Dietitian and healthful-eating columnist Ellie Krieger answered questions recently in Washington Post online chat. Here is an edited excerpt:
Q: Is some mayonnaise on a small sandwich three to four times a week really that bad for me?
A: No, it's not that bad for you, but there are better alternatives that could hit the spot just as well. You could try a smear of ripe avocado. It adds a similar layer of moisture and unctuous flavor with a lot more nutrition. Or get mayo that uses a healthier oil, such as olive oil, as a base.
Q: : Is there a healthy substitute for whipped cream? I tried using the fat from a can of coconut cream, but I am not sure whether it's a better alternative.
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A: I recently tried the whipped coconut milk-fat myself and loved the flavor. It may be slightly better for you than whipped cream, but still, coconut fat raises LDL and total cholesterol (as per a recent meta-analysis published in Nutrition Reviews), so it should be used only occasionally.
One healthier version of whipped cream is made by whipping up some regular cream and then gently folding in an equal volume of plain Greek yogurt. This combo has a lovely light tartness that goes great with fruit desserts and also offers more nutrition.
Q: Is there really any nutritional value to cold cereals? Not just the oversugared, air-puffed, no-semblance-to-grain stuff - even the organic flakes? I have a box of organic oat flakes with blueberry clusters that look like dried berries, and I wonder whether I'm just kidding myself that this is a healthy meal.
A: Yes, cold cereals can be the foundation of a good breakfast if you choose well and balance them out. But as you wisely imply, it is also easy to fall for healthy-looking packaging and buzzwords that imply healthfulness when all you are getting are hyper-processed sugar puffs.
Your best bet is to stick with simpler cereals, such as shredded wheat, oat cereal or flakes that are whole grain and unsweetened. It's okay if the cereal has real dried fruit and/or nuts in it, but avoid bells and whistles such as clusters, which are often overly sweet. Add your own fresh or dried fruit and/or nuts to the cereal. If you have it with milk, you'll be getting protein and lots of nutrition there, too.
Q: Everyone is always saying that Greek yogurt is better than regular yogurt. I am not a huge fan of the texture, but is Greek yogurt really that much better?
A: Greek yogurt has a lot going for it, and I have enjoyed its explosion in popularity. I remember when you had to go to a specialty store to get it. But it is not necessarily better than regular yogurt; they have different assets.
Greek yogurt is made by straining regular yogurt to remove the whey. The result is a thicker, creamier product that has less tartness and more protein than regular yogurt. But with the whey also goes a lot of the calcium, so regular yogurt has substantially more of the mineral than Greek yogurt does.
The bottom line is that they are both good, so enjoy what you like best, or switch back and forth if, like me, you love both.
Q: What are your thoughts on coconut oil?
A: A new meta-analysis (a study that evaluates and makes conclusions based on a body of available studies) that was published in Nutrition Reviews concluded that coconut oil, which is mostly saturated fat, raises total cholesterol and LDL (but not as much as butter does) and that unsaturated oils are better for your heart health. So have a little coconut oil here and there, but stick to heart-protective olive oil as your go-to.
Q: I've recently sought advice from a friend who is in great shape and generally eats well. In addition to helping me plan workouts, she has encouraged me to make changes to my diet. I understand changes to protein and the like, but she blasted me for too much sugar. I had always heard of limiting added sugars but wasn't aware that my daily apple and banana (along with other things) were a potential problem. What are your thoughts? Should I be limiting all sugars or just added sugars? In either case, how much is too much?
Q: It is a mistake to avoid whole fruit and healthy dairy such as milk and yogurt because of the sugars they inherently contain. These sugars are naturally "packaged" with fiber, water and an incredible wealth of protective nutrients. The evidence on the negative impact of sugar pertains to added sugars: sugar put in food to make it sweet.
Your friend's advice and encouragement may be helpful to a degree, but she is not a nutrition expert and could wind up inadvertently steering you wrong. I suggest you consult with a registered dietitian to get a sound plan that is right for you. You can find one near you at eatright.org.