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Not all calories are processed the same

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT

The calories in food come from three types of nutrients, called macronutrients. These nutrients are: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. All three are important for a healthy diet (yes, even the fat). The trick is in choosing the right proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates give us energy to do all of the things we want to do. Foods like sugar, apples, spinach, and oats are all primarily carbohydrate. Sugar, white flour, white rice and other highly processed carbohydrates are quickly digested and absorbed, causing your blood sugar to “spike” and then drop. Complex carbohydrate foods like whole fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products, are unprocessed and contain fiber so that your body has to work a little harder at digesting them. Because these complex carbohydrates stay in your digestive system longer, the energy is released gradually, keeping your blood sugar in a more steady state.

Fat comes from both animals and plants. In general, the fats found in animal foods like meat (including poultry with the skin), milk, and eggs are of the saturated variety, while most fats present in plant foods are unsaturated. Many experts now say that it is the saturated fat in foods we eat that raises our cholesterol. Fish is the exception – the type of fat that is naturally present in fish promotes heart health.

Unsaturated fats from plant sources like canola, olive, safflower, and corn are usually healthier for us, but beware of trans fats that form when plant oils have been chemically treated. These fats have been shown to raise bad cholesterol levels and also to lower good cholesterol levels.

Trans fats are found in margarines and in commercial baked goods like pastries, crackers, and cookies, but can be present in other foods. Read labels closely and look for oils that have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. There is no established “safe” daily limit for trans fats. Current regulations allow manufacturers to label a food as trans fat free if it contains less than one-half gram of trans fat per serving. If you eat more than one serving of the food or more than one food containing trans fats, you could be consuming more than is safe.

When choosing protein, pay attention to what comes along with it. Vegetable sources of protein, such as beans, nuts, and whole grains, are excellent choices, and they offer healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals. The best animal protein choices are fish and skinless poultry. If you choose red meat, stick with the leanest cuts, choose small portions, and eat it only occasionally.

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