Calorie Density Counts

biteHere’s another conundrum with eating portions that are larger than we need: It’s not only the larger portions but the larger portions of calorie-dense foods that can lead to weight gain. Calorie density is essentially the calories per bite or per any given portion of food. Lower the calorie density in a meal and you lower the overall calories.

On the most basic level, a higher amount of water content in foods adds volume but not calories. It follows logically then that increasing the amount of water in a food lowers the calorie density. Are you with me so far? An example would be to take a casserole and increase the water content by adding extra vegetables since they are mostly water. A key element here is that the low calorie density casserole must be as palatable as the original higher calorie density casserole. In other words, for this to work, both casseroles would have to be equally tasty. In the world of food research, this took a fair amount of food testing and experimentation.

Barbara Rolls, PhDMuch of the early research on calorie density, sometimes referred to as volumetrics, was spearheaded by Barbara Rolls, Ph. D (see photo). One of the most recent books is The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. You’ll find oodles of recipes and menus that support the notion of low calorie density foods. They’ve done extensive recipe development and testing, saving you a lot of kitchen time.

On a very practical level you can choose lower calorie dense foods in your every day meals, at home or dining out. Say, a pizza with more vegetables and less cheese. Or choosing a broth based soup or a salad with light Italian dressing before eating the main course. Even an apple before a meal will help you eat less calories because of its low calorie density.

There’s really no down side that I can see. You get more food volume (which we all appreciate), more nutrient rich foods (as in vegetables and fruit), and you’re less hungry. An added bonus just might be better weight management.

Give it a try. What have you got to lose?

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Big Food

food-word-cloud-illustration-graphic-tag-collection-40665304Do you remember when our vehicles had no cup holder?  Well, unless you count the dash.  Now, not only are cup holders standard, to accommodate larger drink sizes, the car manufacturers have increased the size of the cup holder over time.  Why does that matter?  It’s just one example of how portion sizes have changed.  Portions began increasing in the 70’s.  Compare a serving of fries in the 50’s at 2 ounces to today at 4 to 6 ounces.

Over the past couple decades the average calories consumed per day has increased from around 1,850 to around 2,000.  If you look at no other factor except calories, an extra 150 calories per day turns out to be slightly more than 1 pound of weight gained per month.  You can do the math from there.

We just don’t tend to be that good at judging the amount of food we eat.  If 1 regular slice of bread (think the size of Wonder bread) is 1 serving, 1 slice of large deli bread is 2 servings and 1 hoagie roll is 3 servings.  If you have been considering 1 hoagie roll = 1 serving of bread, you can see the ‘innocent’ mistake often made regarding how much we eat.  That hoagie is going to have about 3 times the calories (and carbs) of a regular size slice of bread.  Understand, this does not mean that you shouldn’t eat a hoagie.  The point here is that we really don’t know how much we’re eating.

If you find yourself in this boat, you may be joining the 80% of people surveyed who thought the meals they eat at home are the same size or smaller than they used to be.  Even trained dietitians have a tendency to underestimate calories and fat in foods.  Guilty as charged!

As you can see, the amount people eat is usually more than is intended or needed.

Weighing or measuring your food is the most accurate way to determine food amounts.  But, let’s be real.  We need an easier tool.  Below is a visual help for estimating a single portion size.  The idea here is to be aware of a portion so that you can make a more thoughtful choice regarding how many portions you’ll have.

  • 1 cup potatoes, rice, pasta – is a tennis ball
  • 1 cup cereal – is a fist
  • 1 piece cornbread – is a bar of soap
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter – is a Ping-Pong ball
  • 3 ounces cooked meat, fish, poultry – is palm of the hand, deck of cards
  • 1 1/2 ounces cheese – is a 9-volt battery
  • 1 cup ice cream – is a baseball
  • 1 ounce nuts or small candies – is one handful
  • 1 ounce chips or pretzels – is two handfuls
  • 1 teaspoon butter – is a fingertip
  • 3/4 cup juice – is a small Styrofoam cup
  • 1/2 cup broccoli – is a light bulb
  • 1/4 cup raisins – is one large egg

So, your job is to just pay attention.  Do not over think this.  When you’re faced with the choice of a single or double patty hamburger – one palm of the hand or two – you might decide on a single.  When you’re serving yourself broccoli at dinner, you might choose two light bulbs instead of one (just a suggestion).  As for that handful of almonds, you’re on your own.

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Wait Control

stop sign

What can you do when the urge to binge or overeat strikes?  Imagine a big, red STOP sign.  Then take a moment to regain control and decide if you’re really physically hungry.  If you’re truly hungry, choose to eat slowly and enjoy every bite.  (It takes the average person 90 seconds to eat a hamburger – yikes!)  It takes 20 minutes before satiety hormones kick in to make you feel full.  So, slow down!  Cooperate with your body’s natural ability to feel satisfied with food.

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Don’t Throw in the Towel

ornaments and candlesHere it is.  Almost Christmas.  Maybe your weight is not right where you want it to be and you’re a bit concerned.  OK, panicked.  But this may not be the best time to set your sites on dropping 10 pounds.  This may, however, be a great time to focus on keeping the scale steady.  Perhaps, even giving yourself permission to gain a pound or two (no kidding!)

When January comes around you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you didn’t throw in the towel over the holidays.  Something to be applauded!  And you’ll have started off the New Year without having to start all over.

So, keep an eye on your weight over the holidays.

Enjoy the Season.

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John’s Parrot

ParrotYou may have heard this one before.  Fortunately, your face won’t crack if you smile just one more time today.

A young man named John received a parrot as a gift.  The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary.  Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.  John tried and tried to change the bird’s attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to “cleanup” the bird’s vocabulary. 

Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot.  The parrot yelled back.  John shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even ruder.  John, in desperation, threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and put him in the  freezer.  For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed.  Then suddenly there was total quiet.  Not a peep was heard for over a minute.  Fearing that he’d hurt the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer.  The parrot calmly stepped out onto John’s outstretched arms and said,  “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions.  I’m sincerely and humbly remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.”

John was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude.  As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued, “May I ask what the turkey did?”

 Happy Thanksgiving!

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Greek Gyros at Home

Mediterranean food is a favorite of mine.  Gyros (Greek style sandwiches) are more difficult to find in restaurants than a hamburger.  So, I created my own recipe I can make at home.

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12 oz sirloin steak, sliced in strips

2 t extra virgin olive oil

3 T fresh-squeezed lemon juice

3 T red or white wine vinegar

1 t garlic, minced

1/4 t sugar

1 t oregano leaves

1/8 t salt

1/8 t pepper

1 sweet onion, thinly sliced

3 tomatoes, sliced into small wedges

1 sweet pepper, (red, yellow or orange) thinly sliced

4 oz feta cheese, crumbled

Tzatziki (recipe below)

8 thick, soft, pita breads, Greek style

In a medium bowl, mix olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, sugar, oregano, salt and pepper.  Add steak strips, toss to coat all pieces.  (Marinate a couple hours or overnight.  I often skip this step because I’ve failed to plan ahead.  You’ll still get great gyros.)

Cook beef by either, broiling, grilling or frying with no added fat in a nonstick skillet; set aside.  Warm pitas in a nonstick skillet, lightly toasting each side.  Place 1 to 2 ounces of beef on center of pita.  Add a few onion slices, tomato wedges and pepper slices.  Add a bit of feta cheese.  Drizzle a couple tablespoons Tzatziki on each pita.  Roll both sides over filling; wrap in a square piece of tinfoil with 1 end open (to keep the juices from running out.)

Serve with a few pitted Greek (Kalamata) olives on the side.


1 English cucumber, peeled

2 t or 2 cloves garlic, minced

2 c plain lowfat yogurt

1 t lemon juice or white wine vinegar

Place in a food processor and chop fine.

(If you want thicker dressing, drain yogurt in cheesecloth overnight before processing.  Your gyros will be less messy but the dressing is just as tasty without this step.)

Signature Recipe from Luanna Diller, RD
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Got Tomatoes?

sungold tomatoesI wanted to create a salsa that was tangy, slightly sweet and versatile.  This one is part Mexican, part Mediterranean and tastes just the way I like it.

Mexi-terranean Salsa

Puree to desired consistency in small food processor.

1 c     Tomatoes, fresh

1/2 c  Red peppers, roasted

Add remaining ingredients to taste.  Process a few seconds to mix.

1 T    Extra virgin olive oil

1 t     Balsamic vinegar

1/4 t  Onion Powder

1/4 t  Garlic Powder

1/4 t  Kosher salt

Pepper, fresh ground (dash)

1 t     Brown sugar

A couple serving suggestions:  With multi grain chips or tortilla chips with a hint of lime.  Sauce on grilled chicken.

Helpful hints: Garden fresh tomatoes are best.  I like to mix Sungold cherry (see photo) with any red tomatoes.  Chop large tomatoes into big chunks before processing.  Red peppers can be roasted on your outdoor grill and peeled or purchased in a jar.

Signature Recipe from Luanna Diller, RD
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Plunging Upward

It’s raining acorns.  Maybe not exactly, but there’s definitelyacorns an intermittent unmistakable sound of falling acorns.  A steady  thunking and plopping as they hit the ground.  When I’m in the yard I’m wondering how that would feel to get beaned by an acorn from 80 feet.

Every year some of these acorns take root and sprout close to the house.  I take the thing by its short stem and pull, hard, until I uproot it.  I have mixed emotions about that.  There’s nothing quite like an oak tree to impart strength and beauty.  But we are already surrounded by them.  In an oak grove.

These trees can’t spread out like you’d picture a solitary oak — with large full branches and a huge, stocky trunk.  No, these guys are crowded.  They can’t branch out like a lone oak.  All their energy goes to height.  Branching out before getting a full dose of sun would be pointless.  So, they are compelled to continuously reach toward any rays of sunlight that peaks through the neighboring trees.  As a result, the bottom half looks somewhat spindly, instead of squat and sturdy.  But the top half is lovely.  It reached the light.  Or rather the light reached it.

Some people say bloom where you’re planted.  I say never stop growing and reaching for the Light.

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The Back to School Lunch Box

lunch box

Lunch Box Dilemma

Sure, it would be easier to buy all pre-packaged foods for the kids’ lunches.  You could shave off a few minutes in the morning.  You can justify the amount of saturated fat and refined sugar in those foods by the time saved.  Right?  But have you also considered the cost and lack of nutrients in most of those items?

Sorry to start right off with a guilt trip.  Please, unpack your bags we’re not going to take that guilt trip any further today.

What we’re going to do is find some ways to consider time, cost and good (not perfect, just good) nutrition.  Let me help you with that.

Realistically, you’re probably not going to make everything from scratch and always have fresh items for their lunches.  So, let’s just start with that assumption.  But I think you can find a compromise between either all pre-packaged foods or all from scratch foods.  As much as I’d like to have my act together and do everything ‘right’, I’m no June Cleaver.  Maybe you feel like that sometimes, too.

The Mix and Match Lunch Box Solution

I approach back to school lunch boxes with some pre-planning before that first day hits.  I start with a simple list of various lunch possibilities.  You’ll see my sample list below.  Lunch-type foods are organized into categories.  I post the list on the refrigerator.  In the morning, when I would be prone to staring cluelessly at two empty lunch boxes, I check out the list instead.  Then I mix and match choices from these categories to create a fairly healthy lunch for school.  I often toss in a favorite convenience item.  For example, my teenagers like certain pre-packaged items (see the end of the list below) as a school snack, with lunch or to eat on the way home.

It’s not necessary to choose from every category.  That’s usually too much food for one lunch.  At least it is for my kids.

You might start by using my list and tweaking it to include items your kids would be most likely to eat.  Let’s try it out.

Here’s one example of a mix and match lunch: 

Bread: honey oat.  Filling: peanut butter and jelly.  Vegetable: baby carrots.  Extra: string cheese.  Pre-Packaged: chocolate chip cookies. 

Of course, you’re going to need a trip to the grocery store.  (This plan only works when you have your chosen items on hand.)

The Mix and Match Lunch Box List


Wheat, Cracked wheat, Honey oat, Rye, French, Buttermilk, Black Russian, Sourdough, Greek pita, Pocket, Raisin, English muffins, Bagels, Onion rolls, Hoagie rolls, Tortillas

Sandwich Fillings

Peanut butter and jelly, Turkey, Tuna/chicken salad, Lean ham, Lean beef, Cranberry sauce, Light mayonnaise, Barbecue sauce, Lettuce, Tomato, Spinach leaves

 Vegetables (sticks or slices)

Red peppers, Jicama, Cucumbers, Radishes, Celery, Baby carrots, Cherry tomatoes


Apples, Bananas, Cherries, Plums, Apricots, Mandarin oranges, Grapes, Melon, Nectarines, Tangerines, Raisins, Dried mangos, Craisins, Fruit cups, Applesauce cups


Carrot raisin, Tossed green, Three bean, Marinated vegetable, Pasta

Other Extras

String cheese, Babybel cheese, Yogurt, Low-fat cottage cheese, Fruit juice

Convenience or Pre-Packaged Ideas

Sun Chips, Fruit snacks, Honey roasted peanuts, Candied pecans, Cookies, Pudding cups, Peanut butter crackers, Cheese crackers, Goldfish crackers, Baked chips

What About School Lunch?

Why not just have them eat school lunch?  I do give them that option.  But they choose the lunches Mom makes.  And, considering the ‘new school lunch policies’, that’s just fine with me.

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When Your ‘Want To’ Leaves You

your want to leavingSometimes you just can’t put your finger on that emotional thing that keeps you stuck in a rut.  When you try to make a healthy choice that’s right there in front of you but you just don’t do it.  Your ‘want to‘ has walked away.  And you’re wondering where it went and will it ever come back.

I saw a line in the book Made to Crave, Satisfying Your Deepest Desire With God, Not Food by Lysa TerKeurst, “I’m not a nutritional expert who’s going to tell you something you already know.”  I thought, “Amen, Sister,” because, you see, I am that nutrition expert, a registered dietitian.  And I know exactly what she’s saying.  I get tired of the broad stroke, vanilla messages that are so commonly repeated in much of the nutrition information we read and hear.  “Eat less, move more.”  We get it, don’t we?  We see this familiar, yet vague exhortation often in all sorts of media.  Ho-hum.  I believe Lysa is speaking our language when she takes a closer look at our ‘want to’ in her book.

I wrote a 5 part series of posts called ‘Going Against the Grain — Not Your Typical Weight Loss Advice’ a while back.  Sometimes we go around the same old dry bush so long we forget we can explore fresh ways of finding our ‘want to’.

When our ‘want to’ isn’t working we may need to set media messages aside and renew the spiritual foundation for the healthy changes we seek.  Allow the Creator of the ‘want to’ in all of us to restore our ‘want to’.

Maybe He’s just waiting for you to ask.

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