We all have a general sense of what the best diet choices are (even if we’re guilty of not always making them).
But in our hectic day-to-day lives it’s inevitable that we run into some situations where it’s not quite so black and white. While there may not be a best decision at our disposal, equipped with the right knowledge, we can make a slightly better one until we can get back on track.
For those situations where there is a bit of grey area, we tapped Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS, health and nutrition editor for NBC News and the Today show, to school us on what the better decision actually is. It’s time to put your knowledge to the test. How well can you navigate these common nutritional dilemmas?
You're running late for work: Is grabbing a donut at the morning meeting better or worse than eating nothing at all?
Why: “This may be a surprise. Some people would think having nothing is better, but try not to skip breakfast,” says Fernstrom. “The problem with skipping food in the morning is it usually makes you over-hungry for lunch and you overeat. The best approach is to eat a modest meal (around 200 calories) within 3 hours of waking up.” Plus, you’ve been fasting overnight, so if you’re running on an empty stomach your energy levels may be low, she adds. A donut weighs in at about around 300 calories. Yes, it has sugar. But it has sugar and fat, which Fernstrom says allows the sugar to be absorbed more slowly. “And a donut is not the worst thing to choose: You might be surprised to know that a donut has fewer calories and less sugar than a low-fat blueberry muffin,” says Fernstrom, adding that if you do grab a donut or a muffin, wash it down with a latte for added protein.
One caveat: If you’re not hungry, don’t force yourself to eat. “For healthy people, our bodies are really great at keeping blood-sugar levels stable. Skipping breakfast generally won’t impact blood sugar for most people — we are metabolically built to sustain variations in food intake,” says Fernstrom. So, if you aren’t hungry don’t grab any food in front of you just to have it. “It’s better to wait and eat when you’re hungry. Be mindful and see how you feel, that’s the best guide of all” she adds.
You're making an omelet: Is using whole eggs better or worse than using egg whites?
Why: “It’s better to use that whole egg. It’s not bad to use the white, but here’s the news flash: for health, eggs are back. It used to be ‘eggs are bad, they have a lot of cholesterol and will raise your blood cholesterol’ and that turns out not to be exactly true," says Fernstrom. "The yolk is filled with a lot of nutrients including vitamin D and protein, it does have a little saturated fat and cholesterol, but it’s not the bad food that we’ve been taught for so many years. So enjoy a couple of whole eggs.” If you don’t like whole eggs or don’t tolerate them well, opting for just the whites is fine, she adds, but if you’re a fan of the yolk there’s no need to toss them out!
Is grabbing a green juice a better or worse breakfast than an Egg McMuffin?
Why: “Green juice is good to have as part of a breakfast, but having the egg sandwich is going to be better. The best thing about an Egg McMuffin is its size — small!” says Fernstrom. “Eggs are a great source of protein and often you can get a whole-wheat English muffin and choose Canadian bacon (the leanest breakfast meat) and maybe a slice of cheese for a little calcium. It will be satisfying and allow you to grab and go.” Green juice can be a smart choice as part of breakfast: “You want to add a little protein or something with a little substance,” says Fernstrom. The bottle we picked up had 38 grams of sugar, which while yes, is coming from natural sources, is also almost an entire days’ worth of recommended sugar intake in one bottle, Fernstrom says. The guidelines suggest keeping sugar intake at about 10 teaspoons or 40 grams a day. “Skip the fruit juice: it strips away the fiber from the fruit,” she says. “Always look for whole pureed fruits and vegetables for the fiber.”
Is bulletproof coffee better or worse than regular coffee?
Why: “Bulletproof coffee is coffee that has butter in it, sometimes people put coconut oil in, it’s a paleo favorite," says Fernstrom. "This is not a health plus because you’re adding saturated fat. It may be filling because of all the fat in it, but you don’t want to choose that as your morning beverage." In fact, one cup of bulletproof coffee (made with 2 tablespoons of butter and 1 tablespoon of MCT oil) clocks in at almost 300 calories and more than 30 grams of fat. "You’re going to get that pop of caffeine in both of them, but you are better off sticking with a cup of coffee and then adding some skim or two-percent milk.”
It's 3 p.m. and your energy is dipping: Is a smoothie a better or worse option than a latte?
Why: “These both could be a good choice, but a reduced-fat or skim milk latte is going to give you a pop of protein and some calcium and vitamin D. It’s fabulous for you and very satisfying, and remember: If you’re not a caffeine lover, you can get it decaf,” says Fernstrom. “You can really get into trouble with the smoothie. If you’re making it yourself and just putting in some fruit and maybe some coconut water and ice, that’ll be a nice [healthy snack]. The problem is, you don’t know what’s getting put in when you’re going to a store, there can be lots of extra add-ins. Chia seeds that you don’t need in the afternoon, protein powders … and now you have a 100-calorie smoothie turning into a 500-calorie ‘snack.’ It’s way too much for anyone for a snack. So be careful with the smoothies.”
You're at happy hour with co-workers and they order loaded nachos: Is having some nachos better or worse than drinking on an empty stomach?
Why: Good news: you have a nutritionists blessing to dig in! “It’s better to nibble on some nachos than have an empty stomach,” says Fernstrom. “When your stomach is empty that alcohol goes down very easily and gets absorbed very quickly, so you’re more likely to get a little tipsy, and when you have a drink or two your willpower will go right out the window, so you tend to eat a lot more.” Even better if you have a few bites before you start drinking. “The best thing is to have some nachos with three or four people, so let them do the ordering and nibble a little bit,” Fernstrom adds. “Your blood alcohol level goes up [as you drink] and then slowly comes back down and having a little food in your stomach is going to be a big help.”
You're at Sunday brunch: Is avocado toast a better or worse choice than a western omelet?
Why: “Avocado has heart-healthy fat … but even healthy foods can be calorie bombs!” says Fernstrom. “Often, it’s not going to be a whole-grain bread and you don’t know what else is mixed in with the avocado, or what is on top. They can be ‘loaded’ like nachos. So you start off with something simple, but you’re getting a lot of calories. With the western omelet, you’re getting a lot of protein and a ton of vegetables.” If you’re not willing to give up your avocado toast, Fernstrom says to “look for thin-sliced bread and a moderate dollop of avocado spread on top. Many times one order is for two people: two slices of thicker bread topped with a whole mashed avocado can have upwards of 500 calories, so take half home for later.”
Is sweetening your tea with honey better or worse than using table sugar?
Answer: Neither! Trick question!
Why: “These are both equivalent forms of sweeteners. They both have 16 calories in a teaspoon. Whether it is white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses ... some things ‘sound’ healthier and have a health halo, but they are all sugar,” says Fernstrom. “The way your body sees it is all the same way: It’s sugar entering your system. So if you feel better about having some honey, or like the difference in taste, it’s all the same calories.” What does matter is the amount you are using. “Even national guidelines say limit, not eliminate, added sugars. And for this, you need to read labels. ‘Taste’ is not an accurate guideline,” she says. “Aim for up to 10 teaspoons of added sugar per day. Do the math: If you’re using 3 teaspoons of honey in a cup of tea, multiple times a day, you’re already over!” Fernstrom encourages us to work on taming our sweet tooth, “which is a process, when you’re accustomed to super-sweet tasting foods.” The good news? “You can down-regulate your sweet preference. Start with adding half the amount of sugar in any beverage you choose and keep trimming until you’re at just one teaspoon per serving,” she says.
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