November 24, 2008

Another Great Gift Idea

I was banging around the kitchen yesterday and, as I often do, I threw something on my food scale to see how large it was, only to realize that I'd forgotten to list the food scale on my list of useful gifts for people with diabetes.

The food scale is a wonderful, and very affordable, gift that would be appropriate for anyone with diabetes and anyone who is working on weight-related issues.

Here's the one I use: Escali Primo Digital Multifunctional Scale. I've used mine for three years and have had zero problems with it.

For someone who is trying to lose weight, the food scale might be the difference between endless stall and reaching goal. For someone who has been trying to make fast-acting insulin work at meal times, it might be the difference between unexpected highs or lows and normal blood sugars.

Why? Because diets and insulin only work properly when we count things. For the diet we count calories, grams of carbohydrate, or even [shudder] grams of fat. When we are trying to make fast acting insulin work we need to know how many grams of carbohydrates we are going to be covering with that insulin.

But before we can count a nutrient, we must know the size of the portion we are going to be eating. Nutritional counts are always based on a specific portion size. And here's where the problems arise, because estimating portion size turns out to be much tougher than it looks.

For example, if you look up the standard nutritional information for a "small blueberry muffin", you will learn that it contains 33 grams of carbohydrate" and 259 calories. What you might not have noticed is that this nutritional count is based on a portion size of 66 grams, which is slightly over 2 ounces.

There's only one problem. The smallest blueberry muffin I have ever seen at a bakery and brought home to weigh--the one labeled "mini-muffin"--clocks in at 4 ounces. That's 116 grams--twice the portion size given in the guides.

If you had relied on that nutritional information to figure out what was in that "small" muffin you ate without knowing how large that small muffin actually was, you'd have eaten twice as many calories and twice as much carbohydrate as you thought you were eating. If you were counting calories as part of a weight loss diet, that 259 calories you thought you had eaten were really 518. And if you were trying to cover that muffin with insulin, you'd have used half the insulin you really needed and would have ended up with a nasty high.

Make this kind of mistake a few times each day and there is no way you will lose weight or keep your blood sugars under control.

And that's just what happens when you eat a "small" muffin. If you thought, "I'll just have one little Dunkin Donuts muffin, just this once. How bad can that be?" The answer is, "Plenty bad." When I've weighted those muffins--and most other coffee shop muffins--on my scale I've found they clock in at 7+ ounces, or about 900 calories and almost 120 grams of carbohydrates. The "health food" muffins are even worse as they are denser and may weigh in at 8 ounces or 132 grams of carbohydrate!

All this changes when you buy a food scale that reads in grams and ounces and start weighing your food. You will start to understand what you have really been eating and learn why you've had the problems you've been having with weight and blood sugar control.

If you buy take out food and start weighing it, you'll also learn that the typical restaurant portion of just about anything is always four times what the guides consider a portion. A sterling example is pasta: Weigh out 2 ounces of pasta (Dreamfields will work for this) and cook it up. What you'll end up with is one fifth of what you get when you order a pasta dish at a restaurant.

If you are one of those people who have concluded that eating cheese stalls your low carb diet, weigh the cheese you eat and you may find that it wasn't anything special about cheese that stalled you, only the fact that cheese is so concentrated that you can easily add seven or eight hundred calories to your daily diet in the form of cheese and hardly notice it. After the first few weeks most people find that calories still count on a low carb diet, and cheese is the most concentrated form of calories available after pure oils and fats.

There are some expensive food scales on the market that include food databases, the idea being that you can skip having to go and look up the nutritional value for the food and let the scale work this out for you. But these kinds of scales are a waste of money because their databases are not extensive enough to be useful and, more importantly, you can't add your own recipes and favorite foods to them.

Still this brings up another important point: A food scale is only useful when you combine it with a reliable source of nutritional information, preferably one that can be customized. Many people use the online nutrition tracker It is free which is helpful. I personally like the LifeForm shareware product you can download and try from The LifeForm software is a very old design, so it may look a bit clunky, but it gets the job done, the built-in nutritional database is excellent, it is very easy to customize with your own recipes, and most importantly, it is fast and intuitive.

There are other helpful nutritional resources online besides these, and for the computer-phobic, there is always the The Complete Book of Food Counts.

Books that contain nutritional information are particularly helpful for people who are new to dieting or counting carbs. That is because when you are just starting to learn about what is in the food you eat, you can leaf through the pages of a book and look for foods that have the amounts of nutrients that fit the specifications of your chosen diet. Software does not let you do this. After you've gotten a broad overview of what you can and cannot eat, software is more helpful for looking up individual food counts quickly.

While the food scale is a wonderful gift for someone who could use it, it is only appropriate for someone who would appreciate some help in improving their diet success or in making their insulin work better.

As is the case with all diet products, giving a diet-related item to someone who is in denial about a weight or blood sugar problem might end up offending them. The message you want to give with this kind of gift is "Here is something that will help you with a goal I know means a lot to you," NOT "You're so fat, why don't you go on a diet."


Anna said...

Jenny, you make an excellent point about the different portion sizes.

Ten years ago when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, the dietician sent me home with the ADA exchange plan to try. My BG results were worse on the ADA exchange plan than with my usual menus! That's because the ADA assumes 1 slice of bread is white bread, which is mostly air, not the dense whole grain bread I had been eating for years. When I clued into the huge differences, I found that one slice of my preferred dense whole grain bread was equal to two+slices of white junk bread in weight & carbs.

Getting a food scale and a little book of carb counts (mostly for those foods that don't come with labels and nutrition counts already figured, like fresh veggies and bulk items) and then using them for every meal made all the difference in meeting my very tight BG meals when I was pregnant.

If only there had been the array of good low carb cookbook support then that there is now, I might have stayed on a low carb or at least lower carb diet after the birth instead of 5 years later. Cookbook support makes it much easier. I have pitched many of my 80s and 90s era cookbooks that relied on low fat and high carbs (like Jane Brody's recipes that always tasted like cardboard) and replenished my bookshelf with delicious recipe books from Dana Carpender, the Drs. Eades, Fran McCullough, and the Weston A. Price Foundation (Nourishing Traditions), Bruce Aidell, Cooks Illustrated, The Joy of Cooking, Fanny Farmer, Hug Fearnley-Whittingstall, and more. I love cooking again, too, and make a lot more meals entirely from scratch, despite the extra work.

And when I realized that the very tiny serving of pasta that was within my BG limitations was no more than 14 penne pieces (including the 1 or 2 pcs I ate to test for doneness), I decided pasta just wasn't worth the trouble. Not only that, but eliminating pasta helped me realize that the pasta itself was the cause of my frequent post-Italian meal heartburn and indigestion, not the tomato sauce, not the cheese or olive oil, and not the red wine! when I think of all that antacid I drank in college...

Brenda Bell said...

Digital scales are definitely a godsend... Most of us in the US learned to measure portions by volume (teaspoons, tablespoons, cups -- or the SI equivalent liters and milliliters). Compared with weight measurement, volume measurement is incredibly misleading (cereal box warning: "This package is sold by weight, not by volume... Contents may settle during shipping and handling.")

One issue with volume/count versus portion size (that 66 g serving of muffin?) is that most food databases do not give nutritional breakdowns by weight (or at least not by a reasonably usable weight). The Complete Book of Food Counts is notoriously terrible in this regard.

The last time I was on FitDay, it's food database was not granular enough for my needs. Of the ones I've used recently, both and The Daily Plate are pretty good about providing weight-based data. Neither has a complete database (nor, for that matter, is the UDSA database complete). Nutrition-data does not allow accumulation of a day's meals or input of custom foods. The Daily Plate includes a number of restaurant foods and allows custom foods (added to the general database) and also provides a way to track weight and exercise; however, its information on custom foods is only as complete as what the members add in (and what the moderators are able to research and correct).

(For what it's worth, I miss MyNATS...)

Scott S said...

Food scales also make carb counting infinitely easier than the estimating methodology most patients are instructed to use. With a scale, you can simply use the USDA's carb ratios (a whole spreadsheet for thousands of different foods is available for no charge online) and then simply weigh the items to get very accurate carb counts for your servings. For those trying to manage weight, scales also assist in making some sense out of the chaos that are typical food servings!

Jenny said...


That's why I love LifeForm, it will do the conversions for the foods in its database, including cups to grams.


Can you point me to the USDA carb ratios database? It sounds like a wonderful resource.

Anna said...

Then again, I don't worry about carb counts on foods like muffins, because I just don't generally eat muffins anymore (unless I bake my own low carb coconut flour pumpkin muffins).

At home I mostly cook from scratch and don't bother with too many starchy grain foods, so that makes it much easier, with minimal to no counting.

Out of my own kitchen, it's infinitely easier to just completely stay away from anything that might have added sugars and starches. For instance, I request olive oil and vinegar instead of salad dressings, I drink water (no juice), I order a salad instead of fries or starchy sides, I get grilled instead of breaded, etc. I also stay away from cheap breakfast sausages (often loaded with added sugars and starchy fillers) and very sweet fruits like grapes and fruit cups, which might have sweetened juice (melon or berries are usually ok). Granted, I don't use insulin or meds, so that might not be precise enough for some people. But it generally works very well for me.

Anonymous said...

While I find their claims to be a little stridently miraculous, the GI Database ( is a useful source of carb content of commercial products. They list the Glycemic Index as well as the Glycemic Load, which is based on the actual number of carbs.

While it's of most use to we Aussies, many of the brands are global.

Some of the numbers surprised me, in both directions!

Unknown said...

Anna? Recipe, please?

I've been making muffins with almond flour.

Anna said...

Bruce Fife has a coconut flour cookbook with a book recipe. Most of the things I have made from it are pretty good (I didn't like the ginger cookies, though. I have a blog posts with my variation of his coconut butter cookies with some tips about sourcing coconut flour if you can't find it in your local stores.

I tweaked Fife's pumpkin muffin recipe a bit. I have not done a nutritional analysis, though. This does use sugar in the form of pure maple syrup instead of granulated sugar, but it's a fairly low amount and these are not supersweet muffins, but they go over well in our family and in my son's 4th grade class. You can add a TINY bit of stevia (1/4 teaspoon or less) if you want them sweeter. I like these muffins warm with a generous schmear of good unsalted butter (from grass-fed herds - I'm pretty picky about butter). Also, I use the aluminum muffin liners - they can also be placed on a sheet pan instead of in a muffin tin.


½ cup sifted coconut flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
(OR 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice mixture instead of individual spices)
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

6 eggs, beaten
4 Tablespoons coconut oil (or unsalted butter), melted
1/3 cup pure maple syrup, preferably Grade B dark for more maple flavor

½ cup coarsely chopped pecans OR walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin pan(s) well or use aluminum disposable muffin liners (muffins stick too much to paper liners).

Sift coconut flour, baking soda, salt, and spices into small bowl. Stir to blend well and set aside.

In medium bowl blend eggs, melted coconut oil or butter, maple syrup, spices, and vanilla extract.

Add flour mixture to egg mixture and blend well with a whisk until most of the lumps have disappeared, but don’t beat it or stir more than necessary to blend in dry ingredients. Gently fold in nuts, if using.

Spoon into greased muffin pan or cup liners, distributing evenly, about ½ to 2/3 full.

Bake at 400° F for 18-20 minutes, until lightly golden brown on top and tooth inserted into center of muffin is “clean” when removed.

Turn out of muffin tin pan and cool on wire rack. Serve warm or room temperature.