The good, the bad and the fattening ...
If you are what you eat, then many of us are probably experiencing a bit of an identity crisis. After all, it's easy to be confused when faced with a steady stream of conflicting reports about what's good for us. Eggs are in - no wait, they're out. Well, maybe just the yokes. Alcohol is bad, but red wine has antioxidants, right? And then of course there's the answer to many prayers: experts have declared that chocolate has health benefits, but since it's loaded with fat and calories, should we eat it, or not?
Try to take all the contradictory information with a grain of salt, because local dietitians say the keys to good nutrition are pretty simple. First, check your activity level and remember there should be some balance in your calories-in vs. calories-out formula. If you're not burning many calories, you shouldn't be eating many calories.
Next, examine your diet and see how much "whole," or natural and unprocessed, food you eat. The American way might mean quick and easy, but when it comes to meal time, slow and at least somewhat laborious might be better. "A freshly prepared diet is your best bet," says Deb Freeman, RD, a Registered Dietitian at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester. Actually preparing ingredients instead of microwaving a sodium-laden frozen dinner from the supermarket might be a bit of a hassle, but your health is worth it. "Of the major leading causes of death in the United States," Freeman says, nutrition can play a role in the majority of them, including heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke and some cancers.
Good fats, bad fats
Although technically, fat is an essential part of our diet, clearly, many Americans are overdoing it. It's important to limit overall fat intake, says Jacqueline Cuddihy, RD, LD, CDE, director of the Obesity Treatment Center and Clinical Nutrition at Catholic Medical Center, and steer clear of saturated and especially trans fats, which are particularly dangerous to health because they pack a double whammy by lowering good cholesterol while increasing bad cholesterol, raising the risk of coronary heart disease. Often found in cakes and cookies, trans fats are also sometimes present in animal products, chips and crackers. Read food labels and aim for "zero" consumption of trans fats, Cuddihy says.
On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, in moderation, can do a body good. If you're looking for a helpful way to distinguish good fats from bad, or a nutritional model to emulate in general, think in terms of a typical Mediteranean diet, which is not really restricted in fat, but doesn't include a lot of harmful saturated or trans fat and features mostly plant-based foods, Cuddihy says. Mediterranean people tend to eat little processed food and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased at open air markets. "They're eating more whole foods and grains, and with those, you get more nutrients," Cuddihy says.
Did you know that milk has sodium in it? Fruits contain sodium, too, so does celery. And most processed foods contain sodium as an added ingredient. Too much sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart attack or stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So, in addition to trans fats, sodium is high on a dietitian's list of what to watch for. "There is sodium in a lot of foods, even though some of it is natural. Sodium adds up very quickly," says Jacquie Higgins, RD, LD, Clinical Nutrition Manager at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.
The American Heart Association recommends a maximum intake of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, which amounts to about a teaspoon, but the average person consumes much more than that, Higgins says. Some people, including middle-aged and older adults, should aim for consuming no more than 1,500 milligrams per day, the AHA reports.
Pass on the sugar
Also high on the food offenders list: sugar. "Sugar, to me, is one of our biggest enemies in the American diet," says Higgins, as the sugar in sodas, flavored drinks and sweets contributes to obesity and diabetes. And beware the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, a type of sugar found in many foods. "If you consume a lot of foods with it, it usually drives you to eat more," says Cuddihy. "It almost increases your hunger, it just doesn't satisfy you."
A Dose of Insurance
If you regularly eat an adequate, balanced diet, you might not need supplements, some experts say, but Cuddihy usually recommends them. "One of the reasons I do that is we don't farm like we used to; we get foods from California that are exposed to light and air, so by the time we get them, a lot of the nutrients may be lost," she says.
The best course of action is to speak with your doctor or dietitian to identify which nutrients you might be lacking, such as calcium, and especially for Granite Staters, vitamin D, which is "like the new cholesterol," Freeman says. "Everybody needs to know their number."
"There's an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency going on," says Higgins. This is particularly true in the Northeast because we have limited sun exposure, which is necessary for our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, plus vitamin D can be difficult to acquire through food. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked with many illnesses, including heart disease, arthritis and even depression.
Putting it into practice
Given the hectic lifestyles of today, it's not always easy to maintain a healthful diet, but it's helpful to at least know what's in your food. Check out how much sodium is in your everyday staples and find simple ways to add fruits and vegetables to your diet. And if you're not ready to take the whole grain plunge, try cooking mixtures of whole grain and white pasta or rice, Higgins suggests. "It may be more of an acquired taste than people want to admit," she says, so it's okay to gradually convert.
And finally, savor the thrill of victory as you fuel yourself and your family with nutritious foods, confident that you kind of know what you're doing. NH
This article appears in the June 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine