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.

Bottom line: Sticking to a plant-based diet that is rich in low-glycemic-index foods can help control diabetes and reduce risk for other conditions, such as heart disease.

To Prevent Heart Disease

Forgo: Cereals with added potassium and fiber; juice, yogurt, or margarine supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols.

Feast on: Fish. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are naturally rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce blood pressure and may help keep arteries clear. Pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. Dry roasted or raw nuts are a good stand-in for meat because they contribute less saturated fat to your diet. And for cholesterol control, go with whole grains yet again. "Use barley as a substitute for white rice," Jenkins says. "It has beta-glucan, which can keep cholesterol down."

Bottom line: A plant-based diet naturally limits the amount of artery-clogging saturated fat you consume. If you find that diet alone is not controlling your cholesterol sufficiently, then you may want to put orange juice with added plant sterols on the menu — these sterols can help lower cholesterol and may be even more effective than a statin, Collins says. Keep portions in moderation, though — plant sterols can potentially reduce the absorption of other fat-soluble vitamins in that meal, plus the calories in the juice add up fast.

To Prevent Cognitive Decline

Forgo: Beverages — and potato chips — enhanced with ginseng and B vitamins, and snack bars with isoflavones.

Feast on: Blueberries, cranberries, and strawberries, for their anthocyanidins; wine, grape juice, and grapes for resveratrol; and dark chocolate for epichatechin — all phyto chemicals that are beneficial in fighting age-related cognitive decline, such as memory loss. The B12 in nonfat dairy products, and in lean meat and fish, also boosts brain function. Soy contains isoflavones, which have been shown in some studies to mimic the cognitively helpful effects of estrogen in the brain. Seasonings may also help: Research has shown that the compounds in turmeric can have a positive impact on cognitive health.

Bottom line: "Diets that promote good cardiovascular health also promote good brain health," D’Anci says. "Your brain is dependent upon blood flow and blood glucose. If you have vascular problems, you aren’t getting adequate nutrients to the brain." Modeling your diet on the Mediterranean or traditional Japanese diet may yield great results for your heart and brain. "Both have foods that are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants," D’Anci says.

To Prevent Osteoporosis

Forgo: Calcium-fortified juice and pasta.

Feast on: Dairy products that are low in fat and fortified with vitamin D. If you’re lactose intolerant, go for soy milk fortified with calcium and D. Try to get three servings a day of either. (Vitamin D is critical in helping your body absorb calcium. You get it naturally from sunlight, but using sunscreen and being indoors may keep you from getting enough.) You also need vitamin K, which works with D to build bones, so include dark leafy greens and fruits like kiwi, blackberries, blueberries, and grapes in the week’s meals.

Bottom line: Many of us think that bone health is only about getting 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. But Robert P. Heaney, MD, professor of medicine at Creighton University, in Omaha, adds a caveat. "We need calcium, certainly," he says. "But the body can’t use the calcium properly if we are lacking other nutrients."

To Prevent Eye Problems

Forgo: Peanut butter enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids; juices with added vitamins or beta-carotene.

Feast on: Spinach, kale, collard greens, and fish. While there aren’t hard-and-fast numbers for how much of them you should consume for optimum eye health, it’s safe to say that loading up on leafy greens and getting at least two servings of fish per week is a great insurance policy overall, and may decrease your risk of macular degeneration.

Bottom line: "People who eat large amounts of fish and other foods with omega-3 fatty acids, lutein, and zeaxanthin have a reduced risk of macular degeneration," says Emily Y. Chew, MD, of the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Turns out carrots, despite their reputation, aren’t the best bets for your eyes. "There’s a little lutein in carrots, but you can get more from dark green leafy vegetables," Chew says.

Decoding Food Labels

Foods labeled as addressing a specific need in the diet fall into various categories. Here’s a quick guide to the labels.

Whole

Foods that have not been modified in any way, such as produce, fish, meats, and whole grains. They set the standard against which other foods are measured.

Refined

Foods that are processed, such as wheat when it gets turned into white flour. Nutrients are often lost along the way.

Enriched

Foods in which a nutrient lost in processing has been added back in. For example, the B vitamins in wheat get lost when it is processed into flour. Adding B vitamins back in classifies the fl our as "enriched."

Fortified

Foods to which nutrients that don’t occur naturally have been added during processing. Examples are flour with added folic acid, milk with vitamin D, and salt with iodine.

Enhanced

Plant-based foods that have been genetically modified.

Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:08

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