The Healthy Food Snob
"Being a bit of a food snob is actually a great strategy for health and weight maintenance," says Ellie Krieger, RD, host of the Food Network’s Healthy Appetite and author of The Food You Crave. "If you insist on first-class food, you’re giving your body higher-quality nutrients, eating less junk, and, most important, getting a lot more satisfaction." Gourmet foods — more widely available than ever — can be deliciously decadent and good for you. Here are some of our we-deserve-it favorites.
Wine and Champagne
We’ve all heard that the fruits of the vine can help prevent such cardiovascular problems as heart disease and strokes. They’ll also give you a cancer-fighting boost, thanks to the polyphenols in grapes and grape skins. Red wines and rosés take the prize for highest antioxidant levels, because the grape skins are not removed during fermentation. But if you prefer to fill your glass with white wine or champagne — which do lose their grape skins — that’s fine too. There’s still enough of a nutritional boost to make it well worth popping a cork.
"The key is to keep your intake to one daily drink; anything more and the benefits are negated," Krieger says.
100 Percent Extra Virgin Olive Oil
"All olive oil contains antioxidants that fight against the cell inflammation that can lead to cancer and heart disease. Choose cloudy, unfiltered varieties, which provide more antioxidants because they have not been processed out during manufacturing," says Laura Pensiero, RD, coauthor of The Strang Cancer Prevention Center Cookbook. In addition, research from Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center suggests that oleocanthal, a substance found in extra virgin olive oil, has an anti-inflammatory effect similar to ibuprofen’s. In terms of flavor, look for oils that hail from Italy, Spain, Greece, or California, which tower above the others.
Know, however, that heating olive oil can diminish its exceptional flavor, so don’t just cook with it: Drizzle some (mixed with a nice vinegar, perhaps) on your lunchtime salad or use it to finish pasta.
Like olive oil, nut oils are packed with antioxidants that protect against heart disease and cancer. Walnut oil, with a high omega-3 fatty acid content, is particularly beneficial. "This type of polyunsaturated fat improves cognitive function, reducing risk for mental health conditions including anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s," says Molly Kimball, RD, of the Elmwood Fitness Center, in New Orleans. "It also has an anti-inflammatory effect that may protect against such diseases as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma."
The typical American diet is out of balance in fatty acids: Researchers estimate we get 20 times more omega-6 fats (like those found in olive oil) than omega-3s. So break out of your usual habit and enjoy walnut oil’s light, nutty taste as a finishing oil over pastas, breads and grains, steamed vegetables, and salads (as with olive oil, heating destroys its flavor). Krieger adds, "It emulsifies beautifully, so try whisking it with mustard, shallots, and vinegar for a quick, delicious salad dressing."
That rich, delicious blend that you keep for guests? Unearth it from the back of the freezer and start drinking it. "If you keep your intake below three cups a day, coffee has significant health benefits," Pensiero says. Studies indicate that coffee drinkers are less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease or cirrhosis of the liver, have a reduced risk for colon cancer, and have lower rates of type 2 diabetes and suicide, according to researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Institute for Coffee Studies. Caffeine is responsible for some of the benefits, but coffee also contains other helpful substances, such as magnesium and antioxidants. Grind the beans yourself just before drinking to retain the most nutrients.
Forget those sad little plastic cartons of artificially sweetened glop. Greek yogurt is thick, rich, low in sugar, and high in protein, which we need to keep our muscles strong and blood-sugar levels even. In addition to full-fat, it comes in low-fat and fat-free varieties. "A sublime way to eat yogurt is to toast some walnuts and sprinkle them on top with a drizzle of honey," Krieger says. "Or use it to lighten up dips and salad dressings. I combine Greek yogurt with two tablespoons of mayo, some beautiful blue cheese, and a splash of white-wine vinegar, then whisk it all together lightly with a fork. Delicious."
These salty little jewels need not be reserved for New Year’s Eve. A tablespoon contains just 40 calories and is a rich source of protein, iron, and magnesium, all essential for proper functioning of the blood and cellular, muscular, and nervous systems. It also contains vitamin B12, which we need more of as we age because our bodies stop absorbing it as efficiently. (Yes, we said it — you need what’s in caviar.) It elevates your Saturday scrambled eggs and is an elegant garnish for a bowl of creamy bisque.
It used to be that Americans knew only two varieties: Morton and kosher. But specialty salts, including gray salt harvested off the coast of Brittany, Himalayan pink salt, and Sicilian sea salt, have won the hearts of foodies with their delicate, complex flavors. At California’s famed restaurant the French Laundry, customers who ask for salt are presented with a tray of three to five types to choose from. "The tastes are so distinct from regular table salt. They really add a luxurious element to the simplest foods," says Connie Guttersen, RD, author of The Sonoma Diet. While specialty salts have only minor nutritional advantages over standard salts, their larger grain and heightened flavor allow you to use less per dish than you might normally.
Sprinkle some over a batch of hot and gooey chocolate chip cookies just out of the oven, or over dulce de leche ice cream.
One of the sexiest foods around, figs are also high in heart-healthy fiber. Their overall essential mineral profile is the best of all the common fruits, Krieger says.
Figs are also a good way to satisfy a sweet tooth. For an afternoon snack or a luscious dessert, try slicing a couple of Black Mission figs and nesting a bit of gorgonzola or goat cheese and an almond inside each, then drizzle with honey. For a morning treat, sprinkle chopped dried figs over your breakfast oatmeal or yogurt.
Wild Copper River Salmon
All salmon is chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, and the wild sockeye from Alaska’s Copper River is touted as the best tasting in the world, Guttersen says. (If you’re worried about contamination from toxins in the fish you’re buying, it’s best to ask the seller how it was raised. Salmon farming techniques are currently changing and improving.) The fishing season for sockeye is just two months long, but you can get your hands on it frozen or canned all year. Wild salmon contains a more generous portion of natural astaxanthin than does the farmed variety. (Astaxanthin is an antioxidant similar to beta-carotene that some say contributes to health by slowing the aging process.)
For a quick, impressive dinner, season a piece of sockeye with salt, pepper, and fresh herbs, and sear in a little olive oil; serve it over a salad or rice pilaf. Or poach it: Simmer the fish in a broth made with water, white wine, and seasonings such as dill, lemon, and bay leaves for about 10 minutes, until the flesh is opaque and flakes easily.
Organic Grass-Fed Beef Filet
It can cost more than $25 a pound, but it’s worth every melt-in-your-mouth bite: Grass-fed beef is leaner and more tender and contains more omega-3 fats than its grain-fed counterpart, Kimball says. It also contains high levels of vitamins A and E; these antioxidants are essential for a healthy immune system, and vitamin E is associated with a lower incidence of breast cysts. Because both nutrients are fat-soluble, the fat in the meat helps your body absorb them. A 3- to 4-ounce portion per person is ideal. Simply rub it with a little salt, pepper, and olive oil, then grill it to let the natural flavor come through.
Dark Chocolate with At Least 70 Percent Cocoa
Good-quality chocolate, which is high in cocoa and devoid of the waxy fillers you’ll find in the average drugstore candy bar, is packed with antioxidants that reduce blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and protect against damage from free radicals, which speed up the aging process and contribute to cancer. Then there’s the way it makes you feel: Cocoa contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that acts on the body’s nerve receptors the same way marijuana does, raising serotonin levels and helping to keep you calm and happy, Kimball says.
The higher the percentage of cocoa in the chocolate, the higher the antioxidant and fiber content, so look for at least 70 percent cocoa. Try the new grown-up candy bars on the market, such as dark chocolate with almonds and sea salt, chilies, orange essence, or crystallized ginger. To keep calories in check, limit your portion size to no more than one ounce a day, Kimball advises.
"All cheese is rich in vitamin D, calcium, and protein, which we need for bone health," Guttersen says. The particular benefit of artisanal cheese is that it’s produced in small batches, usually with local ingredients and using old-fashioned manufacturing techniques — so it’s fresh, pure, and free of the fillers, additives, and coloring found in industrially mass-produced cheeses.
On average, cheese contains about 80 to 110 calories per ounce, Kimball notes. The more pungent the type, the less you need to eat to enjoy the full flavor. Feta is naturally lower in fat than most hard cheeses. So try it over pasta or a salad, smear an ounce of goat cheese on your lunchtime sandwich, or pair a piece of fruit with some shavings from a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano for a snack.
Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2008.