Seven Misunderstood Foods You Should Be Eating

Photo by Swedish Embassy

Are you shying away from bad foods that are actually good for you? With all the hoopla about healthful eating, it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

As a nutrition consultant, I've come to realize there is no shortage of surprises and superstitions in the world of nutrition. As a follow-up to my article "5 So-Called Health Foods You Should Avoid." I thought it would be fun to give you reasons to enjoy some of your favorite so-called "bad" foods that are actually good for you ...

Gluten and Wheat

They are "the most demonized ingredients beyond high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil," said Melissa Abbott, culinary director at the Hartman Group, a company specializing in consumer research.

Yet decades of studies have found that gluten-containing foods, such as whole wheat, rye and barley, are vital for good health, and are associated with a reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and excess weight.

"Wheat is a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals," said Joanne Slavin, nutrition professor at the University of Minnesota. She added that the confusion about gluten, a protein, has caused some people to avoid eating wheat and other grains.

Only about 1 percent of the population  - those with celiac disease or wheat allergy - cannot tolerate gluten and must eradicate it from their diet to ease abdominal pain and other symptoms, including the ability to fully absorb vitamins.

One reason wheat-free or gluten-free diets are popular is that people who don't eat wheat often end up bypassing excess calories in sweets and snack foods. Then they start feeling better, lose weight, and mistakenly attribute their success to gluten or wheat avoidance. Learn more about a gluten free diet and who may benefit from it...

Eggs

Eggs also don't deserve their bad reputation. In recent decades, their high cholesterol content has been thought to play a role in increasing LDL ("bad") cholesterol and heart disease risk. But cholesterol in food is a minor factor contributing to high blood cholesterol for most people, and studies have not confirmed a correlation between eggs and increased heart disease risk. The major determinant of LDL (bad) cholesterol is saturated fat, and while eggs are high in cholesterol - 184 milligrams in the yolk - they're relatively low in saturated fat - about 1.6 grams in the yolk.

Interestingly, some of the biggest egg eaters in the world, the Japanese, have low cholesterol and heart disease rates, in part because they eat a diet low in saturated fat. In contrast, Americans eat eggs alongside sausage, bacon, and buttered toast.

"The amount that one egg a day raises cholesterol in the blood is extremely small," says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard's School of Public Health. "Elevations in LDL (bad) cholesterol of this small magnitude could easily be countered by other healthy aspects of eggs." Learn more about eggs...

Potatoes

Potatoes have been blamed for increasing blood glucose levels, insulin resistance, excess weight and Type 2 diabetes. A recent Harvard study that followed large populations and their disease rates linked potato eating with being overweight, blaming  it on the blood glucose rise.

But many foods, including whole-wheat bread and whole-grain cereals, cause similar spikes in blood glucose, and are correlated with superior health and lower body weights. How could the higher body weight in the Harvard study be explained? The study lumped all potato products together, including potato chips and french fries, very fattening versions of potatoes usually eaten in large portions alongside hamburgers, hot dogs, and sodas.

"It's an easy food to attack; but the meal pattern may be the culprit," said David Baer, a research leader at the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. "Other epidemiological studies have not verified a connection between potatoes and weight gain or any diseases, and no clinical studies have shown a connection." Learn more about the Harvard study...

Potatoes are a great source of potassium, Vitamin C and fiber that many cultures - Scandinavians, Russians, Irish, and Peruvians - relied on as a nutritious staple for centuries. And they were not fat.

Fruits

People often ask me if fruit is too high in sugar, especially for diabetics. This fear of fruit, I believe, is left over from the Atkins craze, which discouraged eating some fruits on the grounds that they are high in carbohydrates.

Avoiding fruit could actually damage your health. Study after study over many decades shows that eating fruit can reduce the risk of some cancers, heart disease, blood pressure and fruit. Lean how fruit reduces diabetes risk...

Fruit is high in water and fiber, which help you feel full with fewer calories, one reason why eating it is correlated with lower body weight. Even though they contain simple sugars, most fruits have a relatively low glycemic index. That is, when you eat fruit, your blood sugar raises only moderately, especially when compared with refined sugar or flour products.

Several health organizations, including the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Heart Association, recommend Americans eat at least five cups of fruits and vegetables a day because of their superior health benefits.

Soy

Though popular for centuries in many Asian cuisines, soy is sometimes seen as dangerous after studies found elevated rates of breast cancer among rats when they were fed a concentrated soy derivative. But studies looking at whole soy foods in humans have not found a connection. In fact, the reverse may be true.

Soy, "when consumed in childhood or adolescence may make breast tissue less vulnerable to cancer development later in life and probably has no effect on breast cancer risk when consumption begins in adulthood," said Karen Collins, registered dietitian and nutrition adviser with the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Actually, Collins said, the evidence is so strong for protection against heart disease that the FDA allowed a health claim for labels on soy food products.

 Alcohol

Alcohol is feared because of the potential for abuse and alcoholism and complications such as liver disease, which are valid concerns.

But decades' worth of research shows that moderate alcohol consumption "can reduce deaths from most causes, particularly heart disease, and it raises HDL (good) cholesterol," the USDA's David Baer said.

Wine may have additional benefits because its grapes are filled with nutrients called polyphenols, which reduce blood-clotting, inflammation and oxidation.

The key is to drink alcohol moderately and with meals. What's moderation? One serving daily for women and two servings for men, with a serving being 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of spirits. Learn more about wine...

Fried Foods

While it's true that frying food usually increases its caloric content, that doesn't necessarily make it unhealthful.

As long as food is fried in healthful oil instead of butter, shortening, or trans fat, and it's eaten in moderation, it isn't less healthy. In fact, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and heart-healthy, cancer-preventive carotenoids such as beta-carotene (e.g., carrots, sweet potatoes), lycopene (e.g., tomatoes) and lutein/zeaxanthin (deep-green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale), need fat in order to be absorbed by the body.

"The consumption of certain fats, such as saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids [fats that are solid at room temperature],is associated with an . . . increased risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, the unsaturated fats, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids [canola, safflower and olive oils] have significant metabolic benefits and are health promoting," said the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Learn more about healthy fats...

Read my Washington Post "Local Living" cover story 24 May 2012

and  Read the Washington Post Web Chat Transcript

 

0 Comments For This Article

Anonymous

I love your columns! They are always full of great information. What cookbook do you recommend for cooking healthy meals? Thank you.

Katherine Tallmadge

Thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my columns. There are so many healthy cookbooks out now, but, in addition to mine (Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations), I do have a few favorites:
The French Culinary Institute's Salute to Healthy Cooking, Mediterranean Light by Martha Rose Shulman, The New American Plate by The American Institute for Cancer Research, Delicious Dishes for Diabetics by Robin Ellis, Cooking with Nora by Nora Pouillon, Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen by Najmieh Batnamglij... Of course, the following aren't always healthy, but are classics I refer to often: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, and Cooking with Les Dames d'Escoffier, Marcella Hazan's cookbooks...
Please stay in touch!
Katherine Tallmadge, MA,RD

Anonymous

One thing you need to understand Ms. Tallmadge, is that way more than 1% of the population is allergic to gluten and/or have full blown celiac disease - it's more like 50% of the people on this planet - gluten is called "the undigestable protein" for a really good reason. It's only good for you if you're not allergic to it and also if oats are grown around gluten grains, then it contaminates the oats and they will contain gluten too. There are many islands around Britain and other islands like Britain that grow only one grain so that there is no cross-contamination.

Katherine Tallmadge

Thank you for reading my article. I'm afraid the literature is pretty clear... about 1% of the population have Celiac and need to remove gluten from the diet. Even fewer have wheat allergies. Wheat and other grains have been shown to have healing and health powers in study after study - People who eat whole grains experience reductions in gastrointestinal disorders, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and even lower weights. There is a proven need for the essential nutrients in whole grains, many of which cannot be found in any other foods.
I appreciate your comments.
Katherine Tallmadge, M.A., R.D.

Leslie

Katherine, thanks for clearing up some of the bad press around these foods- I am going to work on keeping my diet varied and healthy!