By Donna Cardillo, RN
A recent dinner guest of mine, while salting her food at the table, asserted defensively, “I’m sorry. I know no one uses salt anymore because it’s unhealthy but I enjoy salt on my food.” I was startled by her declaration and blanket statements about table salt. It got me thinking about how much confusing and conflicting information there is out there on certain foods, not to mention foods that were once touted as “bad” and now are emerging as having health benefits. Here’s the scoop on the most commonly misunderstood “bad” foods and how they may actually be “good” for you.
Good old sodium chloride – two elements that are vital to the very life force. Sodium intake is required by the body for proper heart function, transmission of nerve impulses, prevention of dehydration, and even in our intestines to absorb some nutrients. The problem is that many of us consume way too much sodium via processed and pre-packaged foods. And while some people restrict their salt/sodium intake because of high blood pressure or other ailments, a recent preliminary Dutch study showed that very low sodium diets may actually increase cholesterol levels. The US government recommends about 6g of salt per day for healthy adults (less for children). Unless you’ve been advised by a health-care professional to restrict your salt intake, there’s no need to stop adding a little salt to your food for taste.
A relative proudly told me years ago that she eliminated all fat from her diet in an effort to keep her weight under control and stay healthy. In reality, although most Americans consume way too much fat, we actually need a certain amount of fat in our diet for good health. Fat is an essential part of every cell in our bodies. It is necessary for brain and heart health and must be present in our digestive tract to help the body absorb and utilize certain vitamins. Insufficient fat in your diet can cause hair loss, depression, skin bruising, lack of energy, dry, flaky skin, weak muscles and bones, hormonal imbalances, and a weakened immune system, to name a few.
Fat should make up between 20-35% of your daily calories (depending on age, height, gender and activity level), the majority of which should be unsaturated fats. Include some healthy fats in every meal, such as olive oil, avocado, low-fat dairy, nuts, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, herring), peanut butter, and soy products.
These marvels of nature have had a rocky ride over the last few decades. Some years back, an anti-egg campaign recommending that eggs should be avoided or at least restricted had been waged because of the cholesterol levels in the yolk. But according to recent USDA data, eggs have less cholesterol (down to 185mg vs. 300mg daily recommendation for healthy adults) and more vitamin D than in the past. They are a great source of protein, iron, and other vital nutrients. Current thinking also focuses more on overall diet and lifestyle rather than on the use or restriction of specific foods.
Here’s another food product that has had its ups and down over the years. Once a staple in the American diet, many of us had become addicted to it. Then information came out about the negative effects of caffeine, so many of us switched to decaf. Now research from several sources supports drinking1-2 cups or more daily for health, good memory function, and possibly even to reduce risk of getting type 2 diabetes! Of course if you have various heart or other ailments, including insomnia, that require the avoidance of any stimulants, then that is that. But the majority of us can still enjoy a few cups each day if we choose to. (It is advisable to avoid caffeine at least 8 hours prior to bedtime)
Last but not least, one of my favorite substances on the planet. I’ve often heard people say when offered some chocolate, “No thanks. I’m being good.” The truth is that regular consumption of small amounts (1-3 oz daily) of dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa content) can improve your circulatory health. That can mean lowered blood pressure, less chance of your arteries clogging, and a reduced risk of stroke-causing blood clots. It can also deliver a healthy dose of antioxidants which rid the body of free radicals and other harmful elements known to cause cancer and other illnesses. Additionally, a recent study shows that those who consume moderate amounts of chocolate regularly have a lower body mass index (measure of body fat in relation to height and weight) and seem to be thinner than those who don’t!
Of course many of us overdo the chocolate “cure,” thereby dumping high levels of saturated fat and sugar (plus a ton of calories) into our systems, which counter any potential benefits. If you can’t limit your intake to the recommended “dosage,” you might be better off skipping this one. Chocolate also contains caffeine, so avoid it near bedtime or if you have been advised to avoid stimulants.
Always follow the advice of your primary-care provider and discuss any self-imposed restrictions with a health-care professional before making them part of your routine. Moderation in all things is the key to an overall healthy diet and lifestyle.