9 Nutrition Essentials

Fad-free strategies to make your diet its best ever

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  • Walter Willett

    Meet our 2009 Nutrition Advisory Board

    We are pleased to announce our panel of scientists, dietitians, chefs, and other culinary experts who will advise us on nutrition topics and issues covered in our 2009 “Nutrition Essentials” series. Get to know each of them here.

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#7: Beware of portion distortion.

We’ve all seen what appears to be a single-serve packaged snack, only to discover the label indicates it actually yields two servings. This can lead to overeating. When faced with larger portions, people naturally eat more, according to researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, who has led many pioneering studies examining the psychological cues that can induce people to over consume.

How to do it: Portion control is easy to practice in your own kitchen. When ordering the mahimahi for the recipe at right, ask the fishmonger to cut 6-ounce portions―no more, no less. When cooking with ingredients that aren’t already portioned or plating finished dishes, pay close attention to measurements. Use tools like measuring cups or kitchen scales to help you identify the correct amount. Practice will make perfect; over time, you’ll begin to automatically recognize a proper portion.

View Recipe: Seared Mahimahi with Edamame Succotash

#8: Choose premium protein.

Whether from meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, nuts, or beans, protein helps you feel fuller longer. That’s good news when it comes to managing your appetite. However, protein sources differ in their nutritional makeup. In order to clearly consider protein choices, you must also factor fat.

How to do it: For most meals, choose a protein that offers the most of the nutrient for the least saturated fat. Plant-based proteins, like black beans, lentils, or navy beans, come with little fat and plentiful vitamins and minerals. They’re always a good choice. Nuts are generally rich in beneficial unsaturated fats. Animal proteins contain varying levels and types. For example, beef tenderloin is inherently lean, while a ribeye contains almost twice as much saturated fat―more than 5 grams per 3-ounce serving. Yet both servings have roughly the same amount of protein: 24 grams for the ribeye, and 25 grams for the tenderloin.

View Recipe: Crispy Tofu Pad Thai

#9: Sort the latest facts on fat.

From now on, you’ll notice a change in the nutrition numbers that accompany every Cooking Light recipe: We no longer include percentage of calories from fat per serving.

We’re making this adjustment in light of findings from large-scale studies like the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute-led Nurses’ Health Study, which demonstrated that the type of fat is more important to heart health than a particular food’s ratio of calories from fat, and the OmniHeart Study, which showed that replacing a portion of total calories with unsaturated fats―such as sautéing vegetables in canola oil rather than butter or snacking on a half-ounce of pecans instead of pretzels―may help protect against heart disease.

“There really is no scientific basis for setting a percentage of fat in the total diet,” Willett says. “It is the type of fat that is important for health. Trans fat is to be avoided, saturated fat is to be kept fairly low, and unsaturated fats emphasized.”

Here’s an example that illustrates the point: “Salmon contains 45 percent of calories from fats, most of which are beneficial,” Downie says. “Removing the 30 percent limit on calories from fat in a serving allows you to reap the benefits of salmon’s healthful unsaturated fats.” To help you avoid consuming an excess of fat, which is high in calories regardless of its type, we’ll continue to evaluate the recipe’s total nutrition profile in relation to the serving size and daily calorie needs. “At Cooking Light, a serving size of cooked salmon is 4.5 ounces, which is 177 calories, a perfectly reasonable amount for an entrée,” Downie says.

How to do it: Look beyond the total fat in a given food. If the food has a nutrition label, check the amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats it contains. Figures for these healthful unsaturated fats should be higher than those for saturated and trans fats, which are linked to heart disease. (No numbers for those nutrients on the food you’re considering? Just subtract the amount of saturated and trans fats from the total fat to estimate the unsaturated amount.) For foods that are high in unsaturated fats, make adjustments in your diet to help keep your overall daily calories balanced. For example, in the muesli recipe here, we call for fat-free yogurt to help keep calories in check and minimize saturated fat.

View Recipe: Muesli with Cranberries and Flaxseed

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