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updated 9/30/2003 12:46:33 PM ET 2003-09-30T16:46:33

A healthy diet starts at the grocery store. But among the fresh fruits and veggies and between the whole grains and the lean meats lie the temptations of junk food, fat-packed pre-prepared meals, and other choices that can sabotage your attempts to eat right. We discussed navigating the grocery aisles with WebMD’s nutrition expert, Elaine Magee.

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The opinions expressed herein are the guest’s alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome, once again, Elaine. Today the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a list of the healthiest and worst snacks for kids. They kind of state the obvious: Oreos are bad and raisins are good. But then again I was surprised to see that a can of Coke has fewer calories than a glass of orange juice. Can you give us your take on buying healthy snacks for our kids?

Magee: Yes. I think those types of lists that the CSPI provides are always helpful, but you bring up the soda versus orange juice comparison which tells you sometimes you have to look beyond calories. Orange juice is going to give you fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals — which are plant chemicals — whereas soda gives you nada.

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So for snacks for kids, try to move toward natural unprocessed foods and away from manufactured foods. I know it’s tough, because I have preteens, so we do have crackers, but they’re reduced fat Triscuits, for example, that have some fiber going for them. For cookies sometimes we make oatmeal raisin and reduced fat. That’s all I know how to do! At least then we’re getting fiber, minerals, and plant chemicals from the oats and raisins.

Bottom line for snacks is to work in fruits and vegetables, because that’s missing in a big way from kids’ diets today.

Moderator: A spokesperson from the Grocery Manufacturers of America reacted to this list released by the CSPI by saying, “There are no good or bad foods.” Do you agree with that?

Magee: I’m in the middle. I think clearly there are bad foods. There are some foods worse than others. Those are foods that contribute calories and no nutritional value. They’re all over the American food supply. Certainly the good foods are the foods that enhance health. So I think there are good and bad foods, but I think there’s a place for bad foods in a healthy diet. I don’t believe in banning foods, I believe in moderating those foods.

For example, we have a few food rules in the Magee family, and one of them is one soda a day, and we all follow that rule, even Momma. Even if it’s diet: Just one soda a day. Another rule is generally we try to only have one treat per day. That could be nonfat frozen yogurt, or oatmeal raisin cookies, but we try to have no more than one treat or soda a day. Hopefully I’m teaching my girls how to moderate certain foods.

I think if you ban certain foods, you only give them power, you only make them more desirable, and I don’t want to encourage compulsive food behavior.

Member question: I’m a newly diagnosed type 2 diabetic, and I want to learn how to read labels so I can make healthy choices.

Magee: There’s a whole chapter on supermarket tips in my type 2 diabetes book, called Tell Me What to Eat if I have Diabetes, but basically what I encourage type 2 diabetics to do is count carbohydrates, fat, and fiber to help them understand what combinations of those three things encourage normal blood sugars for you.

The good news is fat, fiber, and carbs are on the labels. So you’ll be looking at products and noticing the grams of carbohydrate, the grams of fiber, and the grams of fat for the serving that you’ll be eating. Be careful, because sometimes the serving on the label is half of what you really will be eating. Basically for people with type 2 diabetes it’s all about balancing. You want some fat to help balance the carbohydrates and the more fiber you eat, the easier it will be for your body to manage the carbohydrates.

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The other part of the label that you want to look for is the type of fat used in the product because people with diabetes are at four times the risk of heart disease. You want to get away from high amounts of saturated fat and more toward monounsaturated fat and omega three fatty acids. So for choices of oil in products, you want to find olive oil and canola oil, like in salad dressings, for example.

Member question: another thing I was wondering: could I use a rule of thumb that the higher the fiber content, the lower the food is on the glycemic index?

Magee: Yes. It’s a little bit more complicated than that, but yes. For example, you would think fruit, because it’s so sweet, is higher on the glycemic index, but it’s not. What I advise people to do is to look at the glycemic load of a food and that’s basically the glycemic index, taking into the account the calories per serving. So fruits and vegetables fare well because they’re very low in calories.

Moderator: Do you think the new labels that will list trans fats will be a big help? Any tips for reading the labels with trans fats info?

Magee: Yes, it will definitely be a big help in two ways: Consumers will finally know the amount of trans fats in the products they’re buying, but it’s also going to discourage manufacturers from using them, because they’re going to be embarrassed by some of the products they’ve been selling.

We can kind of get a good idea now by reading the ingredient list, especially with the products that list saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat, because if you add those three fats up, the fat grams that are missing to equal the total grams of fat is the sneaky trans fat amount.

Member question: I have two small children and am trying to find snacks without partially hydrogenated oils (without spending three hours in the supermarket reading the labels). Could you recommend some or is there a list somewhere?

Magee: The products where you’ll find most trans fats, where they’re most likely to be, are:

Margarines and shortenings

Frying fats in processed foods like potato chips

Deep-fried fast foods like french fries and chicken nuggets

Also any food that lists partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients, such as:

Crackers

Cake mixes

Snack cakes

Chips

Donuts

Pastry

Frozen waffles

Microwave popcorn

Packaged cookies

Some breakfast cereals

Moderator: How about a list of low-hydrogenated oils snacks?

Magee: Obviously fruits and vegetables don’t have trans fats. And in terms of those packaged products I listed that do have trans fats, you want to choose reduced-fat versions, because when they use less fat to make the product you automatically reduce the amount of trans fats.

An example is microwave popcorn, a favorite in my house. I buy the 98 percent or 94 percent fat free types instead of the movie theatre type. The fat grams go from 16 percent per serving to something like 3 percent. Clearly I’ve reduced the trans fats by buying the reduced fat item. The same with reduced-fat Triscuits. They’re going to have fewer trans fats and less total fat than regular Triscuits.

Moderator: Sounds like I need to try again to eat reduced-fat versions, because they taste awful to me! Please tell me sometimes the manufacturers go too far with things like baked tortilla chips.

Magee: Yes, they can, and they do. Often it’s about finding a product that has enough fat to satisfy and taste good, but less than the original.

Member question: How about dried fruits? Do they, on average, have more fiber in them? I’m not talking about the ones that are coated with sugar, but I mean, dried peaches, or pears, or apple rings, etc.

Magee: The still have fiber, because all that’s being taken out is the water. You’re just dehydrating the fruit. Just be careful you don’t eat a large serving because they’re smaller so you can easily overdo dried food.

Member question: My family is always on the run in the morning. What pre-prepared or quick to prepare breakfast foods can I buy that will meet our nutritional needs?

Magee: When you buy a lot of those convenience breakfast products you’re getting a lot of chemicals and preservatives and trans fats, so I urge people to make some breakfast foods homemade and have them in the freezer so you can pull them out on those hectic mornings.

There are some great muffin recipes in my flax cookbook called, The Flax Cookbook. Even homemade waffles can be frozen and popped in the toaster in the morning. For cereals, you can jazz them up a little nutritionally by adding fresh fruit, maybe some yogurt on the side, and even dried fruits.

You can make a bagel breakfast sandwich. It’s tough with kids, but the whole-wheat bagels are going to give you more fiber. Just pop one in a toaster oven with some extra lean ham and reduced fat cheese and you have a breakfast bagel. I buy bagels fresh, cut them in half and freeze them. Pull them out of the freezer and pop them in the toaster.

Member question: You’re calling today’s chat Navigating the Grocery Minefields, so tell me, where should I generally fear to tread the most?

Magee: I’m one of those really realistic dieticians. I’m not going to tell you to shop the perimeter of the store, because there are items that any family ends up buying on the inside aisles. What I tell people to do is there’s literally a better choice in every aisle, from crackers to frozen entrees to ice creams.

For example, frozen hash browns. That is a staple in the Magee house. You can buy shredded hash browns with zero fat and then you make them at home with a wee bit of canola oil. That’s a better choice compared to the hash browns that have fat added by the manufacturer to the tune of 12 grams of fat per serving, the majority of which are trans fats.

Breakfast cereals: There are definitely better choices in that aisle. You’re looking for cereals that have a good amount of fiber, are hopefully a whole grain, which is also going to give you more of those phytochemicals, with the least amount of sugar possible. I’d say it’s about 20 percent of your breakfast cereal choices.

Member question: Is olive oil good for you when you are on a diet?

Magee: All oils have about the same amount of calories, but you want to spend those oil calories wisely by using an oil that have more monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which are olive oil and canola oil. You want to use the least amount possible but still have your recipe taste great. The problem with olive oil is it doesn’t do well at very high temperatures and it can have a strong flavor that you may not want in your cake, so that’s why I literally use one or the other depending on the recipe, whichever one works the best.

Member question: can you tell me if boiled red skinned potatoes are better for you than white ones?

Magee: I’m not aware of any big nutritional difference, so I would go with what is in season and looks the freshest, because that’s going to give you a higher amount of vitamins. The longer they sit around, the more antioxidants you lose from them.

Member: If you want to shop healthy, try a store that sells in bulk. Bulk foods are usually less processed and at the one I go to, the ingredients and nutrition labels are clearly displayed on each bin so that you truly can see what you are getting. They are also usually cheaper! If you save money on some of the bulk foods, you have a little more to buy higher quality meats with less fat.

Magee: The only thing to keep in mind with some bulk items, if it’s an item that’s not selling well and the bins aren’t being changed frequently, for example the nuts, they could go a little rancid. So just be aware of that.

Moderator: Are you a fan of farmer’s markets? Is the produce ‘better’ for you?

Magee: At my farmer’s market in California, it’s mostly organic, and picked when it’s ripe, so I feel better eating those types of produce items, just knowing it wasn’t sitting around in a warehouse for weeks losing nutritional value. I personally like to support small farmers, too, and their efforts to grow clean food.

I like to make my own jam using farmer’s market organic berries and I make a lower-sugar version that people beg for.

Member question: My daughter is in the third grade. She’s always been a good fruit eater, but lately she’s dropping fruit from her “likes” list left and right. Do I keep serving fruit until she starts eating them again, or should I give in for now and re-introduce later?

Magee: Great question! Keep offering, because if she’s not around it, it is going to be harder for her to jump back on that train. It happens to all of us parents; we tend to serve the foods we know are kids will eat, so we start serving the macaroni and cheese and the pizza and hot dogs, but we’re really better off continuing to serve other types of foods, other healthier foods and exposing them to it. Because eventually, halleluiah, when my 12 year old started loving my chicken enchiladas and lasagna, then I had arrived.

I personally didn’t serve a lot of the things parents serve; I kept at it with the other types of foods. I tried to have some alternatives around so that there was something they would eat.

Moderator: There’s still some grilling weather left. What should I look for in the meat section, or what should I avoid? There’s such a price difference between meats! Are some healthier than others?

Magee: You want to gravitate toward the leaner cuts. For grilling the key is marinating the leaner cuts, so that they’ll be a little tenderized and full of flavor by the time you put them on the grill. My favorite lean choices to grill are pork tenderloin, London broil, skinless, boneless chicken breasts, and any fish I can get my hands on. When you marinate meat, it’s actually less likely to produce some of those potential cancer chemicals, PCBs, those things.

Moderator: What’s a good all-purpose marinade recipe?

Magee: I tend to do bottled. You can use any reduced-fat, non-creamy bottled dressing, and choose canola oil or olive oil in the ingredients. A Paul Newman’s light Italian, something like that is a good choice. I like teriyaki marinades, too.

I can tell you a quick way to grill salmon. What I like to do is rub it with a little bit of canola oil on the flesh side and sprinkle with garlic powder, black pepper and dill weed, and some salt, if you want. You can put it on heavy, too. Really cover it with the black pepper, the garlic and the dill weed. It’s so simple and so good.

Moderator: Speaking of salmon, should we steer away from farm-raised? I hear it’s not as healthy, especially in Omega-3s. True?

Magee: It does still have plenty of Omega-3s; it just has higher levels of PCBs. I think when you have a choice, buy the wild salmon. If you’re pregnant, you definitely want to go toward the wild salmon. As far as the Omega-3 levels, farm has lower levels, but they’re still a higher Omega-3 fish.

Moderator: We are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us, Elaine?

Magee: I’d love for anybody to come visit the healthy cooking special needs board on the WebMD site, plus if you’re on BarnesandNoble.com, check out “The Flax Cookbook”. I believe it’s the only ground flaxseed cookbook. The others are based on flaxseed oil. Come visit me on the healthy cooking board.

Moderator: Thanks to Elaine Magee for being our guest. For more information on nutrition, cooking light, or eating for special needs diets, visit Elaine at her message board here at WebMD. She also has numerous books on these subjects, including her newest, “The Flax Cookbook”.

Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the author of the celebrated syndicated column, The Recipe Doctor. She is a regular guest on the Bay Area morning show, Mornings on Two, and a frequent guest on Portland’s morning show, AM Northwest. Magee is the author of 10 books on nutrition and cooking, including the bestselling “Fight Fat and Win”.

WebMD content is provided to MSNBC by the editorial staff of WebMD. The MSNBC editorial staff does not participate in the creation of WebMD content and is not responsible for WebMD content. Remember that editorial content is never a substitute for a visit to a health care professional.

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