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6 Nutrition "Rules" Worth Breaking

By Janet Helm, MS, RD

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It seems we’re constantly bombarded with rules about nutrition.  Eat this, not that.  Watch out for this, avoid that.  If the do’s and don’ts of healthy eating have you down, here are six nutrition rules that I think are worth breaking.

1.    Shop the perimeter of the grocery store and stay out of the middle.

You’ll often hear this advice to help steer people away from processed foods. It’s true that the produce aisle, fresh meats, dairy and other “whole foods” are typically in the outer sections of a supermarket, but I think there are plenty of cart-worthy options up and down the middle of the grocery store.  What about packages of whole-grain pastas, bags of brown rice or quinoa, nuts, canned beans, reduced-sodium soups, frozen vegetables and dried fruit? You won’t find these convenient, nutrient-rich items in a store’s perimeter.

In my opinion, we need to give families reasonable options and make it simple and doable.  If we make the ideal so lofty, it doesn’t seem attainable.  I think it’s more valuable to provide ideas on how to evaluate choices in those middle aisles instead of telling people to avoid them entirely. Plus, a lot of supermarkets are not even organized that way anymore, so the rule doesn’t always hold true.

2.    Fresh is best.

Sure, it’s great to eat fresh, local and in-season fruits and vegetables.  If you can pick up your produce at a farmer’s market, that’s even better.  Yet, that’s not always possible. The most important thing is to eat more fruits and vegetables – no matter what form.  Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh; studies have demonstrated this time and time again.  And if you tend to leave your fresh veggies a little too long in the crisper drawer, the nutrient content can plummet.  So frozen vegetables could even be more nutrient-dense. If fresh fruit tends to go to waste in your house before you can eat it, there’s nothing wrong with stocking up on bags of unsweetened frozen berries, or buying cans, jars and single-serve containers of fruit packed in water or juice.

3.    If it’s white, don’t bite.

We all need to eat more whole grains, this is true.  Nine out of 10 Americans fall short of whole grain guidelines.  However, that doesn’t mean you need to totally banish white bread, pasta or rice from your diet entirely.  Just cut down if they currently dominate and be choosy.  Switch to whole grains when you can, but there may be times when only the white version will do – maybe you want a slice of that crunchy baguette or a serving of freshly made pasta.  Dietary guidelines say make at least half your grains whole, so that means you can fit in a few white versions.  Just keep limits on portions.  In moderation, white or refined grains are not “toxic” and you shouldn’t feel guilty when you eat them.

4.    Ban the salt shaker from the table.

If you’re trying to cut down on sodium, don’t blame the salt shaker.  Most of the sodium we consume comes from prepackaged foods and restaurant meals. Only 6 percent is added at the table.  So one of the best ways to reduce the sodium you eat is to cook more at home. When you start with fresh foods – and use packaged foods prepared without added salt – you can add some salt at the table.  I’d much rather use a sprinkling of coarse salt at the table as a “finishing” salt so you can get a nice salty hit on your tongue instead of cooking with salt when it’s more likely to be buried.  You’ll likely consume less sodium overall when you wait to add some salt at the table.

5.    Pass on pale produce.

Yes, it’s good to “eat a rainbow,” a common tip for encouraging a variety of fruits and vegetables.  Typically, the darker the color, the more nutritious. But that doesn’t mean white-hued vegetables should be ignored.  Pale produce has more to offer than you might think. In fact, that was the topic of recent scientific roundtable at Purdue University that’s recapped in this article White Vegetables: A Forgotten Source of Nutrients.  Do not underestimate the nutrient contributions of cauliflower, onions, turnips, parsnips, and yes, even potatoes. The researchers concluded that these vegetables can help provide many of the country’s short-fall nutrients, especially fiber, potassium and magnesium.

6.    Choose the “healthy” option.

Many foods boast about their health credentials on the front of the package or on restaurant menus.  That’s fine, just don’t let these health halos tempt you to eat larger portions, which has been documented numerous times.  In a new study published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found that people chose larger portions of “healthy” foods because they assumed they had fewer calories than the standard version – even though the calories were the same in the two options of coleslaw, cereal and drinks that were offered to the study participants.  Previous studies have found similar results.  When people saw “low fat” on a label, they ate even more because they felt less guilt.

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