Ignore most health claims on food labels

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Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDM

Q: When the label of a food or supplement says that it supports the immune system, does that mean it will help prevent cancer, or does it refer only to fighting off colds and flu?

A: Here’s the confusing part for shoppers: It doesn’t necessarily mean the food or supplement will do either one.

A food or supplement company might be able to make a “structure/function claim” like this one because a product contains vitamin A, C, B-6, D or E, for example. But the food might contain as little as 10 percent of the recommended daily amount of one of these nutrients.

Actually, our immune systems require a host of nutrients, including enough protein and calories to produce antibodies, in order to function well.

Try not to get distracted by claims like this on the front of food packages. Focus on choosing plenty of unprocessed whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, and check the Nutrient Facts panel for sodium, fiber or fat content information.

Don’t let front-of-package claims that may have questionable support convince you to pay more for something that’s not really better or to buy something unhealthy hoping it could actually be good for you.

Q: Easter candy is everywhere now. Can I avoid gaining weight by choosing jelly beans, marshmallow candies or other low or no-fat sweets?

A: The most important step for keeping candy, whether high in fat or not, from causing unwanted weight gain is portion control.

A quarter-cup of jelly beans (a portion the size of a golf ball or egg) or a serving of five marshmallow chicks has about 160 calories. Even though there’s no fat added, these candies have as much sugar as a 12-ounce can of regular soda.

A small one-ounce piece of chocolate contains slightly fewer calories, but some people fool themselves by just eating a bite here and there without paying attention to how much it adds up.

In the end, whether you eat it all at once or mindlessly nibble a bit at a time, when you polish off a seven-ounce solid chocolate bunny, you’ve consumed more than 1,000 extra calories.

As with all treats, limit portions, substitute it for some other higher calorie treat, and eat it when you can sit down and really taste and fully enjoy it.

Behavior researchers also advise us to limit how much candy we bring home, because the odds are that once it comes home with you, it may disappear faster than you planned.

Q: Can the plant-based diet you so often recommend really provide enough protein?

A: Yes, people sometimes think of protein as only coming from meat and dairy products, but we also get protein from plant foods.

Beans, nuts and seeds are the most concentrated sources of plant protein, and they provide fiber, magnesium, potassium and natural protective phytochemicals.

Grains and vegetables also supply small amounts of protein that add up when you make them a major part of your meals.

As you eat less of the animal sources of protein, keep in mind the need for balance. If you eat very little meat, you can’t just eat a rice cake and plain salad and assume you’ve met nutrient needs.

As you shift the balance of plant and animal foods on your plate, look for places you can include beans (in salads, soups, casseroles and more), as well as nuts and seeds.

A mostly plant-based diet that includes five to six ounces a day of lean poultry, fish or meat and three servings of dairy products or alternatives will meet the protein requirements of most adults.

If you prefer to omit or minimize meat or dairy products, you will also get protein well above the Dietary Reference Intake (RDI) if each day you include about three servings of vegetarian sources of protein — such as  beans, nuts and seeds. One serving of beans is ½ cup; seeds and nuts are 1 ounce each.

The American Institute for Cancer Research offers a Nutrition Hotline, 1-800- 843-8114, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. This free service allows you to ask questions about diet, nutrition and cancer. A registered dietitian will return your call, usually within three business days.

Courtesy of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Questions for this column may be sent to “Nutrition Wise,” 1759 R St., N.W., Washington, DC 20009.  Collins cannot respond to questions personally.