By Carolyn O’Neil, for the AJC
From tidbits discussed at dinner parties to food bloggers’ pithy posts, all kinds of diet facts and fallacies are being shared about what to eat and not to eat and how it all might affect our health.
Because I spend most of my time keeping up with the latest in nutrition science and food trends, I thought I would weigh in on some of the most talked about topics today. So dig in and digest a few nuggets of nutrition knowledge to help cut through the clutter.
● It’s complicated. Simplistic advice such as “shop the perimeter of the grocery store to find the healthiest food products” just doesn’t make sense anymore. I get the idea that fresh produce is often on the store’s perimeter and potato chips are in the aisles, but isn’t the perimeter also where you find the beer and the bakery? Center aisles are home to many of the most healthful foods, including canned beans, brown rice and whole-grain cereals. Whether you’re shopping for foods low in sodium or high in vitamin C, the nutrition label is your guide, not a supermarket’s floor plan.
● White is all right. Popular nutrition advice to avoid white foods makes me see red. The original intent was to encourage eating whole-grain breads and brown rice instead of white rice or baked goods made with refined white flour. But now there are breads on the market that look white but contain ample fiber content, and did you know that enriched white rice contains four times more folic acid than brown rice? Even white foods in the vegetable kingdom, such as garlic, onions and cauliflower, deserve equal billing with their green and red colleagues. White plant pigments, according to the Produce for Better Health Foundation, indicate powerful cancer-fighting phytonutrients are present. Ever wonder what gives dairy products such as milk and cottage cheese their color? It’s the high-quality protein called casein.
● Fat free isn’t always best. Nonfat milk is a great choice, delivering an impressive nine nutrients with each glass you drink or cereal bowl you fill, without the fat and calories you might be trying to avoid. But watch out for other fat-free foods that have extra sugar or salt to make up for the missing flavor from the fat. Some reduced-fat peanut butters actually contain the same number of calories as regular peanut butter because sugar has been added to make it taste better. Because fat delivers taste satisfaction, dietitians often recommend low-fat versions of yogurt, cottage cheese and mayonnaise, rather than the usually less enjoyable fat-free versions.
● Nutrition to the rescue. Now hear this: It’s hard to know what to do with snippets of emerging nutrition research. Case in point: Several studies suggest certain nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin B-12 and a combination of antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E plus magnesium) may reduce the risk of age-related hearing loss and noise-induced hearing loss. A study conducted at the University of Georgia found that low blood levels of vitamin B-12 in a group of women older than 60 were linked to hearing loss but researchers aren’t sure B-12 is the hero until findings are confirmed by other studies. In the meantime, taking a daily multivitamin and eating a variety of foods is the best way to protect yourself while waiting for nutrition scientists to tell us more about specific supplementation. A menu suggestion to include these ear-friendly nutrients would be a spinach salad (folic acid) with tomato (vitamins A and C), walnuts (vitamin E), hard-boiled egg (vitamin B-12) and dressing made with vegetable oil (vitamin E).
● Are you really allergic? Food allergies need to be taken seriously and may be on the rise. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that the prevalence of food allergies in children under 18 increased 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, and related visits to the doctor or emergency room tripled. Meanwhile, the trend toward avoiding gluten-containing foods is really taking off, and a lot of the momentum is from people who may have no medical diagnosis that the avoidance is necessary. The good news for everyone is that the sales surge for allergen-free foods is making it possible for food companies to add more detail to ingredients lists and to improve the variety and quality of products available. Restaurants are joining the effort by adding more gluten-free menu options. Noted Atlanta restaurants include Wildfire, Figo and Shaun’s.
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at carolyn@carolynoneil .com.