You heard that eggs can be high in cholesterol, so you dutifully switched to whole grains for breakfast. Next, you swapped out red meat for fish--only to later learn that fish can contain dangerous levels of mercury...and eggs may not harm your heart after all. "With all of the different reports and headlines, it's no wonder that many people get confused," says Angela Ginn, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Real Talk Real Food in Baltimore. To help you make sense of these and other health head-scratchers, we consulted our experts and sifted through the research. Here, the new bottom line on 12 "health" foods.
Trying to kick your java habit for your wellbeing? You may not have to: A growing body of research shows this drink can do a body good. In fact, coffee is Americans' top source of antioxidants, serving up a hefty dose in each cup. "It also contains magnesium and chromium, which help regulate blood sugar," says Ginn, which means it may protect against diabetes. Drinking a cup of joe daily slashes your odds of getting the disease by 7 percent, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found. What's more, coffee may stave off dementia, Parkinson's disease, and colon and endometrial cancers.
Bottom line: Go ahead, enjoy your morning brew--but keep it simple: Fancy barista drinks can pack in an entire meal's worth of calories and fat. And if you're sensitive to caffeine, switch to decaf and skip the mid-afternoon mug.
Raise a glass of wine to your heart health. "All types are beneficial in moderation, but red wine contains antioxidants called polyphenols that may be especially protective," says Sharon Richter, RD, a dietitian in New York City. These powerful antioxidants may also protect against breast cancer by lowering sex hormone levels, according to a study from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Bottom line: One glass--preferably of red wine, according to our experts--is A-Okay. But keep it in check: Studies show that women who toss back more than one to two drinks a day are at greater risk for heart disease and certain cancers.
This starchy veggie has a bad rap among dieters, but that's because people tend to consume it in the form of greasy French fries, chips, and buttery mashed potatoes, says Melissa Joy Dobbins, RD, of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, IL. "When prepared the right way, potatoes are a nutritious food," she says. One medium potato, for instance, delivers 5 grams of fiber and nearly 20 percent of your daily quota for heart-healthy potassium.
Bottom line: Skip the fried versions and opt for baked or boiled potatoes. For an even healthier option, choose vitamin A-rich sweet potatoes, or purple potatoes, which can help lower blood pressure.
Hold the cheese? There's no need if you eat it in moderation. A one-ounce serving delivers 20 percent of all the bone-building calcium that you need in a day, as well as plenty of protein and phosphorus. "The problem is that many people eat much more than one serving in one sitting," explains Richter. And at 100 to 125 calories per ounce, that can add up.
Bottom line: Watch your portion sizes: One serving of cheese is roughly the size of a pair of dice. "Try a low-fat version," suggests Richter. Or use a bold cheese, like extra-sharp cheddar or Pecorino, and grate it on your dish to distribute the flavor.
A favorite of nutrition experts, fish has recently come under fire as a source of mercury, a toxic metal. "Still, the benefits far outweigh the risks," says Ginn. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends everyone consume two servings--especially the fatty kinds, like salmon, mackerel, and salmon--per week.
Bottom line: To minimize mercury exposure, eat a variety of fish. The FDA also advises that young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and women trying to become pregnant steer clear of fish that contain the most mercury, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tile fish. Light tuna is also safer than the white, or albacore, variety.
As if you needed another reason to love chocolate, it has some health benefits as well. People who eat the most chocolate are 37 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who rarely eat it, according to researchers at University of Cambridge. "Chocolate--especially the dark kind--contains heart-healthy antioxidants called flavonols," says Richter.
Bottom line: In moderation, chocolate is a treat that you can enjoy guilt-free. Reach for the dark varieties for less sugar and a larger dose of antioxidants.
7. Red Meat
A diet high in red meat can pave the way for heart disease and certain cancers, like colon cancer, according to a slew of studies. That's because it's often high in saturated fat, which can clog arteries. But leaner cuts--combined with heart-healthy sides--do have a place in a nutritious diet. "In addition to protein, meat also contains zinc, iron, and B vitamins," says Ginn.
Bottom line: Go lean. Look for cuts with "loin" and "round" in the name--and limit yourself to 18 ounces a week. That translates into around six 3-ounce servings (imagine a deck of cards).
Ounce for ounce, nuts pack in more calories than most other snacks. But the surprising truth is that nuts are one of the best foods for weight loss, according to Harvard researchers. "Nuts are loaded with protein and fiber, which can help you feel full for longer," explains Richter. One study in the journal Obesity found that people who ate nuts at least twice a week were less likely to put on pounds over the long run than those who didn't.
Bottom line: The fat in most nuts is the heart-healthy unsaturated kind, but you still need to keep tabs on your portion. Keep it to one ounce--23 almonds, 14 walnut halves, and 49 pistachios.
When it comes to alcohol, wine gets all of the glory. But beer may be just as healthy, says Giovanni de Gaetano, MD, PhD. A recent analysis of more than a dozen studies, de Gaetano and his team found that one or two beers can lower your risk of a cardiovascular event by up to 33 percent--which is roughly the same effect as red wine. The protective effect could be due to antioxidants called polyphenols in beer, as well as alcohol itself, explains de Gaetano.
Bottom line: Cheers to your health! But as with wine--or any alcoholic beverage--it's best to limit your intake to about one drink per day.
When people think "health food," tofu usually makes the list. But then reports came out that compounds in soy called phytoestrogens have a hormone-like effect in the body, raising your risk of breast cancer. "In healthy people and in reasonable amounts, that's not the case," says Raynelle Shelley, RD. One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that breast cancer survivors who ate soy regularly were less likely to have a recurrence than those who didn't.
Bottom line: "Soy is an excellent low-fat source of protein," says Shelley. So help yourself to soymilk, edamame, and tofu--but speak to your healthcare provider before considering higher-dose supplements, especially if breast or endometrial cancer runs in your family.
The news is, well, egg-scellent: Not only does research show that eating an egg a day doesn't increase the risk for heart problems, but new research from the USDA also shows that they contains less cholesterol--185 milligrams in a large one--and more vitamin D than previously thought. "Eggs are a good source of protein," says Dobbins. "And the yolks also contain a number of nutrients, such as vitamins D and B12."
Bottom line: To keep your cholesterol in check, stick with one egg a day, says Dobbins.
Flash back two decades, and most households were spreading on the margarine instead of butter. But after it was discovered that some brands contain trans fats--the type that can lower "good" HDL cholesterol while raising "bad" LDL levels--the pendulum swung back toward butter. "These days, manufacturers have changed their products," says Ginn. "Now, many spreadable margarines are made from healthier vegetable oils like canola."
Bottom line: Steer clear of stick margarine, which may still contain harmful trans fats. But spreadable tub margarine is a smart choice, says Ginn. Avoid any product with the words "partially hydrogenated" on the ingredient list.
Question: Which foods were you the most confused about before reading this article?
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