Swallow This

Forget what you thought you knew about eating right

By Liz Pearson

Still feeling guilty about your morning cup of coffee? Staying away from those evil (but oh-so-tasty) carbs? If you’ve followed the headlines, you’ll know that avoiding these so-called vices is no longer necessary. We’ve learned a lot about nutrition over the past 10 years. Read this update on what you should — and shouldn’t — include in your diet.

What we thought: Fat is bad.
What we know now: There are healthy and unhealthy fats.

The ’90s were the low-fat decade — shoppers filled their carts with low-fat cookies, brownies and snack foods. Take the fat out and it must be good for you, right? Wrong. It’s the type of fat that matters. We now know to avoid saturated fats like those found in high-fat milk products and fatty meats — they will clog your arteries. Trans fats found in some processed foods and deep-fried fast foods will boost your risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. But monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds help keep blood cholesterol levels healthy. And omega-3 fats, especially in fatty fish like salmon, are linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer and more.

Bottom line: Limit bad fats and focus on good ones, and enjoy fish like salmon twice a week.

What we thought: Nuts are fattening.
What we know now: Nuts should be part of a healthy diet.

Nuts were among the casualties of the ’90s fat wars — consumption fell by a whopping 40 percent. We now know that all nuts and seeds, with the exception of coconuts, can fit into a healthy diet. Almonds and sunflower seeds are especially nutrient-rich. Nuts are great for your heart and may also slash your risk of type 2 diabetes, gallstones and some cancers. They contain mostly healthy fats, as well as an impressive mix of protein, fibre, beneficial plant compounds and hard-to-get nutrients such as vitamin E, potassium and magnesium.

Bottom line: Indulge in 2 to 4 tbsp (25 to 50 mL) of nuts or seeds most days of the week.

What we thought: Soy is a miracle food.
What we know now: It’s no miracle food, but soy has lots to offer.

Soy products have exploded onto the North American market — grocery store shelves are now lined with soy drinks, burgers and more. Although soy is not a wonder food that will cure whatever ails you, banish hot flashes and keep you young forever, it’s still worth including in your diet. (However, soy pills, powders or supplements are not recommended, as they may contain individual soy components in amounts that may greatly exceed what is found in whole soy foods like soybeans, soy drinks or tofu.) The soybean is loaded with high-quality protein and chock full of vitamins and minerals. Although it may not reduce blood cholesterol levels by as much as previously thought, soy can still be good for your heart, especially when it replaces less healthy foods in the diet, like meat high in saturated fat. The link between soy and cancer has been controversial. It may help reduce prostate cancer risk in men and, when consumed over a life-span, may reduce breast cancer risk in women, especially when breast tissue is forming. However, it’s still not clear whether the hormone-like effects of soy are safe for adult women at high risk for breast cancer, so some experts suggest they limit their intake to a few servings a week.

Bottom line: Soy is a nutrient-rich food and most people can eat about 1 to 2 servings daily.

What we thought: Coffee is bad.
What we know now: Coffee is OK, but tea is probably better for you.

We’ve spent years trying to kick our habit of a morning coffee — turns out we don’t have to. In the past, coffee has been tied to high blood pressure, heart disease and anxiety. Today, research tells us that regular coffee drinkers are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and cirrhosis of the liver. Most studies show coffee is not harmful for heart health. Tea is still the better choice, however, especially green tea — it contains plant compounds called flavonoids, which are linked to a lower risk of heart disease and some cancers. Tea also contains considerably less caffeine per cup (250 mL) — 30 to 45 mg in tea versus about 130 mg in coffee.

Bottom line: Coffee consumed in moderation (2 to 3 cups and no more than 300 to 400 mg of caffeine per day) can fit into a healthy diet.

What we thought: Vitamin supplements will slash your risk of disease.
What we know now: Whole foods are your ticket to health.

If you thought popping high doses of vitamins (such as vitamin E), beta carotene or selenium was the easy answer to eternal health, the research says otherwise. The complex, disease-fighting power of whole foods (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) just can’t be matched by a pill. More importantly, not only do most studies show no benefit from pill popping, but several studies indicate that high-dose vitamin supplements (above recommended daily intakes) may be harmful to your health. In high doses, beta carotene has been linked to a higher risk of lung cancer, vitamin E may boost the risk of heart failure, and high doses of selenium have been shown to raise the risk of some skin cancers.

Bottom line: Whole foods are a better option, but if you take a supplement, a multivitamin is your safest choice.

What we thought: Cutting carbs is the way to lose weight.
What we know now: Low-carb diets are only a short-term solution.

The low-fat fad was barely old news when the low-carb craze took flight. But while low-carb diets appear to work in the short term, research found them no more successful than other diets in the long run. So what’s the diet solution? The US National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more, found 6,000 successful reducers have these eating habits in common: They consume a diet low in calories and fat, eat breakfast regularly and maintain consistent eating patterns across weekdays and weekends. They also exercise — often an hour or more daily.

Bottom line: A healthy diet includes beneficial carbs like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Limit your intake of refined grains such as white bread, and sugar-filled foods like soft drinks.

What’s next?
Watch for these up-and-coming nutritional superstars.

Spice up your life
Most herbs and spices are loaded with plant compounds called phenols and flavonoids — potent antioxidants and defenders against disease — especially cloves, cinnamon, oregano and turmeric. Adding them to meals may boost your immunity, fight off cancer, cut your risk of type 2 diabetes and more.

Vital D-ose
Because it’s found in few foods, most people need extra vitamin D from a pill. Our bodies produce vitamin D when sunshine strikes our skin — but in Canada, rays are too scarce from October to April. Vitamin D is essential for bone health, but also appears to be a potent cancer fighter; it may also lower your risk of arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes. To meet recommended intakes, take a multivitamin with at least 400 IU of vitamin D, drink two or more glasses of milk every day and eat fatty fish (the best food source of vitamin D) at least twice a week.

Get the juice
Pomegranate juice is a powerhouse of health- protective antioxidants and plant compounds. Preliminary research shows it may help your arteries stay clean and keep cancer at bay. It has strong antiviral properties that may help shield against the common cold or flu. However, it also provides a lot of sugar and calories — so limit your daily dose to 1 cup (250 mL) or less.