Dietitian and healthful-eating columnist Ellie Krieger answered some nutrition questions.
Q: What’s the difference (nutritionally) between polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat? I think I remember that one raises HDL cholesterol, but I don’t remember which one. Are there benefits or drawbacks to favoring one over the other?
A: Both polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats are good choices, and studies show protective health effects for both. They can improve your cholesterol profile when you swap them for saturated or trans fat. Monounsaturates come from olive oil, canola oil, nuts and avocado, for example. There are two kinds of polyunsaturated fats: omega-6 (corn, soybean and grapeseed oil) and omega-3 (fish, flax, walnuts).
Omega-6 and omega-3 are both essential fats, which mean you need to get them in your diet to prevent deficiency. Most Americans get plenty of omega-6 and tend to not get enough omega-3 and monounsaturated fat. So it is best to focus on eating more of those.
Q: Lots of chatter about coffee and caffeine recently. I know it can make you jittery if you have too much. Are there any other health concerns?
A: Besides giving the jitters, too much caffeine can affect sleep quality and cause intestinal distress. Plus, if your caffeine is a double caramel latte, you could be sipping lots of calories. That said, coffee is not as bad for us as we once thought. In fact, it has real health benefits. Studies have shown that coffee reduces the risk of certain cancers, Parkinson’s disease and gallstones. I recommend keeping it to two cups a day, skipping it in the afternoon/evening if you have trouble sleeping, and keeping an eye on the calories.
Q: I got one of those pasta-string-type shredders. Besides zucchini and yellow squash, what else can I shred? Then, do I eat it raw or cook the shreds?
A: These shredders are so much fun. Pretty much any firm vegetable or fruit should work. And you can eat them raw in salads, or cook them up. They will cook really quickly because there is so much surface area. Try carrots, sweet potatoes, white potato, beet root (I like shredded beet in salads) cucumbers, apples and turnips.
Q: I love baking and have always wanted to try using yogurt to supplement/complement fatty butter, etc. Does it work well in certain recipes? Any tips?
A: I have had success substituting one-fourth cup of melted butter or oil in baking with one-fourth to one-third cup of plain, regular yogurt (not Greek, which is thicker). This works best in recipes such as quick breads, muffins and pancakes that don’t rely on creaming butter and sugar to incorporate air.
Q: Do you buy canned beans, or do you cook your own?
A: I do both. If I am making a big pot of soup I will use dried beans because I like to simmer them with garlic and onions and use the liquid they cook in to form the soup base. But I have just about every type of canned bean in my cupboard as well — black beans, pinto, cannellini, black-eyed peas, garbanzos — you name it! I think they are one of the healthiest convenience foods around, and I use them in salads, dips, chilis, pasta sauces, etc. I always buy low-sodium or no-salt-added, and I drain and rinse them before using.
Q: I can taste the bitterness in broccoli, kale and similar foods. I don’t think I can get past that, but I’d like to eat more veggies (such as spinach, green beans and peas). Is there a way to like broccoli and kale and Brussels sprouts that I’m missing? Should I just stop worrying and eat the green veggies I do like?
A: First of all, definitely stop worrying. It never really helps! Besides, it sounds like there are many green vegetables you do like and you are probably getting the basic vegetable nutrition you need from those. But don’t stop trying new ones. You might find that you don’t like them cooked but you enjoy them raw.
Brussels sprouts, for example, are much milder tasting when raw, thinly sliced in salads. Also, build on what you already like. Since you like spinach, maybe try mixing a few kale leaves in your spinach dishes, so they blend in more seamlessly. Also, while you don’t want to add too much salt to your food, salt does counter bitterness, so sprinkle some on and see if you like the taste better. It may be worth the trade-off.