Eating to be well

In this month’s “Health Yourself,” I want to focus on what to eat, answer some persistent questions on why knowing what to eat has become so complicated, and offer up some wellness-promoting food choices.

When did it become so difficult to eat right?

Today’s grocery shelf is home to countless edible “food-like” substances that are processed and packaged through techniques that either transform raw ingredients into edible food, or transform food into other edible forms. For every dollar spent on food, an estimated 70 cents goes toward processed and packaged foods.

Eat whole foods when possible.

Eat whole foods when possible.

Food processing methods include canning, freezing, refrigerating, dehydrating, and sterile processing.Just remember: If it’s boxed, bagged, canned, or jarred—and comes with a detailed list of nutrients, additives, flavoring agents, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and preservatives—it is fundamentally different than whole foods that need no label or claim. When we focus on food as a way to deliver nutrients, any qualitative distinction between processed foods and whole foods disappears. We all would be eating better if we focused our attention on eating foods that need no label or claim.

Natural foods are altered for many reasons.

To change appearance — Foods often are colored to appeal to our senses. But many dyes initially approved by the FDA have been removed from the approved list because of links to diseases and behavioral disorders.

To stabilize — Typical stabilizers include agar or pectin (used in jams). They make gravy non-watery, for example.

To emulsify — Typical emulsifiers include egg yolk, proteins, soy lecithin, and Datem (Diacetyl Tartaric Ester of Monoglyceride). The goal is to combine oil and water. Think mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

To bleach — Typical agents include organic peroxides, chlorine, and bromates. (These are not allowed in the European Union!) The goal is to disinfect, deodorize, and change color.

To texturize — Corn syrup (usually maltose) is a common texturizer. Here we want to soften, add volume, enhance flavor, and prevent crystallization of sugar.

To preserve — Inhibit growth of bacteria or fungi (including mold).

To sweeten — Common preservatives include sorbic acid, benzoic acid, and sulfites. Think “diet” or “light” soft drinks, which include saccharin and aspartame.

To hide or add odors — Natural and laboratory-derived chemicals can add a different aroma to food. For example, allyl propyl disulfide may add a garlic or onion aroma.

To add flavor — Food tastes either sweet, sour, bitter, salty, or savory. But smells are potentially limitless. Food flavor easily alters by changing smell. Flavoring additives include proteins, sugars, and some plant glycosides.

In a world of processed, altered, and packaged foods, it can be challenging to eat real food.

Six tips to improve your diet and enhance your well-being.

1. Eat good carbs. Limit your intake of high-glycemic sugars.

Carbohydrates are an important part of a wholesome diet. They fuel and promote healthy organ function. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Stick to whole grains like brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-grain pasta, fresh vegetables, fruits of all color, and beans of all kinds. These foods are considered low (i.e., good) on the glycemic index rating system.

Opt for low-glycemic foods.

Opt for low-glycemic foods.

The glycemic index is a relatively new rating system that classifies carbohydrates according to how quickly and how high they raise blood sugar compared to pure glucose. Pure glucose has a GI index of 100. Foods with a high glycemic index (GI rating ≥70) cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. In contrast, foods with a low glycemic index (GI rating ≤55) digest slowly, causing a lower and slower change in blood sugar.

Carbohydrates high on the glycemic index include white bread and white potatoes. They link to increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. They even link to age-related macular degeneration, ovulatory infertility, and colorectal cancer.

Visit to look up the GI index for some 1,600 foods.

2. Consume less than 18 ounces of red meat per week and avoid processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and ham.

All protein comprises a mix of two types of amino acids: essential and non-essential. While each is necessary to ensure optimal growth and development, essential amino acids need to be consumed in foods while non-essential amino acids derive from other amino acids.

Proteins that contain all the needed amino acids are called “complete” proteins. Animal proteins tend to be complete while vegetable proteins (usually from fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts) often are incomplete (with respect to containing all required essential amino acids).

Limit your intake of red meat.

Limit your intake of red meat.

Wise protein choices require you to look at the complete “protein package.” For example, a six-ounce steak is a great source of complete protein (±40 grams), but it also contains about 38-40 grams of fat, including 12-15 grams of saturated fat. That’s more than 60 percent of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat.The same amount of fresh, cold-water salmon contains ±35 grams of protein and ±18 grams of fat, but only four grams of saturated fat. Meanwhile, a boiled cup of mature soybeans (no salt) has 29 grams of protein. And though it contains 15 grams of fat, only two of those are saturated. In addition, this same portion of beans includes 10 grams of dietary fiber.Beans, nuts, and whole grains are excellent sources of protein. They combine with plenty of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

3. Consume good fats like nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils.

What really matters about fat intake is not the percentage of your total calories from fat, but rather the type of fat in your diet.

Fats are composed of free-fatty acid molecules categorized as saturated, unsaturated, or polyunsaturated. The saturation level refers to the chemical composition of the number of hydrogen atoms; the more the hydrogen level the higher the saturation level.

“Good” fats, the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kinds, lower disease risk. Foods high in good fats include nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils (olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn).

“Bad” fats, the saturated and trans fats, have been shown to increase disease risk. Foods high in bad fats include red meat, butter, cheese, and ice cream, as well as processed foods made with trans fat from partially hydrogenated oil.

Opt for vegetable oils instead of butter; salmon instead of steak; and avoid all processed foods that contain trans fat. If you choose to reduce your intake of red meat and butter, be sure to replace them with fish, beans, nuts, and healthy oils, not with white bread, white rice, potatoes, and sugary drinks.

4. Eat high-fiber foods, including edible plants, fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.

Fiber has been shown to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, and constipation.

Current recommendations suggest children and adults consume at least 20 grams of dietary fiber (0.71 oz.) per day from food, not supplements. The more calories you consume each day, the more fiber you need; teens and men may require upwards of 30 grams (1.05 oz.) to 35 grams of fiber (1.23 oz.) per day. The average American eats only 15 grams of dietary fiber (0.53 oz.) per day.

Eat fiber-rich fruits like raspberries, apples, and pears instead of drinking fruit juice; replace white rice, bread, and pasta with brown rice and whole grains; snack on raw vegetables instead of chips or crackers; and substitute legumes like split peas and lentils for meat two-three times per week.

5. Reduce salt intake. High salt consumption directly relates to elevated blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Salt is ubiquitous in the American diet. Bread, cold cuts, pizza, canned soups–even fresh and processed poultry—are among the worst sodium offenders.

And guess what? Some foods high in sodium may not taste especially salty: breakfast cereals, bakery muffins, energy drinks, and sports drinks. You also may be surprised to find foods that are high in sodium but don’t list salt in the ingredient list. That’s because there are other forms of sodium used in food processing. Examples include monosodium glutamate, sodium citrate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium alginate.

Check food labels for sodium content and choose foods that have less than 300 milligrams per serving. Experts agree it’s best for adults over 40 to limit sodium intake to about 1,500 milligrams per day.

6. Eliminate sugary beverages from your diet.

Drinks loaded with sugar are packed full of calories and virtually no other nutrients. These include non-diet soft drinks, fruit juices, punches, sweetened tea, high-caffeine energy beverages, and sports drinks.

When in doubt, drink water.

When in doubt, drink water.

One 12-ounce Pepsi provides 103 percent of the recommended amount of added sugar intake per day (10 teaspoons or 40 grams), while a Mr. Misty Slush at Dairy Queen offers 280 percent of a day’s worth of added sugar. One 16 oz. Starbucks Caramel Mocha Frappuccino contains 66 grams of sugar. One 12 oz. glass of Minute Maid orange juice contains 37 grams.

Your best bet? Water. Or try this 18-calorie fruit cooler.

•1/2 cup ice

•3/4 cup of sugar-free sparkling water

•1/3 cup of melon or berries

•Chopped mint leaves or citrus slices (optional)

Place ice, sparkling water, and fruit in a blender. Blend until slushy, pour into a glass and garnish with mint or citrus slices.

The whole story.

It may seem complicated to eat well today. But it’s really quite simple. When in doubt, eat fresh, whole foods rather than processed, packaged, or preserved foods. Follow my steps above and soon you will be on the track to better health and wellness.


  1. Kate Maher - 2005

    I find that the best way to get foods without added sugar is to get “low sodium” items. Bacon and canned veggies are a prime example. Don’t want sugar? Go for low sodium. It’s strange. It’s almost like they add salt and then sugar to offset the salt!


  2. Patty Germano - 1977

    I remember Victor Katch; he was my exercise physiology teacher. I remember a story he told in class one time that he didn’t let his children eat junk food, but once in awhile. He told of giving a cookie to his daughter and her going off and savoring for hours!!! Ha ha what a memory. Good teacher, good class. A long, long time ago.


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