Give it a miss, and 11 other easy food rules to live by

You’ve got the USDA telling you what to eat, the FDA preaching what not to eat, R.D.s and M.D.s chattering about RDAs and your mom looking crestfallen if you pass on the au gratin potatoes when you visit for dinner. Add in the conflicting advice from pop diet super docs, friends and your wheatgrass-swilling trainer, all sure that their way is the secret to life everlasting. It’s enough to drive you to a plate of acrylamide-filled french fries. Well, help is here at last. Turn the page for SELF’s cut-through-the-confusion tips — all you need to know for shopping, cooking and eating healthfully.

If it looks natural but isn’t, don’t eat it: Like some good-looking guys before you get to know them, many packaged foods present a face that may not reflect what’s inside. Then again, it might. The only way you’ll know is if you rotate the item 180 degrees and squint at the minuscule print the manufacturer isn’t broadcasting as loudly as the health claims on the front. “Juice drinks, for instance, are often labeled to imply that you’re getting 100 percent juice,” says Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit education group in Washington, D.C. “They may say Made With Real Juice!, but you can look on the back and see it has just 25 percent.” As long as it says somewhere on the package how much juice is in there, manufacturers are not technically lying, Liebman says. A similar scam: foods that contain mostly natural ingredients except with packaging that implies they are healthier than they truly are. Breads that scream multigrain! sound virtuous. Yet all it means is that the manufacturer used more than one grain. “It could be 95 percent white flour with a little whole wheat — that’s legally multigrain,” says Liebman. The list goes on: A cracker can be called Wheatsworth and contain far more white flour than whole-wheat flour (if the first ingredient is enriched flour, that means bleached, non-whole-grain flour). A soup can be chicken noodle with barely a teaspoon of chicken in an entire can. Oh, Wheat Thins Garden Vegetable Harvest Crisps have veggies, all right: “Way down on the ingredient list, after the sugar, there are some dehydrated vegetables,” says Liebman.

Get-real rule: Read the fine print. Where an ingredient falls on the list is a big clue to its health value. Companies aren’t required to reveal how much of something is in their food, but they must list the contents from largest amount to smallest. In truly whole-grain products, whole-wheat or whole-grain flour is the first ingredient. If sugar (aka sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup) is near the top, consume the food sparingly. Bottom line: “Be skeptical,” says Liebman.

If it’s blue and it’s not a blueberry, pass it by: That goes for anything that comes in Cheez Doodle orange, too. “If a food is artificially colored and flavored, it’s a tip-off that it’s highly processed,” says Bonnie Kaplan, Ph.D., a research psychologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, who has studied the effects of food additives. Processed foods are often nutrient-light, and some people experience adverse reactions such as headaches after eating fake-o colorings and additives. “There’s no reason why our bodies need red dye number two,” says Kaplan.

Get-real rule: Except for a rare snack, stick to foods that are more Janet and less Michael (Jackson) — that is, more or less the color they were at birth.

You should know where your food comes from: Sorry, being aware that Hershey’s bars are from Pennsylvania doesn’t count. Actual food comes from the farm or the sea. Period. Hints that your food is fake: (1) It’s been altered in a lab so that its sell-by date is close to when your CD is due to mature. (2) It has many more ingredients than you would use if you made it yourself. (3) A child can’t immediately pinpoint its origins. Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Eating Well for Optimum Health (Knopf), has long beaten the drum about the dangers of highly processed foods. “They’re linked with obesity, adult-onset diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” he says. “And as these foods multiply in the diet, they displace things like fruit and vegetables,” which are full of nutrients that protect health.

Get-real rule: Reach for cheese on a whole-wheat cracker instead of cheese-flavored Doritos; strawberries with yogurt or a little homemade whipped cream, not a soft-serve sundae topped with sugary strawberry-flavored goop; a fruit smoothie versus a 7-Eleven Slurpee. You get the idea.

If it’s edible but has no nutrients, it’s entertainment: Which is fine — everyone loves to be entertained. But real food, not the chewable equivalent of reality TV, should be the bulk of your intake.

Get-real rule: Take in about 15 percent of your calories from fun food, advises Joy Bauer, R.D., author of The 90/10 Weight Loss Plan (St. Martin’s). “Most people should aim for 250 calories or fewer,” Bauer says. You probably know if a food is nutrient-rich (alas, cake is still cake, even if it’s shaped like a muffin), but if you’re not sure, check the label. And if you want entertainment, there’s always The Bachelor.

The produce aisle is the widest one for a reason: Why? Because it houses the types of foods that should make up the greatest proportion of our diet. The ice cream aisle, however, is wide for a different reason. Think about it.

Get-real rule: Five a day, baby, if not more. A bowl of fruit with yogurt in the a.m. and a hefty salad at lunch just may do it — fruit and veggie servings are typically about a half cup, a full cup for leafy greens. Snack on an apple and you’re set.

Potato salad isn’t salad: And tempura doesn’t count as a vegetable. You see where we’re going here: How you prep your produce is just as important as getting enough of it. While there are nutrients in both mayo-drenched potatoes and turnips buried in tempura batter, coating veggies in fat or frying them “tips the nutritional balance out of their favor” because the saturated fat you add is worse for you than the vegetables are good, says Sue Moores, R.D., American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokeswoman and nutrition consultant in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Get-real rule: Nosh on such yummies as treats, not as staples. “If that’s how a person thinks they’re going to get their vegetables, that’s a problem,” Moores says. “But if they enjoy them and they’re eating healthily otherwise, that’s fine.” Eat most veggies raw or cooked lightly. Steamed, sautéed or stir-fried in healthy olive or canola oil, or in lowfat sauces, are great ways to go.

Frozen foods can be your friends: Sure, fresh fruits and vegetables are generally regarded as best, but if you’ve ever had a head of broccoli stink up your fridge because you were working late for a week and didn’t have time to cook it, you think twice before buying more. Luckily, many frozen or canned fruits and veggies (like tomatoes or corn) contain more disease-fighting nutrients than the fresh stuff.

Get-real rule: If your produce drawer is full of decomposing flora, you’re a good candidate for frozen veggies, most of which store well. Buy produce and legumes canned in water rather than in sugary syrups, or rinse before eating.

Beer does not count toward your eight glasses of liquid a day: Happily, practically all other fluids do. “The only one that really does not count is alcohol,” says Moores. “Alcohol definitely draws water out of the body.” You may have heard that caffeinated drinks do, too, but Moores says that appears to be the case only with people who rarely drink caffeine. “And even if it does pull out water, it’s not much,” she says.

Get-real rule: Almost anything goes, but it’s better to have nutrient-rich drinks (100 percent juices, lowfat milk or soymilk or juice-seltzer combos) or plain water than the empty calories of sugary sodas, iced teas, fruit drinks or cocktails. As caffeinated drinks go, tea is better than coffee, which has no nutrients, says Moores, but a couple of cups a day of either is fine. Juicy fruits can also add to your liquid quota.

The dishwasher will clean your plate — you don’t need to: At least not with your mouth. “Think about the starving children in Africa!” your dining companion exclaims when you lay down your fork midway through your meal because you’re full. Then he starts “helping” you finish, even though he’s had to loosen his belt a notch. You might explain how wasteful it is to shove excess calories down your throat when you’re no longer hungry — the food leads only to weight gain, and often to time-sucking stays in the hospital for triple-bypass surgery. The fact is there’s usually more food around (at “special value” prices) than a person can comfortably eat, especially in this country.

Get-real rule: Stop when you’re full. Take your leftovers home for later or, better yet, decide in advance to share a meal or order a half portion. If you’re worried about starving kids, send the money you saved to a charity such as CARE or log on to the World Hunger Education Service’s website at and click on Help Reduce Hunger.

Don’t like it? Leave it: If you loathe the spongy, bounce-back texture of tofu, don’t torture your mouth. Force feed-ing yourself something just because it’s good for you will only bring misery.

Get-real rule: Find out how you can get comparable benefits from foods you actually like. “No single food is going to make or break your diet,” says Julie Walsh, R.D., of New York City, a spokeswoman for the ADA. “It’s about what you eat over the course of a day that counts.” Can’t stand broccoli? Try other dark-and-leafies, such as collard greens or BroccoSprouts, which taste different from broccoli but have similar nutrients, suggests Walsh. Not a dairy queen? Consider rice milk or soymilk, which delivers the same amount of calcium and vitamin D. And as for — blech! — tofu? Soymilk and some energy bars are good sources of soy protein. “Eating doesn’t have to be painful,” says Walsh.

That cheesecake is not the last you’ll ever see: Exception: You’re on death row, awaiting your last meal, with no hope of clemency. In which case, live it up.

Get-real rule: Have a few forkfuls or a small piece if you really want to — there’s room in an overall healthy diet to accommodate it. But if you’re eating it only because it’s the best thing that’s happened to you all day, take a pass.

You are not what you eat: You are not “so good today” if you ate like a bunny or “so bad” if you had something on your no-no list. Unless you’re a cannibal, what you eat is in no way a reflection of your moral character.

Get-real rule: Food is food. Some types have more nutrients or fewer calories than others. Try to pick healthfully to please your body and your palate. And if you eat badly once in a while, you’re still a good person.

— By Stephanie Dolgoff, additional reporting by Kari Molvar, Self, June 2003

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