The Key to Healthy Eating: Balance and Education

If The Food Network decided to run a ticker on viewers’ screens with all the latest in food news, there’d be plenty for our eyes to take in these days.

The House of Representatives passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in tandem with First Lady Michelle Obama shining a much-needed spotlight on what American children are eating at school and at home. Weight Watchers has revamped its point system and subsequently sent a significant portion of its membership into a tizzy. This, interestingly, coming on the heels of the story of a professor who ate Doritos and Oreos and such and lost 27 pounds because he wanted to see if focusing on counting calories worked without regard to nutritional value.

First, the kids. According to a Huffington Post piece written by Debra Eschmeyer -- an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Fellow -- one in three children in the United States are obese or overweight and one in four struggle with hunger.

“Simultaneous hunger and obesity may seem like a paradox, but the root cause is the same: lack of access to healthy food,” Eschmeyer writes. “Give children nourishing food in the cafeteria, nutrition education in the classroom, and hands-on learning through school gardens, and a lifetime of healthy eating can take root.”

The political pushback on this disguised as “government overreach” is intriguing, given it seems even the simplest anecdotal “test” supports this premise. Ask your friends and family how they learned to eat, when their eating habits were formed, and you’ll hear childhood stories about what Mom served, how the reward for good behavior was a trip to McDonald’s, how awful school cafeteria food was, or joyful reminiscing about Grandpa picking tomatoes from his garden.

Most of the foodies I know became knowledgeable about food by educating themselves and acquiring diverse tastes to build on what they’d learned growing up. And many of the folks in my acquaintance who had it ingrained at home to eat an abundance of cream-laden or processed foods and never modified that are now reaching for their cholesterol and blood pressure meds each day.

Clearly, this is where it begins – the impressionable beginning. To this day, if I feel a need for ‘comfort’ food, it’s likely going to be of the Italian-American variety. In fact, on September 11, 2001, after getting out of embattled New York City and home to my waterfront town in New Jersey, I went immediately to a pizzeria and consumed an eggplant parmigiana sandwich with dizzying speed. I had not a care in the world for the few minutes it took to consume it, which was of course the point.

But I also grew up with exposure to an array of fresh fruits and vegetables and it gave me a basis for how I eat today. Our biggest issue, as my mother is wont to say, is portion control.

Which brings me to reactions to the aforementioned decision by Weight Watchers to overhaul its points system. Back in the late 1990s, when it was introduced, I was religious about following this system. I knew my point allowance for the day and week and had memorized most of the point values of items I liked to consume regularly. I had it down to a science.

However, I realized that even though I was exercising and eating less and even losing weight, it was not for me over the long haul. My issue was not what I was eating, but why I was eating. I was already educated about food from a nutritional standpoint, but like so many Americans, was looking for a quick fix, a formula, to make it all better and allow me to eat what I wanted as opposed to what was deemed healthy.

As I read comments on the Weight Watchers decision this week from people freaking out because they do or don’t like fruit, it becomes ever clearer why I banished the concept of dieting from my life years ago. I feel infantilized when I am counting points, calories, fat grams or pounds and deprived when I stop eating dessert altogether. The solution is moderation and that comes with emotional work on self, not a calculator.

In her recently released book, Live More, Want Less, author Mary Carlomagno -- a professional organizer with a company called Order -- writes of helping a client who had clothing ranging from sizes 4 to 14 in her closet. That client is currently at a healthy-for-her size 10, but was holding herself hostage with tiny skirts from her days on the Atkins diet. Carlomagno asked her why she’s no longer on that program.

“She tells me that she had liver dysfunction as a result of too much protein,” Carlomagno writes. “After she passed out in a department store dressing room, her doctor added more carbohydrates to her plate.”

The lesson being balance and a more educated approach to what we’re consuming. Our lives could depend on it.

As for the Doritos and Oreos guy, well, there’s a lesson in that, too. According to an article on CNN Health, for 10 weeks, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, ate Twinkies, Nutty Bars, powdered donuts, Oreos and sugary cereals every three hours instead of meals. He was working under the premise that calorie counting is what matters in weight loss, not nutritional value.

The premise held up. While long-term impact on overall health was not measured, Haub shed 27 pounds in the two-month experiment.

Park points out in the piece that “families who live in food deserts have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so they often rely on the kind of food Haub was eating.”

“These foods are consumed by lots of people,” Haub told Park. “It may be an issue of portion size and moderation rather than total removal. I just think it’s unrealistic to expect people to totally drop these foods for vegetables and fruits. It may be healthy, but not realistic.”

How smart, then, to at least move in the direction of helping children understand this so they can make informed choices that will affect the rest of their lives.

Now, in other food news …

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is Please direct all questions/comments to