You may know about all the health benefits of fish, nuts, soy, dairy and whole wheat. But what if you're allergic to those foods or for various other reasons cannot eat them? How can you get the same nutritional benefits?
Here, common food sensitivities-and the best substitutes...
Fish is among the healthiest foods you can eat. It is high in protein and healthful fats and rich in vitamin D, selenium and zinc.
It is the healthful fats-long-chain omega-3 fatty acids-that fish is best known for. People who eat as little as three to six ounces of fish a week can reduce their risk of dying from heart disease by more than one-third.
The problem: Many people are allergic to fish.
What to eat instead: There are plenty of choices if you can't eat fish. The alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in plant foods is converted to healthful omega-3s in the body.
Examples: Walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds and canola oil contain ALA. The catch is that ALA isn't efficiently converted to long chain omega-3s. When you eat ALA-rich plan foods, you get only about 10% to 25% of the beneficial fats that you would get from fish.
My advice: Get these fats from as many different sources as you can. Snack on nuts during the day. Cook tofu in canola oil or soybean oil. Add some ground flaxseed to your morning cereal.
A recent study found that people who ate nuts seven or more times a week were 20% less likely to die from any cause during the study period than those who didn't eat nuts. Nuts are high in zinc as well as phytosterols, compounds that reduce cholesterol and may protect against cancer. New research suggests that they also help relieve symptoms in men with enlarged prostate glands.
The problem: You potentially can be allergic to any one type of nut or to all of them. And peanuts-which technically are a legume, not a nut-are a serious (in some cases, life threatening) allergen for some people.
What to eat instead: Pumpkin or sunflower seeds. You can eat them raw, roasted or salted. These seeds are just as healthful as nuts, and they have the crunch, rich flavor and grab-and-go convenience of nuts. In my house, we enjoy this recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds...
Take one cup of seeds, rinse them off and pat dry. Melt one tablespoon of butter (or notrans-fat margarine spread) in a saucepan. Add one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Toss the seeds and the butter sauce in a bowl. Spray a cookie sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Spread the seed mixture on the cookie sheet, and bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes, turning the seeds occasionally so that they brown on both sides.
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy milk, cheese and other dairy foods. The calcium is good for your bones. Dairy is high in protein. Even the fats seem to be beneficial. Studies have shown that people who eat dairy tend to lose more weight than people on low-dairy diets even when they get the same number of calories.
The problem: Millions of Americans don't produce enough lactase (an enzyme) to completely digest dairy. Others have a true allergy-they get symptoms such as a rash or hives when they consume one or more dairy proteins.
What to eat instead: You can buy milk and cheeses that are spiked with extra lactase. Also, research has shown that you can increase your natural supply of lactase. People who give up dairy for a few weeks and then slowly reintroduce it-say, by consuming an ounce a day for a week, then slowly adding to that amount over time-can boost their production of lactase.
It's tougher if you are allergic.
My advice: Give up cow's milk, and switch to soy milk or almond milk. These have many of the same nutrients that are found in cow's milk, and most people like the taste. Goat's milk is another possibility. People who are allergic to cow's milk usually can drink goat's milk without discomfort-but the musky taste isn't for everyone.
Tofu and other soy foods have long been the go-to protein source for people who don't eat meat. Soy also is rich in isoflavones, antioxidants that help balance hormones, increase bone strength and reduce the risk for some cancers.
The problem: Soy allergies are common, and they aren't limited to tofu. If you are allergic, you have to avoid a lot of different foods, including soy sauce, miso, soy milk, tamari, edamame, etc.
What to eat instead: Other beans, such as lentils, pinto beans, kidney beans and chick peas. All of these legumes have healthful amounts of protein, fiber and antioxidants. If you're not sensitive to gluten, try seitan. It's a form of wheat gluten that's popular in Asia (and in some Asian restaurants) that mimics the texture-and the protein content-of meat. Just make sure that your seitan dish isn't made with soy sauce!
If You Can't Eat Gluten...
Whole grains are high in fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E and other antioxidants. A diet that includes whole wheat and other whole grains can significantly reduce your risk for diabetes, cancer, heart disease and digestive problems.
The problem: About 5% to 6% of Americans are sensitive to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. A smaller percentage suffers from celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease triggered by gluten.
What to eat instead: Gluten-free grains, such as rice, quinoa and amaranth, have similar nutritional benefits. I recommend teff, an African grain that has a mildly nutty flavor and about the same amount of fiber that you would get from wheat.
Unfortunately, gluten-free breads often are dry and crumbly-they lack the chewiness and mouth feel that comes from gluten. But manufacturers of gluten-free breads are getting better
Example: The Udi's brand makes gluten free bread that tastes (and feels) almost like traditional bread.
Caution: Oats don't contain gluten, but products such as oatmeal often are tainted when they are processed with the same machinery that is used for other grains or when oat crops are grown too close to wheat fields. Look for oats that are guaranteed to be gluten free. It will be noted on the label.