Q: Gwen of Roseburg contacted me with a question about my last column, “What is a complex carbohydrate?” Thank you, Gwen, for your question and for reminding me to be careful with my “nutrition speak!”
A: Sugars, starches and fiber all belong in a nutrient group called carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source. We divide them into simple and complex carbohydrates. As a general rule of thumb, a simple carbohydrate would be found in foods like white sugar, white flour and refined foods. An exception to this is lactose—the carbohydrate found in milk, which is also a simple carbohydrate.
Complex carbohydrates are typically starchy and found in plant-based foods like vegetables, whole fruit, beans and whole grain products. During digestion, starch gets broken down into simple carbohydrates. Fiber is not digested. It remains intact and passes through our bodies. Why is this important? Not only do these foods contain carbohydrate, but also other extremely beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber. So when deciding which carbohydrates to include in our diet, we want to “choose them by the company they keep.” In other words, we take on all the other healthful nutrients that come with them.
Here are some examples of how to choose complex carbohydrate to include in your diet:
Instead of white rice, choose brown rice. Instead of white bread, choose 100 percent whole wheat bread. Instead of regular pasta, choose whole-grain or multi-grain enriched pasta. Instead of apple juice, choose a crunchy, juicy fresh apple!
Q: Are dairy foods good or bad? In milk and cheese, do the sodium and fat content outweigh the benefit of milk?
A: OK, this is no small question! Dairy foods provide good sources of calcium, riboflavin, magnesium, potassium, protein and vitamins A and D in our diet. Calcium and vitamin D are important for young children to support strong bone development. This is particularly so for young females, who are laying down the foundation for good bone health for later on in life.
Calcium from dairy products is better absorbed by the body than calcium found in vegetables. However, some people’s digestive systems do not tolerate lactose, a carbohydrate present in milk, and so they avoid it. They either choose lactose-free milk, or choose a milk beverage made from a plant source like soybeans or rice. Some people also avoid milk because they are concerned about growth hormones that may be given to cows to stimulate their milk production.
Reading the nutrition label on a plant-based milk beverage can help guide you to a product that is nutritionally similar to cow’s milk, so you are not missing out on any important nutrients.
Due to public demand, many of the large supermarket chains do not carry milk that has come from cows treated with growth hormone. You can check with the dairy you use to see if their milk contains it.
Cheese! There’s a reason cheese tastes so good — the high fat and salt content! I tend to think of cheese as a fat food and unfortunately, most of it is the unhealthy saturated fat. However, cheese can add great flavor and texture to meals. If you use the lower-fat varieties like parmesan, romano, mozzarella and Swiss, or cheeses that have a very strong flavor, you can use less and use it occasionally, not daily. Cottage cheese can be low in fat but can have a higher sodium content. People watching salt intake should monitor portion size.
Another dairy food that is gaining popularity these days is Greek yogurt. This type of concentrated product has a higher protein content than regular yogurt. Yogurt is made with friendly bacteria that are helpful in promoting a healthy digestive tract. Try and choose a low-fat or nonfat yogurt product with a label that states “made with active cultures” and try to limit yogurt products that have a lot of added sugars. These should be treated like dessert items!
To finally answer the question: Yes, choose low-fat and non-fat dairy foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet, make wise choices and indulge sparingly if using high-fat dairy products (did I say ice cream)!
Q: Is there any value in pie if it’s made from fruit (or pumpkin)? Doesn’t it have some nutrition? What about zucchini bread as a vegetable?
A: This is a great question, and I am going to see how we can work this to squeak out some nutritional benefit.
Being creative in ways to increase fruits and vegetables in our diet can be a challenge. It’s good whenever you can include them in a dish or meal. However, what accompanies the fruit and vegetable in the product will either add or subtract from the overall nutrition benefit of the food in our “nutrition check” column.
Let’s look at a basic apple pie. If you buy or make a pie that has a lot of added syrup, sugar or unhealthy fats, the amount of apple you are consuming (maybe 1/2 cup) is not giving you much benefit compared to the extra calories, sugar, fat etc., that you are also consuming. However, you can make a dessert with fresh apples, use a small amount of crumble topping made from oatmeal, brown sugar and a reduced fat spread. You would get more actual apple, fiber from the oatmeal and have more control over the amount of sugar and fat in your dessert. It would still be a dessert item, and even though it is OK to include these foods occasionally, we need to recognize it as such.
There’s a great recipe for a black bean brownie. Dark cocoa powder gives healthful nutrients called flavonoids and the beans are wonderfully moist. You also are getting a lot of fiber. So in our nutrition check column, yes, the recipe has sugar and fat (again you have control over how much), but you are also getting nutrients from the cocoa powder and great fiber from the beans.
Another aspect of this involves general contact with fruits and vegetables. If you endeavor to make your desserts/breads/meatloaf etc., with fresh or grated vegetables, you are at least buying/growing them and bringing them into your kitchen.
Finally, I think we should look at this the same way as the complex carbohydrates and judge fruit pies and zucchini breads by the company they keep and by that I mean their other healthful nutrients like whole wheat flour and fiber, not the whipped cream!
Ally Gottfried is a registered dietitian at the Community Cancer Center in Roseburg. She has 20 years of experience in hospitals, pediatric health and community settings. She provides evidence-based answers to your questions. You can send her questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.