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COLUMN: September is healthy lunch box time

Cindy Chan Phillips, Registered Dietician
Posted 9/6/22

September has arrived (where did summer go?) and it is lunch-box time. Seniors are packing lunches too as they go to work, or volunteer at senior centers, schools, nursing homes, and libraries. Some …

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COLUMN: September is healthy lunch box time

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September has arrived (where did summer go?) and it is lunch-box time.

Seniors are packing lunches too as they go to work, or volunteer at senior centers, schools, nursing homes, and libraries. Some other places offer meals for seniors. Take advantage of the congregate meal and enjoy your dinner that you registered for the day before.

Supper can be light, try a leafy green salad or a fruit salad with cottage cheese or yogurt that will provide a nutritious and light dinner and “a day without cooking.”

If you are staying home and not packing a lunch, healthy eating and lots of fruits and vegetables should still be your goal. Skip the ham and cheese sandwich and look for foods that will give you the “get up and go” health. Suggestions include avocado, apricots, apple, orange, banana, grapes, cherries, peaches — fruits that will travel well for lunch and be eaten at work or play.

Try avocado slices on a whole-wheat cracker instead of a burger for a change. When looking for something sweet grab a handful of berries like blueberries, blackberries, grapes or cherries, rather than a candy bar. Look for color, fresh, and flavorful fruits. Hard cooked eggs travel well and so do sardines in a can. Break out of the box and try something different for lunch. Fruits will provide healthy calories, which will give you a full feeling and lots of nutrition until it is time to eat again.

A small package of nuts also can provide big nutrition. Some notions die hard, like the one that says you shouldn’t eat nuts because they’re high in calories. For their size, nuts are calorie dense – but they’re also packed with heart-healthy nutrients. Understanding the nutritional value of nuts is key to judiciously working them into your diet as a protein substitute or as a replacement for other less healthy snacks like chips and candy.

Most nuts are seeds, or the dried fruit from trees. Although peanuts are legumes – like beans and peas – they have a similar nutrition profile to tree nuts and are commonly thought of as nuts right along with walnuts, almonds, cashews and the rest. Almost all nuts are high in fat, which explains why such a small handful of food can be so high in calories. However, the majority of fat in nuts is ‘good’ fat – meaning the fat is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These fats are likely key players in the positive cardiovascular effects.

Walnuts top all nuts – when it comes to alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) content. ALA is a heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid. Walnuts rank high on the American Heart Association’s list of foods to eat for heart health. Nuts also provide dietary fiber. Diets high in fiber can help lower cholesterol. Fiber in nuts – along with fat content – may also help provide a sensation of feeling full, so including a small serving of nuts may help you feel fuller longer.

Nuts are an excellent source of protein. As part of the protein package, nuts often are high in a particular amino acid – L-arginine – that promotes nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide is essential for proper blood vessel function. Among other nutrients, nuts offer a good dose of folate, which is a B vitamin that can help curtail the accumulation of homocysteine. High levels of homocysteine may increase risk of coronary artery disease. Some nuts also contain plant sterols. These natural substances are known to help lower cholesterol and are added to some margarine-like spreads and orange juice for their health benefits.

A decrease or no change in body weight – although it may seem counter-intuitive, multiple studies have demonstrated a neutral or even inverse relationship between nut consumption and weight. Some say the main reason weight gain doesn’t occur is because nuts are a satisfying fatty food with considerable fiber. As such, eating nuts appears to dampen the need to eat. In addition, nuts are a healthier alternative to other high-fat, high-salt or high-sugar foods like chips and candy.

Choose unsalted, dry roasted nuts. The American Heart Association recommends eating four servings of unsalted, dry-roasted nuts a week. Because nuts are high in calories, enjoy them judiciously by substituting them in for other foods, rather than adding them to your diet.

A typical serving size is about 1.5 ounces of whole nuts. That’s the equivalent of a small handful of nuts or 2 tablespoons of nut butter. Most people who enjoy nuts have a favorite or two. But, if you want a wider variety of nutrients, try mixed nuts. When eating mixed nuts you receive the benefit of a wider array of nutrients because each nut has a slightly different nutrient profile.

Enjoy nuts at lunch or as a late afternoon snack to tide you over until dinner. Try adding some cashews to a stir-fry. Add some pecans, walnuts or almonds to a green salad. Toss nuts into your morning cereal or stir them into yogurt. Pine nuts or pistachios can be a nice topping to pasta dishes.

Try this recipe including nuts and fruits for a full and fresh healthy snack.

Apple-Cinnamon Nut Loaf

This dark brown loaf uses more chopped fruit than most quick bread recipes, and adds plenty of healthful cinnamon and crunchy walnuts.

Canola oil spray

1 cup whole-wheat flour or all purpose flour

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. cinnamon

2/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup canola oil

1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce or your choice of store bought applesauce

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups coarsely chopped crisp apples such as Fuji

1/3 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray 9x5 loaf pan with canola oil spray and set aside. In mixing bowl, whisk together flours, salt, soda and cinnamon. In separate bowl whisk sugar with the canola oil, applesauce, eggs and vanilla. Stir in apples and walnuts. Pour into dry ingredients and mix until blended. Bake for 50-60 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes before turning out on rack.

Makes 10 servings. 214 calories per serving.

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