Nutrition: 'Bad' Foods That Are Really Good (cont.)

"My feeling as a nutritionist is that the major sources of damaging trans fats in your diet are going to be commercial cakes, cookies, doughnuts, and deep-fried foods, not peanut butter," says Carter.

Peanut butter is also a high-calorie food, so eating spoon after spoon of it isn't recommended -- two tablespoons is plenty. But nuts and nut butters such as peanut butter are rich sources of protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fish and vegetable oils.

They're also a good source of a variety of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E, which have the ability to protect the heart.

Eggs: Edible and Economical

Eggs have suffered from a serious image problem that began in the 1970s when they were vilified for their high cholesterol content. But now that researchers' understanding of heart disease and cholesterol's role in it has changed, so has their opinion of the egg.

"At that time, we thought cholesterol was the only issue, but we now know that there is good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, good fats, and bad fats," says Carter. "Eggs aren't as damaging to the cardiovascular system as once thought."

"What eggs have going for them is they are an inexpensive, high-quality source of protein," says Carter.

However, eggs, more specifically egg yolks, do still contain a significant amount of cholesterol.

Lichtenstein says that whether or not someone can fit eggs into their diet really depends on what else they're eating.

"If they are not consuming a lot of animal fat either from dairy or meat sources, then they can certainly include an egg a day in their diet," Lichtenstein tells WebMD.

If you are eating a considerable amount of cholesterol-laden animal fat, then it's good idea to limit eggs, take the yolk out and use the whites only, or use an egg substitute.

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, Sweat the Big Stuff

Experts say the big issue in incorporating healthier foods into the diet is a matter of substituting items of equal or lesser caloric content, not just adding more foods to your daily diet.

"As a population we still need to be concerned about calories," Lichtenstein tells WebMD. "We can talk about good fats and bad fats, good proteins and bad proteins, and all that, but unless we get our caloric intake under control a lot of those efforts are going to be for naught."

That means if you have an egg for breakfast for a protein boost, you should cut back on other sources of animal fat, like meat and dairy, later in the day. Or if you have a handful of nuts as a snack to work in a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acids, you should go easy on the olive oil at dinner.

As Carter says, there are many ways to make healthy food choices and cut unnecessary fat and calories, but it's not about labeling foods "good" or "bad." So don't sweat the small stuff if you want to stick by your butter habit.

"I don't want anyone to suck joy out of life for nutrition's sake; it's got to be a balance," says Carter.

Published Oct. 15, 2003.

SOURCES: Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition, Tufts University; vice-chair, American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Joan Carter, RD, instructor, Children's Nutrition Research Center, Baylor University. Sanders, T. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001; vol 49: pp 2349-2351. WebMD Medical News: "Best Diet for a Healthy Heart." WebMD Medical News: "A Nutty Way to Stay Healthy." WebMD Medical News: "FDA OK's Nutty Heart Health Claim."

©2003 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 10/15/2003