- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

An entree featuring raspberries, sweet potatoes and flaxseed hardly sounds like a supermeal.

Then again, when you add up the number of nutrients and antioxidants and the amount of fiber on that plate, the results would soar above and beyond those for most dinners.

Nutritional experts wouldn’t win many converts by recommending such an unconventional platter, but they agree that adding a number of superhealthy foods such as sweet potatoes to a diet is good for one’s health.

Katherine Tallmadge, a District-based national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the reasons food items are qualified as healthy change over time.

“The antioxidant capacity of the fruits and vegetables may trump the amount of a certain vitamin or mineral [in food today],” Ms. Tallmadge says. “An orange may be high in vitamin C, but grapes have a higher antioxidant capacity.”

Antioxidants help stave off cancer, making their presence more important in many eyes than vitamins that can be gleaned from a number of sources or supplements.

“Antioxidant capacity is a whole new field of study,” Ms. Tallmadge says.

When it comes to antioxidants, think colors — deep, lush colors — and don’t spit out those Concord grape pits.

Those cancer-fighting qualities sometimes settle in less than appetizing places.

“Half the antioxidant capacity is in the seed of the grape,” she says, referring to Concord grapes.

Ms. Tallmadge ticks off blueberries, blackberries, cranberries and Concord grapes, all of which are known for their deep pigments, as hearty antioxidant sources.

Rebecca Mohning, a registered dietitian with the Women’s Heart Program at George Washington University Hospital in Northwest, says consumers should read the labels to make sure the food in their supermarket cart is as healthy as they hope.

Whole-wheat breads, which provide a solid source of fiber, shouldn’t contain much sugar or trans fats, the worst of all fats. A quick scan of the ingredients list — the first few items listed are in the greatest quantity in the food — and the nutritional box should allay the consumer’s suspicions, Mrs. Mohning says.

People should consider a variety of soy-based products, from veggie-style burgers to soy nuts, to pack some safe proteins into their diets. Soy is known to lower cholesterol levels, she says.

Dieters often turn to yogurt to help shed unwanted weight. There are varieties that don’t include much fat or many calories.

Mrs. Mohning touts the treat for a different reason.

“It has healthy bacteria that helps boost your immune system,” she says, adding it also includes calcium, which can facilitate weight loss. Even some lactose-intolerant people can consume it without getting ill.

Tracy Gensler, a Bethesda-based registered dietitian and review course instructor for the American Council on Exercise, prefers to steer clients toward easily found goods. Trendy fare such as kefir milk may seem hip, but Ms. Gensler says the average supermarket may not stock them.

One of the best food items, she says, is good old spaghetti sauce — just not necessarily the kind grandma might make from scratch.

Ms. Gensler says a half cup of the average, mass-produced spaghetti sauce contains less than 400 milligrams of sodium but, more important, has a high concentration of the antioxidant lycopene.

“It’s tremendous for men to reduce prostate cancer [rates] by 30 percent,” she says.

The sauce preparation process “enhances the absorbability of the lycopene,” Ms. Gensler says, a feat that can’t be duplicated readily at home. “They’re not sure why that is.”

Red peppers also pack plenty of important nutrients, she says. Half a red pepper features more than twice the recommend daily requirement for vitamin C.

In the fruit realm, Mr. Gensler says raspberries offer a triple benefit of low calories, high vitamin C levels and robust amounts of fiber.

Blueberries often are touted for their antioxidants and delicious taste, but she says raspberries’ extra fiber makes them a better overall treat.

Ms. Gensler says not to worry if raspberries, or blueberries for that matter, aren’t in season.

“Frozen fruit is the best-kept secret around,” she says.

Years ago, dietitians promoted potatoes as a near-ideal food, so long as the nutrient-rich skins were part of the meal.

The current low-carb craze dented that perception, but Ms. Gensler says another potato still makes the health grade.

Sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A and lack the carbohydrates of a regular potato, she says.

“Sweet potato fries are available almost everywhere in the frozen food section. It’s one of the healthiest things you can have with a meal,” Ms. Gensler says. Six fries equal 3.5 grams of fiber.

Becky Hand, an Indiana-based registered dietitian with the fitness and weight loss Web site www.sparkpeople.com, says an excellent, if less popular, superfood is flaxseed. When freshly ground, flaxseed provides a strong dose of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which lower bad cholesterol.

Pre-ground flaxseed loses some of its nutritional benefits.

“Once ground, the fat can turn rancid,” Mrs. Hand says.

The seed, which bears a slightly nutty taste, can be sprinkled onto soups, salads, casseroles and homemade breads, Mrs. Hand says.

“It’s kind of new to the market,” she says of flaxseed. “A lot of people haven’t tried it, but it’s in most grocery stores now.”

She recommends a sprinkling over one meal at least once daily.

“I keep it on the table like a pepper mill. My kids get a kick out of grinding their own,” Mrs. Hand says.

Her children also might not be hungry enough for a hearty breakfast each morning, but she says a fistful of nuts can be a hearty alternative.

“Have a small handful a day. I tell people it’s a personal choice,” Mrs. Hand says, mentioning peanuts, walnuts and pecans as appropriate nut choices. “I see benefit to them all.”

Even if a homeowner dutifully buys the best produce in the supermarket, it may not be enough to retain their inherent goodness.

“Fruits and vegetables … are prone to losing nutrition quickly,” Mrs. Hand says. Store them in the refrigerator’s crisper, she advises, which will keep them tasting fresh as well as prevent nutritional losses. Apples should be refrigerated, too, but chiefly so they retain their crunchy texture.

Ms. Tallmadge says no matter how much wisdom nutritionists impart, consumers still too often ignore the advice.

“We’ve been telling people to eat more fruits and vegetables until we’re blue in the face,” she says incredulously. “You don’t even have to cook them.”

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