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'Healthy eating' is always a relative term

Published September 22. 2012 09:01AM

The key result of the study, that snacking on raisins controlled children's hunger, did not surprise me. But not because the California Raisin Marketing Board funded the study.

Because of the design of the study.

On test days over a three-month period, researchers fed 26 eight-to-11-year-old boys and girls of normal weight the same breakfast, mid-morning snack, and lunch. After school, however, the subjects randomly received a snack of raisins, grapes, potato chips, or chocolate chip cookies and were told to eat until they were comfortably full.

On the days the subjects received grapes, they consumed 56 percent more calories during snack time than on the days they received raisins. On potato chip days, they consumed 70 percent more cals than raisin days; on cookie days, 106 percent.

Furthermore, food intake at supper was lower on the days subjects snacked on raisins after school.

About the study, lead researcher G. Harvey Anderson, Ph.D., Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Physiology at the University of Toronto, said: "We found consumption of raisins as a snack prevented excessive calorie intake, increased the feeling of fullness, and thereby may help contribute to the maintenance of a healthy weight in school-age children."

I'm on board with Anderson's summation because he is addressing the results of a controlled study. If you performed the same experiment with your children and a dozen of their friends, I would not be surprised if the results were nearly the same.

But that doesn't mean raisins are in all situations and for all people the smartest snack choice.

Even though the consumption of raisins in Anderson's study seemed to subdue the children's appetite as an after-school snack, eating raisins in isolation doesn't have to make that happen. In the study, the raisins were consumed after three previous feedings, a pattern that tends to keep blood sugar from the dips that often lead to binge eating.

If the raisins would've been consumed on an empty stomach or when blood sugar levels were low, it's quite possible that the children would've consumed just as many calories as they did with the three other snacks. Consuming considerable calories is easy to do when you snack on a concentrated energy source such as dried fruit.

Consider that 100 grams of raisins fills about two-thirds of a cup and contains 300 calories, yet 100 grams of grapes fills at least a cup and contains 242 fewer calories. This dramatic discrepancy occurs because grapes contain five times the amount of water, but in all the studies that led to Dr. Barbara Rolls creating the Volumetrics diet, foods with a high percentage of water caused adults to consume fewer calories at meals.

While I am in no way trying to discredit the research done by Anderson and his colleagues, I am trying to establish that the phrase "healthy food" is a relative term, so in all but black-and-white cases you need to decide what's healthy for you.

For instance, yogurt is known as a healthy food because without added sugars in a low-fat or fat-free form it's a great source of protein and calcium. A cup of my favorite, Trader Joe's European Style Organic Plain Nonfat, is only 120 calories yet supplies 14 grams of protein, 16 percent of the Daily Value of potassium and 45 percent of the DV of calcium while containing only 10 grams of the natural sugars found in milk.

So years ago, when a teaching colleague told me her typical lunch was no longer going to feature a bologna sandwich on white bread with a considerable amount of mayonnaise but a cup of yogurt, I knew she had done a good thing. After all, such a sandwich can easily contain 420 calories and 30 grams of fat.

But after reading the Nutrition Facts panel of the yogurt she was eating, I recognized her yogurt wasn't really healthy. A cup contained 105 more calories than the Trader Joe's brand, 5 fewer grams of protein, and more than 20 grams of processed sugars.

When I explained the great nutritional difference between the two, she admitted to me that she had always disliked the tart taste of plain yogurt. That the only way she could tolerate the stuff is if she ate the versions that added flavoring and processed sugars.

In light of that, and considering what it was replacing, this teacher made a healthy change. Just not the healthiest.

So even if you can't tolerate the healthiest version of a meal or a food, always strive to eat healthier. It benefits your body in the long term.

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