Starting off the New Year, many of us are looking to drop a few pounds collected over the holidays. But, let’s face it. Digging through the mountain of weight loss dos and don’ts can be impossible. We sat down with three dietitians to simplify healthy eating options. We posed a good, better, best scenario of four pretty tricky food categories: rice, sweeteners, grains and oils.
The most important thing to remember when dining on rice is portion control, says Suzanne Forsberg, registered dietitian with St. John Healthy Lifestyles.
“A third of a cup is a serving,” says Forsberg.
White rice, while low in fat, has pretty much zero nutritional value. So how do you step up this go-to side dish?
A good option, without stepping outside the white rice comfort zone, is to simply add in some brown rice, suggests Cassie Wrich, registered dietitian with Hillcrest Medical Center.
“Go whole grain as much as you can,” explains Wrich.
There is another bonus to making your own mix. The custom blend is likely to be low in sodium.
“Buying the plain versions and seasoning on your own drastically reduces the sodium,” says Karen Massey, community nutrition coordinator with INTEGRIS Health. “Season with commercially-prepared, no-salt seasoning, like a Mrs. Dash, or opt to add your own herbs.”
Stepping up the fiber even more, a better option is wild rice. Wild rice is high in fiber and nutrients since the whole grain is still intact, explains Massey. If you are testing the waters, try out a wild rice blend, suggests Massey. Most wild rice available in stores is a mixture of plain and wild rice. Generally, flavored blends are low in fat, but proceed with caution.
“Sodium is markedly higher in flavored blends,” warns Massey.
The best rice option is brown rice. Brown rice, like wild rice, has the bran layer still intact, providing lots of fiber and nutrients, explains Massey, and is readily available at an affordable price.
For some, the long cook-time and stiff texture of traditional brown rice isn’t appealing. Massey suggests trying a quick-cook style for when you need to get healthy food on the table. If you just can’t trade in the fluffy rice, try out a new food innovation: whole-grain white rice.
“This new product might be a nice option for those who like the appearance and taste of traditional white rice dishes,” offers Massey.
Start with this simple rule. Healthy oils are liquid at room temperature, advises Wrich. Solid fats are higher in saturated fat and trans fat than liquid oils. All fats have the same number of calories, about 120 per tablespoon. But highly saturated fats, like butter, shortening and lard tend to raise blood cholesterol and increase risk of heart disease. So if it holds its shape at room temperature, it’s best to avoid it as much as possible.
A good option is tub butter or margarine.
“Tub butter or margarine is usually better than a stick,” explains Wrich. “Try a light margarine, like one from Smart Butter or Brummel and Brown’s.”
Oils low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fats are known to lower cholesterol, making them a better option. This healthy option does come with some caution. Polyunsaturated fat lowers both good and bad cholesterol levels, warns Wrich.
Corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil and most vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fats. Two trendy oils in this category, flax seed oils and fish oils, should be used with caution, says Forsberg.
“Be careful of flax seed oils or fish oils because it can really mess with your medicines,” explains Forsberg.
All agree that oils high in monounsaturated fats are really the best option. Monounsaturated fat is especially beneficial because of its ability to lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, reducing your risk for heart disease.
“Two oils come to mind as excellent choices: olive oil and canola oil,” says Massey. “After that, the differences may depend on what you are cooking and on your taste preference. Oils vary in their ability to withstand high temperatures.”
But remember, all fats have about the same calories. Oils are definitely another area where less is really more for a healthy, low-calorie diet.
Grains are where you get most of your carbohydrates, i.e. your energy. The best choices are those with the least solid fat, sugar and salt, and the more whole grains the better, making reading the labels extremely important.
“Look for whole grains among the first few ingredients,” advises Wrich. “If whole grain is pretty far down the list, they only added enough to make it brown and not really nutritional.”
There are plenty of good options in the cereal aisle. Many cereals are made with enriched grains. These blended grains combine whole grain flour with enriched flour for a blend of wholesome nutrients, says Massey.
“Again, do read the label,” repeats Massey. “Some brands contain more salt, sugar or fat than other brands.”
The best options are whole grains like oatmeal, barley or buckwheat and products made from 100 percent whole grains. Advertisers’ lingo can make picking the right one tricky.
“Labels can be tricky. For example, 100 percent wheat bread is not the same as 100 percent whole wheat bread. White bread is 100 percent wheat. They didn’t put any rice or barley in it. Multigrain bread does have more than one grain included, but that’s not the same as whole multigrains,” clarifies Massey.
Forsberg recommends Bimbo’s 100 percent whole wheat bread. At less than $2 a loaf, it has minimal sugars and preservatives yet plenty of fiber.
Neither sugar nor sugar substitutes offer much nutritional value. On average, we consume 20 percent more added sugars than in 1970, shares Forsberg. Where sweeteners are concerned, it is all about the calories. There are two ways to cut that number, says Massey: Consume less sugar or use sugar substitutes.
“Sugar substitutes are okay in moderation,” says Forsberg.
“Instead of drinking 32 ounces of regular soda, diet is better, but still not the best choice,” shares Wrich. “Limit yourself to two or less cans a day.
“People who consume artificial sweeteners in excess tend to be at a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease,” she adds.
“The sugar substitutes are so sweet that our bodies begin to crave more and more,” says Forsberg.
There are two types of sugar substitutes. Some sugar substitutes do provide calories. These are often termed polyols, or sugar alcohols. Polyols are often blended with other sweeteners in commercial products, such as sugar-free gum and in many “no-added-sugar” products, explains Massey.
The second type is non-caloric sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame or saccharine. Newer products include stevia – also known as rebaudioside A – neotame and advantame.
“Which sweetener is ‘best’ mostly depends on one’s personal preference,” says Massey. “All sweeteners have been shown to be safe.”
“Old-timers, who’ve been using saccharine forever, like saccharin’s price,” explains Massey. “For those with a more discerning palate, Splenda may taste more like sugar. Still, others may prefer NutraSweet or stevia.”
“Truvia would be my choice because it comes from a plant,” shares Wrich. “But, it really is just personal preference.”
There are three sweetener options that do offer some health benefits: local honey, molasses and agave.
Honey from local bees can help cure some allergies, say Forsberg and Wrich.
“Just be sure it’s the real thing,” warns Forsberg. “Always check the labels.”
“Molasses does provide some trace minerals, such as small quantities of iron, especially blackstrap molasses,” says Massey.
Agave has a low glycemic index, says Wrich, meaning agave will give you less of a spike in your blood sugar. But, it is still a sugar with about 60 calories per serving.