Healthy, No-Nonsense Nutrition

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Know your diet and nutrition facts from fables.

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

The fact that good nutrition and long-term weight management are pretty much the same thing is one of life's pleasant surprises. The better you eat, the more likely you are to have a stable weight over time and to be generally healthier over time.

It's too bad that weight management and nutrition are so often surrounded by misinformation that makes good eating seem mysterious or impossible. Here's a look at some eating facts and fables from food experts' perspectives.

Is poultry healthier than beef?

"Certainly skinless, white meat chicken is lower in total fat and saturated fat than beef," says Connie Crawley, RD, an extension nutrition and health specialist in the Department of Food and Nutrition at the University of Georgia. "But some cuts of beef are pretty lean, too, and beef is a good source of protein and iron and B vitamins. It all depends on the cut and the preparation."

Beef, in general, is higher in saturated fat than poultry, but a lean cut of beef may have less saturated fat than a fatty cut of poultry with skin.

"Grilled white meat chicken breast without skin is a lean, relatively low-calorie, high-quality protein source," says David L. Katz, MD, associate clinical professor of Public Health & Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Overall, "the best 'meats' are fish, and white meat poultry without skin," says Katz, who also directs the Yale Prevention Research Center and is the author of The Way to Eat.

If you're eating beef, do so only occasionally, in moderation, and stick to lean cuts, these experts advise. Trim visible fat, and avoid meat that is "marbled" in appearance, as that appearance is due to high fat content.

"Processed deli meats are not only high in fat, but also many other undesirable nutrients, such as sugar, salt, and often chemical flavorings and colorants, and are certainly best avoided," Katz says.

Will eating after 8 p.m. cause weight gain?

No. The time of day during which you choose to eat has no bearing on how your body processes food, according to our experts. Any extra calories you take in will be stored as fat whether you eat them at noon or midnight.

That's not to say that evening eating isn't a problem for many dieters. It's easy in the evening to snack while relaxing.

"When we eat in front of the television, we aren't paying attention to what we are eating," says Lauren Solotar, chief psychologist and obesity researcher at The May Institute in Walpole, Mass. "Research shows that people who eat in front of the TV report feeling like they haven't eaten at all. It appears that the food eaten doesn't register all that well when we are distracted."

Will I get high blood pressure if I eat too much salt?

In the majority of cases of high blood pressure, the cause is not known. If you have high blood pressure, limiting the amount of salt you eat can help control it. Increasing salt can worsen high blood pressure but does not cause it.

The average American eats about 6 to 18 grams of salt every day. Your body actually needs only about 0.5 grams of salt each day.

The AHA recommends that healthy adults should limit sodium to no more than 2,400 mgs per day, or 2.4 grams. This is about 1 teaspoon of sodium.

If that sounds easy enough, keep in mind that most sodium in our diet is added to food while it's being commercially processed or prepared at home. That's why you need to be aware of both natural and added sodium content when you choose foods to lower the amount of sodium you eat. When buying prepared and prepackaged foods, read the labels. Many different sodium compounds are added to foods. These are listed on food labels. Watch for the words soda and sodium.

Can a diet high in milk cause asthma?

"For years, milk has been accused of causing excess mucus production," says Connie Crawley. "I have never seen any controlled studies that prove this."

Asthma is an inflammatory condition generally related to allergy, says Katz. "Allergy to milk proteins is fairly common, so it is likely that in some instances a milk allergy leads to asthma." Most cases of asthma, he adds, have nothing to do with milk.

"Most children and adolescents in the U.S. drink too little milk, which is the optimal dietary source of calcium needed for bone health. Skim milk, and other nonfat dairy products, are the best sources because they are free of the extra calories and saturated fat of regular dairy. "

Are fresh and frozen vegetables better than canned?

Don't knock canned foods. "If you rinse canned foods to remove added salt or sugar, they can be every bit as nutritious as fresh and frozen foods." Says Lisa Giannetto, MD, assistant clinical professor in the Duke Executive health program at Duke University Medical Center. That's because some produce at stores may have been sitting around for long enough to have lost some of its nutritive value.

"If you get them fresh directly off the vine and the frozen is kept below freezing and not thawed during transit or storage, they are probably more nutritious than canned since canned usually has a lot of added sodium and it does sit in liquid," says Crawely.

Katz says that "canned vegetables are certainly better than no vegetables. Much of the nutrient value is retained in canned vegetables because they usually are processed right after harvest."

The really important thing about vegetables is to eat them, says Giannetto. "Rinse the salt out of canned foods and use them if their convenience makes the difference between eating vegetables and not eating them. Many of us are simply not getting anywhere near the servings of fruits and vegetables we need."

Do carbs really make you fat?

No matter what the source, excess calories make you fat.

A gram of fat has more than twice the calories of a gram of either carbohydrate or protein. So if you're snacking on a high-fat food, you will eat many more calories than you would in a similarly sized high-carbohydrate food.

But it is a well-documented fact that a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet can cause rapid weight loss, say our experts. According to the American Dietetic Association, low-carbohydrate diets trigger short-term weight loss through a process called ketosis. This process kicks in when your body is in short supply of carbohydrates, a prime source of energy for the entire body, but especially for the brain, which operates exclusively on carbohydrates. During ketosis, your carbohydrate-depleted body grabs other sources, including ketones from stored fat or protein from muscle, to satisfy daily energy needs.

Many nutrition experts do not support low-carb diets.

"Low-carb diets, in epidemiological studies, are linked to increased incidence of colon cancer, formation of kidney stones, kidney disease, and even osteoporosis," says Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Commission for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C. "The weight loss you see in low-carb diets isn't all that much better than what you see in studies of low-fat, vegetarian diets."

John Casey is a freelance writer in New York City.

Published Nov. 3, 2003.

SOURCES: Connie Crawley, MS, RD, LD, extension nutrition and health specialist, department of food and nutrition, University of Georgia. David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, associate clinical professor of public health and medicine, Yale University School of Medicine; director, Yale Prevention Research Center; author, The Way to Eat. Lauren Solotar, chief psychologist, The May Institute, Walpole, Mass. American Frozen Food Institute. Colorado State University Cooperative Extension. Lisa Giannetto, MD, assistant clinical professor, Duke Executive health program, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. Neal Barnard, MD, president, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, D.C.

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