Are Potatoes Good For You?

Happy St. Patty’s Day! In honor of my Irish ancestors who subsisted on potatoes, I’m celebrating this holiday by highlighting the spud’s nutritional benefits. Potatoes are a humble vegetable, often judged by starch load and preparation method, instead of their rich potassium, fiber and antioxidant content!

The typical American diet is low in fruits and vegetables and, therefore, most of us consume only half the daily potassium recommendation (4,700 mg/day). Potassium is a mineral that plays a role in nerve function, muscle contraction and fluid and electrolyte balance. When combined with an effort to curb your sodium intake, high potassium consumption is associated with the prevention and reversal of high blood pressure. Bananas are a famous source of potassium, yet they contain only 50% of the whopping 844 mg of potassium that a baked Russet potato has to offer.

Put down the peeler! One of the healthiest parts of a potato is the skin, which is packed with fiber and antioxidants. The skin of a medium Russet potato packs 4 grams of fiber (20-35 gm/day is recommended). Fiber can help lower cholesterol, maintain bowel regularity, slow the absorption of carbs into your bloodstream and may decrease the risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Potatoes come in a variety of colors, from red, white and blue, to the orange flesh of a sweet potato. Phytochemicals are plant compounds responsible for these colored pigments. When they act as antioxidants, phytochemicals are thought to be beneficial in protecting against cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Despite their many health benefits, I’m not encouraging you to chow down on scalloped potatoes, French fries, or a baked tater stuffed with all the fixings! Nix the butter, bacon, cheese and sour cream toppings in exchange for steamed broccoli, sautéed onions, fresh herbs and Greek yogurt. I also suggest you try making oven-baked potato wedges. Slice an Idaho potato into 6-8 segments and toss in a bowl with olive oil and rosemary or thyme. Place wedges flat side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 400°F for approximately 20-30 minutes, flipping them at the half-way point. Alternatively, you can use the same technique to prepare bite-sized, oven-roasted, red potatoes (my personal favorite!)

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Filed under Fruits and Vegetables, Heart Healthy Choices, Meal Tips, Vitamins & Minerals

Detox Diets: Beneficial or Bogus?

de·tox  The metabolic process by which the body rids itself of poisonous substances. A “detox diet” (or “cleanse”) usually promises to aid this natural process by suggesting you (1) steer clear of foods that contain toxins, and (2) consume more of certain nutrients like antioxidants, fiber and herbal extracts.

A typical detox promotes the exclusive consumption of raw fruits and vegetables and liquid meals. Most cleanses suggest drinking large amounts of water, juice or a special concoction, such as one made with lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper.

Detox diets will often avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol. All of us could benefit from cutting back in these areas, but most cleanses are so limiting that your diet becomes deficient in protein and many essential vitamins and minerals. Some cleanses require strict adherence to the plan for a few days, while others want you to stick with it for an entire month! Consuming an extremely restricted diet long-term is not necessary and may even be harmful to your health. Many detox plans also encourage drinking only liquids to “give the body a rest.” However, this claim is scientifically unfounded, since the digestive system is meant to be put to work!

Can a detox diet help you lose weight? Many plans claim to kick start a sluggish metabolism by helping to purify the body. Our bodies, however, are designed to eliminate harmful substances without any help. The kidneys help excrete waste products, while the liver filters blood coming from the digestive tract and metabolizes drugs, alcohol and environmental toxins. There is no evidence that proves a detox diet helps your organs do this more efficiently. Restricting your diet to raw produce or low-calorie beverage blends will help you shed pounds quickly, but this does not mean it’s advisable. Depriving yourself on a month-long cleanse is not a sustainable strategy for weight loss and you’ll likely regain the pounds as soon as you resume your usual eating habits.

In his 2010 book, “Clean,” Dr. Alejandro Junger outlines a three week detox program that allows you to nosh on more than just vegetables. His “pesto baked salmon” recipe sounds appetizing, but you’re still only allowed one solid-food meal per day! In addition to eliminating red meat, alcohol and sugar, Junger also suggests you exclude from your diet many nutrient-rich foods, including dairy, wheat and soy. Lastly, Junger’s website advertises for Clean Program supplements, which are taken throughout the day to “cover daily health basics.” Any detox that requires a cocktail of supplements is likely unbalanced and should not be sustained for more than a few days. Despite allowing you to eat certain fresh, solid foods, even this detox appears too restrictive. Any weight lost will be temporary unless Junger’s more nutritionally sound tenets, like daily exercise and mindful snacking, can be adopted and sustained.

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Filed under Fruits and Vegetables, Supplements, Weight loss

Are Carbs The Enemy?

Of all the major nutrients, carbohydrates have gotten a pretty bad rap. Personally, I don’t think it’s justified.

Carbohydrates are the core energy source for our body and brain and can be converted into amino acids to serve as the building blocks for protein. Certain sources of carbs are also chock-full of nutritious vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Grains, milk, beans, fruit and starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn, all contribute to our daily carbohydrate intake. In fact, the U.S. government suggests we consume 45-65% of our daily calories from this nutrient group. So why the notoriety?

Not all carbs are created equal. There’s a big difference (nutritionally-speaking) between “refined” and “complex” carbohydrates. Refined carbs include chips, cake, candy, cereal, sweetened beverages (e.g., juice, lemonade, soda) and bread and pasta made with white flour. These foods are literally stripped of nutrients during processing. Due to their lack of fiber, they don’t fill us up and are digested quickly, causing our blood sugar to spike. Refined carbs contain few vitamins and minerals and likely end up replacing healthier foods in our diet. Eating too many of these foods can also lead to high triglyceride levels.

On the other hand, many complex carbohydrates are packed with nutrients. Examples include brown and wild rice, whole wheat pasta and bread, oatmeal, quinoa, bulgur and barley. Such whole grains are naturally low in fat and added sugars and supply iron, folate, zinc, magnesium, B-vitamins and fiber – a nutritional powerhouse. Fiber cannot be digested by the human body and therefore, this complex carb passes through our system without adding calories! Fiber can help lower cholesterol, regulate bowel function, reduce spikes in blood sugar, protect against colon cancer and help us lose weight by warding off hunger! The fiber in whole fruit is what makes it a much better choice than juice, which is high in sugar and calories and not a dieter’s friend.

When it comes to weight loss, the low-carb Atkins diet certainly gets a lot of press. However, weight loss occurs when you consume fewer total calories than your body needs, whether you’re cutting back on fat, protein or carbs. A sustainable strategy for weight loss should reduce calories from all nutrient groups, so that you do not feel deprived. Reduce your intake of sugary beverages, desserts and foods made with refined flour, like white bread and pasta and be sure to include nutrient-dense and fiber-packed sources of complex carbs in your meal plan!

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Filed under Dairy, Food Groups, Fruits and Vegetables, Grains, Heart Healthy Choices, Weight loss