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Foods that aren't as bad as you think

Some foods which we think of as forbidden offer some surprising benefits - when enjoyed in moderation.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 15, 2008 12:41 IST

The foods we associate with Valentine's Day - a box of chocolates, a shared bottle of wine, a romantic dinner at an Italian restaurant -- aren't generally the ones we believe are the healthiest. But some foods we think of as forbidden offer some surprising benefits -- when enjoyed in moderation.

The case for the health benefits of chocolate and red wine has already been made with clinical studies suggesting a connection to heart heath.

Chocolate contains antioxidants that may increase healthy cholesterol levels and phenols that can reduce blood pressure, and research suggests that eating the treat can also have positive effects on mood.

Red wine contains resveratrol from the skin of red grapes, a compound that can improve cholesterol levels and reduce clotting, said Andy Bellatti, a graduate student at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health and the author of Small Bites, a nutrition blog.

But these foods can also provide too much of a good thing, Bellatti said. Studies published in 2003 and 2005 showed that eating dark chocolate had a positive effect on lowering blood pressure, but the participants who saw a 10-percent drop in blood pressure ate three and a half ounces of chocolate a day -- 550 calories worth.

They were getting chocolate's helpful compounds, he said, but it was along with a lot of fat, sugar and calories -- all things that could lead to weight gain. Other foods can also help reduce blood pressure, Bellatti said, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

"Nobody ever got high blood pressure from not eating chocolate," Bellatti pointed out. "It's not like it's chocolate or nothing."

It's also important to keep the type of chocolate you eat in mind, Bellatti said. The health benefit of chocolate comes from the cocoa beans it's made with, and the milk chocolate commonly used to make many popular chocolate bars has more milk than cocoa beans.

In addition, milk can interfere with the absorption of the antioxidants in chocolate, negating the health benefits, he said. If you are looking for heart-healthy chocolate, look for bars labeled as being high in cocoa -- 85 percent, for example. "'Dark' does not necessarily mean it has a high percentage of cocoa beans," he advised.

For wine, the recommended intake to enjoy its health benefits is about one glass of red wine a day, Bellatti said; more can be harmful, and less can have no effect. Also of concern, he said, is that wine is a liquid, which doesn't leave you satiated because it contains nothing filling, and which allows you to consume more calories in a shorter period of time.

But if you don't like wine or want to avoid its alcohol or calories, you have other options. "You could also just eat grapes and get the same health benefit," Bellatti said.

Along with wine, a nice dinner out might involve pasta with a bread basket, or grilled meat with a side of potatoes, more foods that shouldn't necessarily be feared. Whole-grain bread is the preferred option, health-wise, Bellatti said, because of the additional fiber it offers. "That's not to say people shouldn't have white bread." Especially in restaurants, it's often less a question of eating the bread itself than it is of what you put on the bread, he said -- like butter, salt or cheese.

The same is true of pasta. Whole grain noodles are now available, but that's not the only way to make the meal healthier. "If you go to Europe, Italians aren't eating whole-grain pasta," Bellatti pointed out. What they are doing is eating pasta in small portions, with minimal sauce and nutritious toppings like vegetables and beans. If we choose whole-wheat pasta but cover it in sauce and cheese, he said, the resulting dish will be high in fiber but also high in calories.

Potatoes are another "empty calorie" food that gets a bad wrap nutritionally, Bellatti said. French fries and mashed potatoes are treats more than anything else, he said, but when baked, potatoes offer fiber, vitamin C and potassium. "It's actually a very nutritious food." Again, pay attention to what you add on top -- olive oil is good, sour cream and bacon bits are less desirable -- and eat the skin.

Like carbs, many people have an unwarranted phobia of fats that leads them to avoid healthy foods, Bellatti said. Nuts have a high fat content, but most also offer vitamin E, magnesium and manganese, along with other nutrients.

"They're whole foods," he said -- when eaten raw, an ounce of almonds, which is about 22 nuts, offers fat, fiber and protein with only 140 calories, a good amount for a snack. Those three components are what helps us feel satiated, he said, which means that we can feel full with fewer calories.

"What always frustrates me is that people think 'Instead of almonds, because they're fatty, I'm going to have pretzels,'" Bellatti said. Pretzels are lower in fat, but they also lack fiber and protein, so a person might eat more calories overall in an attempt to feel full, he explained.

The mixed blessings of these foods illustrate Bellatti's point that moderation is important, and outright banning a food can set you up for dietary failure. "I think that when you forbid a food, you give a food too much power," Bellatti said, explaining that it places the food at the forefront of your mind when it otherwise might not be.

Instead of eliminating the foods we think of as nutritionally empty, we should pay attention to how often we eat them, and how much we consume when we do, he said.

Bellatti advocates a system of always/often/rarely. Think of a dartboard, he said: the bull's-eye are the healthy foods we should eat daily, the spots in the middle are the foods we can eat weekly, and the edges are the treats we should enjoy only occasionally, but can still enjoy.

A restrictive diet isn't easily maintained, Bellatti said, something he has learned from personal experience after past diets that cut out carbs or sugar ended in giving in to the temptation of what had become forbidden. What struck him was that the cravings for the foods he had struck from his diet were not his normal behavior.

"Usually, if you don't deprive yourself," he advised, "then you are more likely to eat in moderation."

It's easier to stay on track with a nutritious diet if you focus on making healthy choices every day, but still allow yourself the treats you enjoy on special occasions, Bellatti said. "Even if you want to lose weight, food should be enjoyed," he said. "It shouldn't be a punishment."