Dietitian Lisa Gibson prepares roasted vegetables as an example of low-fuss,… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
What is a portion size to Elizabeth and Tim McCreary? It could be eating an entire box of macaroni and cheese with hot dogs mixed in or sharing a bowl of guacamole made with six avocados.
"Sometimes we'll have five to six tacos each," Elizabeth McCreary says. "It's so unhealthy."
Like many people, the McCrearys, who live in Corona, have a tough time figuring out how much to eat at meals and snacks so they don't blow their calorie budgets. Faced with little time (he's a network engineer and she's a managing paralegal) and scant nutritional knowledge, they need help navigating grocery store aisles so they can prepare healthful meals that are an appropriate size.
Portions aren't their only nutritional concern. Elizabeth, 26, is gluten intolerant and suffers digestive problems after eating foods made with wheat, rye and barley. She's also sensitive to some foods that are heavy on dairy, a condition often linked with gluten intolerance. Although she's never been diagnosed with celiac disease (a condition in which the immune system reacts to gluten by damaging the small intestine), when she adopted a gluten-free diet three years ago her symptoms such as gas pains and headaches disappeared.
Tim, 28, has no problems with gluten. He eats some of Elizabeth's gluten-free foods but also has his own stash of wheat-based bread and cereal.
The McCrearys, who married last year, both would like to lose weight. He's 5-foot-10 and weighs 238 pounds but would like to get down to 210. She describes herself as a size 20 and aims to become a 12 or 14. However, their attempts to slim down are often derailed by big appetites and tempting, easy-to-prepare foods.
For help, they invited Irvine-based dietitian Lisa Gibson to their home on a recent weekday evening. She opens the couple's refrigerator and immediately spies one obvious stumbling block to their goals: a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"There's an apple in there, right behind the salsa," Tim says. "We do buy produce, but we'll use it only for that meal."
"Or it will go bad," Elizabeth adds. She says that they don't know how to cook some varieties, and the recipes they do know are often too time-consuming.
"We're a slave to convenience," Tim says.
The refrigerator contains some healthful items, including lean, skinless chicken breasts and low-fat milk. But there's also a 5-pound bag of shredded cheese and almond milk. Gibson isn't keen on the almond milk; it has only one gram of protein per cup. In the freezer is a bag of unsweetened berries — a good item, but fresh is better when it's in season.
Gibson uses the almond milk carton to give a quick tutorial on how to read nutrition labels, pointing out the vitamins and minerals included in a serving.
"I've never paid attention to the nutritional value of anything," Elizabeth says. But she has become savvy in the ways of being gluten-free — the pantry contains gluten-free pasta, baking mixes, cookies and crackers, and she checks ingredient lists for items such as modified food starch and monosodium glutamate that could trigger her sensitivity.
Many people have jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon even if they're not sensitive to the protein, but Gibson cautions that not all gluten-free foods are healthful.
"It's not necessarily a healthier diet," she says. "It can be — there are a lot of naturally gluten-free foods, like quinoa, that are good, and you can cut out a lot of processed foods. But if you're trying to mimic those breads and pastas, that's not always better." Many of those products, she says, use ingredients that contain little fiber.
One of the go-to meals in the McCreary household, Elizabeth says, is a pile of chips with cheese and garlic salt. Gibson finds corn tortillas in the cupboard and suggests baking them instead of using fried chips, then cutting back on the cheese and adding refried beans, which are low in fat, high in fiber and already in their pantry.
Instead of Elizabeth and Tim each consuming a box of mac and cheese, they could split one, Gibson says. In place of the hot dogs, she suggests they serve a large salad, which will add vitamins and fiber and help them feel full.
Other acceptable foods in the pantry include canned tuna, a bag of prepared quinoa and some brown rice, another whole grain that's gluten-free.
Almonds are in there too, a favorite snack of Tim's. He says he eats about one or two cups a day — far more than the recommended one-ounce serving size, which amounts to 20 to 25 nuts. Nuts contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are good fats — but still fat.
A look at their four-day food diary reveals fairly good habits at breakfast and lunch. But they tend to make worse choices with dinner, snacks and meals in restaurants, which are occasionally accompanied by alcohol. "Their meals are calorie-dense, not nutrient-dense," Gibson says.