"This is the sad amount of food that belongs to me," says Jacobson on a recent weekday as she opens the refrigerator that she shares with her two roommates. Her stuff doesn't amount to much: an opened bag of cheddar cheese sticks, apple slices, a small can of tuna and some Trader Joe's frozen dinners, including fettuccine, chicken quesadillas and macaroni and cheese. Oh — and a bag of carrots. "I try to force myself to eat these," she says, "but it usually doesn't happen."
Jacobson, 29, who does publicity for a classical record label, harbors no illusions about her diet. She knows her meals are heavy on processed, frozen entrees and fast foods and are light on fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy and whole grains.
She has apps for Chipotle and Pizza Hut on her iPhone. A standard breakfast, before she quit drinking coffee, consisted of a McDonald's vanilla latte. She generally doesn't eat until 2 p.m., causing her blood-sugar levels to roller coaster. Most often, for dinner, she throws something in the microwave or heats a can of soup, then snacks away the evening. The few home-cooked meals she eats include iceberg lettuce salad with some tuna thrown on top, spaghetti or a big bunch of broccolini — just broccolini. When she does buy fruits and vegetables they go bad before she gets a chance to eat them.
She says she'd like to get on a better nutritional track but feels confused about what and how much to eat, and she doesn't have the patience or time to make complicated recipes for herself. Grabbing Chinese food or sticking a frozen dinner in the microwave is fast and easy. (Occasionally Jacobson's two roommates will take pity on her and offer food they've cooked, for which Jacobson is grateful.)
Burbank-based registered dietitian Ruth Frechman watches and listens as Jacobson takes her on a tour of the kitchen in her Toluca Lake condo.
In the cupboard are some Chocolate Cheerios. "These are usually dessert," Jacobson says. "They are so good. And they make the milk into chocolate milk."
Next to them are Triscuits: She admits she can empty a family-size box (13 ounces) in three sittings.
Frechman notes that at least the crackers are made with whole grains and are relatively low in sodium, fat and sugar. She's more concerned about the ramen and packets of dried instant miso soup, because they're so high in sodium — the entire two-serving miso packet (which Jacobson considers one serving) has 1,620 milligrams, and the recommended daily intake for healthy people her age is 2,300 milligrams. Many nutrition experts think the amount should be far lower.
There is abundant sodium in the processed frozen foods too. Having Frechman point that out is eye-opening, Jacobson says. "I have high blood pressure in my family."
If Jacobson skimps on breakfast, she makes up for it later on. "I can eat a whole medium pizza for dinner," she says. Since a salad for lunch usually isn't enough, she'll take a trip to the drive-through later for something sweet to feed her flagging energy. On weekends, she eats out for every single meal, ordering whatever suits her fancy.
Her nutrition profile isn't completely bleak. She has cut down on a serious soda habit. She doesn't drink alcohol. And she recently went cold turkey on coffee, which she believes might exacerbate her occasional bouts of vertigo. Her MO consists of being "good" for a month — eating more healthful foods — then falling off the wagon and running to the nearest Taco Bell.
Frechman's assessment is short and blunt: "You're dangerously low in nutrients," she says. Even though Jacobson is not overweight, her diet consists of too many simple carbs and saturated fats and not enough fruits and vegetables that provide fiber as well as phytonutrients (carotenoids, flavenoids, phenols) that may protect against cancer and heart disease. If fresh produce is too apt to rot in the crisper, canned, frozen and dried fruits and vegetables are good alternatives, she says: They have sufficient vitamins and minerals, and much of the sodium in canned vegetables can be rinsed away.
Frechman is concerned that cheddar cheese is pretty much Jacobson's only source of calcium. "Not getting enough calcium is a little scary for women at any age," Frechman says, as it could lead to osteoporosis. She'd also like to see a switch from fatty meats like hamburger toward lean meats. Frechman also notes that Jacobson is probably lacking iron: Lean beef is a good source, she says.
All those refined carbs and sugar could come back to bite her later in the form of diabetes. And Jacobson needs to be eating less saturated fat from hamburgers and beef burritos and more mono- and polyunsaturated "good" fats from foods such as avocados, nuts and fatty fish. Eating some fat is important, Frechman says, since it gives a feeling of satiety that prevents a run through the drive-through.
Frechman goes on to suggest some quick, easy meals that can be prepared in minutes: a baked potato with black beans, broccoli and cheese; tuna salad made with low-fat mayonnaise on whole-grain bread, served with a broccolini salad (chopped broccolini with a marinade of olive oil, vinegar and a pinch of sugar); cut-up cauliflower mixed with a little olive oil and curry powder baked in the oven and served with brown rice mixed with garbanzo beans. If Jacobson makes more ambitious meals, Frechman suggests, she could freeze the leftovers for later.
She takes Jacobson on a field trip to the Ralphs down the street, where she does her best to steer Jacobson away from the canned spaghetti and ice cream and suggests other, better foods for meals and snacking.
First stop: the produce section. "Feel free to go crazy, but don't take more than you're going to use," she advises as Jacobson grabs bags of cut-up broccoli, cauliflower and mixed vegetables. (The bags are more expensive than whole vegetables, but Jacobson says she's more apt to use them.)
Frechman points to some seedless muscat grapes and says they can double as a snack and dessert. Jacobson loads them in her cart.
Jacobson gets half a cantaloupe, one potato and three bananas. Instead of bagged iceberg lettuce, Frechman guides her to darker lettuces that contain more nutrients. She nudges Jacobson to get low-fat cottage cheese to eat with the Triscuits, adding some needed calcium, and to select 100% orange juice with added calcium and vitamin D.
Jacobson picks up a container of chicken-flavored microwaveable rice. Wiser, now, to the ways of nutritional labeling, she checks the package. It's got 43% of the daily sodium limit, so she puts it back in favor of plain brown rice with just 6% of it.
"Isn't peanut butter bad for you?" Jacobson asks as she picks up a jar of natural-style stuff. "No, it's a good fat," Frechman says. In the cart it goes.
After snagging some canned beans, fresh salsa and canned pineapple (in pineapple juice, not syrup), Jacobson heads toward the checkout — through the bakery. She zooms in on a box of pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies. "I can't go cold turkey; my body will freeze up," she says. She checks the nutrition facts and sees that one cookie has 240 calories — the exact amount of "discretionary" (or "treat") calories Frechman says she can have per day. They're in the cart.
Jacobson looks at the food she's selected and is tickled that the majority is healthful and that it represents all the food groups.
"Normally this would all be frozen food," she says. "I'm definitely looking at things a different way."
Would you like to be considered for our next Pantry Raid? If you're in the Los Angeles area, send an e-mail, describing your dietary habits, to Jeannine Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org