Many lifestyle diseases can be avoided when we make informed food choices based on our understanding of the ingredients to go into the dishes we consume. Sudha Umashanker has the answers to some frequently asked questions about diet

White rice or brown rice, almonds or walnuts, butter or gingelly oil — the dilemmas around what we eat are plenty. Making the right choices based on informed decisions, understanding the composition of ingredients in a dish and the oils we use, will not only help us watch our weight, but also to ward off many lifestyle diseases. Nutritionists and doctors throw light on some FAQs.

Almonds or walnuts?

Says researcher Joe Vinson Ph.D, University of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in a report presented at the American Chemical Society, California, “Walnuts rank higher than almonds, pecans, pistachios and other nuts. A handful of walnuts contains twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any commonly consumed nut.” To people worried that they will gain weight after consuming a lot of fats and calories in their diet, Vinson points out that nuts contain healthy poly-unsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats, rather than artery-clogging saturated fats. As for the calories, eating nuts actually makes people feel full and less likely to overeat.

Researchers maintain that unsalted, raw or dry-roasted nuts have benefits for both blood glucose control and blood lipids, and may be used as part of a strategy to improve diabetes control without weight gain.

But even doctors sometimes seem to be divided in their opinion as to which nut is better. Rating almonds the healthier nut compared to other nuts — since it contains MUFA (Mono Unsaturated Fatty Acids), Dr. Bhuvaneshwari Shankar, group chief dietician and vice-president (Dietetics), Apollo Hospitals Group, says, “Almonds are heart-healthy and good for weight watchers and diabetics.” The caveat is that the limit is four to five almonds a day, since they do contain calories.

Butter or olive oil?

Cooking mediums are of great significance. Though oil-free cooking is a possibility, people continue to use oil for seasoning for fear of “compromising” on taste. So, which cooking oil is best?

Dr. Namita Nadar, chief dietician, Fortis Hospital, NOIDA, says, “While we need to make sure we consume enough healthy fats, what we need to watch out for is the type of fat in our diets. Oils (with the exception of coconut and palm oils) are much healthier than fats that come from animals (such as butter or ghee) in relation to heart and brain health. Fats that come from animals have a much higher amount of saturated fat which is associated with increased LDL or bad cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

All oils contain varying amounts of saturated fat, mono-unsaturated fat, and poly-unsaturated fat. Most of us are getting too many omega 6 fatty acids and not enough omega 3 fatty acids. We should increase our intake of mono-unsaturated fats by using olive oil and canola oil, while minimising our intake of corn, soyabean and safflower oils, which have a lot of omega 6 fats.”

Says Dr. Bhuvaneshwari, “A combination of two vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil with rice bran oil, has a good fatty acid profile. The good old practice of using gingelly oil is also fine, but the total oil consumed should not exceed four to five teaspoons per day per adult.”

Jam or marmalade?

Jam and marmalade are two things that figure on the breakfast table, and sometimes children have too much of the former. What’s the verdict on this?

Says Dr. Namita, “Both spreads are made with whole fruit (sometimes vegetables are also used in jams), sugar and water but marmalade has citrus fruit peel as well. Containing less sugar and more dietary fibre per serving, marmalade, in general, is healthier than jam. With much more Vitamin C and iron, marmalade is less detrimental to your diet than jam.”

According to Dr. Bhuvaneshwari, both jam and marmalade have a sizeable amount of calories from sugar and are not advised for diabetics. “Weight watchers should use it in moderation, keeping an eye on the calories,” she adds.

Soya or meat?

And here is something that meat eaters would like to know. How does soya protein compare with red meat? Although vegans, meat eaters and nutritionists have debated extensively on this, the Harvard School of Public Health says both soya and meat protein have pros and cons, and that animal and vegetable proteins are more than likely to have similar effects on the body. What goes in favour of soya is that it contains all the amino acids to make it a good substitute for meat and it also lowers the risk of heart disease and reduces bad cholesterol. Whereas in the case of meat, due to the haemoglobin in it, the nutrient iron is more easily absorbed by the body, and thus helps in the formation of body tissue. However, on the flip side, there is a view that soya can harm the thyroid gland, block mineral absorption, and prevent the body from digesting protein. Red meat, in turn, can lead to heart disease, contribute to calcium loss, and cause kidney abnormalities. To get the amino acids the body needs, the best alternatives to meat protein are fish and poultry. Else, less amount of red meat and occasional consumption will somewhat help avoid excessive saturated fat. Moderation is the key in the case of both.

White or brown rice?

As for the staple item, rice — white or brown? Although white rice scores in terms of looks, from the health point of view, brown rice is clearly the winner. “Diabetics would do well to stay away from white rice. Brown rice has more fibre as only the husk is removed and the bran is retained, whereas white rice is polished and the bran is removed,” says Dr. Namita. Fibre gives a feeling of satiety and prevents overeating.

Fresh or packaged juice?

In the summer months, all of us guzzle juices. Which is better? Freshly-extracted or packaged juice?

Points out Dr. Namita, “Fresh juice, extracted from fruits and vegetables and consumed immediately, is loaded with live enzymes, chlorophyll and organic water, which very quickly delivers deep hydration and oxygen to the cells and bloodstream. On the contrary, bottled juices have lost most of their life-giving enzymes; the nutritional properties of the fruits have been largely compromised, not to forget added colour and refined sugars that are unhealthy. Vegetable juices from veggies and leafy greens are a safer bet because they do not have fruit sugars.”

While some packaged juices come without sugar, Dr. Bhuvaneshwari prescribes, “Fresh fruit instead of packaged juices, since packaged juices are without fibre. If one feels like a drink, then pulpy juices are preferable to strained juices.”

Regular or low-fat cheese?

Protein-rich cheese, which is also loaded with saturated fat, is handy when it comes to having something to munch. Is low-fat cheese a lesser evil?

“Low-fat cheese contains around three grams or less fat per ounce, while regular cheese provides 8 to 9 grams per ounce,” states Dr. Bhuvaneshwari. Hence, low-fat cheese is the better choice.