Blueberries are one of the foods that nutrition experts say we need to eat more of in the coming year.
By David Templeton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Most of us already know we should eat more broccoli, kale and apples, and drink green tea, even if we don’t.
And each year, different natural foods take center stage as researchers find them to be plumb full of antioxidants and biochemical soldiers that can battle chronic disease.
With that as motivation, the Post-Gazette asked several noted nutritionists to choose one food they’d recommend people to eat more of in 2017.
Choices were surprising, with three of the five having stirred debate and controversy most of this century.
So get a fork and embrace recommendations offered by Walter C. Willett of Harvard University, David L. Katz of Yale University, Neal D. Barnard of George Washington University and Sara Baer-Sinnott of Oldways in Boston.
It’s hard to believe the list doesn’t include a leafy green or even a vegetable:
Dr. Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, responded quickly.
“Nuts [except doughnuts],” he said. “They are chock-full of healthy fats, minerals, vitamins and fiber. They are also satisfying, so we have less urge to search out other sources of calories, which are likely to be less healthy.”
PG graphic: Comparing foods (Click image for larger version)
Tree nuts long have been shelled with criticism for their high fat content and resulting high calories, along with concern about the potential for life-threatening allergies. But a “meta-analysis” study published online Dec. 5 in BMC Medicine that reviewed major studies on nut nutrition concluded that nuts are overwhelmingly beneficial to human health. In fact, those who don’t eat them face a higher risk of death.
The study, involving several Harvard researchers in Dr. Willett’s department, focused on almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts, all of them tree nuts consisting of dry fruit containing a tree seed. Brazil nuts and peanuts are legumes but were included because of nutritional qualities similar to tree nuts.
Each nut is a power pill of antioxidants and nutritious compounds that protect and nourish the seed so it can grow into a healthy tree. As it turns out, what’s good for the tree trunk is good for the human one, and it takes only a handful of nuts — 28 grams a day — to experience the benefits.
Good things in nuts include high-quality vegetable protein, minerals, dietary fiber, magnesium, polyunsaturated fats, vitamin E, antioxidants and bio-active compounds, the National Center for Biotechnical Information reports.
With those nutrients in the arsenal, higher nut intake “is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality, and mortality from respiratory disease, diabetes, and infections,” the study found.
In 2013 alone, it said, “an estimated 4.4 million deaths may be attributable to a nut intake below 20 grams per day in North and South America, Europe, Asia and the Western Pacific. These findings support dietary recommendations to increase nut consumption to reduce chronic disease risk and mortality.”
Talk about controversial.
The king of beans includes 38 percent protein — a complete protein — along with a bean-load of nutrition.
Dr. Barnard, the founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — a nonprofit that promotes preventive medicine — recommended consumption of more soybeans in 2017, including soy milk and tofu as “a good replacement for meat, cheese and other foods.”
“They are healthful and reduce cancer risk,” he said.
Debate has centered on soybeans’ estrogen-like compounds known as isoflavones and their impact on health. But research shows soy compounds to be beneficial for men and women alike without risking the effects of excessive estrogen in postmenopausal women, which can cause endometrial cancer, fatigue, weight gain and uterine fibroid masses.
“You know the myth that ‘soybeans have hormones that cause cancer?’” Dr. Barnard said. “The truth is just the opposite. A huge 2014 study showed that women consuming the most soy had 41 percent less risk of developing breast cancer, compared with women who neglected soy. A similar cancer-fighting benefit was seen for women previously treated for breast cancer. Tofu, soy milk, etc., cut their risk of recurrence by about 30 percent.”
Besides, soy foods have served as a staple of the Asian diet, with Asian populations historically showing longer lifespans and lower levels of chronic disease.
If you can’t bring yourself to eat tofu, you can get soybeans in other ways, including whole-bean edamame; soy-based meat, cheese, ice cream and yogurt alternatives; the high-protein fermented soy cake known as tempeh, various soy nuts and snacks; and Asian soy sauces.
This may be the big surprise.
Many people don’t let a day pass without pasta, despite attendant guilt and concern about weight gain and blood-sugar spikes.
But here comes Ms. Baer-Sinnott, a Mt. Lebanon native, who says pasta is low in calories while providing complex carbohydrates that benefit health. She’s executive director of Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition education organization in Boston that promotes healthy eating through cultural food traditions and lifestyles.
Submitting numerous studies supporting her selection, she says wheat pasta is healthy even if not whole grain, which provides additional benefits.
“We love whole grains, of course,” she said. “It’s a great choice if you want more fiber. Pasta is a great food — whether durum wheat or whole wheat.”
Durum wheat semolina is flour that doesn’t include the wheat germ or bran. Pasta consists of the flour and water.
“Because of the way it is made (extruded through a die or rolled out), it is dense and, therefore, is digested slowly without a ‘sugar spike,’ ” common in such foods as bagels and waffles, she said. Pasta is relatively low on the Glycemic Index and “keeps you fuller for longer.” (See chart above.)
There’s an important caveat with her choice, however. What makes pasta unhealthy, she said, are high-calorie, unhealthful ingredients that people often add to it.
“Pasta isn’t eaten by itself” but rather is “a healthy partner for other healthy foods — like vegetables, olive oil, beans, tomatoes, fish, small amounts of meat and cheese,” Ms. Baer-Sinnott said. “Pasta is a great way to get kids to eat more vegetables and beans — two things all Americans need to consume more.”
Lentils long have made healthful food lists, so there’s nothing new here. But, the bean with the highest nutritional credentials still isn’t a mainstay in the American diet.
Its selector, Dr. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, said brown-bean benefits of lentils include low environmental impact, a phenomenal nutritional profile and specific protection against insulin resistance, which causes Type 2 diabetes, all due to “very high content of soluble fiber.”
“They are extremely versatile in cuisine and a good, high-protein alternative to meat,” Dr. Katz said.
His wife, Catherine Katz, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience, operates Cuisinicity, a website that helps people “love the food that loves them back.” She said lentils can replace flour in healthy desserts with recipes at cuisinicity.com.
Here’s another food with long-promoted nutritional benefits, which explains why the National Institutes of Health continues funding research on blueberries. Dr. Willett recommended it as a second choice of foods people should eat more of in 2017.
NIH studies say blueberries have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, with positive impacts on the aging brain and memory, and cardiovascular benefits that include lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It’s recommended that people eat a quarter cup of blueberries per day, with their taste and flavor making it a joy rather than chore.
“These blue jewels have been related to lower risks of diabetes, heart disease and failing memory, possibly due to their unique combination of phytochemicals,” Dr. Willett said.
David Templeton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1578.
Correction (posted Jan. 2, 2017): An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name for David L. Katz.
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