There are many aspects to healthy eating. Meal balance refers to eating the right proportion of different foods. We generally consider food groups such as meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits and grains when evaluating meal balance. So for example: Do I eat fruit every day? Am I consuming dairy products? Am I managing my meat portion size so that it doesn’t crowd out other foods on the plate such as vegetables? Am I consuming whole grains every day?
Another gauge of healthy eating is meal pattern. Meal pattern reflects when I eat. Do I consume a single day’s calories in one or two meals or do I distribute those calories evenly throughout the day in several meals and snacks? People who skip meals tend to be overweight while eating smaller servings more frequently is a healthier pattern.
Meal quality refers to the nutrient density and potential health impact of our food choices. Am I eating fresh foods more often than convenience foods? How often do I consume high calorie, low nutrient foods such as sodas, sweets or fried foods? Am I choosing lean meats and low fat dairy products to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol intake? Am I getting adequate fiber? Am I choosing foods with known health benefits?
Studies indicate that the higher the average daily intake of fruits and vegetables, the lower the chances of developing heart disease. Including daily vegetables and fruits reduces our risk for certain cancers, diabetes and obesity.
We live in a time when science has uncovered a number of foods that are so called “super foods” because of their associated health benefits. All plant foods are healthy choices and no one food is a silver bullet. Yet, when we include specific foods like cabbage, berries, nuts and peppers, we are choosing nutrient dense foods referred to as super foods.
Vegetables from the cruciferous family are well known for their specific health benefits. The polyphenols and sulfur compounds in cabbage neutralize cancer causing agents and inhibit tumor formation thereby lowering cancer risk. A recent study showed a reduction in breast cancer when cruciferous vegetables like cabbage or broccoli were added to women’s diets.
All berries are on the super food list. Anthocyanins are color pigments in blueberries and other fruits that give their intense color. These pigments or flavonoids have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Recent research suggests that they may help alleviate certain inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Adding nuts and seeds to a recipe doesn’t just improve texture. A handful of nuts (any type) eaten on most days can reduce heart disease risk by as much as 50%. All nuts contain heart healthy monounsaturated fats similar to that of olive oil. And nuts are good sources of blood pressure lowering minerals such as potassium.
Here in Texas, we love our spicy peppers. All peppers enhance flavors in recipes and they are packed with a wide range of nutrients including vitamins C, A and E as well as beta-carotene. One jalapeno pepper has more vitamin C than an orange.
So the next time you are choosing a recipe, in addition to choosing something that sounds good, look for ingredients from the so called “super foods” list. Today’s recipes are good examples of improving meal quality while delivering lots of flavor. Healthy eating is really a matter of the little choices we make every day.
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 Scallon 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 62 cities and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org. On the website find healthy recipes, past cooking shows and sound nutrition information.