We're bombarded by conflicting information about foods and health, and the result is confusion. Is milk good for our bones or bad for our hearts? Is fish a source of healthful fats or dangerous toxins? Are artificial sweeteners smart low-calorie alternatives to sugar or dangerous chemicals?
Here is a closer look at the controversies about common foods...
Fish is a wonderful source of protein, vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fatty acids. However, the nutritional benefits of omega-J fatty acids fall short of their hype. Some scientists claim that they are great for the heart as well as for improving children's ability to learn, but all we can say for sure is that omega-ls may be beneficial.
Also, because of water pollution and some fish-farming techniques, fish can contain methylmercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). High amounts of these chemicals can cause children to experience muscle weakness, fatigue, headaches and severe developmental problems.
Bottom line: Eat fish if you enjoy it, but remember certain caveats...
Limit your consumption of large predatory fish, which are likely to contain the most methylmercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, albacore tuna and tilefish), to no more than twice per week. Do not eat the fish at all if you are or might become pregnant-and don't feed these fish to children.
Select wild fish over farm-raised. Farm raised fish-salmon, in particular-can have higher concentrations of PCBs than the same fish that have been raised in the wild.
Don't regularly eat fish that have been caught in freshwater without first checking with state health or wildlife officials. Unless you know that the water the fish came from is safe, assume that it's not. Consuming a few fish every year from a local lake or stream should be fine, but the health risks climb as you eat more.
It's full of caffeine, a mild "upper" and millions of people drink it by the quart every day-surely coffee must be bad for us.
ln fact, there's little evidence that there's anything in coffee that's harmful to our health-and it may even be good for us. Coffee contains antioxidants believed to promote good health.
Bottom line: You can enjoy coffee without guilt, but don't put in too much sugar milk or cream. A 12-ounce caffe latte breve at Starbucks has 420 calories and 23 grams (g) of saturated fat-more fat than you should consume in an entire day. If you become nervous or shaky when you drink coffee, you may be sensitive to caffeine. Reduce your intake or switch to decaf.
Eggs are widely considered unhealthy because they are high in cholesterol-higher than any other food. But when eaten in limited quantities, eggs are good for you. They're relatively low in calories and are a good source of protein.
Some producers feed the hens flaxseed and fish oil to boost the eggs' omega-3 content-but these "omega-3 eggs" cost more, and it's not clear that they are actually any better for you.
Note: There's no difference between a brown egg and a white egg except the color of the shell.
Bottom line: The American Heart Association recommends no more than one egg per day from all sources. If your doctor has warned you to watch your cholesterol, cut down on eggs or eat egg whites, which have no cholesterol.
Margarines do have significantly less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter, so a nonhydrogenated (no trans fats) margarine is a healthy alternative. It certainly is cheaper than butter. But if you are not eating much of either, this decision isn't going to have a major effect on your health. Personally, I prefer butter. I just don't eat much of it. If you like margarine, you can choose from vegan or organic margarines, omega-3 margarines and "light" low-calorie/ low-fat margarines-but these cost significantly more than standard margarines, and the difference they make to your health will be small, at best.
Bottom line: If you like margarine, choose one with no trans fats.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approve d artifrcial sweeteners because there is no compelling evidence that they cause harm at current levels of intake. But I am not a fan of them. I can't believe any food that has that kind of chemical taste can be good for you. Their single virtue is the absence of calories, but there is not much evidence that their use has helped people lose weight. Perhaps people who use them compensate by eating more calories from other sources. Or perhaps artificial sweeteners reinforce our preference for sweets. Personally, I prefer sugar-just not much of it.
Bottom line: If you are trying to lose weight, it is best to eat less, move around more and avoid junk foods.
For decades , dairy trade associations and lobbying groups have told Americans that drinking milk strengthens bones. Now they claim that dairy helps us lose weight. As in many aspects of nutrition, the evidence linking dairy foods to health conditions is complicated and contradictory. Dairy foods may have lots of calcium and other nutrients, but they are high in saturated fat (the bad kind) and calories.
Bottom line: If you want to avoid the fat and saturated fat, choose nonfat options. If you don't like or can't tolerate milk, you can get the nutrients it contains from other foods. Consuming dairy foods is not the key to bone health. The best advice for bone health-and for almost any other health condition-is to eat a diet containing plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, don't smoke cigarettes, be active and don't drink alcohol to excess.
These good habits mean more to your health than the effects of any one food.