2-4-6-8 Who Do We Appreciate? Nitrates! Wait…What?

Ah nitrates.  Those little cancer-causing hooligans are decimating our society at alarming rates!  Or are they?  Let’s talk about what nitrates really are.

The Truth About Nitrates

First of all, let’s start with the “nitrate-free” movement.  Several large-scale studies have come out during the past several years that have shown a correlation with consumption of processed meat and cancer, primarily stomach and colon cancers.  However, as is my frustration with most campaigns that throw out blanket accusations on particular food or food types, the researchers seem to regularly and blatantly ignore confounding factors.

Confounding factors in research are things that are happening at the same time as the experiment to the same group of people being examined.  In other words, if I were doing a trial on whether or not lunchmeat is going to cause cancer in my 100 (or 1000) sample subjects, I might also want to address the fact that 80% of my subjects also smoke cigarettes…or are sedentary…or eat their lunchmeat sandwiched between 2 cupcakes…or all of the above (I hope you get the idea here.)  IF the subjects all develop colon cancer, can we attribute that link solely to the fact that they also were eating lunchmeat?  Nope; but that is what a lot of these popular epidemiologic studies tend to promote.

Nonetheless, because these correlations linking processed meats with higher rates of cancer (regardless of confounding factors likely clouding reality), packages of meats claiming “nitrate-free” started cropping up in grocery stores everywhere.  The funny thing is, most people who are super proud to declare that their hot dogs are “nitrate free” don’t have even the slightest idea what the hell nitrates are.  So, what are nitrates?


Nitrates are compounds consisting of nitrogen and oxygen bonded together.  NitrATE is one nitrogen bonded with two oxygen molecules; nitrITE is one nitrogen bonded with three oxygen molecules.  Nitrates are quite abundant in some of our healthiest foods, such as beets, celery, and spinach for example.  Nitrate is converted to nitrite starting with action in our saliva (aka spit) and finished off in our stomach.  Now, the fate of nitrite rests in our lifestyle choices.  Nitrite in our tummies can either go on to become nitric oxide, which has wonderful effects on our blood pressure, artery health, and athletic performance (to name only a few great things).  Nitrite can also go on to become nitrous oxide, which can combine with something called amines to form nitrosamines.  Nitrosamines are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), and they are what caused the pandemonium and defiance against that killer ham sandwich.

Now that you have the basic idea of what the deal is with nitrates, I suppose you’re wondering what determines whether nitrite follows the yellow brick road toward nitric oxide versus nitrous oxide?  How do we keep our food doing good instead of evil?  Well, the key is in all the other stuff we are eating.  Many studies have found that if we have adequate vitamin C and other antioxidants present at the scene in our stomachs when nitrite arrives, we will most likely produce nitric oxide (remember, that is the good one).  Therefore, most of the cases of higher rates of stomach or colon cancer with higher intakes of processed meat might have involved people who at few (or no) vegetables, fruits, whole grains, etc.


Furthermore, something you may be totally unaware of is that the sodium nitrite found in many lunchmeats is there for a reason.  Sodium nitrite keeps some really nasty bacteria (like clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism) from growing on your ham and turkey.  It also keeps your meat a nice pinkish color instead of putrid gray.  If you’re wondering why your nitrate-free ham is not gray, it’s because it’s not actually nitrate-free.  “Nitrate-free” means that because we all freaked out and stopped buying meat preserved with sodium nitrite, the manufacturers started using celery powder as a stand-in.  Remember, many awesome vegetables are really high in nitrates, hence the celery.  Because they simply added celery powder, and they didn’t overtly add sodium nitrite, they can claim “nitrate-free.”  They call that the ol’ bait-and-switch!

Whatever shall we do?  Well, you gotta be real here and understand that a “nitrate-free” hot dog is still a hot dog.  I hope I don’t have to explain why that [a hot dog] isn’t an example of health.  The healthiest diet is rich in vibrant, colorful whole vegetables and whole fruits.  If you are trying the best you can to have real, wholesome foods, that is the key to good health.  Although I’m certainly not an “anti-lunchmeat” activist, I wouldn’t say it’s the first thing I picture when I hear the word “wholesome.”  Real food means food that is as close to nature as it gets.  An apple is plucked from a tree; a beet is pulled from the ground.  Things that didn’t have to go through a factory and didn’t have anything added to them are what makes our bodies thrive.

Try the best you can to eat more vegetables and fruit than anything else, and your occasional roast beef sandwich or bacon doesn’t have to give you cancer.


xoxo – Casey

What is in the Dietitian’s Pantry?

What's in a Dietitian's Pantry?-2

Just for fun (and because I get asked frequently), I thought I’d compile a list of some of my favorite nutrition-related products.  I should mention that this is more of a brand-specific post, and that I do NOT receive any commission for mentioning any of these; I just truly love them!

With no particular rhyme nor reason as to the order,
these are a few of my favorite things:

  • Triscuits
    • Although I wish they would nix the soybean oil and use something better, I do love that Triscuits are simply made, 100% whole grain, and therefore REAL FOOD.  And Triscuits are now non-GMO, which rocks.  I love using Triscuits as vessels on which I can eat my coveted mashed avocado and boiled egg mixture.
  • Noosa
    • I know, I know “but it has so much sugar!”  Yes, Noosa has added sugar.  However, the total grams of sugar on the Nutrition Facts label does not distinguish “added” sugar versus “natural” sugar.  Noosa contains a decent amount of lactose (natural milk sugar), so tone down the panic a few notches.  I would also add that if a little added sugar or honey mixed in with the real fruit purees that Noosa uses are what make it taste THAT AWESOME, then I’m truly ok with a small bit of added sugar in my yogurt.  Many of us are not getting nearly enough calcium-rich food in our daily routine, and Noosa helps us out with that!  My top three absolute favorite flavors are strawberry rhubarb, lemon, and pumpkin.
  • Kind bars
    • One of my littles has to pack 2 pre-packaged snacks every single day for school. My first thought was “gasp…all the processing…how shall she survive…”  However, some packaged foods have come a long way, and could even qualify as real food.  Kind bars are one of them.  I’ve not tried or reviewed all of them, but most have very minimal ingredients consisting of 100% whole grains and other cool nutrient-dense stuff.
  • Lara bars
    • Similar to the situation with the Kind bars, Lara bars are incredibly simply made yet divine.  Most Lara bars have maybe 3-5 ingredients (fruit and nuts), and they are so very tasty.
  • Dave’s Killer Bread
    • These dudes are brilliant.  Sprouting grains (like those used to make this type of bread) makes the nutrients more readily available for us to absorb.  This bread is hearty, delicious, and insanely nutrient-rich when compared to lesser breads.  Don’t settle!  It does happen to be rather expensive, but worth it if you can swing it.
  • Tillamook cheese
    • I don’t know if I’m becoming a cheese snob, but Tillamook cheddar cheese is the bomb.com.  Simply put.  Natural cheese like this is much better for you than any of that fake stuff (American cheese, Velveeta, etc.).
  • Imagine Organic Tomato Soup
    • Few ingredients, all recognizable; simple and healthy.  Perfect with a grilled cheese (made with Tillamook cheese and Dave’s Killer Bread of course!).
  • Sprouts Farmers Market
    • Ok, so I realize this is a broad statement, but Sprouts is by far my favorite grocery store EVER.  I will give King Soopers a decent second, as they are really making a solid effort to have more of the hippy-dippy natural stuff I like AND they have ClickList; and Trader Joe’s is third on my list.  But Sprouts is the only place where I can find soy-free tuna fish and some other specific things.  (Most popular tuna fish brands are packed in vegetable [aka soy] broth.  Not the end of the world, but not my idea of a good time.)
  • Thai Lime & Chili Cashews
    • Found exclusively at Trader Joe’s, these are like spicy little pieces of heaven on Earth. They definitely have a kick, so be forewarned…only for the heat-seeking.  Warning: highly addicting; don’t eat straight from the bag…
  • Kodiak Pancake Mix
    • Bless the hearts of the creators of this stuff.  I realize I could probably make a 100% whole grain, real-food mix of my own…but I simply don’t really feel like it.  The makers of this stuff have answered my prayers for a way to have pancakes and waffles that are protein-rich and nutrient-dense.  If you’re having conventional pancakes or waffles, keep in mind that you’re eating the equivalent of birthday cake for breakfast.  Think about that for a second…
  • Elderberry syrup
    • So, this doesn’t really qualify as “food,” but it’s worth mentioning here. Elderberry syrup is evidence-based to interfere with viral reproduction when taken during the onset of acute illness.  In other words, it can prevent you from becoming significantly ill or at least reduce the duration of your illness.  A must-have for every medicine cabinet.
  • DoTerra Essential Oils
    • Also not a “food;” but, like Elderberry, certain essential oils have literature supporting their effects on viruses, bacteria, and overall immune support. Some are ingestible, others are meant to diffuse within the air and breathe.  Check them out.

I will digress for now.  Please keep in mind that this was just a list of my favorite name-brand products, but I often buy mostly generic brands of things.  I also didn’t list all my overall favorite foods (like avocados) because that wasn’t my angle today.  Some of you can’t have grains; others can’t have lactose.  I get that these awesome foods will not fit everyone’s need.  This list is not the end-all-be-all mecca of good health.  As previously noted, I just thought I’d share a list of specific products I love.

You know what else I love?  You for reading this.  Please do me a favor and share lettucetalk with those you know!  It is the season for sharing, after all…

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

xoxo – Casey

Denial is Not a River in Egypt.

How to Indulge Smarter

Like anyone else, I succumb to the pleasures of food and drink, especially during this time of year.  Just last night I had a delicious dinner with friends during my husband’s office Christmas party.  The food was wonderful, and I ate far more than I should have.  I’m not recommending doing that [overeating], but what I do want to call attention to today is reality as it relates to nutrition.

Eating doesn’t JUST have to be about nutrients to be healthy.  Having an occasional indulgence just for the sake of indulgence isn’t “bad.”  As a matter of fact, labeling your food choices as either “good” or “bad” is an indication that you’re steering away from a healthy relationship with food; so is a preoccupation with the mathematical stats of foods.  Sure, I definitely recommend seeking strategies that merge healthy eating with indulgences so that we don’t stray from obtaining the proper nutrients our body needs.  (My most favorite “healthy indulgence” is mashed avocado mixed with boiled eggs or chicken.  O-M-G.)  But the real key lies within finding peace with choosing mostly healthy foods mixed with the occasional treat while enjoying all that life has to offer.

How do we find true balance with eating?  How do we ensure that treats are, in fact, treats?  Although the word “balance” has been so distorted over the years it’s nearly ridiculous, you can find balance quite easily.  If you’re having a significant amount of something regularly, it is no longer a treat; rather, it is routine.  There is no specific parameter that identifies your allotment of treats each day or week.  In other words, you have to consider your wants and decide how they can reasonably fit into an otherwise healthy eating style.

Some questions to ask yourself to determine if balance is present in your world:

  • Am I eating meals composed mostly of non-starchy vegetables?
  • Are most of my daily carbohydrate choices coming from 100% whole grains, or starchy vegetables, or whole fruits?
  • Am I having good quality meats and/or fatty fish and plant-based protein sources?
  • Am I choosing water as my main beverage each day? Am I drinking enough?
  • Am I leaving meals feeling satisfied but not overly full?

If 90% of the time you can answer “yes” to ALL of the questions listed above, and this holds true nearly every day of the week, then you likely have achieved nutritional balance.  As a result, having a couple slices of pizza or some cake every now and again is unlikely to pose a significant threat to your health.  The problem with most people I see who are really struggling with their weight or with chronic disease is that rather than eating well 90% of the time and indulging 10% of the time, they have it completely backward.  Or we fall into more of a 50% healthy, 50% indulgent eating style and still wonder why we’re struggling.

I’ll give you an example of how we can become delusional about our treats.  I had a patient many years ago that said “I only have a [large] DQ Blizzard once a week.”  I thought, “Well, ok, I guess…”  But then, after further discussion, he told me “I only have a half a pound of bacon once a week…and I only have a 6-pack of beer one day a week…and I only have a double bacon cheeseburger once a week…”  It went on from there, but you get the idea.  What happened was that because EACH of his individual indulgences were only once per week, this guy truly felt he was restricting and wondered why his health wasn’t improving much.  I’m not kidding, this is a true story.  It was only later when we discussed that, collectively, he is indulging at least 50% of the time that the real habits were exposed.


Here’s the thing:  find ways to make healthy eating taste amazing, and you will have no trouble with the 90% healthy vs 10% treat philosophy.  Flavor foods with herbs, spices, and a moderate amount of nutrient-rich fatPlan ahead so you can cook amazing (yet simple), fresh, homemade real-food meals that rock your socks off.  When you fuel your body with nutrient-rich, fiber-filled, quality foods, you will naturally crave less of the sugary, processed stuff.

Lastly, make sure that if you’re going to indulge that it is worth it.  I’ve found myself blowing far too many calories (not that I’m counting, because I’m not) on foods that were just “meh.”  Don’t waste time putting treats down the hatch unless you know they are worth it.  Don’t eat just to eat.  An indulgent treat should bring you some pleasure, and that’s not a bad thing.  (However, if you are emotionally distressed or depressed, and you find yourself turning to food for comfort, you are heading down a dangerous road.  Seek guidance from a registered dietitian nutritionist and/or a mental health professional to find strategies to better cope with your emotional situation if so.)

xoxo ~ Casey