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Be Side Dish Saavy

August 30, 2010 Written by JP    [Font too small?]

Eating out can be a challenging proposition if your goal is to maintain a trim waistline and wellness in general. But just because it “can be” difficult doesn’t mean that it “has to be”. I think the biggest determinant of the quality of food you ultimately eat while out is how well you’ve prepared in the first place. Successful meal planning requires being aware of the healthiest possible options. Even the most nutritious entrees can be rendered unhealthy by side dishes. A fresh fillet of wild salmon laid artistically over a mound of mashed potatoes isn’t the same story as one served with a side of sauteed kale or pureed cauliflower. My Healthy Monday tip of the week is to strategically select your side dishes and ask for substitutions whenever possible.

Many of us have heard the mantra, “eat more greens”. One of the easiest ways to satisfy your greens quota is by including the following carotenoid and chlorophyll-rich vegetables while dining at restaurants. The flavor profile of these accompaniments differ, but they all share a very important commonality: nutrient density.

Side Dish Recommendation #1: Wilted Spinach – This form of spinach is lightly cooked and typically quite mild in flavor. You can pair it with virtually any protein source as I frequently do. Grilled Sea Bass. Yep. A rib-eye steak. You bet. Rosemary Chicken. Love the combo. Include a glass of biodynamic or organic red wine and I’m a happy camper. But taste is only one part of the equation. Recent studies illustrate that Spinacia oleraceae can help maintain good health in a number of ways. Here’s how: a) it can protect against cell damage or lipid peroxidation by decreasing oxidative stress; b) it supports bone density in women, perhaps because of its Vitamin K content; c) it positively impacts a process known as “bile acid binding capacity” which moderates cholesterol levels and possibly reduces cancer risk. (1,2,3)

Side Dish Recommendation #2: Guacamole – Guacamole is a rich and satisfying side dish or starter for any Mexican style meal, that is, if you ditch the chips that usually come with it. Yes, it’s high in calories, but it’s also loaded with antioxidants, nutrients and other components that tend to manage appetite, namely dietary fiber and healthy fats such as oleic acid. If you have reservations about the wisdom of eating anything that’s high in fat in relation to cardiovascular health, please consider this:

  • Adding avocado to the diets of adults with high cholesterol can lower total cholesterol by 17%, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol by 22% and triglycerides by 22%. A beneficial rise in HDL (“good”) cholesterol of 11% was also documented in a 1996 study published in the journal Archives of Medical Research. (4)
  • A medium sized avocado contains approximately 9 grams of dietary fiber. The August 2010 edition of Atherosclerosis reports that the addition of 14 grams of fiber per day can successfully reduce various markers associated with cardiovascular risk: apolipoprotein B-100, insulin, LDL and total cholesterol, oxidized cholesterol, systolic blood pressure and triglycerides in “mild-moderate hypercholesterolaemic patients”. (5,6)
  • A typical avocado contains more potassium than a banana. The March 2010 issue of the medical journal Hypertension reveals that increasing potassium intake may enhance circulation via improved endothelial function. (7)

Side Dish Recommendation #3: Grilled Asparagus I truly believe that when properly prepared, grilled asparagus can be as delicious as French fries or any other carb-loaded side dish. When we’re really lucky, we find ourselves at an establishment that serves asparagus wrapped in prosciutto or with a poached egg and topped with fresh herbs. What a treat! But did you know that deep inside the stalks of Asparagus officinalis reside a class of healthful carbohydrates known as fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)? These prebiotics selectively nourish the healthy bacteria in the digestive system and, thereby, reduce inflammation and stomach upset that occurs when we eat certain foods that generally don’t agree with us. Prebiotics have even been found to benefit those with more severe digestive disorders such as Crohn’s disease. (8,9,10)

Oleic Acid Reduces Blood Pressure in an Animal Model
Source: PNAS September 16, 2008 vol. 105 no. 37 13811-13816  (a)

Side Dish Recommendation #4: Grilled Artichoke – Among Mrs. Healthy Fellow’s favorite starting dishes is a beautifully grilled artichoke. When we go out on a dinner date, we often share one as an appetizer. She eats the leaves and I eat the heart. It’s usually paired with a delicious garlic-herb aioli. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! However, your taste buds aren’t the only part of your body that will thank you for ordering grilled artichoke. Globe artichokes or Cynara cardunculus are a good source of magnesium, a mineral that is often underrepresented in the modern food supply. The good news is that Italian researchers recently reported that making better food choices is an effective way to raise serum magnesium levels “which might play an independent role in ameliorating some metabolic, inflammatory, and oxidative markers”. These assertions are supported by two additional studies from 2010 which indicate that both food and supplemental sources of magnesium can reduce several biomarkers associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. (11,12,13,14)

Side Dish Recommendation #5: Steamed Broccoli – I realize this final item may be a tough sell. But please hear me out. First, steamed broccoli is a very common side dish option on restaurant menus. Availability must be taken into account when planning healthy food choices. Secondly, I want to relay a true life anecdote. Last month we took a friend’s daughter out to dinner. She’s five years old and loves steamed broccoli. Eats it like candy. So as I was watching her I started wondering: “What does she know that I don’t?”. I saw her dipping the bright green florets into a small ramekin of ranch dressing. This was one happy, satisfied child. What else could I do but try it out for myself? So I did and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Not to quibble with our 5 year old dining companion, but I like it even better when dipped in bleu cheese dressing. Either way, what is perhaps the best news about this side dish is that more and more research suggests that eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, may reduce the odds of developing numerous cancers including bladder cancer, lung cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. (15,16,17)

When I write these columns, you can be sure that I’m speaking from the heart. If you ever stumble across me at a restaurant, you’ll see that I eat what I preach. A big reason is because of the health benefits that I believe this sort of lifestyle affords me and others. But lately I’ve been thinking about this topic in a slightly different way. I consult with many people who tend to attribute negative connotations to eating healthfully. They focus on the foods that “can’t” eat anymore. If you find yourself thinking that way, please try to bring yourself back to this point: If you have the means to eat delicious, healthy food then you are blessed. As I am. The very fact that we can entertain the thought of choosing unhealthy foods speaks volumes about the abundance at our disposal. Somewhere along the line, many of us have strayed from the perspective that food is first and foremost fuel for the body and mind. We require good nutrition to survive and thrive. What we don’t need is a lot of candy, pastries, pizza and countless other refined delicacies that don’t do us any real favors. Please understand that I’m not standing on a soap box when I tell you this. It’s just something that I’ve been pondering quite a lot lately and it’s helping me to keep food in a proper perspective. My sincere hope is that it will do the same for you.

Be well!


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2 Comments & Updates to “Be Side Dish Saavy”

  1. Leina Says:

    Wow. This article is right on. Everyone of your suggestions is what I would choose as my top I am also grateful that you include the different vitamins and minerals in each of these dishes so I, the reader, can get a better understanding of why I’d choose these items say over starchy potatoes. Let us not forget however that Mashed Sweet Potatoes can be very good for the body and a great for sugar cravers. I’ve been eating plenty raw this summer, but i see that I am going to have to begin cooking my veg again. I work for better recipes so I’m always browsing Healthy Side Dish articles and this one is truly great. Thanks.

  2. JP Says:

    Thank you, Leina.:)

    Be well!


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