Read an Excerpt
Chapter OneShopping the Perimeter
EVERY GROCERY STORE is organized a little bit differently but you’ll usually find the least-processed foods arrayed around the edges of the store and most of the processed and packaged foods in the interior aisles. “Shopping the perimeter” is a good strategy for loading up your cart with the healthiest foods. It also simplifies things a bit. After all, most of these foods have just one ingredient listed on the label or no label at all. Nonetheless, there are a still a lot of factors to weigh and a lot of decisions to make as you choose what actually goes in your cart.
Most grocery stores are set up so that fresh produce is the first thing you encounter as you walk in the door. Of course, that means that your peaches and other bruiseable goods inevitably end up on the bottom of the cart, crushed underneath a forty-pound bag of dog food. On the other hand, starting with the fresh fruits and vegetables presents an opportunity: The more you pile into your cart here, the less room there will be for all of those treacherous items over in the snack food aisle. Unfortunately, most people tend to under-shop in the produce department. They toss a head of lettuce, a stalk of broccoli, and a bag of carrots into the cart and move on. But hang on a minute: We’re supposed to be eating five servings of veggies a day. If you’re shopping for two people and you go to the store twice a week, then you should have something like thirty-five servings of veggies in your cart! Of course, you probably eat some percentage of your meals on the road. But you get my point.
As a general rule, vegetables should take up at least a third (or even half) of the real estate on your plate. Logically, this means that veggies should take up at least a third of your grocery cart.
Why Is Produce So Expensive?
Although fresh fruits and vegetables are the most nutritious items you’ll find in the grocery store, they are also some of the most expensive. Or at least they seem expensive. But are they really as costly as we think? I’ve noticed that many people (myself included) seem to have a double standard when it comes to these things. Those gorgeous red bell peppers, for example, seem kind of expensive at $1.50 each. And yet we think nothing of tossing a three-dollar bag of potato chips into the cart. The cost per serving works out to be about the same. But the chips contribute virtually nothing to your diet except unhealthy fats, sodium, and empty calories. A single red pepper, on the other hand, provides a more than day’s worth of vitamins A and C, and a decent amount of fiber, folate, and vitamin E. Talk about a good return on your investment!
If produce still seems expensive, just remember that eating more vegetables lowers your risk of disease and can reduce your health-care expenses in the future. Finally, remember that veggies should take up about a third of your grocery cart—so it’s okay if they take up a third of your grocery bill as well.
The Best Choices in Produce
Certain fruits and vegetables have a reputation for being extra nutritious. They’re either particularly good sources of certain nutrients, or they’ve been found to contain uniquely beneficial compounds. Kale is an excellent source of calcium, for example, and grapes are rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant that is thought to protect your heart. The pigments that make plants green, orange, or purple seem to be particularly beneficial to humans, which is why there is often a lot of emphasis on colorful fruits and vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, leafy greens, and berries. But there’s also plenty of nutrition in foods like white mushrooms, cauliflower, garlic, and onions.
There are a few nutritional slackers in the produce section as well. Just-picked corn on the cob or freshly dug new potatoes are among the short-lived joys of summer. But on the whole, starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes are on the low end of the nutritional spectrum. In the table, you’ll find some of the most nutritious fruits and vegetable choices. But don’t hesitate to play the field. Because the various families of plants have such different nutrient profiles, I think you get more benefit from eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables than you do from eating the same one or two “super-foods” day after day. When shopping for vegetables, try to include at least one thing from each of the following groups:
GREEN—(lettuce, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, beet and mustard greens, etc.)
RED/ORANGE—(tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, red peppers)
CRUCIFEROUS—(cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts)
PODS—(peas, green beans, snowpeas, etc.)
STINKERS—(onions, scallions, shallots, garlic)
Produce Power Picks
bell peppers (especially red, yellow, orange)
cabbage family (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower)
berries (all kinds)
grapes (especially red or purple)
leafy greens (arugula, collards, kale, Swiss chard)
Getting the Most for Your Money
Another way to get the most nutrition for your money is to look for produce that’s in season and grown close to where you live. Local, seasonal produce generally spends less time in transit and storage, where nutrients can fade. Keeping it local also keeps costs down, because you’re paying for less fuel. If you garden or go to farmer’s markets, you’ve probably got a good idea what grows at various times of the year in your area. If you don’t, you may have no idea whether asparagus is a spring or fall vegetable. See “What’s in Season?” for a quick guide to what’s in season when.
The Quick And Dirty Secret
Produce that’s local and in season offers the best value, nutritionally and otherwise.
Are Organic Vegetables Worth the Money?
If you’re on a budget, you may be wondering whether it’s worth paying a premium for organic produce, which is grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. To be honest, if it were only about nutrient content, I think I’d have a hard time making the case that organics are worth the extra money. By and large, you get just as many vitamins and minerals from conventional produce as you do from organics. (See “Is Organic Produce More Nutritious?”.)
The case for organics has more to do with what’s not in them. Conventionally grown products can contain pesticide and herbicide residues—toxic chemicals that accumulate in the body over time. Agricultural chemicals also end up in the water supply, where you may be exposed to them even if you don’t eat conventional produce. Exposure to these chemicals may contribute to cancer risk (especially in children) and reproductive problems, such as infertility and miscarriages.
Because organic fruits and vegetables are grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, they reduce the chemical burden on the environment, wildlife, and consumers like you. Whenever the organic option is even close to the same cost as conventional, choose organic! Not only does it keep harmful chemicals out of your body but it helps keep them out of the environment—which helps everyone.
When organic options are either not available or are too expensive, you can still minimize your exposure to pesticides by knowing which fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide residues. Of commonly eaten fruits and vegetables, these twelve foods have the highest pesticide residues: peaches, bell peppers, nectarines, cherries, grapes (imported), lettuce, apples, celery, strawberries, pears, spinach, and potatoes.
According to analysis done by the Environmental Working Group, avoiding the so-called dirty dozen can reduce your pesticide exposure by 90 percent. This list can help you decide when it might be worth it to either pay the organic premium or choose something else instead. If you or your kids eat an apple every day, for example, you might want to consider buying organic apples or substituting a conventionally grown fruit with lower chemical residues, such as oranges. The EWG has a nifty wallet guide that you can print out and take with you to remind you which foods are on the Dirty Dozen list. You’ll find it on their Web site at foodnews.org.
I think it’s worth doing what you can to reduce exposure to pesticides—especially in young kids. (Experts estimate that 50 percent of our lifetime exposure to pesticides occurs before we are five years old!) Ultimately, however, you need to keep the relative risks in perspective. Epidemiologists believe that healthier diet and lifestyle habits—such as eating more fresh fruits and vegetables—could prevent one-third to one-half of all cancer cases, despite the fact that this might increase exposure to pesticide residues.
Peeling foods like apples, peaches, and potatoes will also remove some of the pesticide residue, but at the cost of some nutrients. Washing produce thoroughly in a solution of equal parts white vinegar and water can also help reduce pesticide residues. It also removes dirt and bacteria—which is why organic produce should be washed the same way.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Don’t let fears about pesticides keep you from eating fruits and vegetables. If organic produce isn’t available or affordable, the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables still far outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.
Let’s Take A Closer Look
Is Organic Produce More Nutritious?
Because we place such a high value these days on doing things naturally, we expect that organic vegetables should be more nutritious than nonorganic ones. In fact, the research has shown mixed results. Some studies have found higher levels of nutrients in organic vegetables; others have found that organic produce was no more nutritious than regular vegetables. A few even found that conventional produce had more nutrients. In a review of 162 different studies on the nutritional content of organic versus conventional produce, British researchers recently concluded that that organics are, on average, no more nutritious than regular vegetables.
Because nutrients begin to fade as soon as produce is picked, how fresh the produce is has a much bigger impact on the nutritional content than whether it was conventionally or organically grown. A conventionally raised tomato that you buy at a roadside stand the day after it is picked is almost certain to contain more nutrients than an organically raised tomato that was picked two weeks ago and shipped to your grocery store from another continent.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Buying organic reduces your exposure to pesticides but doesn’t have a big effect on the nutritional quality.
Don’t Forget the Fresh Herbs
Like virtually all leafy green plants, herbs are quite nutritious. But ounce for ounce, fresh herbs like oregano, rosemary, parsley, and basil are among the most nutritious greens you can find. Compared with the same amount of lettuce, raw parsley gives you three times as much vitamin A, four times as much calcium, five times as much iron, seventeen times as much vitamin K, and forty-four times as much vitamin C. Similarly, the total antioxidant capacity of fresh oregano is eight times higher than spinach. Herbs are also very rich in a wide range of disease-fighting phytochemicals. Of course, we tend to eat lettuce and spinach by the handful and parsley and oregano by the pinch, so it’s not exactly a fair comparison. But you get the idea. Herbs are a very concentrated source of both flavor and nutrition. In both respects, a little goes a long way so don’t leave the produce aisle before putting some fresh herbs in your cart.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
When fresh, local produce is limited or pricey, frozen fruits and vegetables can be nutritious and budget-friendly alternatives. Some nutrients are lost in processing, of course. But because they are harvested at their nutritional peak and processed immediately—often right next to the fields, frozen vegetables can actually be more nutritious than fresh produce that travels halfway around the world to your local grocery store. Frozen berries, broccoli, green beans, and winter squash are all nutritious choices that freeze well.
What’s The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Produce
Buy enough. The goal is to eat about two-and-a-half cups of vegetables and two cups of fruit every day. To be sure you’re sufficiently stocked, do a quick calculation of the number of people you’re shopping for, the number of days until your next shopping trip, and the number of meals you’ll be preparing at home (don’t forget about lunches and snacks you’ll be taking to school and work).
Choose some that you can eat raw. Some nutrients, such as vitamin C, are lost when you cook vegetables. Others, such as lycopene, are made more available. To get the best of both, buy some vegetables to cook (beans, broccoli, squash, and greens) and some to eat raw (salad greens, crudites). I’ll have tips in chapter 7 for minimizing nutrient losses when cooking vegetables.
Include some things that carry well. Having portable options like apples, oranges, bananas, baby carrots, snow peas, and radishes makes it easier to grab fruits and vegetables for healthier snacks and to toss them into lunches.
Think shelf-life. Some produce keeps better than others. Berries, ripe melons or peaches, fresh herbs, and delicate lettuces may keep only a day or two. Apples, citrus fruit, kale, winter squash, and green beans will keep much longer. If it will be several days before you will be shopping again, make sure at least some of the produce you buy is more durable—and plan to consume the short-lived stuff first.
Plan meals on the fly. Choose your produce based on whatever’s freshest, most inviting, and a good value. But as you make your selections, consider what you might serve with each item and whether you need to add any additional items for those meals or recipes. For example, is fennel on sale this week? Braised Fennel (recipe) makes the perfect accompaniment for grilled or baked fish. So, grab some fresh lemons before you leave the produce section and make a mental note to stop by the fish counter. (Or, if you’re as easily distracted as I am at the grocery store, make an actual note on your shopping list!)
The Dairy Case
When you get to the dairy section, the first decision you need to make is whether to eat dairy at all. Dairy products are a major source of vitamin D in the American diet—which is ironic, because dairy products contain very little vitamin D naturally. Milk and other dairy products are fortified with vitamin D in order to help prevent deficiency. They are also good sources of absorbable calcium and high-quality protein.
If you are allergic to dairy, are lactose intolerant, don’t care for it, or don’t consume animal products, you can get vitamin D, calcium, and protein from other sources. Nondairy alternatives, such as soy and rice milk, are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Canned fish, such as sardines and salmon, are naturally rich in protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Vegetables like broccoli and dark leafy greens are also good sources of calcium, and your body makes vitamin D when your skin is exposed to natural sunlight.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Dairy foods can be a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D but they are not essential to a healthy diet.
Are Dairy Products Bad for You?
Clearly, dairy is not essential to a healthy diet. But there are many who claim that dairy products are actually bad for you. I think most of these charges are exaggerated. If you don’t like dairy or don’t want to eat it, that’s fine. If, on the other hand, you enjoy dairy but are nervous about things you’ve heard, perhaps I can set your mind at ease.
DOES DAIRY CAUSE CANCER?—The China Study by Colin Campbell has convinced many people that dairy products cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. Although the book is very compelling, the actual evidence is a little skimpy. Campbell bases his case on a single study that found low rates of breast cancer in a rural Chinese population that ate very little dairy, plus laboratory studies on rats and cells in petri dishes. However, dozens of more recent human studies in the United States and Europe have found absolutely no link between dairy consumption and breast cancer (or other cancers). In fact, several studies found that women who consumed more dairy had a slightly lower incidence of breast cancer.
DOES DAIRY CAUSE OSTEOPOROSIS?—Similarly, many folks like to point out that nations with the highest dairy consumptions have the highest rates of osteoporosis. This, however, does not remotely prove that eating dairy products causes osteoporosis. As statistics students repeatedly have drummed into their heads: correlation is not causation! My dog always seems to be standing right next to me whenever I drop cheese on the floor. However, the dog’s presence does not cause me to drop cheese (unless I’m just being a softie). Many factors contribute to osteoporosis: inadequate intake of protein, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals; excessive intake of protein, sodium, or phosphates; as well as nondietary factors like exercise, genetics, age, and smoking. Dairy products provide vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium, are low in sodium and phosphates, and are neutral in terms of the rest. In other words, high dairy intake is the least likely explanation for high osteoporosis rates.
IS IT UNNATURAL TO CONSUME DAIRY PRODUCTS?—Another argument against eating dairy products is that humans are, by and large, the only animals to drink the milk of other species and to drink milk at all past infancy. To some, this is proof that consuming dairy is a bad idea. I’ve never found this argument particularly convincing. Humans are also the only animals to cover their bodies with clothing or to cook and preserve their foods—both of which enabled our species to survive and thrive. More to the point, humans are the only animals that have learned to keep livestock animals for milk. By grazing animals on land that is untillable, farmers can convert grass to high-quality protein and absorbable calcium—a pretty useful trick. Perhaps that’s why some branches of the human family tree evolved to continue to produce lactase (the milk-digesting enzyme) into adulthood.
Should You Buy Organic Dairy?
Organic milk will cost you a dollar or so more per half gallon than conventional milk. What are you getting for the extra moola? First, you are getting milk from cows that were fed organic feed and/or grazed on fields that were not treated with synthetic chemicals. Organic dairy products are free of these chemicals. However, you should know that pesticide residues are generally not found in milk from conventionally raised cows, either.
Secondly, dairy cows that are not organically raised are often treated with a hormone (rBST) to increase milk production. Some worry that these hormones may have harmful effects on humans who consume the milk. So far, however, investigations have failed to turn up any evidence to support these fears. A stronger argument can be made that the use of the hormones causes undue stress and suffering for the cows. Hormones are not used to stimulate milk production in organic dairy cows—which may improve the cow’s quality of life. However, it does not mean that organic milk is hormone-free. Although organic cows aren’t given hormones, they still produce their own. If you’re concerned about consuming bovine hormones, you’re better off with a dairy alternative.
The last difference between organic and conventional milk is that organic cows are not given antibiotics. It’s important to understand that the antibiotics given to conventional dairy cows do not end up in their milk. However, the routine use of antibiotics in livestock promotes antibiotic resistance, which is a serious problem for everyone, whether or not they drink milk. Buying organic helps to cut down on the use of antibiotics.
How do organic and conventional milk compare nutritionally? Both contain the same amount of protein, fat, calories, and calcium. If the organic cows are primarily pasture raised (which is not guar-anteed), their milk will likely have more vitamins E, A, and other nutrients, especially in the summertime when the pastures are verdant.
Many consumers are convinced that organic milk simply tastes better. Or at least it used to. Unfortunately, most of the biggest organic milk producers now use ultrapasteurization to extend the shelf-life of their products. By heating the milk to about 260 degrees Fahrenheit (regular pasteurization is at 160 degrees F), they can triple the shelf-life of the milk, but at the expense of the flavor. To me, ultrapasteurized milk has a slightly flat, stale taste. Your best bet for organic milk that has not been ultrapasteurized is to find a small, local dairy. You can search for local vendors at LocalHarvest.org.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Nutritionally speaking, organic milk is comparable to conventional milk. But buying organic reduces the use of antibiotics in livestock, which is definitely better for you and the environment.
Should You Buy Reduced-fat Dairy Products?
The big government and public health agencies strongly recommend that you choose low-fat dairy products for two reasons. First, they are lower in saturated fat. Up until recently, saturated fat consumption was thought to contribute to heart disease. Lately, however, the connection between saturated fat and heart disease has become a matter of some debate. In 2010, an analysis of several large, long-term research studies found that people who ate the least saturated fat had the same risk of heart disease and stroke as the people who ate the most saturated fat. That’s certainly food for thought—but the question is far from settled.
Saturated fat aside, low-fat dairy products are also lower in calories. As two out of three Americans—and a growing percentage of those in other countries as well—are now overweight, cutting a few calories here and there doesn’t seem like such a bad idea and lower-fat dairy products is one easy way to do it. Switching from whole-fat to low-fat dairy products saves you about 40 calories per serving. If you have three servings per day, that single change could add up to twelve pounds a year. Lower-fat dairy products also give you a bit more protein and calcium per serving.
How Many Calories Are You Saving?
Whole (3.25% fat) = 146 calories per cup
Reduced-fat (2% fat) = 122 calories per cup
Low-fat (1% fat) = 102 calories per cup
Skim (0% fat) = 83 calories per cup
Each step down the fat ladder saves you about 20 calories per serving.
If you’re used to drinking whole milk, skim milk might taste thin and watery to you—and that’s no fun. But most people find that they can get used to and even come to prefer lower-fat products. The trick is to reduce the amount of fat gradually. Replace your whole milk with 2 percent milk or, if that’s too drastic, you can even mix whole milk and 2 percent together at first, gradually reducing the proportion of whole milk. You can use the same trick to transition from 2 percent to 1 percent milk.
How low should you go? If you enjoy skim milk, that’s fine. You’ll also find brands of skim (fat-free) milk that have been enhanced to make them creamier. It’s done by adding dried milk powder to skim milk, a trick that gives the milk more body but doesn’t add any fat. It also increases the protein and calcium—as well as the calories—by about 30 percent. You’ll also pay about 50 percent more for enhanced milk.
Personally, I prefer reduced-and low-fat to completely fat-free dairy products because I think a wee bit of fat makes them better-tasting and more satisfying.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Choosing low-fat dairy products is an easy way to cut calories (and get a bit more protein and calcium per serving) but you don’t necessarily need to go completely fat-free.
Is Lactose-free Milk Better for You?
Lactose-free milk is treated with an enzyme that breaks down the natural sugars (lactose) found in milk. About 10 percent of the population does not produce this enzyme on their own and therefore has difficulty digesting milk. (You are much more likely to be lactose intolerant if you are of African, Asian, or Native American heritage.) If you are lactose intolerant, lactose-free dairy products may allow you to eat dairy products without unpleasant digestive symptoms. If you’re not, there is no nutritional advantage to buying lactose-free products.
How Do You Make Fat-free Cream?
Reduced-fat milk or yogurt is one thing but when I see fat-free dairy products like sour cream, half-and-half, or cream cheese, I get suspicious. These foods are, by definition, high in fat. How can fat-free sour cream be “rich and creamy”? There’s no such thing as a free lunch…and it turns out there’s no such thing as fat-free cream, either. Check the ingredient label on these products and you’re likely to find a long list of gelatins, gums, starches, syrups, oils, and other additives used to create a creamy consistency in fat-free products. Some of these are fairly harmless. Agar, for example, is a commonly used thickener derived from seaweed. Guar gum comes from a type of bean. But I’d rather you ate your beans and/or seaweed in a salad than in your coffee. In general, I suggest you stick to products without such elaborate ingredient lists—even if it means a gram or two of fat in your sour cream or cream cheese.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Choose low-fat dairy products with a gram or two of fat over fat-free products with elaborate ingredient lists.
If you don’t want to consume dairy products, there are all kinds of alternative “milks” made from soy, rice, and various nuts and grains. All are vegan and lactose-free. But do alternative milks offer any nutritional advantages over cow’s milk? There are pros and cons for each type of milk, so it really depends on what your nutritional priorities are.
SOYMILK—If you’re looking for protein, soymilk is your best bet. It’s the only one that’s comparable to cow’s milk, providing between 8 and 11 grams of protein per cup. Soy protein also has beneficial effects on cholesterol levels and helps keep your bones strong. On the other hand, soy is a very common allergen. Even if you’re not allergic to it, there are a few reasons that you don’t want to overdo it with soy. (I’ll get to that in a minute). I suggest that you keep it to no more than three servings of soy per day. If you eat a lot of other soy-based foods, you might want to choose a different type of milk.
HEMP—A relative new-comer on the alternative milk scene, hemp milk’s big claim to fame is that it is an excellent source of omega-3 fats—a nutrient that most of us could use more of in our diets. Hemp milk is relatively low in protein, however, so if you’re looking for a good source of protein you’ll want to choose another kind.
ALMOND—If you’re counting calories, almond milk tends to be lower in calories and sugar than most of the other nondairy milks. However, it is also fairly low in protein.
OAT—Oat milk offers fiber as well as a moderate amount of protein—about half as much per serving as cow’s or soy milk. However, it is on the higher end in terms of sugar and calories.
RICE—Rice milk is one you’re least likely to be allergic to but it’s probably the least nutritious milk alternative. It’s the lowest in protein and tends to be higher in sugar and calories.
See the following box for tips on which nondairy “milk” might be the best choice for you. If you’ve got room in the fridge, there’s no reason you can’t mix and match milks—and benefits.
Best Choices in Nondairy Milk
Higher in protein: soy milk
Lower in sugar/calories: almond milk
Higher in fiber: soy milk, oat milk
Higher in omega-3: hemp
Nondairy milks are not naturally high in calcium or vitamin D, but some brands are fortified to make them comparable to cow’s milk as a source of these nutrients. Check the label to see exactly what you’re getting—especially if you’re counting on these foods to help you meet your requirements. But nutrients aren’t the only things that get added to nondairy milks. Most also contain added sugar, salt, and other things to improve the flavor. Sometimes, they improve the flavor so much that they actually turn it into a dessert.
Even the plain unflavored versions can contain as much as 20 grams of added sugars per serving. That’s five teaspoons of sugar in every cup. Sodium may range from 25 to 180 milligrams per serving. Check the nutrition facts labels and look for brands that keep the sugar to 12 grams or less and the sodium to no more than 100 miligrams per serving, which is similar to the amount of natural sugar and sodium present in cow’s milk.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Dairy-free milk should contain no more than 12 grams of sugar and 100 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Let’s Take A Closer Look
Is Soy Dangerous?
Soy is a fairly common allergen and should obviously be avoided by anyone with a soy allergy. But there are claims that soy is dangerous for everyone else, as well. Here is a closer look at some of these charges:
Could soy cause breast cancer? Soy contains compounds called isoflavones, which are very similar to the hormone estrogen. In fact, isoflavones are also called phytoestrogens, which means “plant estrogens.” It’s thought that phytoestrogens may help prevent tumor formation in healthy breast tissue, and might also help protect against bone loss and alleviate hot flashes. However, in women with breast cancer, there is concern that phytoestrogens might promote the growth of estrogen-sensitive tumors. Just in case, those with breast cancer should avoid soy. However, there’s no evidence that soy causes cancer.
Should men avoid soy? It’s been suggested that excessive soy consumption might affect fertility or sexual function in men. However, studies have shown that moderate consumption of soy milk or other forms of soy protein (two to five servings per day) does not affect testosterone levels in men. In fact, soy appears to reduce the level of certain types of estrogen in men, which may have protective effects against prostate cancer. Moderate soy intake has also been shown to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Finally, keep in mind that men have been eating soy and plenty of it for generations in Asia and have not experienced population-wide fertility issues. In fact, the population of Asia enjoys lower rates of heart disease and prostate cancer.
Is soy formula bad for babies? There are similar concerns that giving soy formula to babies might affect their development. The idea is that babies, both in the womb and after birth, are extremely sensitive to hormones and that phytoestrogens might affect their development. I think we can all agree that human breast milk is by far the optimal food for babies. Sometimes, however, breast-feeding is not an option and soy formula can be a lifesaver for babies who have an allergy to cow’s milk. Though there is no hard and fast evidence that soy formula causes problems, many pediatricians agree that it’s best not to give soy formula to babies unless you absolutely have to—just in case.
Does soy disrupt thyroid function? Another widely repeated charge against soy is that it disrupts thyroid function. In fact, studies overwhelmingly show that it has minimal, if any, effect on thyroid function in human beings, except if they are deficient in iodine. Iodine deficiency is rare, thanks to our iodized salt supply.
Does soy contain antinutrients? Soybeans contain phytates, which can impair your ability to absorb certain nutrients. That is not unique to soy, however. Spinach contains compounds called oxalates, which do the same thing. In the context of a nutritious diet, a moderate amount of soy is unlikely to cause nutritional deficiencies. Fermenting soy removes or deactivates many of the so-called antinutrients. Fermented soy foods include miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Moderate intake of soy protein may offer some health benefits, but more is not necessarily better. Two or three servings of soy foods a day is enough to provide benefit but unlikely to cause problems in healthy adults. And, as with most foods, the less processed, the better.
Yogurt and Other Friends with Benefits
Yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir are a special category of dairy. Like milk, they are all good sources of protein and calcium, but these cultured products offer an added bonus. The friendly bacteria found in these foods set up housekeeping in your gut, where they do all kinds of good things for you: They help digest your food and produce certain vitamins. They keep the lining of your intestines slick and shiny. Most of all, they make it harder for unfriendly bacteria to take hold and make you sick.
Our digestive systems work best when they have a healthy population of beneficial bacteria on board. Eating yogurt or kefir on a regular basis is a good way to help your personal population thrive. Here are some things to look for when selecting cultured foods:
LIVE CULTURES—Look for the brands that specify that they contain “live and active cultures.” But don’t bother paying extra for fancy brands that are supposed to be specially formulated to promote digestive health. You get the same benefits from regular yogurt.
Freezing does not kill beneficial bacteria. In fact, it preserves them in a state of suspended animation until you eat them, at which point they warm up and resume their regular helpful activities, like fending off harmful bacteria, aiding with digestion, and producing certain vitamins. So you still get all the benefits of yogurt in a frozen-fruit smoothie. But most of the frozen yogurt you buy at the grocery store or ice cream store is heat-processed before it is frozen, which destroys the beneficial bacteria. If you can find a brand that specifies that it contains “live and active cultures,” you’ve hit the jackpot. Just keep in mind that frozen yogurt usually has a significant amount of sugar.
PLAIN, UNSWEETENED—Sweetened yogurts that you buy in the store contain so much sugar that I’m not sure you can still consider them healthy choices. Ironically, the ones with the fruit in them, which you would think might be healthier, have the most sugar. Artificially sweetened yogurts may seem at first like a healthier choice, but take a look at the ingredient list: artificial sweeteners, gelatin, colors, and assorted chemicals. Plain, unsweetened yogurt is your best choice. You can sweeten it with pureed fruit or a small amount of honey or maple syrup. As a compromise, if you really prefer sweetened yogurt, lemon-, vanilla-, and coffee-flavored yogurts are usually lower in sugar than other fruit flavors.
LOW-FAT—Low-fat yogurt has 30 percent fewer calories and 20 percent more protein than regular yogurt. Fat-free doesn’t offer much additional advantage. Plus, the less fat yogurt contains, the more tart it tends to taste. So, you may find that you need a lot less sweetener if you get low-fat yogurt instead of fat-free yogurt.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Lemon, vanilla, and coffee-flavored yogurts have about 25 percent less sugar than most fruit-flavored yogurts.
Is Greek-style Yogurt Better for You?
Greek-style yogurt is thicker and many people also find it milder-tasting than regular yogurt. It’s made by straining some of the whey out of the yogurt. A quart of milk produces four cups of regular yogurt but only two-and-a-half to three cups of Greek-style yogurt. (That’s one reason it’s so much more expensive.) Because it’s more concentrated, low-fat and fat-free Greek yogurt provides up to twice as much protein as the same amount of regular low-fat or fat-free yogurt, along with a few extra calories. Watch out for “classic” or full-fat Greek yogurt, though. It contains as much fat as premium ice cream—and almost twice as many calories as regular full-fat yogurt. And if you’re looking for a good source of calcium, stick with regular yogurt, which is quite a bit higher in calcium than Greek-style. (Apparently, some of the calcium is strained off with the whey.)
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Low-fat or fat-free Greek-style yogurt is higher in protein but lower in calcium than regular yogurt.
Cheese is basically milk in miniature. The nutritional profile of each cheese will depend in part on what kind of milk or cream it was made with. For example, heavy cream can be transformed into super-rich triple-cream brie that contains 200 calories per bite. Low-fat milk can be made into part-skim ricotta that’s 200 calories per cup.
The calorie density also depends on how much liquid is removed. A cup of liquid milk—and all the calories it contains—can be reduced to a half-cup of soft cheese or pressed into two cubic inches of hard cheese. As a general rule, the harder and drier the cheese, the more calories per ounce it will contain. Many people are surprised to learn than an ounce of aged cheddar has more calories than an ounce of ripe Camembert.
On average, a serving of cheese will provide 100 calories, 10 percent of your protein needs, and between 10 and 20 percent of your daily calcium requirements.
For a few picks that beat the averages, see the box below. But for the cheeses that you’re likely to find at the grocery store, the differences are minor enough that you can afford to enjoy some variety.
Best Picks in the Cheese Department
Higher in protein and calcium: Gruyere, Parmesan, Gouda, cottage cheese
Lower in fat and calories: part-skim ricotta, mozzarella, feta, goat, cottage cheese
Lower in sodium: Camembert, Swiss
Note: If you’re watching sodium, avoid cottage cheese, blue cheese, Gouda, feta, and Parmesan.
What’s The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Dairy
If you include dairy in your diet, two or three servings per person per day is a good rule of thumb for shopping. A serving is one cup (8 ounces) of milk or yogurt, a half-cup (4 ounces) of ricotta or cottage cheese, and one ounce of hard cheese. Here are some other considerations that can make meal-planning easier:
Pourable Milk and nondairy milks all have a relatively long shelf life, so buy enough to cover your household’s cooking and drinking needs until your next shopping trip. But check expiration dates to avoid buying milk that’s nearing the end of its shelf life.
Portable Yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese, and individual serving cheeses (such as Babybel) are convenient for snacks and lunches at work or school. You can save some money and reduce waste by buying large containers of yogurt and cottage cheese and spooning it into smaller, reusable containers to take with you.
Practical Keeping a couple of versatile cheeses on hand also makes it easier to whip up last-minute meals. Particularly handy options include feta cheese to crumble on salads, mozzarella to sprinkle on a homemade pizza or bowl of minestrone, a brick of cheddar or Monterey for quick quesadillas or to top a frittata. (See, for example, my recipe for Leftover Vegetable Frittata.)
Butter and Margarine
Most people like to keep a little butter or margarine on hand. Which is the better choice? The main case against butter is that it’s high in saturated fat—but as I mentioned earlier, saturated fat may not be the artery-clogger we once thought it was. On the plus side, butter has its incomparable flavor going for it. It’s also a very simple, natural product, made from cream and (sometimes) salt. Margarine is made from vegetable oils and usually has a considerably longer ingredient list. Flavorings, colorings, stabilizers, and texturizers are added to make it look and taste more like butter. (Some people find this disguise more convincing than others.)
If you choose margarine, read the label carefully and avoid any product that contains partially hydrogenated oils, esters, or esterified oils in its ingredient list. These ingredients signal the presence of trans fats or their equally dangerous (but lesser-known) cousins, interesterified fats. You don’t want either one in your body.
These days, margarines are also likely to contain ingredients that promise various health benefits. If you like the idea of food that works a little harder, you can find butterlike spreads tricked out with phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids—nutrients that can help lower cholesterol and promote heart health. Be prepared to pay a premium. For me, it’s no contest: I’d rather stick with butter and get my phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids from foods that contain them naturally, such as nuts and fish.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Spreads with added omega-3 fats or plant esters may offer additional benefits; but avoid spreads made with hydrogenated and/or esterified oils.
Butter and margarine are both nearly pure fat, which means they are relatively high in calories—about 100 calories per tablespoon. You’ll also find “light” and “reduced-fat” spreads in the dairy case. These are made by whipping water, air, milk solids, and any number of other dairy and nondairy ingredients into butter or margarine. These products can help save you a few calories. So can simply using less regular butter or margarine. If you do opt for a reduced-fat spread, read the label carefully to avoid trans and interesterified fats. Also, be aware that replacing butter with a reduced-fat butter replacement in a recipe may lead to disappointing results, especially when baking.
Make Your Own Healthy Butter Spread
Butter stays fresher when kept in the refrigerator, but cold butter can really tear up a piece of toast. Make your own spreadable butter by blending two sticks of softened butter with ½ cup of canola or extra-light olive oil in your blender until it’s smooth. (Add a pinch of salt if the butter is unsalted.) This all-natural butter blend tastes like butter but is lower in saturated fats, higher in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and—best of all—is spreadable straight out of the fridge. (Note that it’s not lower in fat or calories than regular butter.)
What about Spray Butter?
Imitation butter sprays are applied with an atomizer, which makes it possible to add very small amounts of these products to your food. Although the “Nutrition Facts” label may say that a butter-flavored spray contains zero fat and calories, this is simply a sleight of hand due to the tiny serving size upon which the numbers are based. Look a little closer and you’ll see that one popular butterlike spray contains 20 calories and 2 grams of fat per teaspoon, which is comparable to a low-fat spread. As for what you’re actually spraying onto your food, well, let’s just say you’ll probably have no trouble believing it’s not butter! Frankly, I can’t see any advantage to spraying minute amounts of soybean oil, lecithin, xanthan gum, and yellow food coloring onto your food. It’s not necessary to eliminate all fat from your diet. Brush on a small amount of real butter or olive oil and stop worrying about it.
The dairy case also contains many items that have nothing to do with cows, such as eggs. For those who consume animal products, eggs are an inexpensive, convenient, and versatile source of high-quality protein. In fact, eggs contain all the essential amino acids (protein building blocks) in near-perfect proportions, which means that egg protein can be used very efficiently by the body.
The only thing you used to have to decide about your eggs was how big you wanted them. But here again, your options have exploded. Should you buy natural, organic, free-range, cage-free, pastured, or omega-3 fortified eggs? It depends on whether you’re concerned with your own health, the health of the planet, the welfare of the egg layers, or all three. Here is a brief guide to what the various labels do (and don’t) mean.
OMEGA-3 FORTIFIED—You get a little nutritional bonus from omega-3 fortified eggs. Omega-3 fatty acids are important to your immune function, brain, and heart health, and—as we repeatedly hear—most of us don’t get nearly enough of them. Because they are always looking out for your needs (or at least your desires), manufacturers have come up with products to help fill the gap. To increase the omega-3 content of the eggs, the farmers put extra omega-3 in the chicken feed and the chickens do the rest. Omega-3 fortified eggs are not necessarily organic.
ORGANIC—Organic eggs come from chickens that are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet that is free of antibiotics and pesticides. Pesticide residues are not generally found in eggs so paying more for organic eggs won’t necessarily reduce your exposure to pesticides. It will, however, help keep the soil and water cleaner. Organic layers are not kept in cages and must have access to the outdoors, but if animal welfare is your main concern, you should know that organic eggs, along with eggs labeled “free-range,” may come from chickens with extremely limited access to the outdoors. “Cage-free” layers typically do not have any access to the outdoors.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Organic eggs aren’t necessarily any more nutritious or humanely produced than conventional eggs. Eggs from pastured hens are usually both.
PASTURED—If you like the idea of your chickens clucking happily around a roomy farmyard, nibbling green shoots and the occasional fat grub, eggs labeled “pastured” may come closer to your ideal, although this term is not strictly defined or regulated by any organization. Eggs from pastured chickens may or may not be organic, but because the chickens are allowed to forage for green plants and insects, their eggs are usually somewhat higher in beta-carotene, vitamin D, E, and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these particular nutrients, by the way, are found in the yolks. A chicken’s diet doesn’t really affect the egg whites, which are primarily protein.
What’s The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Eggs
Eggs are an affordable source of high-quality protein. They’re also versatile and quick to prepare. Eggs are rich in cholesterol, of course, and we used to worry that eating foods that contained cholesterol would cause high cholesterol levels. However, research shows that most healthy adults can eat a dozen or so eggs a week without adverse effects on their cholesterol levels or an increased risk of disease. Because fresh eggs will keep for several weeks in the refrigerator, I always keep a dozen on hand, even if I don’t have a specific plan for them.
Finally, although they have nothing to do with cows, fruit juices are typically found in the dairy section. A half cup of fruit juice technically counts as a serving of fruit but I consider processed fruit juice to be a distant second to fresh fruit, nutritionally. Processed fruit juice contains all of the sugar, some of the vitamins, and almost none of the fiber of fresh, whole fruit. As for those new fruit and vegetable juice blends that promise a serving of vegetables in every glass, any vegetables they may contain are vegetables in name only—not in terms of their nutritional value.
Frankly, I’d rather you skip the juice and eat another piece of fruit instead. (Or, at the very least, juice the fruit yourself right before you drink it.) I suggest limiting your juice intake to one serving a day and keep in mind that a serving is just one half cup. You’ll get the most nutritional benefit from citrus, pomegranate, or grape juice and the least from apple juice. Diluting juice with spring water or sparkling water makes it more refreshing and (ounce for ounce) lower in sugar.
Special Note to Parents Fruit juice is not a good source of nutrition for your kids. It’s a good source of sugar—natural sugars, but sugars all the same. You’ll be doing your kids a huge favor by having them eat fruit and drink water.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
If you’re going to drink fruit juice, limit it to one serving per day. Citrus, pomegranate, and grape juice are the most nutritious choices.
The Meat Department
If you don’t eat meat, you can skip this section. If you do, your first big decision might be whether to buy beef, chicken, or pork.
White Meat or Red Meat?
I’m always a little confused when I hear people claim that “white” meat, such as chicken and turkey, is better for you than “red” meat, such as beef and pork. Red meat contains up to twice as much iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 as poultry. White meat is not necessarily lower in fat, either. There are cuts of beef and pork that are just as lean as a boneless, skinless chicken breast. And, by the same token, there are cuts of chicken and turkey that have just as much fat as a well-marbled steak. Beef and pork also tend to contain a higher percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats than turkey or chicken. So if you’ve been avoiding red meat on nutritional grounds, it may be time to rethink your boycott. Red and white meat can both be healthy choices. Whatever type of meat you buy, lean, well-trimmed cuts offer more protein and contain fewer calories per serving. Avoid things that have been “prebasted” or injected with salt or sugar solutions. Meat should contain meat and nothing else.
Best Choices in the Meat Department
Beef: tenderloin, strip steak, top sirloin, T-bone, flank steak, London broil
Lamb: loin chops, leg of lamb
Pork: tenderloin, loin roast
Poultry: skinless breast
Budget friendly: ground beef, bison, chicken, or turkey (90 percent lean), chuck roast (beef), skinless thighs (chicken)
How to Understand Meat Labels
Looking beyond the nutrition facts label, a lot of the terms you’ll see on meat packages these days promise (or at least imply) something about how and where the animals were raised. Here’s a quick guide to what some of these labels do (and don’t) mean and how they affect the nutritional quality of the meat.
GRASS-FED/GRASS-FINISHED—With the adoption of new labeling regulations in 2010, these two terms now are equivalent. All cattle are typically raised on an open pasture for the first part of their lives; most are, and then fattened on grain before they are slaughtered. “Grass-fed” or “grass-finished” means that the cattle remain on pasture throughout their entire lives. In general, the beef is leaner, and a smaller proportion of the fat is saturated. Grass-fed beef may also be higher in vitamins A, E, and omega-3 fatty acids, although it is still not a significant source of these nutrients.
FREE-RANGE/CAGE-FREE—Usually applied to poultry and sometimes to pork, free-range means that the animals have access to the outdoors. However, free-range animals may still spend all or the majority of the time indoors and “outdoors” may mean a dirt yard or concrete slab. In terms of animal welfare, “free-range” may not mean a whole lot. And because these terms imply nothing about what the animals are fed, they don’t have any meaning in terms of the nutritional quality of the meat.
PASTURED—This term is not regulated in the United States but it implies that the animals live on farms, not factories, and that they graze on an open pasture for a substantial part of their sustenance. Their diet may be supplemented by other feed. Pastured meats are generally the most animal-and environmentally friendly choices. They also offer some nutritional advantages. The meat may be leaner and have higher levels of vitamins A, E, and omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised meat.
KOSHER—Kosher refers mostly to how the animals are handled during and after they are slaughtered. Kosher meat is prepared under the supervision of a rabbi, according to traditional Jewish dietary laws. Nutritionally, the biggest difference is that kosher chicken is prepared with salt and may be higher in sodium.
HUMANELY RAISED—This term suggests that animals are raised and slaughtered using practices that preserve their quality of life and prevent undue physical or emotional stress. Although it is a self-regulated term, humanely raised animals are usually raised with access to a pasture and without the use of antibiotics or hormones.
ORGANIC—Certified organic meat comes from animals who are fed only organic food, which reduces the chemical burden on the environment. It also means that the meat should be free of pesticide residues—but meat is not a significant source of pesticide exposure. Organic meat is also produced without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones—and the implications of that go well beyond what is—or isn’t—in the meat.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Meat from grass-fed or pastured animals is likely to be leaner and somewhat higher in certain nutrients than other meat.
What about Antibiotics in Meat?
The use of antibiotics in our livestock is a big problem for all of us, no matter what kind of meat we buy or even if we choose not to eat meat at all. As with people, antibiotics are used to treat sick animals. But in the United States, most livestock are also given low doses of antibiotics throughout their entire lives—sort of the way many people take vitamins. Putting antibiotics in the feed helps make the animals grow bigger, faster.
Growing more animals bigger and faster increases profits and, to some extent, keeps costs at the grocery store down. So what’s the problem? The problem is that antibiotics are not vitamins. They are drugs that we depend on to fight infections that would otherwise kill millions of people every year. The way we are using antibiotics in livestock—constantly and in low doses—is the most efficient way to breed harmful bacteria that are resistant to those antibiotics.
Restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock would greatly reduce the dangers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but legislation has met with stiff resistance from the meat-growing industry. In the meantime, buying meat produced without antibiotics sends a message that consumers are willing to pay more for meat produced without antibiotics. Also, it helps support the farmers who opt out of the conventional system, and that reduces antibiotic use. Cutting back on antibiotic use in agriculture will help maintain the potency and viability of antibiotics to treat serious, life-threatening diseases in humans and animals.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Buying meat raised without antibiotics is worth the cost because cutting down on the use of antibiotics in livestock can keep humans and livestock healthier in the long run.
Should You Buy Hormone-free Meat?
Hormones are not used in poultry or pork products. So, paying extra for hormone-free eggs or bacon is like paying extra for fat-free broccoli. But don’t feel too bad if you fall for that one—lots of us did. They do, however, give hormones to cows—both dairy cows and the kind that are raised for meat. A variety of hormones—both natural and synthetic—are used to increase milk production and to make cows grow to their slaughter weight faster.
Environmentalists are worried that a lot of those hormones will end up in the cow’s manure and make their way into streams and rivers, affecting fish, frogs, and other sensitive fauna. There are also fears that hormone residues in meat could affect the humans who consume them more directly, possibly affecting the age at which boys and girls reach puberty or increasing the risk of cancer.
Scientists point out that the level of hormones in meat is miniscule compared to the amount produced by our own bodies—and there’s no solid evidence that these hormones have any effect on human health. Also, keep in mind that, though organic meat is raised without added hormones, it is not necessarily hormone-free. Cows produce their own hormones, after all. In fact, an untreated bull would have much higher levels of natural testosterone than a castrated steer that is receiving hormone replacement therapy.
Public health agencies are split on the issue. The European Union, for example, has outlawed the use of hormones in cattle and banned beef imports from the United States due to their concerns. The U.S. FDA, on the other hand, insists that the use of hormones in beef and dairy cattle poses no threat to human welfare and that meat and milk from cows given hormones is identical to meat and milk produced without hormones. If you want meat raised without hormones in the United States, you’ll want to buy certified organic.
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Beef produced without hormones isn’t more nutritious than regular meat, nor is it likely to be hormone-free. But because giving cattle hormones may ultimately have harmful effects on the environment and consumers, I think it’s worth the money. (Don’t worry about looking for hormone-free pork or poultry products as these animals aren’t given hormones in the first place.)
Cold Cuts and Cured Meats
Cured meats, including ham, bacon, hot dogs, bologna, salami, and other hard sausages tend to be high in sodium and fat. Worse, they usually contain nitrates and nitrites. These compounds have been linked to cancer in both lab animals and humans. If you only eat these types of foods occasionally, I don’t think you need to be concerned about this. But these aren’t foods you want to be eating in large quantities or on a regular basis.
Developing fetuses and small children seem to be the most vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of nitrites. Pregnant women and small children should avoid cured meats altogether.
Nitrite-free hot dogs, boloney, and ham are also an option—although be forewarned that they won’t be that bright pink color that you’re used to. Nitrites are what turn ham, hot dogs, and cold cuts pink. Nitrite-free versions taste exactly the same but they’re usually tan or brown.
Deli meats such as sliced turkey breast, chicken, or roast beef are generally nitrite free. They’re also low in fat. They can be saltier than fresh meats, however, so if sodium is a concern, look for the reduced-sodium variety.
What’s The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Meat
Calculate servings. Figure how many servings you’ll need based on the number of people in your household and the number of meals at which you’ll be serving meat between now and your next shopping trip. Keep in mind that meat doesn’t have to be a daily event. With seafood and vegetarian meals also in your repertoire and the occasional meal out, you may only end up serving meat once or twice a week.
Estimate portions. Four ounces of uncooked, boneless meat will yield approximately three ounces of cooked meat—and that’s the standard serving size on which most dietary recommendations are based. However, the portions commonly served in restaurants—and many homes—are usually about twice that big. A one-pound (16-ounce) flank steak or pork tenderloin, for example, will yield four small servings or two large ones. For cuts that include bones, expect to get two to three small servings or one large serving per pound of uncooked meat. A three-pound whole chicken, for example, will yield six small servings or three large ones.
Stretch your budget. You can save money by stocking your freezer when there are specials. Just be sure the meat has not previously been frozen and don’t stock more than you’ll eat within two to three months.
Be your own deli. If you are roasting a chicken or roast beef for dinner, plan to use the leftovers for sandwiches and salads and skip the deli.
Plan meals on the fly. As you make your selections, think about how you’ll serve them and what you might need for those meals or recipes. For example, that ground bison would make a great pot of chili. If you’re low on beans or chili powder, add those to your list. (See my recipe for Chili con Cocoa.)
The Fish Counter
Health experts recommend eating at least two servings of fish a week for better health. And although fish consumption is up somewhat, we’re still falling short of the goal, eating closer to one serving a week on average. We can do better! Here are some of the factors to consider when choosing fish, along with guidelines to help you zero in on the best choices.
OMEGA-3 FATS—One big reason we’re all encouraged to eat more fish is that it can be a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. These important fats support a healthy immune system and help keep your brain and cardiovascular system healthy. Although all fish and shellfish are generally nutritious, certain fish are particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids. As a rule, fish with oilier, stronger-tasting meat are higher in omega-3 fats. The following fish are high in omega-3 fats:
Sablefish (aka black cod)
Bluefin tuna (albacore and yellowfin are much lower in Omega-3)
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Of the recommended two servings of fish a week, try to make at least one of them a type that’s high in omega-3s.
MERCURY—Virtually all fish contain mercury. But this is not a reason to avoid seafood. There have been countless studies connecting fish eating to greater health and longevity, and mercury poisoning is rare, even in people who eat a lot of fish. That would suggest that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the risks—with one exception. Exposure to mercury—which can affect the development of the nervous system—is most dangerous to fetuses and small children. Pregnant and nursing women and small children avoid fish known to be high in mercury. People who eat fish more than twice a week might want to follow the same precautions. Everyone else can relax. The following fish are high in mercury:
Albacore (“white”) tuna
The Quick and Dirty Secret
Pregnant women, small children, and those who eat fish more than twice a week should watch out for fish that are high in mercury.
PCBs—Although PCBs were banned years ago, they persist in the environment, tending to accumulate in riverbeds and shallow sea beds. From here they make their way into fish and, ultimately, into us. PCBs are suspected carcinogens and repeated exposure may also cause neurological or other problems, especially in babies and young children.
As with mercury, it’s important to put this into perspective. It would appear that the benefits of eating fish outweigh the health risks from contaminants. Nonetheless, as with fish containing high levels of mercury, it makes sense to limit your consumption of those fish known to be particularly high in PCB residues. The following fish are high in PCBs:
Striped bass (wild)
Rainbow trout (farmed)
SUSTAINABILITY—Finally, now that we’re all trying to eat more fish, there are concerns that growing demand is quickly depleting wild populations. At the same time, overcrowded fish farms are polluting the environment. These factors may not affect the nutritional quality of the fish itself but, as with hormones and antibiotics in livestock, supporting sustainable fishing practices makes sense when you consider the long-term view. Because fish is so good for us, we want to be sure we don’t run out of it. We also don’t want to destroy the environment in the process.
Some of the fish that are a particular concern right now include:
Chilean sea bass
Tuna, (bluefin, bigeye, yellowfin)
How to Keep Track
Frankly, it’s a lot to keep track of. No wonder we’re tempted to skip the fish counter entirely. However, there are a couple of tools that make it simple to make the best choices. You can download and print out a pocket-sized Seafood Selector and Sushi Guide from the Environmental Defense Fund at edf.org. There are also a number of Smartphone applications, such as Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Frozen and Canned Fish
If fresh fish is expensive or the selection is limited (or you find the prospect of selecting or cooking fresh fish intimidating), frozen and canned fish can be good alternatives. Canned fish like sardines, anchovies, and salmon offer a nutritional bonus. In addition to being high in omega-3 fatty acids, they are also high in calcium. Most canned fish is fairly high in sodium, however. If you’re trying to keep your sodium down, you’ll want to budget your sodium allowance and your canned fish intake accordingly. With frozen fish, steer clear of breaded and battered options.
What’s The Game Plan?
Your Shopping Game Plan for Fish
Estimate Portions A small serving of fish is about four ounces of uncooked fish. A larger serving, such as the size served in most restaurants, is closer to eight ounces uncooked. So if you’re buying salmon to cook for six people, a 24-ounce fillet will give you six small servings or three large ones. If you’re buying a whole fish, plan on double the weight per serving. Your goal is to have at least two small servings (or one large serving) of fish every week. That doesn’t mean you necessarily have to buy and cook fish every week. Meals you eat in restaurants count as well—as does the tuna sandwich you take for lunch.
Keep It Fresh Fish does not keep well, so plan to cook (or freeze) fresh fish the day you buy it. Cool storage is also crucial, so ask the grocer to give you a bag of ice to carry the fish home in and store it in the fridge, ice and all, until it’s time to cook.
Have A Backup Plan Canned or frozen fish are good budget-friendly options to keep on hand for last-minute meals. Although canned fish will keep indefinitely, frozen fish should be consumed within two or three months.
Plan Meals On The Fly If a beautiful piece of fish catches your eye for dinner tonight, think about what you might like to serve with it and add those items to your list. Grilled salmon goes particularly well with Asian-style Broccoli Salad, for example (see my recipe). So well, in fact, that once you see that wild-caught salmon on special, you’ll probably want to circle back to the produce section and grab some broccoli, if you didn’t already pick some up. And if you’re running low on seasoned rice vinegar, be sure to add that to your list, as well.
We’ve now pretty much completed our circuit around the edges of the store. Hopefully, your cart is pretty full by now. But there are still a few things that you’ll probably need to round out your meals and menus. It’s time to head into the interior aisles.
NUTRITION DIVA’S SECRETS FOR A HEALTHY DIET Copyright © 2011 by Monica Reinagel.