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As a registered dietitian and Director of Diabetes & Obesity Programs at a major New York hospital, I spend my days helping people take charge of their health by improving their eating habits. What I've discovered is that people hear so much about healthy ingredients that they often get confused not only about what they should be eating, but also why it's good for them. As a result, some of their best efforts may backfire.

Functional foods is another area where people get confused. The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board (IOM/FNB, 1994) defined functional foods as "any food or food ingredient that may provide a health benefit beyond the traditional nutrients it contains." But the definition should be clearer. For example, does a potato chip become 'healthful' if calcium is added?

When it comes to the added nutrition of functional foods, focus on how they can make your already healthy food choices even more beneficial. So a smarter tactic is to replace the cola with a healthy food option such as orange juice, then look for an orange juice brand that that has additional benefits like heart-healthy plant sterols.

Good nutrition is cumulative. It's about making the right food choices throughout the day and eating common sense portion sizes. Here's how I advise my patients to begin making smart changes to their diets.

It's easy to understand why taking a multi-vitamin doesn't make the potato chips you just ate any healthier. Now think about a protein bar. You may eat one because it's supposed to be healthy for you. But if you're watching your weight, you're not hungry, and you don't even need the extra protein, all you're really doing is consuming extra calories, usually in your favorite flavor. (Protein bars do have a valuable place in a healthy lifestyle. I'll talk more about that later.)

  • Use functional foods as an adjunct to healthy living. Functional foods make healthy foods even more beneficial. Three of my favorites are Omega 3s, fiber and plant sterols.
  • Omega 3 fatty acids are associated with helping to lower cholesterol and keeping your cardiovascular system healthy.
  • Fiber is very important to your digestive and cardiovascular health, weight control, and in managing such chronic conditions as diabetes. If you increase your fruit and vegetable intake, chances are good that you'll have plenty of fiber in your diet. So when is added fiber useful? Let's return to that protein bar example. If you are sitting on the tarmac at the airport and your stomach is growling, a protein bar with at least three grams of fiber is preferable to most of the other snacks available. Similarly, if you are starving and it's going to be a long time until dinner, a high fiber protein bar can be an excellent choice. Opt for your least favorite flavor so that you won't be tempted to eat one when you don't need it.

  • Become aware of your eating style. Your eating patterns are often as important as the kinds of foods you are choosing. Do you consume most of your calories during meals or are you a snacker? Are you coming home from work and foraging before dinner? Do you hit the vending machines mid-afternoon? How much do you eat after dinner? Watching TV and eating is a behavior that shouldn't be done at any age by anyone because you're not paying attention to what you are eating. You probably don't even taste it! If you feel the need to keep a food diary, write things down as you eat them. Don't try to remember everything at the end of the day because I guarantee you'll forget something.
  • Nothing replaces healthy eating. Smart eating is about variety and moderation, and increasing the portions of healthier options when you haven't been eating enough of those. Most people don't eat enough vegetables, for example, which are an important source of so many nutrients and antioxidants. You should be eating a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables every day. Are your snacks usurping healthier choices? You may want to reduce the amount of food you are eating that just adds calories without having any good nutritional value. If you need more calcium in your diet, for example, you may want to replace pretzels with yogurt.
  • Don't stress about understanding everything that's listed on food labels. Just pick one or two things that are important to you. If you need to lose weight, you may want to look at the calorie content. If you have diabetes, you may want to look at the sugar content as well. If you have cardiovascular disease or hypertension, you may want to watch the calories and saturated fats or trans fat levels.
  • Plant sterols have also been shown to have very good effects on lowering 'bad' LDL cholesterol levels. If you are thin and have high cholesterol, using margarine with sterols might be appropriate, even while your physician may be prescribing medication for your cholesterol. But if your weight is an issue, look for foods that are already healthier in general and have added plant sterols for an even greater advantage. These now include rice milk, cereal, bread, protein bars, muffin tops, cheese and orange juice.
  • Remember if you are dealing with a health issue such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or hypertension, a functional food won't solve the problem. You'll still have to do the work of improving your lifestyle. But today's functional foods make adding healthy ingredients to your healthy diet easier and more convenient than ever.

    About Cathy Nonas
    Cathy Nonas is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a master's degree in clinical nutrition. She is Director of Obesity and Diabetes Programs at North General Hospital and Assistant Clinical Professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. She has published scientific articles on many facets of obesity, most recently on treatment parameters for the long-term management of obese patients.

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