Healthy Eating

Does a healthy diet include red meat?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I love red meat and I'm not going to stop eating it. Is it still possible for me to eat a healthy diet?

DEAR READER: I can't think of any food that a person should never eat; it's always a matter of degree. As you've read many times in this column, there is solid scientific evidence that a healthy diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins such as fish, poultry, nuts and legumes. But you don't have to give up red meat entirely.

Can you explain what a low glycemic index diet is?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Diabetes runs in my family, and my mother says I should eat a "low glycemic index" diet. Can you explain what this is?

DEAR READER: Carbohydrates ("carbs," for short) are one of the main types of nutrients in food. Common sources of carbs include bread, pasta, cereals, fruit, milk, vegetables and beans. The carbs we eat are mostly too big for us to digest. Carbs are long strings of a certain type of molecule. Think of them as a string of pearls. When they hit the gut, digestive enzymes start to chop them up. It is the one-pearl and two-pearl strings that are the sugars that get digested and travel from the gut into the blood.

Are there health benefits to spices?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've read about the health benefits of spices that most of us have in our kitchen cabinets. Is there anything to this?

DEAR READER: I'll bet you've been seasoning your food for years, using herbs and spices to add freshness and depth to your dishes. Researchers have begun to investigate the effects of these flavor enhancers on health. It turns out that herbs and spices may do much more than make your food more inviting.

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.