The New Food Fixes

Are foods with added vitamins really healthier? We sort through the hype.

By Bari Nan Cohen

Enhanced Foods: Healthier?

Cruise the aisles of most supermarkets and you’re likely to see extraordinary health claims screaming out at you from every shelf. Heart-healthy cereals. Yogurt with plant sterols. Diet cola with vitamins. Even the baddest foods on the block seem to want you to believe that they’ve reformed.

It’s true that many of us are not getting enough of the nutrients we need most to fight off the diseases that top the post-40 worry list. One USDA study found that women over 40 don’t get enough vitamin B6, dietary fiber, calcium, or zinc. And we’re borderline deficient in copper, phosphorous, thiamine, and iron — nutrients that may help ward off cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, cognitive decline, and more.

Certain fortified foods have indeed bettered our health — usually when the added nutrient is difficult to get elsewhere (iodized salt, milk with vitamin D, and cereal enhanced with folic acid come to mind). But don’t let this sway you into thinking that supplementing your diet with souped-up foods will necessarily help. The added nutrients in soft drinks, refined cereal, candy bars, and other foods in the nutritional reject bin won’t make them the stars that nutrient-dense whole foods already are. In addition, the modified foods may put you at risk for damaging overdoses of certain nutrients. "Women who are not menstruating can get too much iron, for instance," says Kristen D’Anci, PhD, of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. And too much iron may be linked to heart disease.

So what foods are the best bets for keeping us healthy as we age — and which are just masquerading as disease fighters? Read on.

To Prevent Cancer

Forgo: Everything from energy bars to sugary juice drinks that claim added antioxidants.

Feast on: Broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, bok choy, and other members of the cabbage family: These have isothiocyanates, which help prevent and fight cancer. Aim for two cups a week, or about a one-third cup serving per day. Garlic (try for two to three cloves a week) and green tea (three to five cups per day) may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, says Karen Collins, MS, RD, nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research, in Washington, D.C.

Whole-grain foods may also help by diluting the concentration of carcinogens in the digestive tract and reducing elevated estrogen levels that can contribute to breast cancer. Aim for at least three servings a day: A serving is about a half cup of brown rice or whole-grain pasta, or one slice of bread.

Bottom line: "Natural foods work with one another to protect health by providing you with a variety of phytochemicals that occur naturally and act on different mechanisms," Collins says. "When you’re getting nutrients from whole foods, it’s not a matter of one plus one equals two — it’s one plus one equals three, or even five."

To Lose Weight

Forgo: Weight-loss shakes and bars with added vitamins and minerals; ice cream sandwiches boasting added fiber.

Feast on: Fruits, vegetables, and high-protein foods such as beans or legumes. "Look for foods that are high in volume, that satisfy your appetite with fewer calories," says David J. A. Jenkins, MD, of the University of Toronto.

Bottom line: "We have to do a better job of weight control in this country," Collins says. "And one of the best ways to do this is to eat a diet that’s high in fiber." But beware of foods with added fiber — there isn’t a lot of proof that the types of fibers typically used offer the same health benefits as fiber that occurs naturally.

To Prevent and Control Diabetes

Forgo: Beverages, snack bars, and other processed foods that claim to be "low-glycemic-index."

Feast on: Truly low-glycemic-index foods, which are digested slowly and therefore produce only small fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels. Beans, lentils, nuts, and most vegetables are good bets. Soy milk and tofu have proteins that may help reduce urinary protein losses in people with diabetes.

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