Couponing- Is it Always Worth It?

We’ve all watched the show in complete awe and wonder. The shopper pushes their four loaded-down carts of groceries to the cashier and the ringing up begins; $20.00, $130.00, $650.00. Luckily, the shopper has come equipped with a binder full of coupons and the grand total is…$4.74. I’m usually left speechless for several reasons:

  • Where are they going to put all that stuff?
  • How much time did it take to prepare for that one shopping trip?
  • Did they seriously need 100 Hershey bars?

According to the show, Extreme Couponing, the shopper featured spends an average of 35-40 hours per week preparing for one shopping trip. That’s a full-time job’s worth of buying newspapers, printing online coupons, cutting, organizing and mapping out a plan of attack at the local grocery store. Some may view this as complete obsession while others see it as a way to make ends meet. But, is this type of couponing always worth it?extreme couponing

Time. This may be viewed as the biggest downfall to extreme couponing. Scouting newspapers, magazines, and online ads, then organizing it all is critical to making an extreme shopping trip work. For many of us who work full-time, these are discretionary hours that we just don’t have.

Space. In order to support these large grocery trips, you need to have the available storage space to keep and organize all your purchases. Preferably, this needs to be a pest-free, dry, climate-controlled room so your bounty is not spoiled by humidity or insects.

Expiration Dates. From a food safety perspective, this one worries me. When you see what appears to be a warehouse full of cereal, crackers, cookies, granola bars and condiments, you can’t help but think “how can they possibly eat all that food before it expires?” Expiration dates do not apply exclusively to foods.  Medications like Tylenol can become toxic if consumed after its expiration date. A good method to practice is the FIFO inventory principle-First In First Out. Remember to pull older items forward when restocking a similar item.

Nutritional Value. This is my biggest concern with most of the featured individuals’ purchases on the show. Saving hundreds of dollars on a shopping trip is definitely a commendable feat; but what will the shopper pay nutritionally? Loading up on sugary-sweetened cereal, candy bars, chips and soda comes with a hefty calorie bill. Consuming these foods on a daily basis (which you would have to do so they don’t spoil, right?) indicates a diet that is low in fiber, B-vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

I know what you’re thinking, “But Amanda, fruits and vegetables are so expensive!” I’m here to tell you, that is not always the case. First and foremost, sign up for your local grocery store’s rewards program. Often, you are only eligible for the sale prices or “deals of the week” if you have a rewards card membership. You also are entitled to store-specific coupons with many of these rewards programs. A friend of mine told me about the mPerks programs at Mejier and how she saves all the time on grocery items, meat and produce. Did you hear that? PRODUCE! Each week I log on and virtually “clip” coupons that get automatically added to my account. When checking out, I simply punch in my code and just like magic, my grocery bill goes down.

Buying fruits and vegetables in season is another excellent way to save. For a complete list of what’s in season this summer, please visit: http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/whats-in-season-summer.  Shopping at your local Farmers’ Market is another great approach to purchasing fresh produce in season. In fact, Illinois Products Farmers’ Market sponsored by Springfield Clinic is providing opportunities to earn free “market bucks” for the Illinois Products Farmers’ Market. Each week a new recipe is handed out at the Springfield Clinic booth. Individuals are encouraged to make the recipe and then take a picture of the finished product. Market bucks can be earned by posting the recipe photo to the Springfield Clinic Facebook page. Come join us each Thursday from 4:00-7:00pm at the Illinois State Fair Grounds-Commodities Pavilion.

My intent of this post was not to bash extreme couponing but rather to highlight some of the pitfalls of the experience. I think it’s wise to stock up on items like Ziploc bags, diapers, or cleaning supplies, but there’s no real “savings” to experience with mass quantities of chips or soft drinks.

 

School’s Out for Summer!

Well, maybe our kids have replaced the lyrics of Alice Cooper with the likes of One Direction and Taylor Swift, but the story remains the same. No more pencils, no more books, and a lot more freedom to eat, play and watch TV as children please.

appleIt’s important as parents to provide a wide variety of healthy, nutritious foods at home. By improving access to healthy food options and limiting unhealthy selections, you can feel more confident knowing that your children are consuming well-balanced meals and snacks at home. As a 12-year-old, my days usually started with a big bowl of sugary, sweetened cereal, followed by mac ‘n cheese, hot dogs and an unhealthy dose of soap operas. While I was also very active with swimming, riding bikes and jumping on trampolines, my diet certainly had room for improvement. It’s never too early or too late to teach your kids about nutrition and well-balanced meals. The simplest way to illustrate a healthy meal is using the plate method. The plate method encourages you to fill half your plates with fruits and vegetables, one fourth with lean protein and one fourth with grains (preferably whole grains).myplate

Here is a list of examples to help your kids put together healthy, well-balanced meals.

Grains:

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole grain cereal
  • Whole wheat crackers
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole wheat or corn tortilla
  • Popcorn

Proteins:

  • Chicken
  • Fish,
  • Turkey
  • Lean meat
  • Eggs
  • Nuts/seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Beans

Dairy:

  • Low-fat milk
  • Low-fat yogurt
  • Low-fat cheese/string cheese
  • Smoothies

Fruits:

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Oranges
  • Grapes
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Pineapple
  • Peaches
  • Pears

Vegetables:

  • Green salad
  • Tomatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Fresh green beans
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Red, yellow, green bell peppers
  • Cucumbers

Sweetened cereals like Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms are not the best start for the day because they lack many important nutrients and contain excessive amounts of added sugars. Here’s a tip for weaning kids away from these sugar-packed cereal varieties: encourage kids to mix a healthier cereal such as Cheerios, Bran Flakes, Shredded Mini Wheats or other high-fiber variety into their favorite cereal. This will help reduce the portion size of the sugary cereal and help improve the nutrient intake of fiber. Apple chunks, blueberries, banana slices, chopped nuts or dried fruit can be easily added to oatmeal to make breakfast more well-rounded. Whole grain tortillas spread with peanut butter and banana slices or eggs, low-fat cheese, salsa and beans make two great protein-packed breakfasts.celery

Lunch meals tend to be heavy on the starches. A turkey sandwich, chips, granola bar and dessert were the typical items packed in my lunch when going to summer camp.

The results of this lunch meal: Starch=5, Protein=1, and Fruits, Vegetables and Dairy=0.

To make this lunchbox healthier, we can swap the chips with low-fat yogurt, trade the granola bar for carrot and celery sticks with one tablespoon of low-fat ranch, and include a clementine for the dessert. Mac ‘n cheese is okay to eat still, but it should be featured as a side item rather than the entrée. Pre-cutting vegetables and fruits and measuring individual containers of peanut butter, hummus, yogurt or low-fat ranch for dips can make healthy selections much more accessible.

Another valuable lesson to learn early on in life is that snacks do not equal desserts. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be fun. Try to create snacks that include at least two food groups. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Homemade trail mix with nuts, dried fruit and whole grain cereal
  • Celery logs topped with peanut butter and raisins
  • Small oranges with low-fat string cheese
  • Slice apples to make a mini peanut butter, granola sandwiches
  • Top a whole grain cracker with low-fat cream cheese and grape halves
  • Mix yogurt with fresh fruit chunks

grapesSometimes, rules need to be enforced on how much screen time is allowed each day. It is recommended that kids spend no more than two hours per day watching TV, playing video games, on the computer, etc. If you find  your kids do spend excessive amounts of time in front of the TV, try setting limits like “TV may only be watched from 1:00-2:30.” Physical activity should always be encouraged in a positive light and never used as a form of punishment. Encourage safe, outdoor activities; it’s summer time after all!

When In Rome: The Mediterranean Diet

While skipping off to the coasts of Greece and Italy may seem like a fantastic idea, a less expensive option may be to bring the Mediterranean style of eating into your home. Research consistently shows that following the Mediterranean diet can help reduce one’s risk for developing heart disease, diabetes and possibly degenerative cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.med pyramid

Principles of the Mediterranean diet include:

  • Consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, chicken and eggs, beans and nuts, olive oil and small amounts of dairy.
  • Regular daily physical activity.
  • Family meal times.
  • Focus on plant foods and minimal consumption of red meat and processed foods and beverages.
  • Increased use of herbs and spices, not condiments to flavor foods.
  • Diet low in saturated fat with olive oil as the main fat source.

Foods to include on your next grocery list:

Vegetables

  • Tomatoes
  • Broccoli
  • Spinach
  • Artichokes
  • Red/green peppers
  • Mushrooms
  • Fresh green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Mustard/collard greens
  • Squash
  • Olives
  • Onions
  • Sweet potatoes

Fruits

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Melons
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Pomegranate
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Oranges
  • Kiwi

Fish/Poultry/Dairy

  • Salmon
  • Shrimp
  • Scallops
  • Tuna
  • Tilapia
  • Chicken
  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt

Beans

  • Chickpeas
  • Hummus
  • White, Black, Pinto Beans
  • Lentils

Nuts/Seeds

  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Ground Flaxseed
  • Pine Nuts

Grains

  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Bulgur
  • Barley
  • Wild/Jasmine/Brown Rice
  • Couscous
  • Whole Wheat Pasta

Healthy Oils/Fats

  • Olive oil
  • Avocados

Herbs/Spices

  • Garlic
  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Cilantro
  • Parsley
  • Mint
  • Coriander
  • Cumin

While this is not an all-inclusive lists of foods found in the Mediterranean diet, it can be a great place to start.

What are the pros for following the Mediterranean diet?

  • Increased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy fats containing omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce LDL (the bad) cholesterol levels, help prevent degenerative eye disorders and possibly reduce inflammation.
  • Increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Most people miss the mark for consuming 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Incorporating Mediterranean recipes into your meals can help you easily reach that goal.
  • Limited red meat consumption and dairy consumption. Red meat and high-fat dairy products are some of the highest sources of saturated fats. Diets high in saturated fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Family meal times. Research shows that families who eat together consume more fiber, calcium, iron and Vitamins B6, B12, C and E and consume less sodium and added sugars. Children and adolescents who share family meal times are more likely to be in a normal weight range and have healthier eating patterns.

The potential cons?

  • Meal planning. Most recipes require fresh ingredients that take to time to be chopped, cooked and prepared. However, planning ahead can help you utilize preparation and cooking time more efficiently.
  • Cost. Some items such as salmon, seafood and nuts can be more costly compared to other proteins.
  • Kid-friendliness. Consuming more natural flavors may take time to adjust to for young kids. Keep in mind that many children with unhealthy BMIs often consume too many processed food items and sugary-sweetened beverages.

Whether you take the Mediterranean diet on full-storm or simply incorporate a few Mediterranean-style meals into your week, consuming minimally processed foods is a great habit for a healthy lifestyle.

High-Fiving Fiber

It was the spring semester of my junior year in college. I was engaging in conversations with my classmates as we were being handed back the results of our cholesterol screenings. I glanced down at the sheet that had been deposited on my desk and quickly went to my professor because I clearly had someone else’s results. She replied, “No, those results are yours, Amanda, and you have high cholesterol.” I thought this can’t be! I’m 21 years old, I run, teach group fitness classes, watch what I eat; how could I have high cholesterol???

This was a major scare to me, especially since heart disease runs in both sides of my family. After coming to terms with the news, I had a good hard look into how much fiber I was consuming in my diet.

Fiber has been referred to as many different things: bulk, roughage, even cardboard. Essentially, fiber is the indigestible part of plant products. It is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. The average American needs at least 20-30 grams of fiber daily, but, unfortunately, most people miss this mark…by a lot. This is due largely to our high consumption of refined carbohydrate sources and processed food items, in addition to a poor intake of fruits and vegetables. But fiber has many benefits.

  • Fiber has shown to help keep you fuller longer between meals, aiding in weight management.
  • Choosing foods that are higher in fiber has shown to benefit blood glucose control.
  • A diet high in fiber can decrease one’s risk for diverticulosis/diverticulitis. Fiber can play a role in treating both constipation and diarrhea.
  • Increased fiber can help children’s constipation problems (check out this article for tips), as well as those of adults.
  • Another great thing a high fiber intake can do (and the focus of this blog) is help lower one’s cholesterol and, therefore, reduce the risk for heart disease.

Fiber is split into two categories: soluble and insoluble, and most fiber-containing products have both. Insoluble fiber can aid as a laxative by moving intestinal contents more rapidly. Soluble fiber forms a gel-like product when entering the digestive system. Soluble fiber absorbs bile salts in the intestines, which are important for digesting and absorbing fat. In order to keep our pool of bile salts at a proper level, the body utilizes cholesterol, specifically LDL found in the blood stream, to manufacture more bile salts. The National Cholesterol Education Program’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes recommends consuming at least 5-10 grams of soluble fiber per day to reduce LDL cholesterol by 5%. Check out the complete list of recommendations.

Good sources of soluble fiber:

Broccoli and Walnut Salad

Broccoli and Walnut Salad

  • Kidney beans
  • Oatmeal
  • Orange
  • Oat bran
  • Broccoli
  • Ground flaxseed
  • Apple
  • Banana

Other sources of fiber:

  • Blueberries/raspberries/blackberries
  • All beans/legume varieties
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Artichokes
  • Almonds
  • Shredded wheat cereal
  • Pears
  • Prunes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Whole wheat bread/pasta

Assorted fruitIn addition to consuming more fiber, there are other diet recommendations for reducing one’s cholesterol level. This includes limiting trans and saturated fats from the diet (fatty red meats, fried foods, whole fat dairy products, snack crackers, chips, candy, cookies). It is encouraged to replace saturated fats with omega 3 and unsaturated fats from sources like salmon, walnuts and ground flaxseed. Fat intake should be limited to no more than 35% of total calories. Plant foods are recommended more often. Engaging in physical activity can also be very beneficial, as recommended by one’s physician.

How does my high cholesterol story end, you ask? I first began with choosing foods higher in fiber. I replaced my regular granola bars with high-fiber bars, consumed more vegetables, snacked on nuts more often, added fruit as part of my breakfast routine and chose cereals, English muffins and bread with higher fiber contents. In six months, I dropped my cholesterol level down from 216 mg/dL to 167 mg/dL. Today, I am still going strong with my fiber intake, omega-3 fatty acid intake and consuming low amounts of saturated and trans fats. Physical activity is a priority every day, and I am constantly finding new ways to challenge my body. My most recent cholesterol level taken was 151 mg/dL and I couldn’t be happier.

When increasing fiber in one’s diet, it is recommended to make sure you consume an adequate amount of water. Although it is rare with mixed diets, too much fiber can also be a problem causing poor absorption of calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium. Always consult with your physician or dietitian before making changes to your diet.

Label Reading 101, Part 2

Label Reading 101, our first lesson on label reading educated us on how to understand the serving size, calories and amount of fat values that are listed on the nutrition facts label. We know to be aware of individually packaged food items like chips because they often come with this hidden message: “You got served…twice!” It’s also important to look at the bigger picture, such as amount of added sugars or sodium, when selecting an item with reduced-fat or fat-free labeling.

Today, we’ll tackle some of the other important nutrient information that is posted on the label:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fiber
  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • “Sugar-free”

Carbohydrates. Total carbohydrates is a very important value to monitor, especially if you are a diabetic and need to watch your carb intake. Remember, the gram amount listed is per the indicated serving size of the product. I know what you’re thinking—isn’t sugar more important to observe? When it comes to carb-counting, it is more important to look at the total carbohydrates number. Fiber and sugars are indented underneath this value because they are components of the sum of total carbohydrates in the food item. The other missing components are starch and sugar alcohols, which are not required to be listed. It is a good idea to compare the sugar content when looking at two like items. One cup of Cheerios contains just one gram of sugar, while one cup of Frosted Flakes packs in almost 15 grams of sugar. Clearly, the Cheerios would be the better choice in this scenario.

Fiber. Did you know that the average American needs at least 25 grams of fiber per day? Fiber is a wonderful nutrient that can help control appetite, improve feelings of fullness, help reduce cholesterol levels, promote a healthy colonic environment and possibly help improve blood sugar control. It can be found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes and nuts/seeds. Choosing healthy foods includes incorporating foods that are high in fiber. When looking at the label, try to choose foods with at least three to four grams of fiber per serving. Make sure you are consuming adequate amounts of water if consuming foods that are very high in fiber such as beans, legumes or fiber-fortified cereal products, such as Fiber One or Fiber Plus.

Sodium. When you think of someone who needs to watch their sodium intake, we typically think of Uncle John, who had a heart attack last year, or your neighbor, Jess, who has had two kidney stones. In reality, everyone should be monitoring sodium intake. A good rule of thumb is to limit meals to no more than 600 mg of sodium. Keeping up with these recommendations becomes very difficult when consuming a lot of processed food items. Choosing fruits, vegetables and fresh lean proteins are easy ways of consuming foods with lower sodium contents. Using fresh spices and herbs is another way to add flavor and zip to our meals without adding to our sodium intake. Check out this article on finding the herb/spice that’s right for you.

Calcium. Individual calcium needs range from 1000 mg to as much as 1500 mg per day. A common question is, “how much calcium am I consuming if it’s listed as a percentage on the food label?” Here is a little secret: add a ‘0’ to the percent value listed for calcium and that is how many milligrams the item contains. For example, one eight ounce serving of almond milk reads it has 45% of calcium; this means it contains 450 mg per eight ounce serving. Keep in mind that calcium is the only nutrient this trick applies to. When monitoring calcium intake, remember that your body only absorbs about 500 mg in one sitting. This is especially important for individuals who are taking calcium supplements and monitoring calcium intake.

“Sugar-free.” Become more aware of sugar-free products as this “health halo” tricks a lot of us. Many studies have found that when people perceive an item to be healthier, such as foods with low-fat or sugar-free on the label, we tend to consume larger portions of them. Using Calorie King, I compared Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with Russell Stover Sugar-Free Peanut Butter Cups.

Serving Size

Calories

Carbohydrates

Reese’s
Peanut Butter Cups

2 pieces (1 pkg)
1.5 oz

210

24 grams

Russell Stover
Sugar Free
Peanut Butter Cups

4 pieces
1.3 oz

180

17 grams

One important message to take away from this is that sugar-free does not mean carbohydrate-free or calorie-free. If you are someone who is monitoring your carbohydrate intake, it’s important to always check the labels, whether an item is sugar-free or not.

Reading food labels is very important for monitoring your nutritional intake. Some of the best foods for us don’t even have a label: fruits, vegetables or fresh proteins. Try to do most of your grocery shopping around the perimeter of the store and limit purchases from the center aisles for improved nutrient quality of food choices.

food-vs-product

Label Reading 101

Reading food labels can be very advantageous; you can find information on serving sizes, calories, amount of fat, calcium content and many other nutrients. However, if you’re like most people, reading food labels can become quite overwhelming.  I’ve had a family friend tell me that she doesn’t read food labels because there is too much information on there. I began reading labels when I was in high school. Unfortunately, the only thing I looked at was the amount of fat

The truth about food labels.

The truth about food labels.

and paid no attention to the rest of the information provided. Just like everyone else, I could have used a little help from a Label Reading 101 course.

Label Reading 101

Today’s Lesson:

  • Serving size
  • Calories
  • Fat
  • “Reduced fat” and “fat-free”

Serving Size: The serving size of a product is located at the very top of the nutrition facts label. This is the foundation for all the nutrient information because all the numbers listed below are pertinent to that listed serving size.

I want to make a little side-note; serving size ≠ portion size. Serving size is the amount recommended on the food label; portion size is the amount you actually serve yourself. For example, not many people actually measure their cereal in the morning; rather we pour until we think we’ve got the “right amount” in our bowl. The serving size of most cereals is ¾ cup. As an experiment, pour the amount of cereal you normally have and then measure out your portion to see how closely your estimates are to the recommended serving size.

Calories: Calories is the first bolded item found on the label. The calorie amount shown is based on the listed serving size. Keep in mind some products may contain several servings per container. In this case, you may see two columns of information: one indicating the calories per serving, and one for the entire container. You will often see this format on candy, chip and beverage containers. “Calories from fat” is a little unnecessary. It’s more important (and, to be honest, much easier) to pay attention to total fat and its other components (saturated, trans and unsaturated fats) instead of monitoring “calories from fat.” Below is my explanation of this.

Fat: The total fat value is a sum of all the different types of fat in that product. Nutrients that are indented under a bolded item means that they are components of the total value. Saturated fat, trans fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat all make up the total fat value. Saturated fats and trans fats are the types of fats to consume less of in the diet. Try to find products with no more than three grams of saturated fat per serving and no amounts of trans fat.

Sometimes, we get turned away from a food item because the fat content is much higher than other products. For example, peanut butter has a fat content of 16 grams per two tbsp serving size and a four ounce serving of salmon has around 12 grams of fat. However, these total fat values are mainly composed of the healthy fats that we strive to get in our diets; mono- and polyunsaturated fats. This is why looking at “calories from fat” can be misleading. The value listed doesn’t indicate if those are calories from good fats or the unhealthy fats. An example of an unhealthy fat is Chili’s nachos on their appetizer menu; just four chips with all the toppings contain almost 30 grams of fat and over half of that is saturated fat (aka the kind of fat that is not kind to our waist lines).

Labels that say “reduced fat” or “fat-free”: Many people purchase these types of items like fat-free salad dressing or reduced-fat peanut butter because the label makes it sound like they are healthier options. Unfortunately, in many cases, they’re not. One solid piece of advice to remember is fat-free does not mean “calorie-free.” Often, the fat-free or reduced-fat options of foods have almost the same amount of calories as the regular version. Sometimes health halos accompany food labels with the words “fat free” on it. This means that people tend to consume larger portions of the food because they believe that it is healthier than the regular version. Unfortunately, I speak from personal experience on this one.

Another important piece to remember is that fat flavors our food. When fat is taken out of product, it is often replaced by extra sodium and extra sugars which doesn’t necessarily make a healthier food product. Reduced-fat peanut butter has twice the amount of sodium in it compared to regular peanut butter. Fat is important in our diet; we especially need it to absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) which are often found in our non-starchy vegetables. This is why fat-free salad dressing is not the best choice to make. If you don’t have any fat in the meal, your body will have a hard time absorbing the vitamin K from your spinach or the vitamin A from the raw carrots in your salad. Stick to a vinaigrette; they spread easily and your portion sizes tend to be smaller.

Next week’s lesson:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fiber
  • Sodium
  • Calcium
  • “Sugar-free”