Which foods are healthful or harmful for your diet?

May 24, 2012

Are eggs really bad for your diet? What about gluten and wheat? Registered dietician Katherine Tallmadge discusses which foods are wrongly labeled unhealthy and how to improve your diet.

Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions. I would like to preface my answers with the important caveat that most of you probably need more personalized nutrition advice. Your doctor and your dietitian, based on your personal medical, family, cultural history, and lifestyle needs, would normally base their advice on details they know about you personally. Since I don't have that advantage in this web chat, I will do the best I can. There is so much bad advice out there, which does not consider individualized needs, I don't want to add to any confusion. As I answer your questions, I will let you know if I think your answer may need to be more personalized with input from your medical professionals.

Thank you so much for participating in my web chat!

Many diets these days still advocate low to practically no carbs. My question is, after going on a ketosis diet for a week or two, how does your body react when you begin to eat carbs again -- even if reintroduced slowly? Is this form of dieting healthy?

Once you've taken carbohydrates out of your diet, you need to introduce them slowly back into your life. One of the ways you lose weight quickly by cutting carbs is by losing water weight. So, when you add carbs back, you will gain water weight back - and fast. I would start with making sure you get your 5 cups of fruits and vegetables a day... Then, when your body is accustomed to that level of carbs without water gain, try adding a whole grain cereal, such as oatmeal, for breakfast. Continue that for a week... and then you can slowly add healthy carbohydrates back into your life. Since carbohydrates are plants - and decades of research have found a plant-based diet is the healthiest, that is what I would recommend.

How many times a week can you eat a boiled egg? I eat them for breakfast becasue they are portable.

Well, I would want to know more about your whole diet before I answered that question. In general, you could eat an egg a day and be healthy. The negative connection eggs have with health is the meal pattern that usually goes along with eating eggs. The Japanese eat about one egg per day and have very low levels of heart disease. But they also eat plenty of fish, vegetables, very little meat and saturated fat. So, if you're eating a healthy diet, an egg a day - or maybe even more - is fine!

What is considered too low for daily carbs espcially for prediabetes?

120 grams per day is the minimum grams of carbohydrates everyone should be eating, according to The National Academy of Sciences' Food and Nutrition Board, when combing the research and making carbohydrate recommendations. They said this amount was essential for brain functioning. Carbohydrates produce glucose in the bloodstream - glucose is necessary for survival. But the brain in particular, need glucose. It is its only form of energy.

I am a "cheese-a-holoc". Cheese is my comfort food. I know it is possible to have too much of a good thing. If I was going to have a snack, which cheese is most healthy? What about cottage cheese? Thank you for your time.

I don't blame you. Cheese is a wonderfully delicious food; I'm a fan too! I try to keep my cheese intake to no more than one ounce per day... if it is low fat, perhaps more. That said, the answer really depends on your medical needs. The saturated fat in cheese raises LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is correlated with heart disease. Cottage cheese, by the way, is naturally low fat, and not really considered a "cheese." And if you eat low fat cottage cheese, you probably don't really need to limit it very much.

To evaluate a cheese for healthfulness, I would look at its saturated fatty acid content on the Nutrition Facts Panel. Compare the various cheeses you like and see which one is lowest... You may also consider its calcium content, its protein content when evaluating a cheese's nutritional contributions.

I love fruit and would much rather eat them than vegetables on the whole. Is there a good balance of how many fruits vs. how many vegetables I should be eating in a day?

I agree. I consider myself a "fruit-aholic!" Based on the studies I don't believe it matters much whether you are eating fruits over vegetables, just as long as you get at least 5 cups a day of either fruits and/or vegetables. They have similar nutritional  benefits. Though the U.S. Dietary Guidelines does differentiate between fruits and vegetables, I don't believe this is crucial. I mostly eat fruit, but I also work on eating more vegetables, especially the most nutritious ones like greens and  broccoli, so I'm always working on new recipes for them. And I find people end up liking them, if they are as fresh as possible (ideally just picked at maximum ripeness form your farmers market), and they find a way of preparing them that works for their own taste buds. Taste, after all, is the primary driver of what we decide to eat!

Thank you for putting in that gluten is only bad for you if you are intolerant of it! As a celiac, it irks me to no end that people think wheat is bad for them. Enjoy sandwiches and bagels if you can! Bread is good for you (not for me, but for those with functioning small intestines).

Absolutely! I find people with Celiac Disease, a very serious condition, find the "Gluten Free Craze" an irritating fad! But diet fads have been around for centuries, and I don't think they're going away any time soon... Good luck!

After heart bypass surgery, I met with the hospital's dietician who told me eggs were fine and I could basically have as many as I wanted. But the Spectrum diet, which claims to reverse heart disease, forbids egg yolks. Is there a consensus on eggs? And what do you think of the Spectrum diet overall?

I would go with your hospital dietitian's recommendation. He/she personalized her advice to you, whereas a "diet" doesn't. I'm not familiar with this particular diet...

How can I tell if a product has added sugar? And is there a way to know how much sugar is added? for instance, if a food label says 10 grams of sugar, is there a way to know how much of that is naturally occurring, and how much is added? And, finally, is there a limit to the amount of Splenda I should use? I have about two cups of tea a day, and like one or two Splendas in each, but that means I sometimes have four packets of fake sugar in a day.  Is that getting too high?

Sometimes it is hard to tell how much added sugar is in a product. But I'll give you some ideas about some strategies you can use. First place to look is the ingredients list, where ingredients are listed in order of predominance. This is where you will find if there is sugar added to the product. Then, look at the Nutrition Facts Panel. How many grams of carbohydrates and sugar is in the product? How does that compare to the same product without sugar? 

An example: Look at a plain yogurt and its carbohydrate and sugar content on the Nutrition Facts Panel (double check that there is no added sugar listed in the ingredients). Then look at the same brand and type of yogurt, but with added fruit. Of course, some of that sugar will be natural - from the fruit, and some of it will be sugar. That will give you a basic idea of the added sugar. That said, in a product like fruited yogurt - most of them anyway - I believe there are so many benefits from eating yogurt, that a little added sugar doesn't hurt. The question is: how much? And I'm afraid nutrition labeling doesn't make it easy. Some products will be easier to analyze than others. But I think the real key is the ingredients list.

Why would you want people to avoid gaining back the water weight they lost during a very low carb diet? Their body needs that water. Running around dehydrated for the rest of your life because of a number on a scale is silly.

You are right. We need water weight. But when on a very low carb diet (not recommended), when even a small amount of carbs are added back, water weight comes back with a vengeance - too much, too soon - and this is one reason why these diets don't keep weight off. People get frustrated with the quick weight re-gain and give up. Transitioning slowly is a way to help people get back to healthy eating without the psychological distress of gaining weight back quickly.

I've recently started juicing a couple of times a week. It's usually a variety of greens mixed with small amounts of carrot, apple and lemon/ginger for flavor. Is juicing really providing me with nutrients?

My short answer: Yes! Health experts recommend we all eat at least 5 cups of fruits and/or vegetables per day. For some, juicing is easier. Others prefer the whole foods. There are advantages and disadvantages to both... An advantage to juicing is that you are able to consume nutrient-packed fruits and vegetables very quickly and easily. A disadvantage may be, if you are trying to control your weight, your brain may not register liquid calories the same way as solid food. Studies show when people drink their calories they end up eating more overall calories. Of course, this is not a problem if you are not trying to lose weight. But for me, who always struggles, I need to eat the whole fruit. That's because it contains the volume of the fiber and water, takes longer to eat, and makes me feel more full for the calories. Studies confirm when people eat whole fruits and vegetables, they end up feeling more full with fewer calories, and lose weight more easily.

That said, vegetable juices are lower in calories than fruit juices. But if calories or weight aren't an issue, juice away! In fact, for my clients trying to GAIN weight, I recommend juicing!

So I'm always reading that I should snack on nuts because they're healthy, nutritious and low carb. Of course they're also jam packed with fat and calories. What's the verdict?

Everything you said was 100% correct. Confused? Sorry... Studies have confirmed that nuts are important for health, loaded with nutrients, and satiating... But you are right, they are high in calories. I usually recommend everyone eat one ounce per day. Studies have shown they are so satiating, eating them at breakfast, for instance, helps us eat fewer overall calories for the day. For heart health, two ounces a day are recommended. If weight is not an issue - go crazy and eat all you want! If weight is an issue, I would keep it to one or two ounces daily. They're in my cereal every morning and in as many of my recipes as possible. I'm nutty about nuts!

Loved the article! I'm sending it to my 70-year-old parents. They have some strange food ideas lately. Are there foods that are off limits? Second, what are some hidden sources of sodium that we should be aware of? Thank you!

Thank you! I just visited my 70-something mother and helped her recover from surgery with my "healing diet." What seniors eat is critical for healing, and being well, active, happy, and mobile. As you age, generally, your calorie need go down, but nutrient needs go up. That means the foods you choose must be nutrient-dense, but low calorie. I had my mother eating tons of yogurt, fruits, nuts... Chicken salad with vegetables, etc... (with little chunks of dark chocolate here and there) Low on the starchy foods, since she doesn't move as much and doesn't need the extra calories. 

Hidden sodium is mainly in unlabeled foods - take-out, and restaurant items - are huge sources of sodium.

Another thing to watch out for when you're looking at the sodium content on a food label, is how many servings is being described. I was shocked to find one of my favorite boxed soups (Trader Joe's Organic Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup), contained 3,000 mg sodium - of course, that was in 4 1-cup servings (750 mg in each serving), but I think this detail is easily overlooked. And 1 cup is not a lot of soup!

The recommended sodium limit would normally be 1,700 mg per day. And you can only really achieve that level if you're eating almost all fresh ingredients. Very few elderly people cook everything from scratch, so this worries me.

I think we need more services for feeding the elderly fresh, healthy meals.

I'm always good about reading the nutrition labels. But some things I never checked, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts because I assumed that was healthy. But I noticed recently on a package that it was high in cholesterol. I didn't think it had any at all! I was shocked. Particularly when I noticed that the skinless, boneless thighs, which had slightly more fat, had less cholesterol. What gives? Should I just drink water?

Cholesterol is in all animals. Don't be alarmed; it is even in our own bodies. It is the component in our skin which makes us waterproof (it is waxy). That said, the major contributor to blood cholesterol is NOT cholesterol from foods, it is from saturated fats in foods. Chicken breast, especially when you remove the skin, has very little saturated fat and won't really contribute to your blood cholesterol level.

I really enjoyed your questions. Please stay in touch!

In This Chat
Katherine Tallmadge
Katherine Tallmadge is a registered dietician and author of "Diet Simple: 195 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations" (LifeLine Press, 2011). Read her story "7 'bad' foods that are actually good for you".
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