Fighting Obesity -- One Bodega at a Time

Some welcome news came on the cusp of March, which is known as National Nutrition Month. The Obama administration announced significant reforms for nutrition labeling aimed at better educating consumers by giving them a better grasp of what -- and how much -- they are putting in their bodies each day.

That announcement dovetailed with a new federal report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a stunning reduction in the obesity rate of young children between the ages of two and five.

While there's no consensus on the reasons for the decline, it is an encouraging sign because healthy habits start early. Addressing health and fitness issues early on produces a lifetime of benefits.

But the fact remains: our war on obesity is far from over. As a nonprofit that provides access to primary care for our city's underserved communities, Community Healthcare Network is on the frontlines of this battle.

We've noticed an alarming proportion of unhealthy foods on the shelves at corner delis and bodegas across the five boroughs. While these small businesses are the lifeblood of a vibrant city environment, the food choices that many folks make there can pack on the pounds and shorten their lives.

In honor of National Nutrition Month, we have created a list of the top ten overlooked calorie culprits at corner stores followed by a list of ten healthier alternatives that often are just steps away in the same shops.

  • Don't saddle up to the breakfast bar. Breakfast bars, such as granola, protein and energy bars, can have more sugars than breakfast pastries and some candy bars.
  • Quenching your thirst. Gatorade and other enhanced vitamin drinks usually do not have vitamins and contain unnecessary salts and sugars.
  • The low-down on "low fat." Don't be fooled by enticing health claims, this designation normally means high salt and sugar.
  • When the chips are down. No-cholesterol potato chips are still fried, but in vegetable oil; cholesterol is irrelevant.
  • The great impasta. Tri-color pasta is merely dyed pasta.
  • Separate wheat from the chaff. So-called "wheat" bread does not necessarily contain whole wheat; the label should list "whole grain".
  • Fruitful? More like full of sweeteners. Some smoothies and fruit juices are loaded with sugar and fattening yogurt or frozen yogurt.
  • When Greek and regular yogurt are not chic. Avoid Greek and regular yogurt with added fruit and fruit syrup. Frozen Greek and regular yogurt pack even more sugar and far less protein than some non-frozen yogurts.
  • Down the wrong trail. Many trail mixes and dried fruit mixes contain added sugar. Avoid mixes with chocolates.
  • Low prices, hidden costs. Processed foods are easy to grab on-the-go, but products like boxed muffins and snacks, chicken nuggets, and processed meats contain tons of sodium, sugar and unhealthy preservatives.

Consumed over the years, the foods above make up a recipe for an unhealthy future. We want to help people re-think the way they look at food and fitness, and give them a chance to improve their health and lifestyle. It may seem overwhelming, but if you start with some simple changes, and work your way up from there, you'll be well on your way. Here are our ten healthier picks:

  • Sweet potatoes. Bring one for lunch or add it to dinner as a side.
  • Avocados. Mix with salads or eat half as a snack (only 160 calories!).
  • Plain Greek yogurt or regular plain yogurt. Add fruit and nuts to it for sweetness and extra protein.
  • Trail mix. Stick to mixes with raw nuts and dried fruit, and watch portions!
  • Whole grain bread. Grab a slice for breakfast with natural nut butter. Caution: read the ingredients to make sure it is 100 percent whole grain.
  • Natural nut butter. Spread peanut, cashew, or almond butter on fruits and vegetables. Note: if natural brands are not available, raw nuts are a healthier option. Regular brands of peanut butter are loaded with added sugars.
  • Light air-popped popcorn or pretzels. These are good go-to options with fewer calories. Sprinkle them with spices or Parmesan cheese to jazz it up!
  • Cottage cheese. This protein-packed, lower calorie food can be eaten with salads or fruits as a meal or snack.
  • Fruit. Eat whole fruits -- all kinds and in unlimited quantities.
  • Eggs. They are full of protein and easy to make. Enjoy them scrambled for breakfast with whole grain toast, hard-boiled on salads for lunch, or as vegetable omelets for dinner.

With some of the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and pre-diabetes peaking in neighborhoods that we serve, we want to make sure that all New Yorkers have the tools to develop better habits that are within their means. Starting with small changes, what they put on their plates can make a huge difference.