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Superfruit or Superhype?

Darling of the moment: acai berriesIf someone asks me, "What's the best fruit to eat?" I respond with a most dull answer, "They're all good!" It's not what folks really want to hear. They're hoping to find a magic bite that will supply them with lifelong wellness and vitality, and since people have become more savvy to the dangers of supplements, food has come back into focus. Fruits and vegetables regularly pop up in news headlines with a link to preventing this disease or that ailment. Tufts University rated blueberries highest in antioxidant capacity out of 60 fruits and vegetables. The skins and seeds of red grapes with their dark pigments contain resveratrol, a powerful disease-fighting chemical. The Allium family of vegetables including onions and garlic contain odiferous plant compounds that have been found to play a role in supporting heart and stomach health as well as lowering blood sugar and preventing certain cancers. Maybe you've heard of ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity), which measures the antioxidant power of various foods, with spices and berries earning top scores. Antioxidants in theory are believed to stave off free radical damage. An excess of free radicals may promote certain diseases and quicken the aging process. However, it's important to know that this is only a theory that has been shown in laboratory research; it has yet to be demonstrated in humans.

What we do know is that fruits and vegetables contain not only antioxidants but thousands of types of phytochemicals (translation: plant chemicals). These chemicals occur naturally in plants to help protect them from diseases, insects and harsh climates. When we eat those plants, their phytochemicals appear to protect us from disease or even help fight existing disease. If you choose to eat only blueberries or acai juice or broccoli because they rank high on Top Ten lists, you miss out on thousands of other benefits in other plant foods. Good ole' oranges may not be as trendy as acai berries but they are a powerhouse of nutrients including vitamin C (an antioxidant), folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and at least five different kinds of phytochemicals. Like oranges, each fruit and vegetable has a unique architecture of nutrients that our bodies crave. This is why health experts recommend at least 3-5 servings of mixed produce a day, and more than 5 servings for even greater health benefits.

Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Fruits and Veggies Matter recipe page for great ideas on how to use an abundance of superfruits and superveggies every day.


Hankering for a Healthy(-er) Pizza

Bertucci's olive oil, which graces almost every menu itemPeople often ask me how to order a healthy pizza at a restaurant. I guess in theory it's possible: lots of vegetable toppings, a sprinkling of cheese, tomato sauce, a drizzle of olive oil, and a thin crust (preferably whole wheat)—a filling meal with a variety of nutrients. As I glanced at a Bertucci's flier for their summer menu, I saw a picture of what looked like my "healthy pizza." The Giardino Pizza with roasted red and yellow peppers, grape tomatoes, and mozzarella on a whole wheat pizza crust. A hefty coupon sealed the deal and off we went. Bertucci's has a distinctive scent that pervades the dining areas and all of their entrees; it's a fresh warm aroma that probably comes from the baking bread, olive oil and lots of garlic. Although I love Bertucci's pizzas, they tend to be slicked with oil as the toppings are often sauteed in oil and sometimes finished with an extra drizzle on the surface. So I asked for less cheese and no olive oil drizzle. The waiter mentioned that the pizza was covered with pesto, which wasn't listed in the menu description, but I ok'd it since I didn't want to strip out too much flavor.

The crust was thin but unfortunately burnt black on several edges. It tasted...dry. Not chewy, not pleasantly crackly, just tough and bland. Despite trying to order less grease, the pizza still had pools of oil cratered throughout from the pesto. The vegetables looked colorful but were shiny with more oil. Summer's Giardino PizzaOverall, the pizza tasted like all their others—very very rich but nothing too memorable. I was expecting a summer pizza with a "thin whole wheat crust" to be lighter and somewhat more healthful but I didn't taste this at all. I commend Bertucci's for being one of the few Italian restaurant chains to disclose their nutrition information. It said that the Giardino Pizza has 230 calories and 6 grams fat per slice, or 910 calories and 26 grams fat for an entire individual pizza. I'm skeptical because even a small amount of oil shoots up the fat calories; I'd guess my pizza contained at least double the fat grams. I've noticed that the same menu items taste slightly different at each Bertucci's chain, likely depending on the chef and his/her interpretation of the recipe. I doubt they're measuring exact amounts of oil to cook with and that can throw off the nutritional info.

So, I'm still searching for my "healthy" great-tasting restaurant pizza. Admittedly the best one I've found is from a local Domino's that I customize with less cheese, extra vegetables and no extra oil. It tastes really fresh and doesn't leave me bloated and aching for a nap afterwardsSleeping. If you've found your perfect healthier pizza, please let me know where!


Snub Soda This Summer

Soda has come under fire by national health experts as a major contributor to obesity. A zero-nutrient beverage that offers little but sugar calories (a 12 oz can of Coke Classic contains 140 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar), it is well digested and all too easy to gulp down. Further, many of us choose the larger 20 oz soda bottles which, on a hot steamy day, isn't hard to guzzle down two or three. That's 480-720 calories—about a third of our daily calorie intake! It's no wonder they are a target of public health departments. New York's Governor Paterson proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks that could discourage consumption by 15-20%. A study by the New York City Health Department estimated that this reduction could prevent thousands of cases of adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes, saving residents over $2 billion in related medical expenses.

I'm skeptical that the reduction of a single food product could have such far-reaching effects but obesity is such a complex problem that making small changes like this just might work. In response to this issue in the Boston area, the Boston Public Health Commission is launching its first citywide Soda-Free Summer Challenge. They are asking people and organizations to take a pledge to skip soda for the entire summer...or at least skimp on it if you're a soda diehard. Instead of soda, they suggest non-calorie drinks like water, unsweetened ice tea and seltzer, or low fat milk, which is rich in nutrients.

What about diet sodas and fruit juices? Kathy Cunningham, a dietitian at the Boston Public Health Commission, says “Diet or artificial sweeteners are intended to produce a sweet taste with zero or fewer calories to promote weight loss. However, over time calories displaced by artificial sweeteners may be replaced by other foods due to the sweetener increasing a taste preference for sweet foods rather than naturally low-sugar tasting foods.” In other words, the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas may promote an ongoing sweet tooth that can become an obstacle to weight loss. Cunningham believes that diet drinks are best used as an aid to transition to less sweetened beverages like water, mineral waters, and noncaffeinated teas. Fruit juices offer nutrients but are still high in calories and easy to drink in large quantities, so limit juice to about a cup a day (choose 100% fruit juices as fruit "drinks" contain added sugar). Or add a splash of fruit juice to seltzer water.

Are you up for the challenge? Admittedly I'm a fan of diet soda and flavored waters but agree that many of these products are filled with artificial ingredients, so I'm up for the challenge...at least for this summer.