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The Best of Foods, the Worst of Foods

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Did the world really need a fourth "Eat This, Not That!" book?

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Well, maybe not. Having read the first three in the series of food-choice comparison guides created by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding of Men's Health magazine, I'd have been inclined to say, okay, guys, I get it. Some foods that seem healthful are surprisingly bad for you, and others that you think might kill you aren't as bad as you thought, and it's important to look at the nutrition facts so you'll know the difference.

To be sure, the new book follows its best-selling forebears, delving into the nutrition data for tons of fast-food, casual dining and grocery-store foods and comparing them to one another, urging readers to choose the more healthful items over those most likely to clog your arteries and pad your thighs. The shock value is somewhat diminished by now: A venti 2 percent Starbucks Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate has 760 calories? What else is new? And to my mind, most of the big revelations about the highest-profile food items were made in the earlier books, leaving portions of this book with a leftovers feeling.

Having said all that, though, I have to confess that I love this book. Flipping through the pages is like snacking on Lay's potato chips (the 110-calorie baked variety being an "Eat This" choice, besting 210-calorie Sun Chips Original in the vending-machine-snack category). The photos are compelling, especially those of the gross "Not That!" choices: Check out those 460-calorie slices of Cici's Macaroni and Cheese Pizza! And the explanatory blurbs are pithy and crammed with detail.

Perhaps anticipating a been-there-done-that response, the authors have squeezed into this expanded volume a lot of basic nutrition information. The four-page list of food sources for 14 key vitamins and minerals (did you know there's zinc in both wheat germ and pastrami?) is as handy a little guide as I've seen. And after reading this edition's lineup of common food additives and their potential effects on your body, you'll never feel the same way again about Tropicana orange juice. Its ingredients include cochineal extract -- a coloring agent made of "about 90 percent insect-body fragments."

As in earlier volumes, Zinczenko and Goulding offer sections enumerating the best and worst foods for specific nutritional goals: For controlling blood sugar and, by extension, possibly warding off diabetes, beware the whopping 110 grams of sugar in Uno Chicago Grill's Baby Back Ribs. To ward off high cholesterol and blood pressure, skip the Grilled Shrimp Caprese at Olive Garden, which delivers 150 percent of the recommended daily maximum of sodium. And they include information about foods that boost your mood, improve your complexion, fuel your workout or lift your libido (oysters don't, but dark chocolate does).

New to this edition is a section called "The Best Foods You've Never Heard Of." My heart sank when I saw the first entry was acai berries, which I've not only heard of but written about. But the aronia berry? That's news to me! (Like acai, aronia, also known as chokeberry, has lots of antioxidants, as signaled by its deep purple color.) Sure, I've cooked celeriac, but what is this fenugreek? (An herb used in many Indian dishes, it may help regulate blood sugar.) Hemp seed nuts, we learn, are packed with protein and alpha-linoleic acid, which is good for your heart. Sweet potato leaves turn out to be full of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds. And alligator meat has more protein than beef or chicken, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. "I eat alligator every day," Zinczenko joshed with me over the phone. "I never tire of it."

The "ETNT" team wins my heart by embracing full-fat cheese over reduced-fat. They say it's a great source of casein protein, good for building strong muscle; they also cite research showing that "even when men ate 10 ounces of full-fat cheese daily for 3 weeks, their LDL ('bad') cholesterol didn't budge."

My very favorite nugget appears in the "Superfoods in Disguise" section. I've been told for years that iceberg lettuce has almost no nutritional value -- but there it is, with the explanation that "half a head of iceberg lettuce has significantly more alpha-carotene, a powerful disease-fighting antioxidant, than either romaine lettuce or spinach."

People will find their quibbles, of course. For instance, about that iceberg lettuce: Who eats half a head? And how much spinach did they stack it up against? Many of the book's proclamations, including the one about cheese, appear to be based on findings from single studies, and some of their "best" and "worst" designations may seem a bit obvious. I mean, what do you expect when you order Bob Evans's Stacked and Stuffed Caramel Banana Pecan Hotcakes? Of course they have 1,543 calories! But the thing is, the guys asked people to estimate how many calories were in that dish, and the average guess was just over 1,000.

So the books are interesting and informative, and I even look forward to several more volumes due to appear in the next few months. But will they cause enough of us to change our ways to have a meaningful impact, or is all this comparing of foods merely a parlor game?

I figure comparing the data can only help -- unless just seeing pictures of those pecan pancakes and pasta-topped pizza makes us so hungry we eat them after all.

Check out Tuesday's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer takes an "Eat This, Not That!" look at salads. Subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters."


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