9 Nutrition Essentials

Fad-free strategies to make your diet its best ever
The Editors of Cooking Light

You have access to more nutrition information than ever―from magazines to the Internet, newspapers, and television. When you add to that the hype about fad diets, the resulting information overload creates more confusion than clarity.

“Many people are still uncertain about what they should eat and think good nutrition is complicated,” says Food Editor Ann Taylor Pittman. “Even Cooking Light readers, who are more well versed in good nutrition than most, come to us with questions about everything from what constitutes a healthful fat to how to work more whole grains into their diet.”

In this and other stories throughout the year, we will demystify the essentials of smart nutrition. First, we’ve identified the nine most important nutrition issues that influence the way we eat. And we’ve assembled a panel of top authorities in the nutrition, public health, culinary, and food marketing fields to help guide us in translating complex science into real-world information you can use. We’ll share their strategies for bringing smart nutrition to your plate. Here’s a preview of the nine topics we’ll cover this year in Cooking Light, all with recipes so you can start enjoying the best nutrition right now.

#1: Eat smart, be fit, and live longer.

Dan Buettner, one of our panel of experts for the 2009 Nutrition Essentials series and author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, has studied communities he calls Blue Zones (including residents of Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; and Costa Rica) where people live to the age of 100 at a much higher rate than the general population. “Each Blue Zone revealed its own recipes for longevity, but many of the fundamental ingredients were the same,” he writes.

What you can do: One of the fundamental lessons from the Blue Zones research: Eat a predominately plant-based diet that offers a balance of healthful fats; a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; and quality sources of protein that are low in saturated fat, which is linked to elevated rates of cardiovascular disease. Another key similarity between Blue Zone groups: Each makes meals part of the fabric of life, which includes family togetherness, collective effort, and conviviality. And finally, each group has daily exercise in common. Activity balances the calories consumed, helping to keep weight in check.

View Recipe: Frisée Salad with Persimmons, Dates, and Almonds

#2: Select carbs that satisfy.

Much confusion surrounds the topic of carbohydrates, thanks to fad diets that promote fat and protein over carbs. But, “as with fats, it is the type of carbohydrate that is most important,” says Walter Willett, MD, PhD, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of our panel of experts for this series. Eventually, all carbohydrates turn to sugar in our bodies. These sugars give us the energy needed to perform tasks―from breathing to bicep curls.

However, some carbohydrates convert to sugar more quickly than others. For this reason, nutrition recommendations for carbohydrates focus on complex carbohydrates, the more slowly digested kind found in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables (such as quinoa, kidney beans, and winter squash). They help you feel full and satisfied after a meal and keep your levels of blood sugar on an even keel, reducing the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

What you can do: Whole grains, in particular, are a superior carbohydrate choice. Women who average two to three daily servings of whole grains have a 30 percent reduced risk for heart attack and type 2 diabetes compared to women who consume less than one serving per week, according to the Nurses’ Health Study. Such findings prompted the USDA to recommend three servings daily (two 100 percent whole-grain bread slices and one-half cup cooked brown rice, for example) in the current Dietary Guidelines. Our Sweet Potato–Pecan Burgers with Caramelized Onions make use of several healthful complex carbs, including sweet potatoes, oats, and whole-grain buns.

View Recipe: Sweet Potato-Pecan Burgers with Caramelized Onions

#3: Boost your nutrient power.

Dietitians increasingly recommend and have a term for foods inherently rich in vitamins, minerals, and beneficial nutrients without additional calories: “nutrient dense” or “nutrient rich.” The idea is to choose foods that offer the most nutritional bang for the caloric buck. “Consider skim milk: You get all the same nutrients―protein, calcium, vitamins A and D―in a lower-calorie package than whole milk,” says Cooking Light Associate Food Editor and registered dietitian Kathy Kitchens Downie.

How to do it: “If you understand the basic principle of choosing nutrient-rich foods, you can begin to apply it to recipes,” Downie says. “In the example below, we augment the refined flour and cornmeal traditionally used in corn bread with almond meal, which boosts the nutrition profile with good-for-you unsaturated fat, fiber, and vitamin E.” Salads are another prime example of nutrient-rich foods. Start with low-calorie greens, and add fruits, vegetables, and other foods that raise the nutrient profile. In the salad above, we begin with feathery frisée, then add persimmons, which contribute vitamins A and C, dates, which add fiber, and almonds.

View Recipe: Almond-Cranberry Corn Bread