Eating healthy may be virtuous, but it just doesn’t seem like that much fun.
Truth is, most of us prefer the taste of french fries over that of oat bran. A glass of Burgundy sounds more tantalizing than a cup of wheat grass juice. And while a nice piece of fruit is no punishment, chocolate is exceedingly more tempting.
The good news: Not all of those seemingly unhealthy choices actually are.
Cheese fries may never be a part of your recommended diet, but Russet potatoes alone are nothing to fear. In fact, they’re full of disease-fighting antioxidants. Eating the whole box of chocolates still isn’t a good idea. A square a day, however, may help prevent cancer and stave off weight gain.
If you’re confused, we’re not surprised. There’s never been more information available on how to eat right. Books, food labels, Web sites–fast food restaurants even provide nutritional information for their meals. But it’s hard to draw any simple conclusions from it all. Are carbs good or bad? How many calories are too many? What causes cancer now?
No wonder dieticians say people tend to see healthy choices as too much trouble.
“We are in such a hurry, we’re so busy multitasking that eating is no longer a solo event,” says David Grotto, spokesperson for the Chicago-basedAmerican Dietetic Association. “It’s an inconvenience. We have hunger, and we need to squash it. We need to wolf down some food. You’re lucky if you remember what you ate the day before.”
A recent ACNielsen study of how habits of eating and drinking outside the home develop offers a glimpse into what’s going on. About 82 percent of consumers acknowledged that individuals are the most responsible for weight gain in the U.S. population. Only 6 percent place the biggest blame on fast food joints and 2 percent on food companies. Of those surveyed, 18 percent said the main factor leading to weight gain is that modern life is too easy for people to make an effort to be healthy.
Elisa Zied, author of So What Can I Eat?! and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says people are frustrated by the conflicting research studies and news reports about what can harm or benefit them. Typically, they just want practical advice on what to eat.
They’re also unknowingly making bad choices. Most people know that soda and candy contain a lot of sugar. But they don’t always realize that low-fat flavored yogurt, salad dressing and Chinese food (think chicken with broccoli), can too. Because of the new obsession with lowering our intake of trans fats, which food labels must now list, some people are consuming more saturated fats, she says.
Deepak Varma, senior vice president of customized research for ACNielsen, says consumers fall into “autopilot” mode, not really thinking about what they’re buying or eating until they have a moment of truth in the form of a medical checkup or wanting to get in shape for an upcoming marriage.
People also get in the habit of having larger portions because they want to get good value for their money, he says.
Unfortunately, there is no cure all when it comes to waking up and taking control of your health. Grotto, who is writing a book about making friends with food, suggests viewing meals as both sources of sustenance and enjoyable experiences.
To make that process a little easier, we asked dieticians to recommend a number of foods with surprising health benefits. Chocolate and bruschetta, anyone?
Once you incorporate these tips into your eating habits, try tackling more challenging ones. Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says another way we can start to change is by asking restaurants for more healthy options and smaller portion sizes. Define value by the quality of your food, not its “supersize.”
“Small indiscretions can create bigger health issues,” Nelson says. “The good news is that small attempts, the more we chip away at it–we can get big results, too.”
Eating healthy doesn’t have to be complicated–or feel depriving. It can be as simple as seeking out foods packed with nutrients, as long as you stick to moderate portions and don’t pile on the extras. Here, a group of experts pinpoint foods you might have thought were bad, but can benefit your body.
Milk or dark, whatever your pleasure, registered dietician David Grotto says chocolate is a diet essential. The enjoyment that comes with eating this indulgence has been known to reduce the stress hormone cortisone, which can play a role in weight gain, he says. Higher in flavonoids than its milkier sister, dark chocolate may reduce high blood pressure and improve cholesterol. But new research shows milk chocolate may do a better job of boosting brain function. Moderation, of course, is the key. “Having maybe a religious experience with a one-inch square of chocolate is reasonable,” Grotto says.
Everyone knows olive, safflower and canola oils are low in saturated fats. But a lesser known fact is that they’re good sources of Vitamin E, which most people don’t get enough of in their diets. A fat soluble vitamin, it works as an antioxidant and may lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, protect against heart disease and promote healthy skin, says registered dietician and American Dietetic Association spokesperson Elisa Zied. Olive oil, however, packs about 120 calories per tablespoon. Zied recommends limiting consumption to no more than five to six teaspoons per day.
As Americans have grown carb-conscious, the potato has taken a mashing. But registered dietician and American Dietetic Association spokesman David Grotto says nutrient-rich spuds are worth another look. In a 2004 United States Department of Agriculture study of the antioxidant levels in more than 100 different foods, the Russet potato ranked No. 17. Red, purple-skinned and sweet potatoes also are high in carotenoids, which protect against lung cancer and help fight heart disease and diabetes.
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts tend to get demonized because they’re high in fat, but they’re chock full of health benefits. High in monounsaturated fat, nuts are great sources of protein. Walnuts, with their omega-3 fatty acids, can be good for the heart. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who ate meals with almonds stayed fuller longer. Sprinkle them on cereal, or dunk an apple in 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. But try to avoid the kind slathered with salt.
The studies just keep pouring in on the benefits of drinking coffee. Higher consumption has been linked to decreasing the risk of type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. It’s also been shown to stop headaches and preventing cavities. Adding sugar and whole milk complicates matters, though skim milk can be a vehicle for calcium and Vitamin D. Black, however, is usually best, says registered dietician Elisa Zied.
Loaded with tomatoes, onions, garlic and olive oil, bruschetta is a smart choice for an appetizer, says registered dietician Elisa Zied. Tomatoes are a great source of lycopene, an antioxidant that can protect against cancer, heart disease and even macular degeneration.
More than just a way to ramp up flavor, spices have potential health benefits. Large doses of cinnamon may help lower blood glucose after you eat a meal, says Roger Clemens, DrPH, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists. Turmeric, an ingredient in curry, has also been reported to play a role in pain relief for arthritis patients. “We may learn from other cultures that the combination of food they’ve been consuming would be more healthful,” Clemens says. “We should be willing to learn from each other.”
Instead of grabbing a cola at lunch, why not choose instead a flavored tea? Studies suggest that many types of tea, including black, green, white or oolong, may help prevent cancer and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. The longer you steep your tea, the more benefits. As with coffee, try to avoid the extras.
Soup is a good source of fluids and is considered a low energy density food, which can help with weight loss. Just a cup can sneak more antioxidant-packed vegetables into your diet. It also can go a long way toward filling you up and reducing your calorie intake during a meal. For best results, stick to broth-based varieties and watch the sodium. Registered dietician Elisa Zied recommends sticking within a range of 400 to 500 milligrams of sodium for one cup.