Healthy Eating

Should I take antioxidants?

DEAR DOCTOR K: It seems like several years ago all my friends were taking antioxidant pills. Now I don't hear about antioxidants as much. Are they worth taking?

DEAR READER: Here's what we know, and here's what is still controversial. The cells of our body are full of chemicals interacting with other chemicals. In the process of getting the energy they need to survive and carry out their functions, cells naturally produce chemicals called "free radicals." Just as political free radicals can sometimes damage society, chemical free radicals can damage body tissues.

Is red wine good for heart health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've heard that drinking red wine, or any alcoholic beverage, in moderation is "heart-healthy." Is it true, and is red wine any healthier than other alcoholic beverages?

DEAR READER: There are many studies of the two questions you ask. As for the first question, most studies have found that moderate drinkers are less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That's when moderate drinkers are compared either to non-drinkers or to heavy drinkers.

Does the Mediterranean diet improve brain health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I know that the Mediterranean diet is supposed to improve heart health. Recently I heard it also improves brain health. Is that pretty well established? Of all the organs I want to protect, my brain is "numero uno."

DEAR READER: I agree with your priorities regarding organs: My brain is "numero uno," too. And I do think the evidence is strong that the Mediterranean diet does protect the brain. This diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine.

What can I do if my child is a picky eater?

DOCTOR K: My preschooler will eat only white foods. I'm worried he's not getting the proper nutrients to grow and develop. What can I do?

DEAR READER: I'm not a pediatrician, but when I trained in pediatrics in medical school, I was amazed by how many parents brought their kids to the doctor because the kids were picky eaters.

What makes processed foods so bad for you?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Most nutrition advice starts with "avoid processed foods." What exactly are processed foods? Are they all bad for you?

DEAR READER: A processed food is any food that has been changed in some way from its original state. Processing includes canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling. As you say, nutrition gurus often urge us to spurn processed foods. I spoke with Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. She noted that most food needs to go through some degree of processing in order to make it edible and digestible.

What diet can help with IBS?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and I hear there is a diet to help that. Can you tell me about it?

DEAR READER: Unfortunately, IBS is pretty common. Symptoms include cramping, diarrhea, gas and bloating. But you are right: Research has identified certain foods that tend to trigger IBS, and avoiding these foods can help you reduce your symptoms.

What’s the difference between soluble fiber and insoluble fiber?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Everyone agrees that you benefit from fiber in your diet. But it seems some people prefer soluble fiber and some insoluble fiber. What's the difference, and which is best?

DEAR READER: Dietary fiber consists of the indigestible parts of plant foods. We need about 20 to 35 grams of fiber a day. As you note, there are two kinds of fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water; insoluble does not. Both are important for healthy digestion, and both can help prevent heart disease, obesity, diabetes, diverticulitis (an intestinal malady) and constipation.

Will my son grow out of his childhood obesity? I don’t want to make a big deal about his eating habits.

DEAR DOCTOR K: My 9-year-old son is very overweight. I don't want to make a big deal about his eating habits, because I assume he'll grow out of his obesity later in life, and because we already set so many rules for him to follow. Do you agree?

DEAR READER: I wish I could, but I can't. A child's eating habits, and weight, can adversely affect his or her health later in life. The healthy eating habits you set with young kids not only influence their eating habits later in life, they also influence the chemistry of your kids' bodies so they are less likely to get fat as adults. All the talk about childhood obesity is not just media hype.

Do adults need milk?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My parents made us drink milk every day, and I've continued that as an adult. A friend just told me that adults don't need milk, and that it can even be bad for you. What's the truth?

DEAR READER: Like you, we always had milk when I was a kid. In fact, the coming of the milkman to deliver the milk at home (remember him?) was an important event each day. These days, I have milk on cereal, but I don't drink it by the glass. As with most things, there are both benefits and risks.

What is the Mediterranean diet and is it actually healthy for you?

DEAR DOCTOR K: In some of your columns you've said that the "Mediterranean diet" is healthy. First, what is a Mediterranean diet? Second, what proof is there that it really is healthy? Call me "Skeptical."

DEAR READER: Well, "Skeptical," prepare yourself for a fairly emphatic reply. Because when I think skepticism about something important is misguided, I tend to unload. The Mediterranean diet is the traditional diet of people in countries near the Mediterranean Sea. The diet is rich in plant foods. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Animal protein is consumed chiefly in the forms of fish and poultry. Olive oil is the principal fat. And wine is taken with meals.