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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Food for Thought Food for Thought

The Fusion of Good Taste and Good Nutrition

October 23, 2014

By Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Every year, the Harvard Medical School of Public Health and The Culinary Institute of America present a very special event called "Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives" in lovely Napa Valley, California.

This four-day conference brings together doctors, dietitians and health care professionals for an experience that combines the latest nutrition research with healthy cooking demonstrations and hands-on workshops.

The event is based on the premise that clinicians who know how to shop for, cook and eat healthy meals are more likely to be good role models for their patients when it comes to nutritious eating. The event's motto says it all: "See one, do one, teach one." It inspired participants to expand their nutrition and cooking skills.

Here are some practical tips for nutritious home cooking from past Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives.

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Go International

There's a substantial amount of research showing that people who eat a plant-based diet — mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes — live longer and enjoy better health than people whose diets consist mainly of animal-based foods like meat. These findings are based on studies of people from many countries, including the island of Okinawa and countries around the Mediterranean Sea.

But is the diet responsible for the health benefits? Are the geographical areas or the people who live there responsible? Fortunately, research offers some answers.

Studies of an ethnically diverse group of people in Australia showed that eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduces ischemic heart disease by 49% and death rates by 34%.

Studies also show that the Mediterranean diet is associated with:

  • Decreased pain and stiffness and improved overall health for people with rheumatoid arthritis
  • Decreased rates of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases in people who live outside of the Mediterranean area

Many cultures developed their cuisines around plant foods out of necessity. Traditionally, sources of animal protein were limited and expensive. Like Mediterranean cuisine, Latin American and Asian cultures are known for pairing healthy plant foods with lean protein (fish, chicken) and monounsaturated fat (olive oils, nuts).

Get creative with your plant-based meals. A good motto to follow is, "If it grows together, it goes together."

  • Combine foods from one growing region for fabulous meals. For example, try the rich, flavorful Spanish sauce called Romesco over grilled vegetables. It's made from roasted red peppers, olive oil and nuts. 
  • To make olive oil really shine, pair a bold olive oil, like a Tuscan varietal, with other bold flavors, like rosemary and pine nuts. A milder French-varietal olive oil works better with foods that have subtle flavors.

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Explore Your Own Region, Too

The conference emphasized environmentally friendly eating. Locally grown foods may be fresher and have higher nutrient content. Because they spend less time being shipped and handled, they may look and taste better.

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Spice it Up

Does garlic lower cholesterol? Probably not. Will turmeric cure cancer? Another "no" at this time.

However, as plant foods, many spices are rich in antioxidants. Despite the lack of research on their health benefits, spices, herbs and aromatics (any plant, herb or spice that adds lively scent to a beverage or food) make other plant foods mouth-watering treats.

While high-sodium, low-nutrition diets have been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and possibly obesity, flavorful spices carry no such risks. Here are ways to ensure their quality, freshness and flavor:

  • Buy spices in small quantities and in their whole form. 
  • Store in a cool dry space, rather than the convenient, but hot, shelf over the stove. 
  • Use a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to grind spices right before use
  • Toast them dry in a hot skillet or stir-fry them in oil over medium-high heat (both for just 10-20 seconds) to "open up" their flavors. A wonderful aroma signals they are done.

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Get Excited About Whole Grains

Research presented at the conference emphasized that whole grains are far better nutritionally than refined grains. And they make you feel fuller longer. Because the starch inside of them is absorbed more slowly, they're less likely than refined grains to quickly be stored as fat.

For people who have diabetes or high blood glucose (sugar), whole grains increase the body's sensitivity to insulin, which helps the body's metabolism be more efficient. Regular consumption of whole grains reduces the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke and metabolic syndrome. Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamin E and magnesium. Eating modest portions of whole grains can even prevent diet-related depression associated with very low-carbohydrate diets.

So why aren't whole grains the norm? Their strong flavors and textures may be surprising at first. Introduce them into your diet with whole-grain bread, pasta and wild rice. If you're adventurous, try teff, spelt, farro, kamut and amaranth. These grains are commonly used in bread, or cooked as side dishes in other parts of the world. They are available in many markets, both ethnic and conventional. Blend whole grains with colorful vegetables, spices and olive oil to maximize their appeal.

Cold or hot cereals are another great way to try whole grains. Add fruit, low-fat milk or nuts for a nutritious breakfast in no time. Adding sweet spices like nutmeg, allspice, cardamom and a masala spice blend can liven up hot cereals on a cold day.

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Go a Little Nuts

In a large clinical study, men and women who ate nuts five times a week or more lowered their diabetes risk by 27%. In another large study, women who ate nuts just about every day lowered their risk of heart disease by 32%. Since a one-ounce portion of nuts can pack 160 calories or more, eating them in moderation can help prevent weight gain. Toasted pine nuts sprinkled over whole grain pasta, or almonds on cereal, are easy and flavorful.

So add some international flavor to your plant-based meals. Take advantage of local produce. A sprinkle of nuts, heart-healthy oils, and tantalizing spices are not only nutritious, but make the most delicious food you've ever eaten.

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Beth Klos, RD, LDN, is a senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of Rhode Island and her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She counsels patients with a wide variety of nutrition-related conditions.

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