For years now we have been hearing dietitians tell us what foods to avoid: bacon, cheese, saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, desserts, fun, life… Ok, the last two are an exaggeration. But, surely there must be more to health than deprivation!
I believe that healthy eating is as much about what we include as what we avoid. We still must make our calorie intake match our activity output. Or said another way, we don’t want to eat more than we can walk off today. This means choosing lean meats, low-fat dairy products and minimizing how often we choose fried foods, rich desserts and high sodium foods. Because calories are concentrated in meat and dairy foods, we want to include daily servings of low calorie fruits and vegetables. But with this base of healthy choices, it’s time to move on from exclusion to inclusion as we focus on those elements in foods that support health and not just those that hurt us.
Here are some examples of foods to include in your weekly routine. Sweet potatoes might well be one of the best vegetables you can eat. They are packed with carotenoids, potassium and fiber. Carotenoids are a family of color pigments in plant foods. Studies show that people who consume diets rich in carotenoids are healthier and have lower mortality from a number of chronic illnesses.
All beans and peas (pintos, limas, purple hulls, etc. - not green beans) are rich in protein, fiber, copper, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc. Because of their variety and their low cost, it’s easy to serve beans every week. The fiber in beans will lower cholesterol, control blood sugar and support a healthy gut biome that improves our immune response. Both magnesium and potassium when consumed in foods (not supplements) have been shown to lower blood pressure.
Mangos are a nutrient dense fruit, rich in vitamins A and C, potassium and fiber. Vitamin A is key for good vision, a healthy immune system, and cell growth. High doses of antioxidant supplements (including vitamins A and C) may actually do more harm than good. Vitamin A supplementation is associated with an increased risk of mortality from all causes, according to a recent meta-analysis. The benefits of vitamin C include protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, prenatal health problems, eye disease, and skin wrinkling.
People who eat a handful of nuts (not half the can) on most days can cut their risk of heart disease in half. Nuts are rich in many of the nutrients already mentioned and in monounsaturated oils which are heart healthy like olive oil.
How about a fun one? Four ounces of red wine will reduce how often our LDL “Bad Cholesterol” initiates an artery blockage and at the same time, relax our blood vessels lowering blood pressure. This effect is five times greater than that of aspirin and is more effective if done daily rather than several glasses on the weekend. Obviously this is not recommended for those who have a history of alcohol abuse.
Notice that all of the foods mentioned to “include” are plant foods. This reminds us that reducing meat portion size to three to four ounces is essential in order to have room in our daily calories for health promoting plant foods. It is estimated that only 10-20% of adults get the recommended nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
Changing our behavior is often a barrier in itself. One way to lower that barrier is to make small changes. If you add only three or four of the above foods frequently and maintain a healthy weight, you could be improving your health as much as by taking a cholesterol lowering medication. Never change your medication without consulting your doctor. What foods can I include this year to improve my health?
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with St. Luke’s Health. In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service, The Polk Education Center and the City of Lufkin, Tim hosts the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations. The popular cooking show celebrates the joy of fresh food and healthy eating and can be seen on cable in 46 cities and online at http://www.memorialhealth.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.