Little girl and woman making a smoothie

Society overall is becoming increasingly health conscious, thanks in part to years of research and awareness campaigns such as National Nutrition Month in March by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. With that consciousness, more opportunities for misunderstanding can arise as well. 

“What we know about food and what we know about nutrition is constantly changing, and it’s certainly open to interpretation as well,” says Cory Gheen, MS, RD, assistant professor of  Nutrition and Dietetics and Chef at Loma Linda University Health School of Allied Health Professions. “Ultimately, we should be striving to achieve a diet that is as close to nature as possible.” 

With health information an internet search away and dietary fads coming and going, it’s easy to get lost in noise and miss our nutrition goals. The choices we make may not always be as healthy as we think they are — and that’s key Gheen says. “What matters is being aware of what is truly healthy and making the better choices every time you have a nutritional choice to make.”

Gheen sheds light on these five popular food choices and how to ensure you get the healthy benefit from them: 

  1. Create a meal worthy smoothie. Gheen says smoothies are one of the easiest ways to get a lot of nutrition quickly and a favored quick meal on the go. Like any good thing he cautions that it can be easy to get too much because of the belief that they are inherently healthy. “People tend to think if a smoothie is healthy, a 65-ounce smoothie must be even better, and that’s not the case. The sugar content is pretty high, so you need to be careful with what you put in your smoothie.” To avoid the high sugars in smoothies, Gheen recommends avoiding fruit juices and yogurts in favor of whole foods that include a base of well-ground nuts (a handful at most), a vegetable-based protein (such as pea or peanut), whole vegetables (such as spinach) and fresh fruit.
  2. A little chocolate doesn't hurt. Admit it, we love chocolate. And as more studies show chocolate has some health benefits, who hasn’t eaten it with the mindset that it’s “healthy”? Gheen confirms that yes there are benefits to chocolate, but they won’t be found in a milk chocolate bar from the grocery store. “If you want the best bang for your buck with the calories you’re consuming, you need to be eating dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is bitter, intense and very satisfying. Unlike milk chocolate where you need a whole box to feel satisfied, a bite of dark chocolate can be quite satisfying.”
  3. Extend your flaxseeds. A good source of fiber and healthy oils, this seed can be ground and mixed into treat batters such as muffins, pancakes, waffles or mixed into smoothies. While Gheen encourages eating flaxseeds for their nutritional value, it all comes down to how they are prepared. “If you buy flax as a whole seed and eat it, your body does not have the capacity to break it down and reap the benefits of its healthy oil. So, I recommend grinding it fresh and only the amount you need at the time you’re using it.” Gheen says the ground meal needs to be used quickly because it’s highly susceptible to degrade in light and oxygen, giving it a short shelf life.
  4. Canned goods can be healthy. “We’ve always been told we have to only eat fresh food and that we shouldn’t buy anything from a can,” Gheen says. “But from a culinary point that is not correct.” He adds that most individuals avoid canned foods because they often contain high amounts of sodium. However, more often than not, canned goods these days can be purchased in low-sodium or no-sodium versions. Gheen notes that the benefit of eating canned food is that it may be in a more flavorful form. For example, Gheen points out that fresh tomatoes have a short peak season. During peak, many are picked and immediately canned to preserve them, preventing degradation and leaving a better nutrition profile. “So, if you’re going to buy tomatoes, say, in November or December, buy them in a can,” Gheen says. “They’re going to taste much better and they’re almost always going to have a better nutrition profile, because of when they were picked.”
  5. Extra virgin olive oil shouldn't be cooked. While extra virgin olive oil in general is a great oil to eat in a salad, over veggies or with dip, it should not be used for high-temperature cooking. “Most people think olive oil is good and therefore should be used in everything. And that’s just not the case,” Gheen says. “Extra virgin olive oil releases carcinogenic compounds — which can cause cancer — when heated too high. It shouldn’t be used for sautéing, broiling or roasting.” When cooking at high temperatures, Gheen recommends using a refined olive oil, usually labeled as pure, pumas or light. 
  6. The truth about coconut oil. This oil has been on the rise both as a natural supplement and in cooking — such as with eggs, stir fries and baked goods. Gheen says that just because coconut oil is a natural fat doesn’t mean it’s healthy. “Coconut oil is one of the most saturated fats available, even more so than animal fat and butter. The idea that because it’s a natural fat makes it somehow better is not supported in the literature. Like all saturated fats, this has a negative impact on the body and should be limited in consumption.” 

As National Nutrition Awareness month continues take this opportunity to grow your food pallet and make healthy choices. To learn more nutrition tips or try out quick, wholesome meals, check out Chef Cory Gheen’s recipes on the Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions online cooking show “Live It: In the Kitchen.”