Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bachelor Snacking: dried fruit and nuts

One side effect with the Paleo Diet is that many people, seduced by the mantra of "only food quality matters, not quantity," can get suckered into eating too many calories for their activity level by eating certain kinds of high quality but energy dense foods. Now eating an entire jar of almonds or bag of dried blueberries in one sitting is almost certainly better for your health than eating a quart of ice cream or an entire sheet cake, but 'better' doesn't necessarily mean 'good.'

A few of the Paleo diet gurus (I don't necessarily mean 'guru' here to be disrespectful, I just mean any of the academics, doctors, or bloggers who advocate publicly for the Paleo diet) recommend against eating nuts or dried fruit, even though both things ostensibly fit the Paleo notion of what's okay to eat.

First of all, if you already have good body composition and good blood sugar regulation, congratulations, whatever you're doing is working, skip the rest of this post. Oh, and I hate you. Nothing personal.

If you're still reading I'll assume you'd like to lose some body fat or handle blood sugar better. So, should you be eating dried fruit and/or nuts?

Obviously, if you're allergic to nuts (I'm including the things we think of as nuts that aren't really, like peanuts, just to make life easier) then they're a no-go. If you aren't allergic, they still need to be restricted or avoided for a simple reason: they're a dense source of calories. I mean 'dense' here in almost the physics sense of the term - lots of calories for very little volume. It's just super easy to have a jar of nuts near you and kind of graze on them all day and wind up eating a ridiculous number of calories. Yes, those aren't empty calories, nuts are nutritious and overall probably good for you, but still too many calories.

Does that mean one shouldn't eat nuts at all? I wouldn't say that. You have to figure out if you're the kind of person who can moderate your own nut intake. Can you eat a controlled amount of them? Can you weigh out portions (or buy them in prepackaged small packs, the way Trader Joe's sells cashews in 100 calorie individual bags)?

Only you know the answer to that. If you eat nuts, you MUST measure out the portions at least every so often. Say, every month, actually weigh, on a digital scale, the serving of nuts you're eating. Maybe you're doing fine and eating a controlled amount, but if you're like me you'll find that your serving size will creep upwards, and what started as a 150 calorie snack might be a 375 calorie snack a few weeks later, and might be explaining why your six pack is looking more like a keg.

If you have the discipline to weigh and measure all your food every day, that's wonderful, but I don't think it's strictly necessary. Weigh and measure your food once in a while, to create benchmarks for yourself, and rough it the rest of the time.

So what about dried fruit?

The rules for dried fruit are similar to those for nuts, with one important caveat: most dried fruit contains a lot of added sugar.

There's some back and forth about the vilification of sugar, but let's get it straight: sugar is probably pretty bad for everybody, worse in large amounts, and isn't particularly good for anybody. Everybody should limit the amount of sugar they eat. If you love some sugary food, and eating it brings you great happiness, that might make it worth the biochemical/metabolic damage the sugar is doing to you, but make no mistake that you're making a trade.

So if you're going to eat regular storebought dried fruit, you need to acknowledge that you're getting a lot of sugar with that fruit, and it's a treat, not really part of a healthy diet.

Now if you can find unsweetened dried fruit (just check the ingredients for 'sugar' - if there isn't any, it's unsweetened) then you're back in the same boat as nuts. There's nothing inherently un-nutritious about dried fruit, except that it's a lot easier to eat too much of it than regular fruit. Most people won't eat a half dozen apples in one sitting, for example, but give me a big box of raisins or dried apricots, and it's much easier to overindulge.

To sum up: unsweetened dried fruit can be eaten regularly, but in moderation and in measured portions, because it's just too easy to eat too much of it. The same goes for nuts. Sweetened dried fruit (which is the majority of what you can buy easily) should be treated like a treat, like candy. I'm not going to say you should never eat candy or things that are bad for you, but you need to carefully weigh your desire for them against your physique or body composition goals and make a decision that you're going to be happy with.

This post was prompted by the fact that I found unsweetened dried pineapple for sale at Trader Joe's the other day. I love dried pineapple - it's one of my favorite things - but I find the unsweetened stuff quite hard to find. Dried unsweetened blueberries are also awesome, and quite difficult to find, although Bob's Red Mill  makes them (they're pricey).

Post to comments if you have other unsweetened dried fruits to suggest. Dates, grapes (raisins), apricots and figs are often sold dried and unsweetened. Berries and tropical fruits (pineapple, mangos) are usually sold with tons of added sugar.

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