Fad-free strategies to make your diet its best ever
Credit: Randy Mayor

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.

#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.

#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.

#4: Save room for treats.

“Food is meant to be pleasurable, and part of the pleasure is treating yourself,” says another authority from our expert panel, Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, founder of Nu-Train, a nutrition and counseling center in New York City, and author of The Wall Street Diet. “Any way of eating that doesn’t allow for the occasional indulgence is not sustainable.” Even the current version of the USDA Dietary Guidelines allows goodies. For example, a typical 2,000-calorie diet includes 265 calories that can be “spent” on treats―anything from a (five-ounce) glass of wine and a (one-ounce) square of chocolate to a scoop of ice cream. If the rest of your diet includes smart options like fat-free milk and lean cuts of beef, plus plenty of produce and whole grains, you’ll have room for these so-called “discretionary calories” to enjoy as you wish.

How to do it: The key is to make even your discretionary calories nutritionally sound. Enjoy nuts (which offer satisfying protein, fiber, and beneficial fats) as a snack, or make hot chocolate with unsweetened cocoa, a touch of sugar, and fat-free milk for added protein, calcium, and vitamin D. Or try the Mango Lassi, below, which offers filling protein and calcium, plus a touch of sweetness, for a midmorning pick- me-up or after-workout snack. At just 137 calories, you’ll still have room for a sensible dessert after dinner.

#5: Be savvy about salt.

Sodium plays a key role in muscle function and maintaining the body’s fluid balance, but it’s easy to consume too much. Over time, excess sodium can elevate blood pressure levels, raising the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The USDA recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mg) sodium daily for adults under age 50―the amount in one teaspoon of salt―but most Americans consume an extra 2,000 to 4,000mg daily, largely from processed and prepared foods. Reducing intake to reach that 2,300mg goal is important for everyone, but crucial for those predisposed to develop high blood pressure, especially African Americans, overweight people, or those with a family history of the condition.

It’s also important to adjust sodium intake with age. Systolic blood pressure (the top number on a blood pressure reading) rises an average of four points per decade. (The USDA recommends no more than 1,500mg daily for those over 50 and no more than 1,200mg for those over 70.)

How to do it: Clients often ask how to make meals taste good without using the saltshaker, Bauer says. First, focus on fresh, whole foods. “Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and meats may naturally contain minimal amounts of sodium, but that’s hardly the sodium found in many processed foods,” Bauer says. When you do use processed foods, look for no- or reduced-sodium versions to help avoid adding extra sodium to your dish, as with the less-sodium chicken broth we call for in the Dijon Mustard Chicken Fricassee below. Finally, enlist the aid of herbs and spices, which can help enhance foods’ flavor without the need for extra salt. “Enliven dishes with savory salt-free seasonings like fresh or dried basil, oregano, parsley, or cilantro; fresh ground spices; and garlic,” Bauer says.

#6 Eat foods that are good for you―and the planet.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in the culinary world, as chefs and home cooks search for ways to minimize their impact on the planet. It’s easy to become bogged down in the many issues dealing with how food affects the environment, and choosing among them can be confusing. Should you consume all organic foods? Only eat local foods? Avoid foods with hormones or antibiotics?

“You can’t do it all,” says panel member Marion Nestle, MPH, PhD, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat. “You have to pick the issues that matter to you.”

Many experts agree that consuming a diet rich in a wide variety of plant foods is a smart first step toward sustainability. The simple reason: Fruits, vegetables, and grains require fewer resources to produce. Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories to a vegetable-based diet can help cut the equivalent of greenhouse gases produced by driving 1,160 miles, according to researchers writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The health benefits of eating this way are well documented, too. Consuming higher amounts of produce can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol to improve your cardiovascular health, according to studies like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension).

How to do it: Place as much emphasis on produce-based side dishes as on meat entrées. For example, the rice recipe below includes peas, potatoes, green beans, onion, and carrot, all in one colorful and flavorful dish.

#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.

#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.

#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.