MenuDirections 2012: The Skinny on Healthful Menu Items

One expert's view on what to eat packaged some surprises.

MenuDirections' keynote speaker detonated many of the myths about healthful dining.

Nutrition expert James Painter lobbed some firebombs of alternative thinking into Monday’s session of MenuDirections, detonating such well-bunkered truths as “avoid cholesterol at all costs” and “don’t eat fat.”

His list of 10 foods to eat for better health began with rebuttals of those two long-held tenets. But his challenge of the conventional wisdom on healthy eating hardly ended there. Take, for instance, his assessment of chocolate.

“Chocolate is actually a health food,” asserted Painter, who chairs the School of Family & Consumer Sciences at Eastern Illinois University. 

The nutritional devil, he continued, is in the details. The sugar that’s used to counter the bitterness of cocoa, the source of chocolate, may weigh against healthy eating. But “cocoa itself is beneficial,” Painter said.

Still, cocoa can be stripped of its health benefits if it’s processed using the so-called Dutch method, the process used for most just-add-water mixes currently on the U.S. market, according to Painter, a registered dietician and Ph.D.

That message—that the do’s and don’t’s of healthful eating are far more nuanced than the broad strokes of popular or even professional wisdom—was stressed again and again during Painter’s animated presentation.

“It has been a long-held public policy to reduce dietary fat,” he noted. “The goal is you don’t cut it out, you cut it back.”

It’s also a matter of what sort of fat is under discussion.

“Substituting polyunsaturated fat for saturated fat is the one thing you can do [to promote health],” Painter remarked. “It’s the one place where our health policy is correct.”

He similarly challenged the prevailing mindset on cholesterol.

“People still have this idea that you need to cut cholesterol out of your diet. [But] it really does nothing,” he said. Rather, managing the relationship between so-called bad cholesterol—LDL—and the good variety, HDL, is the real route to safer eating, he explained.

Painter also burst the myth that nuts should be avoided “because they’re full of fat.” In fact, “We’ve known for a long time” that they can be beneficial in moderation. Just don’t keep the lid off the jar, he advised.

Painter cited a number of foods that should be mixed into diets for better health. They include…

Phytosterols, the ingredients in butter substitutes like Benecol and Smart Balance that reduce cholesterol.

Soy in all forms, including tofu.

Fiber-rich foods, particularly psyllium seed and oat bran.

Grape products, including raisins, wine and whole purple fruit. “You’d think they’d all be the same, but they’re not,” Painter said. Raisins, for instance, tend to reduce inflammation similar to the way aspirin does. Wine has its own set of benefits. “You need about a cup of grape juice, you need about a half a cup of wine,” he commented.

Garlic, but only when it’s smashed, diced or otherwise handled in a surface-breaking way that releases the aromatics. “Until you break it and make those aromatic compounds, it does nothing,” said Painter.

Tea, which lessens the chance of arterial blockage by working against clotting.

Painter’s session was sponsored by the California Raisin Marketing Board.

Watch a video clip of Dr. Painter's presentation below: