Navigating Nutrition Part One: Processed Food

“Avoid processed foods” is common nutrition advice given out these days. It is a well-intentioned, sound suggestion that seems easy enough to follow…assuming you know what the term “processed foods” means. As it turns out, there is no easy definition of “processed foods”. Most foods we eat are processed in some form or another unless you’re eating it straight out of the ground.

The degree of processing is what most people are talking about when they use this term, and even then, there is no set list of things to avoid, and some processed items are better than others. Generally speaking, this refers to anything that comes in a package, but doesn’t usually apply to things such as milk or whole beans in a can. Confused yet? Who can blame you?

So why is this advice out there? One reason is that it can be very easy to overeat packaged goods. A box of cookies can disappear in an instant, and no time was taken to prepare them. Another reason for this advice is the number of unfamiliar ingredients used in our “food” these days. For example, maltodextrin, soy lecithin, and artificial flavors are all common ingredients found on nutrition labels. Do you have any idea what they are? This isn’t some big exposé, I’m just pointing out that you might not know what you are putting in your body. Lastly, processed foods tend to have a lot of sodium or sugar added in, which isn’t good for us.

It might not feasible to go “package-free”, so here are some rules of thumb to simplify things:

  • Only choose foods with 5 ingredients or less.
  • Make sure you know what each ingredient is, and how it’s made (knowing that something is made “from corn” or “from soy” doesn’t tell you how it’s made).
  • Check the nutrition label for the amount of sodium (look for items with 150mg or less per serving).
  • Choose items with no added sugar. That means NONE of the following ingredients: sugar, corn syrup, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, dextrose, maltose, sucrose, molasses.

Do your best to buy whole foods and do the processing yourself, but when you need to buy things in a package, be sure to check the labels!

The Holidays: A Time of Love, Laughter and Overeating

You know the scene, you swear you’re going to have just one drink at a holiday party, and the next thing you know you’ve lost count and have a killer headache the next morning. Or maybe you show up to the party thinking there will be dinner only to find out they are only serving apps, so you start taking down every bacon-wrapped scallop in sight. Or perhaps your Aunt Margaret swears you’ve lost too much weight and starts handing you a snack every time you walk by. Or hey, maybe it’s just the holidays and you only get this food once a year, so you cram as much as you can onto that plate…and then make a second trip. The holiday season is packed full of healthy eating obstacles (some more fun than others!). If you want to stay healthy through the holidays without adding “lose holiday weight gain” to your New Year’s resolution list, it takes a bit of planning and mindfulness, and we’ll tackle some of the big ones here.


Without a doubt, the biggest contributor to holiday weight gain is all the extra alcohol consumed throughout the season. We see friends and family we haven’t seen in a while, and every occasion seems like a real good reason to celebrate. Not to mention in addition to the beer, wine, and regular cocktails, eggnog, hot toddy’s, and mulled wine make their way onto the menu this time of year, and hey, it’s been a while since you’ve had one! Here are some tips to keep holding the reins on your alcohol intake:

  • Give yourself a weekly allotment for alcohol and plan it out. If you have several events in one week, decide ahead of time where you would like to spend your “booze dollars”. If you find yourself having trouble sticking to it, you might need to make some events alcohol-free.
  • Keep track – a serving of wine is 5 ounces, which is less than half of most wine glasses. If you fill it up to the top, that’s two drinks. If someone comes around and tops off your glass, count it as another drink. We frequently have the equivalent of 6 drinks in one night, thinking we only had two.
  • Watch the higher calorie drinks – eggnog, cider, and most mixed drinks have a lot of extra calories in addition to the alcohol. If you need to have one for the season, keep it to just one.

Hors d’oeuvres

These tasty little morsels seem so innocent, but do a lot of damage. Typically crowd-pleasing fare, these items tend to be mini-calorie bombs, and if you show up hungry one after another will slide right down, adding up to more than a meal’s worth of calories…before you even get to dinner. So what can you do?

  • If you know the party will be appetizers only, make sure you eat a small healthy meal before you go. This will take the edge off any alcohol you have, and prevent you from stalking the waiters circulating the apps.
  • Only try 1-3 appetizers, and only if they look worth it – the point is for you to get a small taste of an amazing dish, not to substitute for a meal.
  • If it’s a dinner party, try having a small snack with protein beforehand so you can hold out until dinnertime.


Buffets are a popular, convenient way to serve dinner, and are generally a healthy-eating nightmare, especially if it’s a potluck. It’s as though someone thought of every food you were trying to avoid and put it all on one table. You’re sure to see at least a few of these this holiday season.

  • Take a tour of the buffet before you get in line. See what’s available and decide ahead of time what you want to put on your plate.
  • Only fill up one dinner plate, and only go through the line once. No, you cannot start stacking the food vertically to get more to fit.
  • Try only small portions of the heavier items and fill most of your plate with the healthier options.


This section could take up its own blog post, or even its own book, and could probably be co-authored by a psychotherapist, but we don’t have room for that here, so we’ll only cover the basics!

  • Stress – is there a lot of tension at your holiday gatherings? Meditation and therapy are more productive solutions, but in the interest of time, try this quick fix: instead of eating to drown your sorrows or avoid talking to someone, bring a large plate of pre-cut veggies to share as hors devours. When you’re feeling frustrated, grab a small plateful of veggies – the crunch will help get your aggravation out and keep your mouth full so you don’t have to talk!
  • The pushers – the ones pushing high-calorie although made-with-love food. Quick fix: small portions, big fanfare. “This is so delicious! You’re such a fantastic cook! No, I can’t fit anymore, I’m so full. It’s so good, but I also want to save room for XYZ too, I wouldn’t want to miss that!”
  • Look for healthier recipes of old favorite foods. If your family resists, stick to a serving the size of a ping-pong ball. The first 3 bites are where you get all the taste and flavor, after that your taste buds become accustomed to the food and you spend the rest of the time trying to “chase the taste”.
  • Bring your own healthy dish so you know there is something there you can fill your plate with.

The holidays should be a jubilant time of year, where you enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. Although everyone has different ways of celebrating during the holiday season, we hit on some common pitfalls here that frequently trip people up. There are certainly challenges we didn’t cover here. If you need a little help figuring out how to enjoy the holidays without damaging your waistline, head on down to see your friendly neighborhood Registered Dietitian. You can get your own customized plan that still allows you to have fun! Happy Holidays!  Bethany is seeing clients at TherapydiaSF, located on Maiden Lane in downtown San Francisco.

Healthy Hydration

ImageGuest post by San Francisco-based Nutritionist, Bethany Pianca:

We have all heard that staying hydrated is important.  It is also widely known that the body is mostly made up of water (approximately 60% in adults).  So what’s the big deal?  Many of the reactions that take place in our cells require water.  That can be hard for us to visualize, but it results in things we can see and feel.  When dehydrated, our skin can be dry, as opposed to plump and healthy looking.  Our brain doesn’t work as well when we are dehydrated, and slower thinking and headaches can result. It even makes a difference in the world of sports.  Dehydration can affect our muscle strength and endurance, and even our aerobic performance.  An additional undesirable effect of dehydration – it can make you think you’re hungry, when really you’re thirsty, resulting in often-unwanted weight gain.  Even with this knowledge, some people still have a hard time staying hydrated throughout the day. So how much water should you have each day?  The Adequate Intake set by the United States Department of Agriculture is 3.7 liters per day for adult males (15-16 cups) and 2.7 liters per day for adult females (11-12 cups).  Keep in mind that it is possible to drink too much water, so it is important never to force yourself to drink too much.  Here are some tips for staying optimally hydrated.

  • Weigh yourself before and after you exercise.  For every pound you lost while exercising, drink 16oz of fluid to replace it.
  • Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day and take small sips so you don’t feel like you have to drink a lot at a time.
  • Keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum as these both act as diuretics, which can dehydrate you further.
  •  If you don’t like plain water, try putting a little lemon in it, or drinking an herbal tea (Note: make sure to fully research an herbal tea before consumption, some can have dangerous side effects).
  • For exercise lasting longer than 60 minutes, you may need to replace electrolytes in addition to water.  This can be accomplished by having a snack (such as a banana) along with your water, or by consuming a sports drink (careful though, sports drinks can be tough on teeth!).

Bethany Pianca is a Nutritionist with a B.S. in Dietetics from San Francisco State University.  She is currently an intern at San Francisco State University working towards becoming a Registered Dietitian.  With experience counseling those looking to lose weight, boost energy, or just improve their diet, Bethany focuses on making changes that fit the client’s lifestyle.