7 “Health” Topics You Won’t Find On This Blog

This week I got really angry. Like, “write a super-long, frothing-at-the-mouth Facebook rant and then delete it” angry. Like “go for a run to shake the anger and come back still feeling angry” angry. And it all had to do with what passes for “health” in this day and age.

As a freelance health writer, though I’ve been getting plenty of great work lately, I continue to stay open to new publications and previously unexplored avenues. So a couple weeks ago I responded to a call for new contributors from the health editor of a major women’s magazine. (One you’ve definitely heard of.) It seemed like a really exciting opportunity to even be considered for creating content for this magazine. I felt like if this came through for me, I really would have hit the big time.

And, in a way, the opportunity did come through: I received an email from the editor with an invitation to pitch her some story ideas. But when I read the description of what she (and the magazine) want to cover in their newly revamped Health section, that’s when my anger–and, underneath it, my sadness–began. Because every. single. item. on her list was something that stands in direct opposition to my integrity as a licensed nutritionist, or just as a thinking person who cares about the truth.

When I chose nutrition as a career, I never expected that one of the challenges I’d face would be frequent tests of my personal and professional ethics. Sure, maybe I would have predicted that some wacky supplement company might occasionally want me to sell their bogus product or that I might encounter some nutritional charlatans here and there. But to see the opinions presented as facts, the controversies for controversy’s sake, and the outright lies that major publications want to pass of as “health journalism” really grinds my gears, and it’s happening ALL the time. There is so much bad, biased, faddish, and nonsensical advice going around–and since my mission is to share evidence-based, trustworthy health information, that makes me mad.

So here’s a bit of a manifesto about what I personally (and this blog) stand for when it comes to nutrition and health. Here are 7 topics you won’t find me writing about–here or anywhere else–and why.

1. Foods to remove from your diet. These days we love to hate certain specific foods. I believe many people want an edible scapegoat to point to as the culprit behind their health problems. It’s the gluten! It’s the dairy! It’s the lectins! While it’s true that there are some things most of us probably shouldn’t be eating much of, if ever (like Flaming Hot Cheetos, let’s say), we’re all products of our overall diet and our entire environment. As a nutritionist, I find it more valuable to focus on general patterns that to demonize individual foods. Unless you have an allergy or disease that’s actually aggravated by a certain food, I don’t believe in totally ousting one thing or another.

2. Detoxes and/or cleanses. I’ve said it on this blog before, and I’ll say it again: Your body is already equipped with its own detox system. It’s called your liver and kidneys. Yep, believe it or not, your body does a pretty awesome job of filtering out toxins on a daily basis. So you really don’t need to do anything special to help it do so harder or more efficiently. If you’d like to change your diet to be healthier, that’s fantastic! (If you want to do it in the long-term, even better!) But slow and steady usually wins the race, not of a blitz of über-health followed by a return to poor nutrition.

3. Fad diets. The only time I’m interested in writing about fad diets is when I get to expose them. (Which I’m all too happy to do!) Though I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach, I myself subscribe to a mostly Mediterranean diet and feel confident that a lot of basic nutrition advice can be applied to most people. Eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats, and not too much sugar. Is it exciting? Nope. Is it good for you? I believe it is.

4. Nutrition buzzwords: Mmm…adaptogens. Yes, they’re a real thing, and no, I don’t care to focus on them. See “fad diets” above.

5. Celebrity trends. Just because someone’s butt looks amazing on TV or they have a million Twitter followers doesn’t mean their health habits are something we should emulate. So what if Kim Kardashian dropped 20 pounds by eating baby seahorse heads? That doesn’t make it a good idea. Reliable health information comes from professional, (and usually credentialed) sources.

6. Fat positivity. I absolutely think that practicing compassion toward ourselves and our journeys of health is a wonderful thing. But I see the body positivity/anti-fat-shaming movement often crossing a line into celebrating actually unhealthy behaviors. Healthy weight leads to better health outcomes. As a nutrition professional, I cannot, and will not, deny this.

7. Pointless complaints. I’ve literally seen a health publication asking for articles about how, because the media has given so much attention to unhealthy thinness and obesity, medium-sized women are being marginalized. Real issues of health inequality exist, I am 100% sure, but my personal mission around nutrition and health has far more to do with highlighting what we can do for our wellness than stirring up pointless unrest. Aren’t we all angry enough already?

To see some health topics I DO love to talk about, check out my Nutrition page!

How I Started Freelance Nutrition Writing (And So Can You)

Need a health and wellness writer with plenty of experience? Contact me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com!

Are you considering a getting started with freelance nutrition writing? Check out my post on why it’s such a great career.

You may have noticed that things have slowed down a bit here on the blog over the last several months. The reason behind this actually has to do with something really good–and something, in a sense, blog-related. See, I’ve been doing freelance nutrition writing, and a lot of it. Since I’d rather post quality than quantity on the blog, that means my posts here have gotten fewer and further between. Here’s a little bit about how it all came about, along with some tips for other nutrition professionals interested in getting into the world of freelance writing. (And to my handful of regular readers: Don’t worry, I’m still keeping the blog going with recipes and down-to-earth nutrition info!)

Some backstory:

Last August, our family spent almost three months in Germany. During this time, I wasn’t working (unless you count steadily “working” my way through innumerable varieties of German beer–oh, and I was also looking after my kids). Being very new in my career as a nutrition professional, I still hadn’t really determined what path I wanted to take. When you go through any traditional dietetics education, the party line from your program of study is that you have three options for employment: clinical, food service, or community nutrition. (Can I get an amen, RDs and DTRs?) While I knew I didn’t want to work in the clinical or food service settings, I wasn’t exactly sure what my career in “community” (aka public health) nutrition would look like. I did know, however, that my first position out of school would be temporary, that I wanted something part-time, and that I had always loved to write. My English minor back in college meant I had at least some education in doing so reasonably well.

Returning home from Germany, I decided to take a stab at freelance writing to see how it went. Initially, it barely even crossed my mind to start writing nutrition content. Instead, I began with something even closer to my heart: my own journey as a Catholic Christian. My cousin, who is a freelance writer in New Mexico, had turned me on to a couple of websites primarily aimed at Millennial Catholics, Busted Halo and Amendo. Armed with my backlog of blog content and one lonely article I wrote for my church’s Women’s Ministry page, I pitched Busted Halo’s editor, calling myself a freelance writer. I asked if they’d like to publish the story of a foolish decision I made as a young adult. I didn’t really expect to hear anything back–I mean, who was I kidding with this whole “I’m a freelance writer” pose?–but much to my surprise, the editor emailed me back with an acceptance!

And how I got to now…

After the success of my first pitch (and the thrill of seeing my first article in print), I craved more. Here and there, I’d send off a pitch, often into the echoing void of a general submissions inbox, never to hear anything again, but sometimes to a “yes” from a real human being. Pretty soon I made a pact with myself: Every day I wasn’t working–which was one to two days a week–I would pitch a new publication. I read a quick e-book called Make Money as a Freelance Writer, which encouraged new writers to make a list of all the topics you’re an expert in, as well as topics you merely have an interest in. I decided I could comfortably focus on nutrition, general health and wellness, parenting, and spirituality…and maybe some other random topics I just find fascinating, like forensic investigation and 19th century German poets. But, you know, less often.

Over the next few months, I pitched like a mo-fo. Setting aside my deep distaste for unsolicited social interaction, I rattled off cold pitches to dozens of magazines and websites. I emailed local dietitians to see if I could write their newsletters or other content for patients, and I sent out an ad for my services on my local Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics chapter’s email listserv. The mornings I didn’t work, I’d go for a walk or a bike ride to clear my head and generate story ideas, then sit down to research a good publication to send to, and off my pitches would go. From September of 2017 to the end of that year, I sent out 40 pitches and received 8 rejections, 14 no-reponses, and 18 acceptances that turned into publications. When I read somewhere that new writers often have around a 10-20% acceptance rate, I felt my hard work had paid off (but those 8 rejections still definitely stung!).

How I get my gigs

At the end of 2017 came what I think of as my big breakthrough: Paid regular work. That December I was offered a weekly contributor position for the women’s lifestyle website Brit + Co’s Health section. Shortly thereafter, a dietitian hired me at a respectable rate to write her monthly newsletter. And in May of 2018 I was hired on to contribute regularly to fitness guru Chalene Johnson’s blog on her 131 Method website. Between these ongoing projects, a monthly kids’ cooking class I teach, and a few other articles every month or so, I was able to quit my in-person job–and am now making double to triple the hourly rate my job paid, while working fewer hours.

So how did all that happen?

Once again, I really have to give my cousin credit. She referred me to numerous Facebook groups where editors post calls for pitches–which I often answered and sometimes ultimately landed. (I also asked others in these groups for editor contacts when I couldn’t track them down). Then a couple of dietitians told me about even more Facebook groups where I found work. For awhile, I also regularly searched through Craigslist and Upwork for writing gigs–getting one decent food-related copywriting assignment–but have since decided pitching my own content is the better route for the type of work I’m looking for.

If YOU want to get into freelance nutrition writing

Maybe you’re a dietitian or DTR interested in getting started with writing, like I was less than a year ago. Judging from the responses I got when chatting with other nutrition professionals at a conference just last week, I believe many RDs and DTRs are drawn to this relatively obscure area of dietetics practice. After all, why shouldn’t we be the ones to give the public reliable health information? Journalists may have great skill in reporting on food and nutrition, but they don’t have the kind of in-depth knowledge a licensed nutrition professional can offer.

Here are my top pieces of advice if you’re looking to start freelance nutrition writing:

  • If you don’t have a blog, create one–even a lil’ dinky one–so you have a landing place for editors to see your writing.
  • Create social media pages for your blog and invite friends to like them. Post often, whether it’s your own blog articles or anything you find intriguing in the realm of food and nutrition. If you post interesting stuff, your following will grow.
  • If you’re in private practice, write your own monthly newsletter. Or offer to write one for a dietetics practice to build up experience and content.
  • Offer to blog for free (for awhile) for local food, nutrition, or restaurant websites.
  • Get into Facebook groups about general and nutrition-specific freelance writing (email me for examples!) These are where you’ll find editors issuing calls for pitches.
  • Search Craigslist and Upwork for nutrition-related writing gigs.
  • Pitch like a pitchin’ fool! And, if possible, don’t pitch to the general submissions email address you find on a publication’s website. Do a little more digging to get the email of an actual editor. (Try Twitter, LinkedIn, or ask in Facebook groups.) You’re much more likely to get a response from a real person.

The work is out there. And with your experience as a nutrition professional, YOU can be the one most qualified to get it. I can tell you, it’s a pretty sweet deal when you do!

Enjoyed this article? Have a project that could use some health and wellness writing? Contact me at Sarah@ALoveLetterToFood.com!

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Protein

Of the three macronutrients the human body needs to survive, you could make a pretty strong case for protein being the trendiest these days. After all, you don’t see products like “fat powder” and “carb shakes” flying off the shelves, but replace that first word with “protein” and people go nuts. (I feel like I’m missing a pun opportunity here–please feel free to jump in.)

The reason behind protein’s popularity as a supplement seems to be its ability to build muscle–as well as the body’s disinclination to store it as extra weight. While it’s known for bulking up muscles, protein actually does a whole lot more than just pump…you up.

Let’s revisit A Love Letter to Food’s “10 Things You Didn’t Know About” series to uncover some fascinating facts about this critical component of human nutrition.

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Protein

1. It’s not hard to get enough. The recommended intake of protein for adults is 50 grams per day. Surprisingly, you can get this much in two 3-ounce servings of chicken or two cups of soybeans. And yet, as of 2013, 50% of Americans reported wanting to increase protein in their diets. But you totally don’t need to do so because…

2. Protein deficiency is rare. (At least in the U.S.) Most Americans get too much, rather than too little protein–and that’s not really a good thing. A high-protein diet has been linked to kidney problems and heart disease. I was once at a conference with about 600 medical and nutrition professionals when the speaker asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever seen a patient with a diet-related protein deficiency. One person raised her hand.

3. Several grains, vegetables, and even fruits provide protein. While most of us think of meat and other animal products as the protein powerhouses, other foods also serve as sources. Grains like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and couscous pack a notable punch, and don’t discount fruits and veggies, either, as they can also contribute protein to your diet.

4. The difference between essential and non-essential amino acids: All on its own, the human body is able to synthesize some amino acids (the building blocks of protein), but not others. Those that the body can create are called non-essential, while those that must be supplied by food are deemed “essential.”

5. High quality versus low quality protein: This terminology doesn’t refer to whether you bought your steak at Whole Foods or the carniceria where it *might* have been cat meat. Also known as “complete protein,” high quality protein provides all nine essential amino acids, while low-quality, or “incomplete protein,” does not.

6. After water, protein is the most prevalent substance in the body. Yep. Since many enzymes and hormones are proteins, and protein is essential to the integrity of cells, you have a whole lot of it in your body.

7. Protein helps you feel fuller longer. I was recently in the grocery store when an ad came through on the speakers. “Product X is packed with protein, keeping you fuller longer.”

*record scratch*

Wait, what? For a moment, I was tempted to call up the producers of this ad and tell them off. “It’s not protein that makes you feel full, it’s fiber and fat!” Then I went home and did some research. Oops. Yes, protein does promote satiety. (For the record, so do fiber and fat.)

8. Protein promotes wound healing. When you’ve suffered a wound, your body needs all the help it can get to repair it. Extra protein in the diet rebuilds the tissue damage caused by wounds.

9. One gram of protein contains four calories. All proteins, regardless of their quality or what food that supplies them, provide four calories. So if you look on the Nutrition Facts label, you can determine how many calories come from protein in a serving of that food. (For example, 10 grams of protein means 40 calories.)

10. Protein digestion begins in the…: It’s a bit of a trick question to ask where protein digestion begins. Of course the teeth get things started by mechanically breaking down food (including its proteins), but the real digestive party happens in the stomach. Hydrochloric acid swirling through your gut uncoils the structure of proteins, preparing them for the rest of their transit through the digestive tract.

So…what questions do you have about protein? Ask me in the comments!

What’s in Your Bread? A Closer Look

It seems like it should be so simple. Flour, yeast, water. What more do you need to make bread? A lot, if ingredient labels are to be believed. 

If you purchase commercially prepared bread, as most Americans do, perhaps it’s time to explore what actually goes into this everyday staple. Reading the ingredient list on many store-bought breads can leave you wondering what in the world certain ingredients are, and what purpose they serve. Though sometimes it feels like you need a chemistry degree to make sense of unheard-of substances (calcium propionate? sodium stearoyl lactate?), you really don’t have to be an expert to make informed choices when it comes to your daily bread. A little education goes a long way.

Here’s a closer look to clarify several mystery ingredients that commonly appear in store-bought breads, and settle the score on whether they’re nefarious, harmless, or just…okay.

L-cysteine: Let’s start with the worst and get it out of the way. L-cysteine happens to be my favorite food additive to pick on because it’s just so quintessentially disgusting. An amino acid used to extend the shelf life of baked goods, it sounds fine until you realize that it’s made of–ready for this?–HUMAN HAIR and DUCK FEATHERS.

I get that it works to keep bread fresher longer, but frankly I can do without the feathers of water fowl in my diet. L-cysteine tops my list of weird bread ingredients to avoid.

DATEM: “Datem has a natural ring to it…like dates,” you might think. “But why did you capitalize it?” Well, DATEM isn’t exactly natural, and capitalized because it’s an acronym of diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides…which, according to my calculations, works out to “DTAEMAD,” but apparently DATEM is easier to say. This ingredient serves as an emulsifier that creates a chewy texture in bread. For my part, I prefer a bread with as few additives as possible, but the FDA lists it as “generally recognized as safe,” and the Center for Science in the Public Interest concurs.

Sodium stearoyl lactylate: On to another emulsifier/dough strengthener: sodium stearoyl lactylate. The science behind how this additive works is a bit vague, with one analysis stating, “little is known about the underlying mechanism” of its function. We do know it’s made of a combination of stearic acid and lactic acid, and typically derived from vegetable oil. Again, recognized as safe (but again, if you’re like me, you might prefer to skip it if you dislike unnecessary additives).

Monoglycerides: From your high school chemistry class, you might recognize the suffix “-glyceride” as meaning “fat.” Monoglycerides are a type of fatty acid also used to improve texture in bread. Though they’re typically only added in small quantities to bread, they do contain trace amounts of trans fat. Probably not going to kill you in small doses…and yet there is that pesky association with heart disease and stroke.

Cellulose gum: Ewwww, gum in your bread? Just kidding, not that kind of gum. Cellulose gum is derived from cell walls of plants like wood pulp or cotton (wait, maybe that’s worse?) and is used as a filler or thickener. It hasn’t been proven to be harmful, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest lists it as an ingredient to consume with caution, since a 2015 study found that it negatively affected gut bacteria. Plus, it might strike you as a little gross to eat something made of wood or cotton–or lint. Did I mention lint?

Modified wheat starch: Who knew bread needed so much thickening? Modified wheat starch is another bread thickener. Since it’s basically just added as filler, it’s not an especially desirable ingredient, but it is recognized as safe.

Wheat gluten: Contrary to popular belief, gluten isn’t some poisonous bogeyman. It’s actually just a protein that helps bread stay nice and elastic. If you have a problem digesting gluten, you’d want to avoid it, but in that case, I don’t know what you’d be doing eating bread in the first place. Added wheat gluten poses no other known problems for consumption.

For my money, bread doesn’t require much (if anything) beyond a handful of basic, familiar ingredients. A good rule of thumb is to look for as short an ingredient label as possible. Anything else can help shelf life and texture, but do we really need it? Nah. If you have concerns about bread going bad, you can always store it in the freezer and take it out piece by piece. Trader Joe’s offers several varieties with less than five ingredients, I’m happy to recommend Dave’s Killer Bread and Ezekiel 4:9 Bread as well. Also, whenever you can, for the healthiest choice, reach for 100% whole wheat.

What’s your favorite bread? Have you taken a look at what’s in it? What did you discover?

10 Healthy Appetizers for a Guilt-Free Super Bowl

Recently a package of coupons from my local grocery store arrived in the mail. In capital letters, the cover of the little mailer urged the reader to “GEAR UP FOR THE BIG GAME!”

“Huh,” I thought. “I wonder what big game they’re talking about.”

Can you tell I’m not a football fan?

Never have been. I couldn’t tell you who is playing whom at the Big Game February 4th, or which team won any Super Bowl…ever. Generally, our family treats Super Bowl Sunday as a bonus day to do any activity or visit any destination that would normally be busy. We once went on a 30-minute bike ride and saw a total of three cars on the road. I’m telling you, it’s like the Apocalypse, without the zombies and 20-foot-tall radioactive rabbits.

Every few years, though, we get invited to a Super Bowl party, so we decide we could pretend we’re regular Americans for an afternoon. Getting together with friends is unfailingly fun, and there’s always plenty of food. (As you probably can tell if you’re aware of the name of this blog, that’s *kind of* a big deal to me.)

But, man, for an event that glorifies athleticism, the average Super Bowl party is notorious for offering food that makes the health-conscious cringe. The usual fried finger foods and extra creamy dips make for a grease-fest that can derail positive eating habits that may have just begun in January.

What if we could up the health ante by showing up to the party with an appetizer that’s both delicious and actually good for us? This recipe roundup provides ten lighter appetizers to choose from, ensuring that at least one healthy option is part of the buffet on game day.

Go Team Whatever!

1. Mediterranean 7-Layer Dip

Let’s start right here on the blog with Mediterranean 7-Layer Dip: the healthy, flavorful answer to traditional layered dips. Serve with pita chips or veggies!

2. Baked Cheddar Broccoli Tots

Via Dinner, Then Dessert

When a picture of a broccoli dish actually makes your mouth water, it’s got to be good. Try these baked veggie-packed tots as an alternative to fried tater tots.

3. Skinny Mexican Pizza

Via Snixy Kitchen

Refried beans, veggies, and an avocado cream round out this skinny version of Mexican pizza. YUM!

4. Thai Peanut Salad Wonton Cups

Via The Busy Baker

What’s gorgeously colorful, full of Asian flavor, and even happens to be vegan? Thai Peanut Salad Wonton Cups! Psst…these might just be my top choice for the Super Bowl party we’re attending.

5. Dysfunctional Family Recipe Salsa

Another one from A Love Letter to Food! Isn’t the Super Bowl a special enough occasion to make your own salsa? Once you try this homemade kind, jarred salsa won’t hold a candle.

6. Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Crisps

Via Spend With Pennies

And speaking of salsa, how about a sweet version? Fruit salsas provide a unique way to sneak in some extra nutrition on game day.

7. Tortellini Skewers with Olives, Tomatoes, and Cheese

Via Diethood

Mediterranean flavors for the win once again! These skewers of tortellini, tomatoes, olives, and mozzarella get drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to finish.

8. Skinny Creamy Taquitos

Via Center Cut Cook

When you live in the Southwest, there is no way your Super Bowl party cannot feature Mexican food. Keep Mexican in the mix (just a little healthier) with these lightened up chicken taquitos.

9. Baked Buffalo Cauliflower “Wings”

Via Gimme Delicious

No, cauliflower does not actually have wings. But you might not be too worried about it when you sink your teeth into these bites of buffalo deliciousness.

10. Creamy Carrot Dip with Crudites

Via Robust Recipes

Hummus, you’re so 2009. This creamy carrot dip is the new spread on the block. Serve with crudités for double the veggie goodness.

So…which one looks best to you? Or what other healthy apps are on your list for game day? Tell me in the comments!