Archive for March, 2010


Let’s talk for a minute or two about how to read labels.  This is critical to your success as a healthy eater.

Let’s use this label for bread as an example.

Right here at the top is one place that manufacturers try to fool us into thinking their product is better for us than it is: serving size/servings per container.  On bread, it’s not too tricky — a slice is a serving (but that makes a sandwich two servings).  They’ve also put all of the information on here twice — once for one slice and once for two slices.

However, especially in “single serving” junk food, there will actually be two or more servings in the package.  This also goes for drinks.  So check the label for how many servings are in your package.  All of the nutrition information is given per serving, not per package.

Partially this is to fake you out on calories.  If it says 100 calories per serving, and that’s all you look at, you might not realize that you’ve actually eaten (or drunk) 250 calories, since there are 2.5 servings in the container.

But with trans fat being in the news, that is another place that companies are trying to trick you.  The front label can say “no trans fat” as long as there is less than half a gram per serving.  So if my package of six cookies has a gram of trans fat, all I need to do is say that there are three servings in the package and voila!  “No trans fat.”  (Look in the ingredients for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated items — that’s where trans fat comes from.)

Beyond the serving size/servings per container, there is simply a list of stuff that’s in there.  So if you’re looking to reduce your sodium intake, for example, look for sodium on the label (150 mg in a slice of this type of bread).  Not everything that is salty tastes salty.  If you’re tracking how much sugar you consume, find sugar on there.  Sugar is not always separated from carbohydrates on labels.

Also, on sugars: anything with real fruit in it (i.e. juice, jelly) is going to have sugar, even if the manufacturer didn’t add sugar, because fruit has its own built-in sugar.

Finally, the percentages of RDA (recommended daily allowance) are based on a diet of 2,000 calories per day.  The percentage of your diet that it fills will be different, unless, of course, you’re on a 2,000-calorie/day diet.  My daily caloric intake is below that; my husband’s is above it.  The label might be our average 🙂

Questions about nutrition labels?

what’s the deal with carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (carbs) seem to be one of the current dietary evils.

The thing is, our bodies need carbs to function well.

Many foods fall under the “carbs” umbrella.  We know that breads, pastas, cereals are there.  What about fruit?  Many veggies?  Juice?

Instead of cutting carbs out of your diet, cut out as many refined carbs as possible.  Eat whole fruits and vegetables instead of drinking juice.  Eat steel-cut oats instead of instant.  Basically, eat them when they are as close to “fresh from the ground” as possible.  If it’s wrapped in plastic or foil and has an expiration date on it, it’s probably refined.

When you do wander into the realm of processed foods, stick to those made from whole grains and whole wheat flour.  Stay away from white flour and sugar.  (I recommend staying away from sweeteners, too, especially HFCS, but that’s another post for another day.)

Here’s the catch about “whole wheat”: labels are misleading.  Look for labels that say “100% whole wheat” — then you’re getting what you’re looking for.  But “made from whole grains” or “whole wheat” or “made from whole wheat” are only partially whole wheat.  What’s the rest?  White flour.

Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a few minutes to compare labels on breads.  (I pick breads because I think they’re the easiest, but try it on anything that has a few wheat varieties.)  Look at the first three or four ingredients for all of the breads that include “whole wheat” on the front, whether in the title or in the advertising.

Ingredients labels list ingredients in descending order of content, so the first ingredient is the most prominent.  Any bread that I’ve looked at that does not say “100% whole wheat” has “enriched bleached wheat flour” (or something similar) as the main ingredient.  That’s white flour.

I’ve taken a tangent into whole wheats and labels.  I’ll go more into labels another day as well.

Whole grains have more fiber and are more filling than their stripped-down counterparts.  Besides the dietary benefits (fiber is good for you! white flour isn’t!), this means you can eat less of them and feel just as full.  It also means you won’t get hungry as quickly.  So if you eat less to feel full and you don’t get hungry so often, ultimately you consume fewer calories which helps to lose or maintain weight.

balancing nutrient intake

There are seemingly a zillion fad diets out there, all promising the best system to get you skinny as fast as possible.

Unfortunately, while they might take off many pounds quickly, those pounds have a way of finding their way back, often times with friends.  A diet needs to be a sustainable change in the way you think about and consume food and drink in order for long-term weight loss to be maintained.

Think about it: how did you get to where you are?  Most of the time, it’s with your current eating habits.  So if you suspend those habits only until you lose weight, then go running back to them, what’s going to happen?  Weight comes back.

The other problem with fad diets is that most of them are not healthy.  Any diet that’s high-anything or low-anything isn’t good.  Your body needs balance.

What is the right balance?

At the most basic level, in order to function properly, your body requires protein, carbs, and fats.  However, it requires far less protein than most of us feed it.  It would run better on different carbs than most of the types we give it.  And not all fats are created equal.

For the average person, a roughly 30-30-40 split is healthy: 30% of your daily calories come from protein, 30% come from fat, 40% come from carbs.  (These are estimates, and depending on your level of activity and goals, they can vary somewhat.)

Protein: mainly meat, beans, nuts.  But many foods contain protein.  For example, a cup of raw broccoli has about 2.5 grams of protein.

Carbs: we tend to think of bread, cereal, pasta, and while those are carbs, they’re not the best ones to be consuming.  Whole grain breads and pastas are best if you’re going to go that route.  Fruits and many veggies are high in carbs.  Fiber is also in the carb family.

Fat: “I don’t eat peanut butter because it’s fattening!”  But the fats you find in nuts, avocado, olive oil are the “good fat.”  They’re the kind we want, just in moderation.  The kinds you find in cookies, ice cream, and candy are not the kind we want.

So the diets that propose indefinitely eliminating any one of these categories are not healthy diets.

Are you with me so far?  Questions?

Sunday update

I’m thinking that on Sundays, I’ll bring you all up to speed on how our modifications here have been going and get you ready for the upcoming week.

The last time we saw our heroine (oh come on, it’s fun!), she was ditching paper products in the kitchen.  We had a set of casual cloth napkins that we’d been given a while back, so those are in the napkin holder and have been working fine.  The paper towel roll is hiding 🙂 and a set of bar towels is in a basket right under where the paper towels used to be.

I don’t use paper towels much, but my hubby does.  (Let’s call him The Big Man, because he is, indeed, large.)  I noticed that the basket was untouched after nearly two weeks.  “Big Man, what are you using instead of paper towels?  Anything?”  Well, it turns out that some paper napkins that had been lying around from takeout were his wiping agent of choice.  So he can’t really chime in yet.  And for cleaning up dog puddles (which we have far too many of), there’s a box of old shirts and towels in the closet with the cleaner, which we’ve both been using.

As far as using a handkerchief when using my Neti Pot, I have been most but not all of the time.  They’re not in the kitchen with everything else, so I don’t always remember to go get one.

In the bathroom, we’ve been wiping off/out the sink after each use for the last two weeks, and it looks good!  This is definitely a keeper!

A small hot wash takes care of all of it on the weekend.  And actually, we were able to skip last weekend.  It has been easy to adapt to, and it hits the trifecta: better for the earth, better for the wallet, better for the body (I’ll get to why when I get more into chemicals).

My day of no work didn’t happen last weekend, for various reasons, but today, I have the day off 🙂

What we’re also attempting is to keep the kitchen counter clear.  The kitchen counter is pretty big, and it’s the first flat space we come to when coming in through the garage.  It easily becomes a dumping ground for everything, especially mail.  So before the end of the weekend, it will be clear of everything except that which lives there (phone, napkins, S&P shakers, etc.), and it will stay that way for the week.  Or at least, that’s the plan.  One week at a time.  We did this for about two weeks a few months ago, and it was great.  So nice to have uncluttered space!  So nice not to have to spend an hour on the weekend going through the mail!  But old habits die hard, and we didn’t do the new habit long enough for it to stick.  So we try again!

This week upcoming, I’m going to get back into eating as it relates to health and weight loss, perhaps touching on some less-than-savory chemicals that most of us are ingesting (or feeding to our kids) in large quantities.  If I don’t get to chemicals this week, they’re definitely on the docket for next week.

I always lose, but what the heck

Mrs. Money over at The Ultimate Money Blog is having a drawing.  Random entry gets $100.

Want to get in on the drawing?  Click here for details.


[This week’s theme is personal finance.]

Because we’re both teachers, we do not receive paychecks in the summer.  To make sure expenses are covered in the summer, we have a separate account at a local credit union.  A few hundred dollars each pay is automatically taken from my husband’s check and put into the credit union.  The rest of his check goes into the savings account at our regular bank where we can easily get to it as needed.

We like this system, because we never see the money – it takes no action or willpower or remembering in order for the savings to happen.  It is also nice because the account is not readily accessible.  We don’t have checks or an ATM card for it, and it’s not linked to our other accounts.

While you might not be a teacher and might get paid year-round (or might be a teacher with a steady summer job), you can apply this to saving for anything.  Want a new car?  A down payment for a house?  A rockin’ vacation?  An emergency fund?  Open a separate account and let some money be auto-sent to it.  So easy!

I have also recently opened an account at ING.  I have heard many good things about them, so I thought I’d try them out.  The niftiest feature I have read about that I have not seen available at any other banks is sub accounts.  Under your account, you could have sub accounts for car insurance, medical bills, emergency fund, vacation, utilities, whatever.  You can decide what money goes to which account, so if you’re saving for several items, you don’t need to write down what is where – it’s all done for you.  Neat.

If you open an account at ING with $250 or more, you get a $25 bonus.  (I did this.  Free money!)  If you let me refer you, I get a $20 bonus through March 31, $10 after that.  I just need the e-mail address that you’d like ING to contact you at.

In slightly unrelated news, this week’s thread did not have the same draw as last week’s, so in the future, I’m going to leave personal finance out as a theme, except as it relates to food/eating/habits/etc.  There is plenty of overlap.

budgets: what worked for us

[This week’s theme is personal finance.]

We had a budget, sorted out by category.  We failed somewhere every month.  Most of the time, we made up for it somewhere else, but it never worked out the way it was supposed to, and I was constantly frustrated.  I like things to work how they’re designed to work.

We went to an in/out list.  The spreadsheet became just a list – similar to the one you might have used to first track your expenses.  We logged on this list all money that came in and all money that went out.  Even though this is mathemetically backwards, incoming money was entered as negative and spending was entered as positive (because money came in far less often, it was easier to leave out the negative sign for purchases).    The sum at the bottom told us how much we had left that month.

This worked much better for us.

Then one day we took our total monthly income and subtracted the monthly bills: mortgage, car payment, student loan, utilities, and saw the amount that was left over.  What can we possibly be spending that much money on?

So we tried a new strategy to be able to save more and spend less.

We cut the number in half.  We divided it by four (to get a weekly “allowance”).  Each Sunday, we take cash out at the ATM for that week’s allowance.  That’s what we have to spend for the week on everything that is not a bill or a major expense.  Groceries, household supplies, gas, dog food, doctor co-pays, eating out, clothes, entertainment, etc.  We have the money in a stash in the house (you won’t be able to find it – no need to look – the sum would disappoint you anyway 😉 ) and take from it as needed.  We re-stock on Sundays.

We have been pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to spend less.  Many weeks, we have $20 or $40 still in the stash at the end of Saturday.  It allows us to treat ourselves over the weekend if we have money leftover.

Things like major car repairs/maintenance, vet bills, car insurance don’t come out of the fund.  But because we’ve cut back so much on what we allow ourselves, even if we have several big-ticket occurrences in one month, we break even for the month.

So now, our spreadsheet tracks money incoming, bills, weekly cash outgoing (as a lump sum, not as individual purchases), and anything else that we write a check for or put on the card.

And, to make the credit card more like “real money” (which we all know it is, right?), every time a purchase is made on the card, I go to our online banking and pay the purchase.  This way, our credit card balance is always zero, we never get a bill and say, “What did we spend that on?” and the outgoing money isn’t delayed.

the B word

Now that you have meticulously tracked your spending and know where all of your money is going, you can manipulate those numbers into a budget.

(Isuppose, in theory, you could make a budget first on what you think you spend or what you’d like to spend.)

Let’s first assume that you’re not spending more than you’re earning.

Make general catergories: mortgage/rent, utilities, groceries, etc.  Be sure to include items that don’t necessarily pop up every month: car insurance, doctor co-pays/deductibles, etc.  If you and I compared categories, I’m sure we would have some of the same categories and some different.  That’s OK.  The goal is not for us to match.

There are two more categories that I recommend earmarking money for that you might not have on your list: emergency fund and retirement.

There are many different budgeting softwares available.  A plain old spreadsheet works best for me.  You might like to play around with software.  You might want to just do it in a notebook.  Whatever works for you is fine.

Once you have your categories and you have your spreadsheet/ software/ notepad ready, keep tracking what you’re spending.  Keep it within what you set for yourself.  Revisit each month to adjust as needed.  Going to a wedding next month and will need a gift and a hotel room?  Perhaps next month’s eating out budget will make up the difference.  Or a few categories will each sacrifice a little to make up the difference.  Just make sure that what goes out is less than what comes in.

If your expenditures were equal to or more than your income, take a look at where you’re spending money and find a few corners that you can cut fairly painlessly.  If you are spending significantly more than you are earning, well, you’re going to need to cut more than a few corners.  Make your budget one that will leave you at least a little left over at the end.

Either way, consider it a living document and revisit it often.  Remember that a budget is not a punishment.

Ready to try it?  Do it already and have a success story?  Or a failure story?  I’ll let you know tomorrow what we’re doing right now — it seems to be working well for us.

where to trim?

[This week’s theme is personal finance.]

There are changes you can make to your small, daily spending to make a difference in our overall spend vs. save.  These are separate from large purchasing decisions.

Some suggestions on where you might be able to trim some fat out of your regular spending:

  • If you eat out frequently, do it less.  (This will also help you in the weight management department.)
  • When you do eat out, skip appetizers, desserts, and drinks.  (Same note as above.)
  • If you frequently buy magazines off the rack, either get a subscription, stop buying the magazine, or read it at the library.
  • Use the library for books and DVDs instead of buying or renting.
  • Shop around for the best deals on car insurance, cell phone plans, cable plans, internet service, etc.
  • Adjust your thermostat a couple of degrees up or down (depending on the season).  A couple of degrees makes a significant difference.
  • Check your windows and doors for drafts.  Check the insulation in your attic.
  • If you belong to a gym, take your showers at the gym.  This saves you on water and electricity and perhaps gets you to the gym more often.
  • Make a shopping list whenever you are going shopping.  Do not buy anything that is not on your list, even if it’s really cute and/or on sale.
  • Use coupons for groceries.  Generally, the healthier you eat, the less this tip is useful.
  • Make your own coffee.
  • Brown-bag your lunch.
  • Use re-usable items instead of their disposable counterparts (bags, napkins, plates, water bottles, paper towels, etc.)
  • Re-evaluate the necessity of cable.  I know some people who have simply found other things to do.  Others found that they can watch most of what they want online or through NetFlix.
  • Downgrade your cell phone.
  • Buy clothes and household items at thrift stores, second-hand stores, and consignment shops.
  • Eat the food you buy.  As a country, we throw away a huge amount of food.

What else can we add to this list?

the most basic principle

[This week’s theme is personal finance.]

The most basic tenant of staying afloat (or better!) with your money is to make more than you spend.  Or spend less than you earn.  Either way works.

In order for this to work for you, you need to know two things: how much you earn, and how much you spend.  If you have a relatively stable paycheck, how much you earn is easy.  If not, it is more difficult.

[I have not lived with unsteady pay since college.  I am a teacher, so I am not paid in the summer, however long the summer may be.  However, during the school year (late July through late May/early June), I get paid the same amount every two weeks.  Since I am only writing what I know, I will not be writing about consultant or commission-type pay, because I haven’t lived that life since I’ve become at all financially sound … or in the last 10 years.  I can give you my opinion, or in theory, what I would do, if you ask.]

That all said, figure out your monthly income.

The harder part comes next.  Figure out what you’re spending.  This is what we did:

We made a spreadsheet, and every time we spent money in any way (cash, check, credit card (we don’t use debit)), we put it in the spreadsheet.  Date, location, amount, notes on what it was and/or what it was for.  Take the “amount” column and make a sum at the bottom, so every time you input another expenditure, it automatically adds it to the total at the bottom.  Remember to include anything that might be on autopay.

At the end of the month (or perhaps as the month is in progress), check out how much you’re spending.  You will probably be surprised.  Check it against your income.  Which is higher?

You can’t do this homework assignment before tomorrow’s post, since it takes a month to do, but if you’re not tracking your spending already, I very highly recommend that you start.  Want to wait until April 1, when it’s a fresh month?  Well, OK, but that’s 10 days of money floating away unnoticed.  Make your spreadsheet and start entering your spending.  Get your spouse on board.  I know, sometimes easier said than done.  But really, do you want to be living paycheck to paycheck forever?

Just like eating, it takes a little work and a little discipline, but it’s worth it.

One last thing: no cheating.  “Oh, it was only 89 cents.  I don’t need to write it down.”  Yes yes yes write it down.  Just like a food journal, write down everything.  If you’re going to forget when you get home, then either get a receipt for everything, or carry a notebook, or put it in your phone if you have one that allows it.

Good luck!

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