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The truth behind the latest nutrition trends

Interest in nutrition and diet have never been so hot. It's easy to get caught in the swell of enthusiasm, jumping on every diet trend bandwagon. Some of the current trends are good, and some are a waste of time. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of “10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet,” sifts the fact from fiction and give a thumbs up or down to the latest trends.1. Carbs are
/ Source: TODAY

Interest in nutrition and diet have never been so hot. It's easy to get caught in the swell of enthusiasm, jumping on every diet trend bandwagon. Some of the current trends are good, and some are a waste of time. Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of “10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman's Diet,” sifts the fact from fiction and give a thumbs up or down to the latest trends.

1. Carbs are back, but only if they are whole grains

The low-carb, no-carb, net-carb fad is over, while whole grains are on a roll. In 2005, the government's dietary guidelines advised Americans to eat whole grains for half your daily grain servings, or to eat at least three ounces of whole grains per day. You might feel like a ping pong ball when it comes to grains, first hearing they are good for you, then that they're bad.

But there is good reason to focus on whole grains. The main paradox in the controversy over grains is that refined grains cause the same diseases that whole grains help to prevent. Fiber-rich whole grains lower our risks for everything from heart disease and cancer to diabetes and hypertension, and they fill us up without filling us out, so they help keep us svelte. In short, making sure at least half the grains you eat every day are whole grains — along with loading your plate with vegetables and fruit — is one of the smartest things you can do for your health and waistline.

Start easy. Make the switch from refined to whole on those items that are easy, such as switching to 100 percent whole wheat bread, using instant brown rice instead of white rice, and tossing the sugar-coated breakfast cereals in favor of 100 percent whole grain cereals, such as Shredded Wheat, GrapeNuts, NutriGrain, and Kashi. There are even some half-and-half pastas on the market now, that are half whole grain, to ease into the habit of eating whole grain noodles.

On the other hand, don't be fooled by labels and claims. The term “whole grain” is popping up on labels of foods that don't deliver the goods. Loose regulations are allowing companies to make up their own whole grain claims. Adding whole grains to Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs or sugary bars such as Post Honey Bunches of Oats does not make them a healthy food! Also, adding the word “wheat” to a product, such as DiGiorno Harvest Wheat pizza, does not mean it is made with whole wheat! If you see the word “made with” assume it is made with very little whole grain, such as Kellogg's Eggo NutriGrain Pancakes. Look for words like 100 percent whole grain.

Bottom line: Thumbs up.

2. Portion control

Portions have ballooned up to 10-fold in the past few years. The bigger the portion, the more we eat and the more calories we consume, which explains why bigger portions are now considered one of the main reasons for America's bulging waistlines. To meet this need, more and more companies are offering single-serve packages.

For example, Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Singles (approx. 230 calories) help avoid downing a whole pint in one sitting. They even come with their own little plastic spoon. Teddy Grahams Graham Snacks (150-160 calories) are a 1.25-ounce version of the boxed grahams. Earthbound Farm Organic Apple Slices (30 calories) and mini-bags of baby carrots are great ways to conveniently grab-and-go your fruits and vegetables. Laughing Cow Mini Babybel Light Cheese (50 calories) is a Swiss-like, semi-soft cheese round that provides 20 percent of your calcium and six grams of protein in a hold-in-your-palm sized container.

Common sense says the more plain fruits and vegetables you eat the better, but if you're going to eat ice cream anyway, then smaller versions of these less-than-healthy foods make it easier to practice safer snacking. Of course, these foods tend to be more expensive. A cheaper version would be to make your own 100-calorie packs by plunking a few cookies or crackers into zip-lock bags ... just make sure you don't go back for more!

Bottom line: Thumbs up.

3. Trans fats are out

Trans fats in processed and fast foods increase inflammatory processes associated with diabetes and heart disease. These modified fats, which are found in hydrogenated vegetable oils and all processed foods made with those fats, also raise total cholesterol and lower HDLs (the good cholesterol), thus serving as a one-two punch for heart disease. So it is no surprise that a report from Harvard School of Public Health, in summarizing the cardiovascular effects of trans fats, concludes that the link between trans fat intake and heart disease risk is linear and “... corresponds to tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. alone.”

As of January 2006, all packaged foods are required to include the trans fat content on the label, and with all that bad press, many companies are turning to no-trans options. You still need to be careful and read labels. If a product has eliminated the trans fats but has more than one gram of saturated fat for every 100 calories, has added palm oil or coconut oil, or if sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is one of the top three ingredients, then it's traded one bad fat for another or loaded up on sugar to make up for the loss of fat.

Bottom line: Thumbs up, but still read labels.

4. Reduced or sugar-free or reduced or fat-free foods are in

Never before in the history of the planet has anyone ever eaten as much added sugar as Americans are eating today. According to the USDA, we average about 100 pounds a year for every man, woman, and child, which is about 25 percent of our calories and teh equivalent of 30 teaspoons a day! So, in theory, switching from regular to reduced sugar items should be a bonus, right? In some cases that's true. Some fruit drinks contain 130 calories, with much of those calories coming from high-fructose corn syrup, compared to the same “diet” fruit drink which contains the fruits, but has only 10 calories per cup.

In general, real food that has been “lightened,” such as fat-free cream cheese or sour cream, fat-free half and half, fat-free refried beans and sugar-free yogurt are great ideas! Tropicana's Essentials Light 'n Healthy Juice Beverage is one of many products that has cut calories without sacrificing nutrition by adding a bit of Splenda, the artificial sweetener. In other cases, when we're talking about processed foods, you can't assume just because a label says “reduced sugar” or “reduced fat” that the product has fewer calories. For example, three regular Milanos have three teaspoons of sugar and 180 calories, while three Sugar-Free Milanos have 170 calories.

Bottom line: Thumbs up for real items and thumbs down for processed foods.

5. The new face of antioxidants

Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E have had some rough times of late, with several studies concluding that they aren't quite the miracle supplements we hoped. However, a new wave of research is breathing new life into antioxidants with evidence that we can boost our bodies' ability to fend off harmful free radicals not just by throwing antioxidants at them, but by actually stimulating our own genes to make more antioxidant enzymes. Phytochemicals in colorful fruits like berries and vegetables like tomatoes and carrots are the first line of defense. Also, look out for new supplements that show promise in enhancing your body's own defense systems to ward off both disease and even premature aging.

Bottom line: Thumbs up.

6. Functional foods or functional junk?

Functional foods are typically fortified with nutrients that would not be there otherwise. Calcium-fortified orange juice qualifies as a functional food because calcium is not found naturally in this food, but calcium-rich yogurt doesn't. Functional foods are one of the hottest trends in the food industry, but they are as controversial as they are profitable. A wealth of evidence supports adding calcium to soy milk to prevent bone loss, plant sterols to orange juice to lower heart disease risk, or folic acid to grains to prevent birth defects. But what about adding ginkgo to a drink that contains only water and 14 teaspoons of sugar (SoBe Green Tea, 20 fluid ounces) or vitamin A to a drink where the first two ingredients are water and sugar? Also, while it is relatively easy to keep track of how much of a nutrient or herb you are consuming when it is taken as a supplement, it is much more difficult to monitor your intake when it comes from a variety of processed foods. For example, we know so little about optimal doses, interactions, or long-term consequences of most phytochemicals and herbs that to begin adding them haphazardly into foods could produce any number of potential toxic effects.

Bottom line: This is a trend that is both thumbs up and thumbs down. Thumbs up if a nutrient is added in safe amounts to an already healthy food, such as calcium or vitamin D added to OJ. But it is a definite thumbs down if a junk food tries to pass itself off as healthy by adding one or more nutrients or herbs.

7. Vitamin waters and bottled waters

What could be better for you than water? How about enhanced waters? Bottled waters with added vitamins, herbs, and flavorings often replace good-old tap water. But, hey girl, just because it's clear doesn't mean it's calorie-free! You'd be better off drinking tap water and getting your vitamins from a supplement — and avoiding the 30 to 125 calories in that overpriced workout water. For example, Glaceau's Vitamin Waters and SoBe's Life Waters have 125 calories and about 33 grams, or 8 plus teaspoons, of sugar per bottle — that's the calorie equivalent of a Dairy Queen Soft Serve Vanilla Ice Cream with toppings. Drink one a day and you'll gain 13 pounds over the course of a year. You're better off drinking plain old tap water and taking a moderate-dose multiple vitamin.

Bottom line: Thumbs down.

Bottled waters: Even regular bottled waters might not be all they are cracked up to be. Just because it's bottled doesn't mean it's safe. One study that compared 57 bottled waters with samples of tap water found that one in four of the bottled waters had unacceptable levels of bacteria, almost 2,000 times higher than the tap water samples. The amount of bacteria probably won't make you sick, but it is a warning sign, especially since regulations for bottled water are pretty lax (it was only last year that the Food and Drug Administration finally set a standard on bottled water for acceptable levels of the highly toxic metal arsenic!). Besides, about a quarter of those “gourmet” waters come straight from the tap. Skip the middle-man and get your eight glasses a day from your own faucet or filter it yourself at home.

Bottom line: Thumbs down.

8. Low sodium

Everyone should limit sodium intake. Studies repeatedly show that everyone benefits from a low-sodium diet, both people with and without high blood pressure. To be able to use the words “reduced sodium” the food must have 25 percent less sodium than is found in the regular product. It may not be perfect and you still are probably getting too much sodium, but it definitely is a step in the right direction.

Bottom line: Thumbs up.

9. Organic and locally grown

These are foods produced following a government-regulated practice of growing and processing that minimizes exposure to pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals used in traditional farming. Organic food is one of the country's fastest-growing food trends with sales rising more than 20 percent a year since the 1990s, according to the USDA. There is little evidence in the research to show that organic is significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. For example, a handful of studies suggest that organic produce might contain a bit more vitamin C, iron, and magnesium. However, when a plant is harvested has a much greater impact on its nutritional content. For example, vine-ripened tomatoes are more nutritious than green-picked tomatoes regardless of whether they are organic or not. Whether pesticides are harmful to us also has not been proven (keep in mind that all the research to date on fruits and vegetables lowering disease risk and enhancing longevity have been on conventional produce!)

When it comes to processed foods, such as chips, cookies, and baked goods, and boxed meals, a food touted as organic is no guarantee the food is good for you. It may still be too high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, calories, salt, or too low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. However, organic is gentler on the environment and when it comes to fruits and vegetables, if you can afford the extra cost, you'll be minimizing your exposure to chemicals that one day may be found to be harmful.

Bottom line: Thumbs up for produce, thumbs down for packaged foods.

Locally grown

People are seeking fresher foods and many are turning to local produce markets, local family farms, and produce grown in their own communities. Because they are so fresh, locally grown produce often has a nutritional edge over produce raised on “factory” farms. The latter is typically picked four to seven days before it arrives on supermarket shelves, and shipped for an average of 1,500 miles before it is sold. If not handled properly, produce can lose up to 50 percent of its nutrients, especially vitamin C and folate. The fresh factor means the produce tastes better and is better for you.

Bottom line: Thumbs up.

10. Omega-3 fats

We've known for some time that the types of fats in fish, called omega-3 fats, lowered heart disease risk. More recent research suggests these fats also help regulate mood, memory, and even maintain strong bones. We need more fish in our diets to get ample omega-3s, but many people either don't like fish or are concerned about mercury and other contaminants in seafood. That's why you'll see more and more products fortified with vegetarian DHA Omega-3, such as Gold Circle Farm Eggs, Odwalla Soy Milk, and Oh Mama! Nutrition Bars, all of which are vegetarian based and made from marine algae, so people do not need to worry about ocean-borne contaminants as when they are consuming Omega-3 DHA from fish sources. Of course, wild salmon, sardines, and herring are still great sources of the omega-3s.

Bottom line: Definitely a thumbs up.

11. The next trend in weight loss: The pedometer

Pedometers track success at little cost. To help incorporate physical activity into their hectic schedules, more consumers will take advantage of the pedometer in hopes of walking 10,000 steps a day, which is approximately five miles. The pedometer will encourage people to get up and get moving. Programs such as “Colorado on the Move” and “Shape Up America” help encourage people to walk 10,000 steps a day to prevent obesity.

Bottom line: Thumbs up.