Food For Thought
by Paul C. Reisser, M.D.
What are some basic principles of eating well?
1. Don’t eat too much. Talk about stating the obvious. But it bears noting that the freshest, most per-fectly balanced food can still get you into trouble if you eat too much of it.
Cutting back on the amount of food you enjoy doesn’t have to be a joy-killing discipline. One way to make smaller portions more palatable, so to speak, is to take your time and savor your food. Put your fork down between bites and enjoy the taste and texture of what you’re eating. By doing so you can have a longer, more enjoyable experience while consuming fewer calories.
Another simple trick to reduce portion sizes at home is to serve your meals on smaller plates. Not only is there less room for over-sized servings, but this also creates a minor optical illusion suggesting to the brain that “less is more.” When dining out, you can conserve both cash and calories by splitting your meal with your companion. If you’re eating alone, plan on taking half of that huge entree home.
2. Go easy on the added sugars. Contrary to the opinions found in a number of popular books over the past few decades, sugars aren’t the cause of all disease, the root of all evil, or an imminent threat to world peace. But they are definitely a poor quality of fuel for our body.
The American Heart Association has recommended that adult men limit their added sugars to 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons of table sugar) per day. For women, the number is 90 calories (or a little over 6 teaspoons) per day. Remember that these recommended amounts don’t apply to the sugars that occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk.
You can tally the number of grams of sugar in any packaged product at the store by checking the Nutrition Facts label. Unfortunately, this does not distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars. Often the nature of the product leaves little doubt: In a soft drink, you can be certain that all of the sugar was added, while in an orange, all of the sugar was there to start with.
3. Gravitate toward whole-grain foods, rather than those made from refined or processed grains. Certain starches, and in particular, foods derived from processed and refined grain products, can affect blood sugar in unfavorable ways. This isn’t the only reason why whole grains are better for you than those that have been refined.
Fiber, vitamins, and minerals are lost during refining and processing. Whole-grain products contain a variety of useful compounds, including antioxidants, phytochemicals, folic acid, B vitamins, iron, and vitamin E.
4. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) now recommends that half of our daily food intake consist of fruits and vegetables.
An impressive and growing body of research supports the opinion that fruit and vegetables are good for you. Specifically, they can help reduce your risk of some important health problems that you and your family definitely want to avoid, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and eye problems such as cataracts and macular degeneration.
Nutritional science has identified a number of substances found in plants that do more than provide basic nutrients for fuel and building materials. Some of these, such as vitamins C and E, are familiar to us. Others belong to a diverse group of compounds called phytochemicals. These are not necessary for life or health, but many of them appear to have a protective effect against cancer and heart disease.
5. Choose your sources of fat and protein wisely. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that fat calories supply no more than 20 to 35 percent of daily calories. For children, the percentage of total fat may be a little higher, because of the need for fat in the developing central nervous system. Among children four to eighteen years of age, 25 to 35 percent of daily calories may come from fat; for one- to three year olds, 30 to 40 percent.
But what about the different types of fat? The current guidelines typically recommend limiting saturated fats, which are linked with higher cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, to 10 percent or less of total calories per day. The American Heart Association now sets a limit of 7 percent of total calories for saturated fats.
6. Become a student of the Nutrition Facts labels. Even if you don’t keep a running tally of your daily nutrient intake, you should pay attention to at least some of the information on the Nutrition Facts label so you can make informed buying decisions. Highlights include:
Serving size. This number is important, since all of the facts on the label are based on a serving size that the label assumes you will eat.
Calories per serving. All of the numbers on the label must be adjusted if you use more or less than the stated serving size.
Calories from fat. Divide this number by the calories per serving and multiply by 100. You’ll get the percentage of calories derived from fat, which may or may not be useful, depending on the type of food. The percentage of a food’s calories derived from fat does not necessarily reflect its nutritional quality. Extra virgin olive oil is 100 percent fat, but it contains monounsaturated fatty acids that are beneficial to health.
Total fat, cholesterol, and quantities of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats, which are more useful numbers. These are listed in grams, and—for total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol—as a percent daily value. The percent daily value (or % DV) is not the percent of calories in the serving or the percent of total calories for the day, for fat or saturated fat in the serving. Instead, it is the percent of the maximum recommended amount of these substances for a person eating 2,000 calories per day.