Healthy Eating

What are the health benefits of fermented foods?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My friend has started eating lots of fermented foods. She claims they are good for your health. Is that true? What are the health benefits?

DEAR READER: Humans have been fermenting foods for thousands of years. Fermentation protects foods from spoiling and lends them a taste and texture that many people enjoy. Asian and African cultures use fermentation as a way to have seasonal foods all year, and to ensure there is enough to eat during food shortages. Soy sauce and sauerkraut are examples of fermented foods.

Is diet soda so bad that I should stop drinking it?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I love diet soda, but I've been hearing that it's not good for me. Is it so bad that I should stop drinking it?

DEAR READER: The introduction of sugar-free sodas (or "soft drinks") decades ago seemed like a blessing. Now you could enjoy the flavor, carbonation and caffeine of soda without the calories and weight gain. (Not to mention the diseases that go along with obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease.) What's not to like? I surely believed it: I've been drinking a diet soda nearly every day and avoiding sugary drinks for 30 years. But there are growing doubts about whether diet sodas really help people lose weight and avoid diabetes.

What should I look for in a healthy cereal?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I love to eat cereal for breakfast, but I've heard that many cereals aren't all that healthy. What should I look for in a healthy cereal?

DEAR READER: Walk into any grocery store and you'll see shelves packed full of breakfast cereals all touting important health benefits. Labels and marketing promises on boxes can be confusing -- and sometimes misleading. I spoke with Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. She recommends reading ingredient lists carefully and choosing cereals that meet the following criteria:

What is your advice on the benefits of eating nuts?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I love peanuts, but I try to avoid them, and other nuts, because they are high in fat. But I recently heard that eating nuts might help you live longer. What is your advice regarding nuts?

DEAR READER: Like you, I love nuts -- especially almonds. To be candid, dear readers, Doctor K lacks discipline when it comes to eating nuts. Perhaps it's one of my redeeming vices. However, I've found a solution to my discipline problem, which I'll soon reveal. It's time to put nuts back on your menu. Peanuts are legumes and not officially "nuts."

Is chocolate actually good for the brain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is chocolate really good for the brain?

DEAR READER: It sounds too good to be true, but research has found that certain compounds in chocolate, called cocoa flavonols, may protect brain function. In one recent study, researchers tested the effects of cocoa flavonols in 90 healthy 61- to 85-year-olds with good memory and thinking skills. Participants drank a special brew containing either a low (48 milligrams, or mg), medium (520 mg) or high (993 mg) amount of cocoa flavonols each day.

Could you share some ideas for a healthy, balanced breakfast?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm trying to eat better, but breakfast has me stumped. Could you share some ideas for a healthy, balanced breakfast?

DEAR READER: Eating a small, nutritious breakfast is a great way to jump-start the day. Yet many people skip breakfast because they are in a rush, aren't hungry or are trying to cut calories. That's a mistake because eating a healthful breakfast has benefits. Studies suggest that eating breakfast regularly can reduce the risk of high cholesterol and decrease insulin resistance.

Are ready-made toddler foods unhealthy?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I buy lots of ready-made infant and toddler foods for my little one. A friend told me I should make my own foods for my son at home. Are ready-made toddler foods unhealthy?

DEAR READER: Eating salty, sugary foods in childhood can set the stage for childhood obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Therefore, you might assume that foods created for infants and toddlers would be low in salt and sugar.

What are some healthy habits to help manage your weight?

DEAR DOCTOR K: One popular book claims that there are "7 habits of highly effective people." Do people who effectively lose weight and keep it off also have habits in common?

DEAR READER: That's a very interesting question -- and I think the answer is "yes." There are certain "habits" that help, but only if you make a long-term commitment to them. Lasting weight loss demands that you transform your eating and exercise habits. But many other choices you make each day can also make a difference. What follows are several habits that can help people achieve -- and maintain -- their target weight.

Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR READER: You've heard me talk frequently about "good" and "bad" fats, and "good" and "bad" carbs. So it won't be surprising when I say there are "good" yogurts and "bad" yogurts. Here's what I mean. Yogurt -- plain, low-fat yogurt -- is a healthy food. But many yogurt products contain ingredients you could do without, like added sweeteners. So let's talk about what to look for in a healthy yogurt.

Is the food pyramid still accurate?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is a healthy diet still based on the food guide pyramid? Is there a better alternative?

DEAR READER: Twenty years ago, the USDA created its food guide pyramid. This symbol featured fats and oils at the tip and breads and grains at its base, with fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy in between. The pyramid was meant to convey, in a simple illustration, everything needed to build a healthful diet. But the original pyramid, as well as the updated 2005 version, was easy to misinterpret. For example, some people thought the top foods were most important, rather than the other way around.