#Health & Fitness
Six Once-Forbidden Foods That Aren’t So Bad for Us
New research has proven these previously taboo foods are now A-OK–in moderation.
For years, nutrition advice could be summed up something like this: If you like eating or drinking (fill in the blank), it’s bad for you. Health experts blacklisted sugar, butter, chocolate, coffee, alcohol, and eggs. The Grim Reaper, it seemed, doubled as tiramisu cake. So we abstained from these forbidden foods or flagellated ourselves while indulging in them. No longer! Researchers have found that these foods are less sinful than we thought, and in some cases, can actually provide health benefits. Find out what makes these “bad” foods not so bad after all.
Nutritional experts had long maligned eggs because they are high in cholesterol, but more recent research revealed that saturated fat—not cholesterol—poses the greatest risk. Plus, eggs provide protein, iron, and lutein, a nutrient that helps stem age-related eyesight decline. (Spinach and other leafy greens are also good sources of lutein.) The American Dietetic Association considers eating eggs in moderation a healthy habit and suggests removing some of the egg yolks to reduce fat and cholesterol. For example, in a recipe that calls for two whole eggs, the association recommends substituting with two egg whites and one whole egg.
Forgoing coffee was like a badge of honor in health nut circles, but not any longer. Recent studies have refuted caffeine’s link to heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure. In addition, health experts now tell us that filling up our mugs has health benefits. According to the American Medical Association, regular coffee drinkers are less likely to have type II diabetes and their caffeine habit may reduce the risk of developing colon cancer, liver disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Researchers have also seen a reduced risk of dementia among people who drink three to five cups of coffee a day.
Cane sugar earned a bad rap, sparking a move to replace it with everything from honey to concentrated fruit juice. Studies show that the substitutes are no better than the real deal. Whatever the original source, consuming too many of these sweet simple carbohydrates can cause health problems like obesity, type II diabetes, and tooth decay. Yet, cane sugar can be part of a healthful diet in reasonable quantities. The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar to 10 percent of daily calorie intake. And as for the new pariah, high fructose corn syrup, the nutrition gurus say that it’s probably no better or worse than all the rest. Although food marketers are taking advantage of the public’s negative perception of high fructose corn syrup, experts say that consumers shouldn’t be fooled by the new marketing techniques. In terms of your health, it’s the calories that count.
For a long time, science was lockstep with Puritan thinking, shunning all alcohol. But within the last few years, there has been a growing body of evidence that alcohol in small amounts is associated with better health. Experts believe that having a few drinks a week may reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Studies indicate that red wine in particular has positive benefits. Rich in antioxidants, including resveratrol, red wine may help prevent clogged arteries. Be warned, though, while it’s tempting to embrace the more-is-better philosophy, three plus drinks a day will up your risk of liver, mouth, breast, and throat cancer as well as memory loss. Experts recommend one beverage a day for women and two for men. Not exactly a night on the town, but a glass of syrah with dinner. Not bad!
For ages, it seems, parents and health professionals said that chocolate makes us pimply, rots our teeth, and offers no health benefits. Au contraire. Chocolate is chock full of minerals and has some of the same antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables that ward off disease, particularly heart disease. Unlike gummy and caramel candies, chocolate doesn’t stick to your teeth causing cavities. And don’t try to blame chocolate for blemishes; researchers have found no correlation between the two. In fact, the antioxidants may improve the appearance of your skin by combating inflammation from free radicals. Look for dark chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa—the higher the cocoa percentage, the more healthy flavanol antioxidants it contains. (Tea, grapes, blueberries, and cranberries are also high in flavanols.) The label should also say non- or lightly alkalized or non-dutch processed. An even better way to get your flavanol fix is with natural cocoa powder; when converted into chocolate bars, the cocoa beans lose some of their antioxidants. Plus, chocolate is a mood-booster, increasing serotonin in the brain.
We all know that butter isn’t good for us. But, according to the scientists at Harvard Health Publications, a little butter isn’t so bad and is actually better than stick margarines. Margarine was thought to be heart healthy because, unlike butter, it doesn’t contain cholesterol or saturated fat. But the common process to convert liquid oil into margarine by adding hydrogen atoms creates harmful trans fats that, like butter, increase bad cholesterol in the blood while decreasing the good kind. The hydrogenation is essential to create the stick margarine, but many of the soft margarines in tubs are now made with fewer or no trans fats and some health experts recommend those over butter. As for the overall fat and calorie content, it’s a tie—neither will do your waistline any favors, so use them sparingly.
Everything in Moderation
Now that you know the truth about these gustatory pleasures, stay calm. Resist the urge to stock up on all the goodies you have been missing. Remember that nutritionists, researchers, and doctors universally agree that moderation is the key. Drink a few cups of coffee, but don’t down the whole pot. Savor a few squares of chocolate, but try not to make eating the whole bar a habit. And go ahead, order that piece of tiramisu every once in a while. It won’t kill you.
Photo sources: Egg: Sifu Renka (cc), Coffee: javaturtle (cc), Sugar: Caro's Lines (cc), Cocktail: Marco Veringa (cc), Butter: Anita Thomhave Simonsen (cc), Chocolate: Recchiuti, Lg. butter: The Style PA (cc).
Updated March 30, 2010