Best Worst Lunch:

Three Best and Worst Lunch Meals for Your Health

By Dr. Ben Kim

Monday, January 7th, 2008 marked the beginning of an era of healthy eating for high school students in Quebec, Canada. The provincial government in Quebec implemented new food regulations that prohibit high school students from having access to soft drinks, diet products, sugary beverages, and deep-fried foods on school grounds.

Quebec's strict junk food policy for high schools also requires that lunches include at least one vegetable; French fries don't count, of course.

While policy makers acknowledge that their new junk food policy may not promote positive attitudes toward making healthy food choices, they believe that it's a step in the right direction. Since food choices are often driven by our sense of smell, the hope is that not having junk foods within reach of students' olfactory bulbs will lead to them making healthier food choices over the long term.

Lori Nikkel, chair of the Canadian Council for Student Nutrition, had this to say about Quebec's new junk food policy:

"Eliminating tempting foods is an excellent way to reduce how much of it children and teenagers actually eat — but promoting healthy habits is a complex challenge.

"The best healthy eating programs for schools are student-driven, which involve children and teenagers in menu-planning and budgeting.

"But parents also have a huge role to play in setting a good example about healthy foods, as most children bring their lunch to school."

Healthy Lunch Meals

With a little planning, you and your family can consistently enjoy delicious lunch meals that are nutritious, inexpensive, and easy to put together. Here are some examples of healthy lunch meals:

1. Hummus and vegetable sandwich.

Make a fresh batch of hummus using either of our two favorite hummus recipes.

To make a hummus and vegetable sandwich, spread a generous dollop of hummus on your favorite whole grain bread or pita, and pile fresh vegetables like cucumber slices, romaine lettuce, and sliced red onions on top. Tomatoes are delicious in a hummus sandwich, but if you prepare your sandwich in the morning, to keep your sandwich fresh and your vegetables crisp, you may want to pack a tomato on the side and eat it alongside your sandwich for lunch.

2. Large vegetable salad with sun-dried black olives and avocado.

Pack a large container of field greens with a handful of sun-dried black olives (available at most olive bars in grocery stores). Include any fresh vegetables that you enjoy, like celery, cucumber, carrots, bell peppers, and sprouts.

Also pack a whole avocado that has been cut in half, but keep the two halves together with the seed inside to keep the cut surfaces from browning. Wrap your cut avocado to keep it together until you're ready to eat.

Come lunch time, enjoy your fresh vegetable salad with avocado on the side. Feel free to add your favorite dressing to the mix for extra flavor. If you need more calories than this salad provides, add chickpeas, or have a whole grain pita along with the salad. Yet another way to increase the caloric value and nutritional density of this salad is to add one or two hard-boiled eggs, another ingredient that you can easily pack in your lunch bag.

3. If you eat out at lunch time, and you can't find a restaurant that specializes in making healthy meals, look for a Greek-style fast food outlet; you'll almost always find one in a food court in indoor malls.

Almost all Greek-style fast food outlets serve fresh salad and rice, and most of them offer hummus and falafels. Because falafels are deep-fried, it's best to ask for extra hummus in place of the falafels. Ask for some tahini dressing for your rice and salad for extra flavor and nutrients; sesame seeds (used to make tahini) are rich in a variety of minerals, most notably, calcium.

Enjoy any of the options listed above with a fresh piece of fruit - one that is in season, if possible.

For a beverage, look for a juice bar that offers freshly pressed juices and blended smoothies. If a fresh juice or smoothie is not within your budget, enjoy your lunch with a refreshing bottle of water.

Lunch Meals to Avoid

1. Meals that include fried flesh meats.

Fried flesh meats - including chicken, beef, pork (bacon), and fish - are typically laced with chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

HCAs are a group of compounds that can form when flesh meats are cooked at high temperatures. The three cooking methods that are known to produce the greatest amounts of HCAs are those that involve high cooking temperatures: deep-frying, barbecuing, and broiling.

Regular intake of HCAs can increase your risk of developing bladder, stomach, breast, colo-rectal, and pancreatic cancers.

2. Meals that include French fries or potato chips.

Even when advertised as being free of trans fats, French fries and potato chips are rich in acrylamide, a carcinogen that is found in starchy foods that have been fried or baked at high temperatures.

Also, most vegetable oils that are used to make French fries and potato chips contain a significant number of free radicals, as polyunsaturated fatty acids found in vegetable oils are extremely unstable and prone to forming free radicals, especially when they are exposed to heat. Regular exposure to excessive numbers of free radicals can lead to repeated cellular damage and premature aging.

3. Meals that include fried pastries (like donuts).

Like French fries and potato chips, fried pastries are typically rich in acrylamide and free radicals. The white flour that is used to make most pastries will fill you up but leave you undernourished. Eating foods made with white flour on a regular basis is a reliable method of developing diabetes and nutritional deficiencies, particularly B vitamin deficiencies.

Soda and coffee are beverage choices that you should avoid whenever possible. Soda is rich in sugar (or an artificial sweetener, such as aspartame) and phosphoric acid. Sugar and phosphoric acid are terrible for your teeth and bones, while aspartame can damage your nervous system. Coffee is typically rich in acrylamide, and has undesirable effects on your cardiovascular system if consumed in excess.

So there you have it - some of the best and worst food and beverage choices that you can make for lunch or any other meal. Choose wisely, and enjoy the consequences of your choices.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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