Image: Soup
Seth Wenig  /  AP
Soup is a convenient way to work more vegetables into meals.
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updated 1/23/2007 6:23:10 PM ET 2007-01-23T23:23:10

For many people soup brings an image of a cozy comfort food that just has to be good for you. Indeed, soup can be a boost as you try to stay fit and healthy. But look before you eat, because the details of what’s in the soup make a difference.

The long-held connection of soup to good health may stem from grandma’s advice that you should have chicken soup when ill. Some research has shown that one or more compounds in chicken soup provide mild anti-inflammatory benefits that reduce mucus production and thus, lessen a stuffy nose or cough. We still have relatively little research to confirm the link, but there’s no harm in trying.

Soup could be an ally for weight control, too. Americans’ portions have grown markedly in the last 20 years, apparently contributing to our boom in obesity. Some research suggests that starting a meal with soup may help reduce portion size.

For relatively few calories, soup brings a feeling of fullness and makes it easier to eat less of other foods in a meal. The key for success with this strategy may depend upon serving smaller portions of the other foods.

Studies have clearly established that for many of us, eating super-size portions is not necessarily due to hunger; it is a response to seeing more food. If that’s true, then the fact that soup satisfies our hunger won’t necessarily lead us to eat less if we still see large amounts of food.

Drink your veggies
Soup can also benefit long-term health by serving as a vehicle to work more vegetables into meals. Tomato soup provides a serving of vegetables in the liquid itself, and then you can add a variety of vegetables.

Pureed winter squash is also an excellent base for soup that is packed with nutrients. (Simply puree steamed, microwaved or baked squash, and thin to the consistency you prefer with chicken or vegetable broth or fat-free milk.)

Broth-based soups can be packed with one to two standard servings of vegetables per bowl, too. If you start with commercial soup that’s light on vegetables, you can frozen, canned or leftover fresh veggies of your own.

The key to making soup a healthy food option is to make sure it is concentrated in the plant foods that we need to increase in our diet and not loaded with what we need to reduce sodium and saturated fat.

Conventional commercial soup often contains from 750 to 1,000 milligrams of sodium per 1-cup serving a hefty portion of the suggested maximum of 2,300 mg a day. (If you start with condensed soup, a serving is less than half of a 10-ounce can).

Watch out for salt
Reduced-sodium soups often contain 400 to 850 mg per cup. This is better but definitely not truly low-sodium. Some people dilute reduced-sodium soup with sodium-free bouillon to produce a soup with even lower sodium than commercial soups. You can add onion, garlic and herbs for plenty of flavor. As for fat content, cheesy or creamy soups tend to deliver 5 to 9 grams of saturated fat per cup; a substantial portion of many people’s cap of 15 to 20 grams a day, particularly if your portion sneaks above the one-cup mark.

Vegetable and broth-based soups make limiting fat easier. Soup can play a role in creating meals that reduce cancer risk and promote overall health. By adding soup loaded with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, you can instantly switch the balance of a meal in a healthy direction.

Soup can even be the complete meal following this approach. A soup chock-full of vegetables that includes a small amount of meat or poultry can provide a satisfying and healthful meal.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Researchin Washington, D.C.

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