Healthy Plate

Remember when butter was bad for you? And table salt and coffee and red wine and egg yolks? Remember when you shouldn’t eat fish more than once a week — because of the mercury — and when drinking whole milk was almost a sin?

The poor avocado was delegated to the “do not eat except occasionally list” along with chocolate and nuts.

It seems some foods have halos and some foods have horns, but sometimes what was bad becomes good again.

At least within certain limits.

Registered Dietitian Jean Gutierrez understands the frustration people feel when they choose to eat a healthy diet but are perplexed by the maze of mixed messages about food.

“Nutrition is complex and it can be confusing,” she said.

“New research does enlighten us and it can cause us to make adjustments. For example, we now believe saturated fat is not as big a problem as we thought, at least not for healthy, active people. It’s still not recommended for those who already have hypertension or heart disease.”

The wavering back and forth on what constitutes appropriate food choices has a lot to do with what appears in the popular press.

“Articles usually describe part of the findings of a single study that may or may not have been replicated, and are simplified for nonscientific readers,” she said.

Also, all studies are not created equal, some are more valid than others.

Gutierrez, an assistant professor and nutrition researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said the key to healthy eating remains variety, moderation and eating fresh as opposed to processed food.

For men and women who are trying to eat the best diet possible, she recommends “My Plate” as an excellent, visual guide to healthy eating. You can see it at: www.choosemyplate.gov.

The plate replaced the pyramid a few years ago.

“It clearly shows that we should eat about 50 percent fruits and vegetables every day — that’s a healthy dietary goal,” she said.

The rest includes lean proteins, grains and some fats.

So, how are Americans doing with eating more fruits and vegetables?

“Americans, overall, still eat too much processed food, too much sugar, meats that are too high in fat, and not nearly enough fruits and vegetables. We have a long way to go,” she said.

Gutierrez is willing to set the record straight on a few popular food mythologies.

Avocados: Possibly a victim of those crusading against dietary fat, the avocado got a bad rap. “This fruit is a good source of mono-saturated fat that does not increase the “bad cholesterol. It’s nutrient-dense with 20 vitamins and minerals. It’s a healthy food but also high in calories so again, moderation.”

Butter: “For healthy people, having some saturated fats in their diet is not as detrimental to heart health as was previously believed. Butter is a saturated fat and while it’s still controversial, it’s not something you need to eliminate from your diet. An average person shouldn’t have more than one-and-a half-tablespoons a day or keep it as low as possible.”

Chocolate: If you choose dark chocolate with a high cocoa content it is actually nutritious. It contains soluble fiber and minerals. Still a regular size bar can have more than 600 calories so it’s not something to eat daily.

Coffee: “Coffee is an interesting one. Coffee has different effects on different people, and it depends on a person’s ability to metabolize caffeine. A lot of research has started coming out on coffee. It is a major source of antioxidants.”

Eggs: “New research indicates that our cholesterol is probably not significantly effected by dietary cholesterol content in healthy people. The joke is that the yolk is actually the richest part of the egg with protein, vitamins B12 and D, foliate and riboflavin. Egg yolks are also high in choline, a vitamin-like compound that may be essential in certain conditions, like pregnancy. We used to counsel not more than 2-3 eggs a week; that’s no longer the rule of thumb.”

Fish: “Fish is universally healthy. Anyone who is not pregnant may eat as much as they like. Mercury content is higher in larger fish like mackerel and swordfish. Still, the benefits of eating fresh fish outweigh the risks.” In January the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its recommendations for pregnant women and breast-feeding women about eating fish. They categorized fish in three groups and urged women to have two or three servings of protein-rich fish from their “best choices” list.” You can see their guidelines and the chart at www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/Metals/ucm393070.htm

Gluten: Gluten is a sore spot because we really do need whole grains in our diet. It’s true that about five percent of our population has Celiac disease, and if a person suspects that they do, they should be tested. Gluten sensitivity is controversial; it works as a diet for some people because it eliminates cookies and cakes and bread. But now there are many gluten free sugary treats, it’s unlikely to have the same effect.

Red wine: “Wine may have some cardio protective benefits for healthy people when consumed in moderation. However drinking more than a glass or two is not recommended.”

The French drink wine and eat saturated fats and still have a much lower rate of heart disease than Americans. They also eat a great deal of fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods than Americans — but the jury is still out on why there are heart health differences. The US Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database lists the nutritional information for varieties of wine. There are about 125 calories in a 5 ounce glass.

Table salt: “Salting food that you cook for yourself is unlikely to make much of a difference in your health. If you have hypertension, you should limit your sodium intake to about 1500 milligrams a day, which is the typical amount found in a six-inch Subway sandwich without cheese or condiments. This is something that younger, active people do not really need to worry about. Be aware: there is a high sodium content in processed foods and in frozen foods that have a cream or gravy. Limiting processed foods and processed meats, is a better choice. The good news about sodium is that we are not hard-wired with a preference for salt.”

Salt is still considered by some to be a contributor to high blood pressure resulting in the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Although a new study called the PURE study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, said there is not enough evidence to say that limiting salt has any effect on health. This remains an area of controversy.

Whole milk: The demonization of whole milk came about as a result of well-intentioned efforts to reduce the amount of fat in American diets in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Drinking milk is a positive thing and I have never been against whole milk. Some of the fats in milk are helpful and our bodies need some dietary fat to function properly. As a rule, an eight-ounce glass of milk a day is fine. Don’t overdo it. People should not consume too much high fat cheese because it is high in calories.

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