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Six Nutrition Rules to Take With a Grain of Salt

By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Woman Drinking Water

We all need rules to live by, but certain nutrition adages touted by experts and consumers alike make little sense to follow to the letter. Here are some nutrition rules that need clearing up.

Choose only the most colorful fruits and vegetables. It’s true: Brightly colored produce offers high levels of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, powerful plant compounds that help guard against cancer and heart disease, reduce joint pain and inflammation in the body, and protect your eyesight, among other important functions.

But pale produce, including bananas, cauliflower, and mushrooms matters just as much as intensely colored fruits and veggies.  Here are some examples:

• Mushrooms are the only source of vitamin D in the produce aisle. One serving (about 4-5 white button or crimini mushrooms, or one portabella) of mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light can provide close to two-thirds of the daily dose of vitamin D for children and adults age 50 and younger.

• Cauliflower contains antioxidants, vitamin C, folate, potassium, fiber, and anti-cancer compounds.

• Bananas supply potassium, vitamin B6, and fiber.

Your best bet: Include a wide array of fruits and vegetables in your diet to get the nutrients you need.

Drink eight glasses of water every day. If you’ve been spending the better part of your day running to the bathroom in hopes of fulfilling your fluid needs, it may come as a relief to learn that in 2005 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) revised their fluid recommendations. While the IOM suggests adults sip nine to 13 eight-ounce cups of fluid daily, you don’t need to meet the entire fluid quota with plain water. Plain water is preferable for satisfying fluid needs, but the water in other beverages, including fat-free and 1% low-fat milk, 100% juice, and, yes, regular coffee, tea, and soft drinks count toward meeting daily water requirements.

Choose plain water most of the time, but don’t discount milk, juice, and other drinks. And include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Most produce is brimming with water.

Eating after dinner spells dietary disaster. Calories can’t tell time, so as long as you don’t overdo it, eating after dinner won’t widen your waistline. However, when you skimp on meals and snacks throughout the day, you may be inclined to eat too much at dinner and afterwards. Also, if you use food to unwind after a hard day, you may want to avoid eating after the evening meal. Go to bed earlier or get involved in an after-dinner activity that doesn’t involve food.

If you’re hungry after dinner, enjoy a small (150-calorie) snack. Always count snacks into your daily “calorie salary,” the number of calories it takes to maintain or achieve a healthy weight.

Multigrain products are whole-grain foods. Not always. The term “multigrain” enjoys an aura of healthy that is often undeserved. While it’s possible for products to be made with an array of whole grains, such as oatmeal and 100% whole wheat flour, most multigrain breads, cereals, and crackers are a mixture of refined grains and are no better for you than white bread. That’s because refined grains lose many of their health benefits during processing.

Make at least half of the grains you eat whole grains to boost fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake and to help reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Purchase products that list a whole grain, including whole wheat flour, whole oats, or brown rice as the first grain in the ingredient list.

All omega-3 fats offer the same health benefits. Omega-3 fats are heart healthy and necessary for proper brain function and vision during pregnancy and infancy. Omega-3s are actually a family of fats that include alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Omega-3s are related, but not created equal. DHA and EPA are the most beneficial to health.

Seafood is a good source of DHA and EPA. ALA is found in foods such as dark leafy greens, walnuts, and flax seeds. The body can turn ALA into EPA and DHA, but the conversion rate is low. That’s why it’s best to get most of your omega-3s from fish and shellfish. If you don’t eat fish, rely on foods with DHA, including eggs such as Eggland’s Best, and other foods fortified with DHA, such as Horizon Organic Milk and Life Balance Flour Tortillas. Eat foods rich in ALA as part of a balanced diet.

Shop the perimeter of the grocery store for the healthiest foods. This one really makes me cringe, especially since I hear it so often from consumers and health professionals.

Yes, the produce, poultry, seafood, and dairy aisles are largely packed with healthy options, and they are on the perimeter of most supermarkets, but come on! Whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole grain cereal, beans, olive oil, canned tuna and salmon, and thousands of other nutritious items worthy of your food dollar reside in the aisles. In addition, the perimeter is as full of temptation as the rest of the store because it often includes the ice cream section, the bakery, and the prepared foods case.

Before you shop, make a list of healthy ingredients to have on hand at home. Peruse the entire store to get what you need to prepare nutritious meals and snacks. Never shop on an empty stomach because it decreases your willpower and you’re more likely to buy items that you don’t need, including unhealthy choices.  Now, there’s a good rule to live by!

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