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Bad Habits #5 – Don’t Drown Your Food

When I was younger, my brother and I would wake up early and watch Saturday morning cartoons.  That might give away how old I am.  Saturday morning cartoons were kind of a weekend fixture in the old days.  By that I mean before the mid-90s or so.  They tended to last until noon, much to my parents despair, since we held the television hostage all morning.  But often what I remember is not the cartoons themselves, but the various commercials directed at kids that were interspersed between them.

Between all of the toy commercials and Ronald McDonald spots, there were a variety of rather cloying public service announcement commercials which involved a fair amount of paternalistic finger wagging about things we should or should not do.  This included spots on bullying, exercise, studying, and more than a few about eating right.

One in particular involved a rather peculiar lifeguard character surrounded by weirdly anthropomorphic vegetables lecturing us at great length about putting too much sauce and other stuff on our food.  “Don’t drown your food!” the goofy little man would sing.  As I noted in my last piece, it wasn’t the first time I encountered dietary propaganda.

Naturally, I ignored this.  The foods we put stuff on are barely edible without something on top of them.  This includes salad (which is really just a compost pile of it has no dressing), potatoes, and eggs, amongst others. I wouldn’t dream of eating these without some kind of topping.  But as I’ve discovered before, this annoying agitprop did actually have a point.

It’s not the first time I’ve talked about putting too many high-calorie adornments on food.  I’ve noted before the dangers of putting too much salad dressing or cheese on the things we eat.  But the impact of salad dressing doesn’t actually affect me.  Another thing I noted in my last piece was that cooking vegetables is better for us than eating them raw.  So I don’t really eat salad any more.

But I do eat other things which present a temptation to douse them in sauces and things.  Anyone who’s passing familiar with my Instagram feed knows that I’m a big fan of breakfast/brunch.  And my breakfast or brunch almost always includes a bagel or an English Muffin.  Two things that practically scream for toppings.  And now that I’m tracking the calories of these things, I’ve discovered how I definitely can get too much of some good things.

One obvious go to add-on for the assorted breads of breakfast is butter.  A tablespoon of butter comes in at 100 calories or so.  With very little other else to show for it.  It has a chunk of vitamin A (about 10% of my recommended daily allowance), but vitamin A is actually very easy to get.  Eat almost any vegetable, and you’ll get most or all of your RDA.  And since English muffins tend to have about 100-150 calories, you’re nearly doubling the calories by putting butter on it, and the only payoff is a marginal amount of an easy to obtain vitamin.  The same amount of butter will increase the calories in a bagel (which has about 250-300 calories), by a third or more.  So butter is something to keep to a minimum.

And butter’s more compassionate, vegan cousin (margarine) is about the same when it comes to overall healthiness.  I noted before in a piece on hamburgers that vegan alternatives for hamburgers aren’t noticeably healthier than their animal-based relatives.  The same goes with butter and margarine.  Margarine isn’t a healthier option, and neither are very healthy at all.

Cream cheese, the other common bagel condiment, is a better option, with about half the calories.  It, surprisingly, also has very little nutritional value.  It doesn’t even have that much calcium, which is weird for a dairy product.  Whatever processes are applied to this stuff apparently rob it of anything beneficial.

And cream cheese isn’t the only spread that appears to have been cleansed of all things healthy.  Another strange discovery was the lack of nutrition in a tablespoon of jelly.  It’s about the same as cream cheese, calorie-wise, but also has very little in the way of micronutrients.  Which I thought odd, since these are typically made with fruits.  But I guess whatever soulless automatons work in the stygian recesses of the fell processing plant that makes these things somehow suck out any of the benefits when they work their evil, corporate black magic on otherwise healthy ingredients.

Peanut butter, on the other hand, is a pretty good option.  It’ll have a chunk of magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, and vitamin E.  Not a lot, but a tablespoon has roughly 10% (give or take a few percentages points) of each of these, while the calorie count is about the same as butter or margarine.

As I’ve noted before, peanuts aren’t really nuts, and there are other nuts that are much better for us.  Such as almonds, cashews, and especially sunflower seeds.  All of these can be made into “butter”, and those variants have nutrients comparable to their raw form, for roughly the same cost in calories as peanut butter.  So these may be the best choices.  But in order to get them, I usually need to shop at a more pretentious, snobby grocery store, like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.  But venturing into the dark heart of overly grandiose grocery stores to extract this stuff is worth it.

Breakfast isn’t the only meal that I occasionally feel a temptation to inundate in something seductively unhealthy.  This is because my cooking is mostly disgraceful.  Although I have gotten to the point where it actually tastes good, and only looks awful.  My early escapades in cooking produced food that looked like crime scene evidence.  After a while, I got it to the point where it resembled dog food or food that got dropped on the floor and then stepped on.  Now I’ve advanced it to the point where it looks like prison food.  But even though presentation isn’t my strong suit in food, the flavor is usually fine.  This is often because I introduced some sort of bottled garnish to the dish.

Some of these additives are Italian in origin.  I used to use the old Italian trick of carpet bombing my food with cheese in order to cover up my offenses to dietary decency.  And when I realized this added a few too many calories to my meals, I switched to the other Italian trick of decimating the meals with tomatoes.  A noticeable healthier alternative.  And it turns out that this is true with the Italian sauces too. 

Classic marinara sauce only has a handful of calories per tablespoon.  This means that even a full cup will only result in about 150 calories or so.  And a full cup is a bit much for anyone.  And marinara is all-around healthy.  Most essential vitamins and minerals are available, between 10% and 30% of RDA in most cases.  So this is the guilt free selection of the Italian offerings.  There’s a problem, though.  I don’t particularly like marinara.  In my experience, flavor and healthiness are inversely related.  And marinara may have okay nutrition, but also only has okay taste.

A much tastier pick is Alfredo sauce, which is the liquefied equivalent of dousing food in cheese.  Except without the micronutrients.  Alfredo has 50 calories per tablespoon, but actually very little in the way of vitamins and minerals.  I was surprised to note that it had very little in the way of calcium, which one would expect with a dairy product.  But there’s not much here, unless you get it in large doses.  And you shouldn’t.  A full cup of this stuff would be about 800 calories.  That alone is more than most of us should eat in a single meal.

And what about that most fancy schmancy of Italian condiments, pesto?  The stuff that’s loved by people who spend entirely too much time at Starbucks?  Hard pass.  It has 80 calories per tablespoon (which translates into over 1,200 per cup) and very little else of value.  Pesto probably explains why fat Italians are such a firmly ingrained stereotype.  

So instead of the Italian stuff, I occasionally go full #Murrica and try putting buffalo sauce on my food.  The tart, sassy stuff used to make wings that the snootier amongst us turn their noses up at and the awesome amongst us wolf down with reckless, carnivorous abandon.  This is only about 20 calories per tablespoon.  Not much in the way of nutrition, but it’s a low cost way to cover up a horrific kitchen-born nightmare.  Which I do often.  So buffalo sauce is a good move.

Of course, there are a variety of alternatives of various ethnic origins as well.  Since my wife occasionally talks me into going to Japanese Hibachi places (That’s one of those joints where they cook on the table and do crazy Karate tricks to your food while they cook it),  I’ve developed a fondness for Yum Yum sauce.  Which is one of those hilarious names Japanese people attach to things when they’re trying a bit too hard to market it to Americans.  Although, even more hilariously, it’s not really Japanese.  It’s Japanese-American.  Anyway, it’s a bit sweeter than and not so tangy as buffalo sauce, it does wonders for seafood.  But not for the waistline or my overall health.  This stuff has 80 calories per tablespoon and not much else.

But if you want something that actually comes from a foreign country and is not so fattening, you should look to southern Africa.  My wife introduced me (as I noted in a previous piece) to the wonders of Nando’s, a South African grilled chicken chain.  They also sell their famous Peri Peri sauces in stores.  This stuff is only about fifteen calories.  A cheap solution to bad cooking.  Which almost all of my cooking is.  When the comestibles of my kitchen become so obnoxious that they are violations of international law (and by that I mean the treaties on chemical and biological weapons), I can douse them in this stuff.  And also I can feel like a pious, self-important “citizen of the world” by using exotic, multicultural condiments.

Of course, there’s an even cheaper way, in terms of calories.  And a far less high and mighty, holier-than-thou way.  Just use good, old fashioned American made pepper sauces, like Texas Pete or Tabasco.   They have almost no calories.  This is by far the cheapest way to cover an obscenity that comes from my kitchen.

And there’s one last thing I’ve occasionally used to make my cooking taste like actual food and not something that was dug up from a prior geological era.  Something I’ve started making myself recently, even though it’s a hoity toity, high falutin’ thing that is enjoyed too often by people who think that caviar would be a good topping for a hot dog.  Something laughably effete elites pour over their eggs while brunching.  And that is, Hollandaise.  

Despite my tendency towards nose-thumbing at the yuppier amongst us, this highbrow delicacy is actually really good.  If a bit ostentatious.  And it’s not hard to make.  Two egg yolks, two tablespoons of butter, and the juice of one lemon carefully cooked in a saucepan.  I just have to be careful to stir it regularly, or I’ll just end up with really runny scrambled eggs.  

This stuff has about 90 calories per tablespoon.  The eggs and lemon juice provide a decent assortment of vitamins and minerals, too.  So this is not a bad option all around, if I’m inclined to take the time to make it.

As I mentioned above, one disappointing trend I’ve noticed with food is that taste and nutritional value have something of an inverse relationship.  Nutritious things are just not as tasty as naughty things.  But sometimes to eat the virtuous things, it’s necessary to put a dollop of something wicked on top.  Healthy food is medicine, and like some medicines, we don’t always like taking them.  So putting a little tasty something on it can encourage us to take our medicine.  But I’ve learned now that it should be just enough to make the medicine go down.  

So that lame cartoon spot had a point.  Many of the things that make food delicious are just not good for us.  But we can have them in moderation.  It should be just enough to make us eat our vegetables, though.  Too much naughtiness turns the medicine into a myocardial infarction.  

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Published by drilldowndiet

Formerly obese CPA/health humorist using Cronometer and FitBod to lose weight. Sharing assorted life hacks to squeeze nutrition and exercise into a busy schedule. Also on Twitter at @drilldowndiet and Facebook.

9 thoughts on “Bad Habits #5 – Don’t Drown Your Food

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