start of your career, you aimed unerringly at America’s pudgy underbelly – our collective instinct toward food laden with sugar, butter and grease. It was a smart business decision. You made millions catering to the most unbridled aspects of the human appetite and America was only too happy to help. In this, your fans have been complicit.

But is this what you really want to be remembered for? Your love of food appears to be genuine but is this the example you wanted to set? Now the deep-fried chickens have come home to roost in the form of type 2 diabetes and what I see is… denial. Sorry to be harsh, Paula, but it’s true. You even kept your diagnosis quiet for three years, meanwhile continuing to serve up butter, sugar and calories like there was no tomorrow.

Lending your name and celebrity reputation to help a pharmaceutical company hawk its diabetes drug doesn’t even the score. At best, your fans are probably wondering if you’re being used. At worst, your critics are accusing you of being an opportunist.

The whole lifestyle change thing is hard. I get that. What I don’t get is how someone with your brains, your talent, your business acumen, your charm, ever ended up here in the first place. It didn’t have to come to this, Paula, and it’s not too late to make amends. Put down the butter and walk away. I’m surviving just fine without Twinkie pie and fried cheesecake, and so can you.

Photo: Associated Press