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Diet makeover: the busy couple

These two drink sodas, eat prepared foods and dine out a lot. No, no and no.

September 28, 2009|Jeannine Stein

With a diet heavy on sodas, frozen burritos, sweets and late-night snacking, Rafael Navarro and Duncan MacLeod know their food choices leave much to be desired. But busy work schedules (they both work for a digital studio in Burbank, and MacLeod is a USC graduate student) mean the two eat out fairly often. When they do, they tend to hit the drive-through or eat large meals high in fat and calories.

An initial look through their refrigerator reveals a package of prepared breaded tilapia. Navarro thought it was healthful; nutrition expert Emily Ventura picks it up and points out the ingredients list, which is a good three-inch-long paragraph.

"You can tell from a distance," she says, "that this has about 50 ingredients, which means it probably has stuff in it you don't want. Also, you can't tell how fresh the fish is because it's covered in so many things."

The sweet treats reside mostly in the freezer: a box of bread pudding with whiskey sauce; premium, high-fat ice cream. "I have a sweet tooth," Navarro confesses. Even some canned fruit in the pantry -- though it's packed in juice -- has a high sugar content.

Back in the fridge, Ventura picks up a plastic bag of pre-cut carrots and green beans. The carrots have a chalky, white coating, the result of being dried out. "When I see this," she says, "I don't want to eat it. When you go to some grocery stores now everything is in a package, and sometimes it's not really that fresh."

She's also not crazy about cereals containing high-fructose corn syrup or the other breakfast favorite: homemade chilaquiles. The dish, which they eat a few times a week, is high in fat and calories. And the zucchini bread (sometimes eaten as a quick breakfast) may masquerade as healthful because of the zucchini, but white flour, sugar and fat cancel the benefits.

When the two eat out, they rarely choose a salad or vegetarian dish, indulging instead in fast food or large-portion restaurant meals; they snack on candy, chips and sodas.

On a recent night, MacLeod prepares chicken with mole sauce. The process is a blend of healthful and unhealthful choices. He uses a jarred mole that comes in at a whopping 200 calories per two tablespoons, but then dilutes it with low-fat chicken broth. He cooks a can of beans, then adds two pieces of English bacon. And after Navarro empties a package of pristine, pre-washed gourmet lettuces into a bowl, he adds a sprinkling of blueberries, plus high-calorie slivered almonds and sunflower seeds. Both add high-fat bottled creamy dressings.

On the definite plus side, the fridge contains fresh produce, and the kitchen includes small amounts of raw nuts for snacks. They're high in calories -- and thus should be eaten in modest portions -- but contain good fats and nutrients.

Also on the positive side, the men cook dinner at home a few nights a week, usually including a salad or green vegetable. And they've stocked up on steel-cut oats (a potentially great breakfast with no added sugar but lots of fiber) and corn tortillas (more nutrients than flour tortillas with no refined white flour).

We encouraged them to keep a food diary (see sidebar) for Ventura to analyze. Here are some things she suggests to alter some of their food choices for the better:

* Buy fresh fish instead of the prepared kind, and make a light, simple breading using panko crumbs and Parmesan cheese. "Then you're in control of what's in it," she says.

* Instead of rich, sugary desserts or even canned fruit, start with high-quality fresh fruit, seeing whether that satisfies the craving. If not, add a small amount of gelato (generally lower in fat than premium ice cream) or a small piece of dark chocolate.

* Broil squash and add a touch of cinnamon and chile powder instead of eating zucchini bread.

* Make homemade salad dressing with olive oil, lemon juice and mustard. Even tossing the salad with a small amount of creamy dressing -- a couple of tablespoons or so -- can help cut back on the amount of fat and calories.

Navarro says he reads labels, mostly for the salt and fat content, but Ventura says numbers should be interpreted with caution: "It can be really tricky," she says. "People will see that something is 20% fat, but they're not factoring in how many servings they're actually eating."

As for the fast food, Ventura would like to see that banished for good. And when eating out, she says, the two shouldn't follow a high-calorie lunch with a similar dinner: "If you eat out for lunch," she says, "come home and have something healthy."

What they're doing right

MacLeod and Navarro cook together a few times a week and don't eat in front of the television, which can lead to mindless overeating. They also eat breakfast, which helps prevent blood sugar crashes that can lead to overeating, especially of high-fat and sugary foods.

Where they need improvement

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