Are you guilty of these food crimes?

SINGAPORE - Most natural, unprocessed foods are highly nutritious - until you make them unhealthy by preparing them wrongly or adding unwholesome ingredients to them. Sasha Gonzalez looks at 10 terrible things we do to good foods.

1. DEEP-FRYING CHICKEN

Steamed, grilled, roasted or baked with just a few low-calorie seasonings and herbs, skinless chicken can be a very nutritious dish. However, when we deep-fry this protein, we start a process that renders the meat unhealthy, says Pooja Vig, nutritionist and co-founder of The Nutrition Clinic.

When oil is heated for deep-frying, chemical changes take place. The essential fatty acids become oxidised, antioxidants, such as vitamin E, are damaged, and cell-damaging free radicals are produced.

Deep-frying also yields trans-fatty acids, which can increase the risk of coronary heart diseases, and turns the proteins in chicken into acrolein, a known carcinogen that renders such a lean protein into an extremely high calorie dish as it soaks up the oil.

Chicken that's breaded or battered beforehand is even worse as both breadcrumbs and batter absorb oil, increasing the overall fat content.

Lastly, as we all know, a high-fat diet has been linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But that's not to say you should never eat fried chicken again. A small amount once in a while is fine if your overall diet is healthy and balanced. However, in the long run, you are better off using healthier methods to prepare your chicken.

2. DEEP-FRYING SWEET POTATOES

This superfood is loaded with heart-healthy vitamins B6, C and D, as well as magnesium, iron and beta-carotene. It is also high in dietary fibre and has lots of energy-giving natural sugars.

Because of their nutritional profile, it's important to treat sweet potatoes with care, says Helen. Steaming, broiling or baking are by far the best ways to enjoy them as these cooking methods preserve most of their nutrients and keep them low in fat - provided you don't douse them in grease beforehand.

Deep-frying or pan-frying is not recommended, so you may want to give sweet potato fries a miss as they are definitely not a healthier alternative to traditional French fries!

What's more, frying increases the calorie content of sweet potatoes, and the high heat in frying destroys the nutrients. If salted, they also become a high-sodium snack. Double whammy!

3. OVERCOOKING VEGETABLES

Boiling or microwaving vegetables to death, or roasting them til they are crisp and charred can seriously damage their nutritional profile, says Helen Tsang, a nutritionist with Hong Kong's Integrated Medical Institute.

Heat destroys vitamins and minerals in foods. By overcooking your vegetables, you end up with a dish that is practically void of nutrients.

Helen says that the best way to cook your greens is to lightly steam them. Stir-frying can also be healthy - provided you cook the veggies quickly and avoid drowning them in salt- or fat- rich sauces. Microwaving is also fine, but keep the cooking time short to preserve nutrition as well as the crunch of the vegetables.

4. JUICING VEGETABLES

Juicing has become a huge health trend in recent years. More and more people are now juicing their fresh fruits, thinking that this must be a good thing because they are getting a huge hit of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in just one glass.

While this might be true, the same glass of juice also contains a lot of sugar from three of four pieces of fruit. "Drinking the juice minus the fibre from the fruit can cause imbalances in blood sugar levels," Pooja points out.

The fibre keeps us full and that's why it's easy to stop after eating one apple or a pear. However, as we may not get that same feeling of fullness after a glass of juice, we often end up downing one serving of juice after another, which overloads our system with fruit sugars.

A glass of fresh fruit juice a day is not going to endanger your health, but it's still important to eat whole fruits that are high in fibre, which helps stabilise blood sugar levels, and is good for the digestive system.

5. ADDING HIGH-CALORIE INGREDIENTS TO POPCORN

Served plain or prepared with the right ingredients, popcorn is a nutritious and tasty snack. It is low in calories, high in fibre, rich in vitamins, minerals as well as antioxidants, and provides a satisfying crunch.

Add butter-flavoured oils, high amounts of salt or sugary caramel, powdered cheese, and a host of other unhealthy ingredients, and you change the nutritional profile of this whole grain, says Pooja.

Popcorn is easy to overeat, too. Typically a movie or TV snack, we tend to consume it mindlessly, and before we know it, we've had far more than we should have.

Plain, air-popped popcorn is the best, but limit yourself to a few handfuls as this snack is also packed with carbohydrates (about 19g per 25g serving or three cups' worth).

For flavour, choose low-calorie seasonings and toppings like thyme, sesame seeds, citrus zest, garlic powder, and freshly grated parmesan cheese or lemon pepper.

It is also advisable to avoid the microwaveable varieties and pop whole grains instead. Some contain additives as well as preservatives.

6. MARINATING MEAT WITH UNHEALTHY SAUCES

We're all for adding flavour to meat before it's cooked. But healthy marinades like olive oil, herbs, citrus zest, lemon juice, honey, chili and spices are far more nutritionally superior to bottled marinade and sauces.

The latter tends to contain a lot of sugar, salt, fillers, preservatives, colourings and artificial flavourings, says Helen.

Some examples are barbecue, oyster and black bean sauces.

"Prepare your own marinade, so you can choose what goes into it," Helen adds, "Home-made marinades are quick and easy to make and packed with real flavour. Bottled or ready-made ones can make a perfectly nutritious piece of meat or fish unhealthy, so you want to avoid them when possible.

Also make your own sauces or glazes to serve with meat, poultry or fish instead of using instant brown gravy that is void of nutrition from a box.

7. TOPPING YOGURT WITH CHOCOLATE SYRUP

Natural yogurt contains live probiotics and is one of the healthiest foods around. "It promotes the growth of beneficial gut flora," says Susie Rucker, a nutritional therapist at Body With Soul.

The human gut contains millions of these naturally-occurring bacteria with a number of useful functions. They include keeping the immune system healthy, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, and producing vitamins as well as other valuable substances.

The problem starts when we marry fermented yogurt with sugar and unhealthy toppings like chocolate syrup. What should support the gut now troubles it with large amounts of sugar. And the yogurt industry is certainly guilty of selling pots of yogurt with food colouring, fruit syrups and yes, chocolate, Susie adds. Check the label and avoid those where sugar and syrup top the ingredients list.

At home, many tend to add crushed cookies, candy, tinned fruit and the like to natural yogurt.

Bad idea! The best way to enjoy your yogurt is plain, but if you can't stand the slightly sour taste, try adding a small amount of your favourite fresh fruit.

8. ADDING NON-DAIRY CREAMER TO BLACK COFFEE

There's nothing like a hot cup of coffee in the morning to get us revved up for the day ahead. Black coffee has no fat and almost no calories, but when we load it up with unhealthy flavourings, we turn a good beverage into something sinful and end up consuming large amounts of fat, sugar and nasty chemical additives.

A little milk and sugar is fine. But many of us add powdered, non-dairy creamer to our coffee, and that can have harmful health consequences, says Pooja.

Non-dairy creamers contain high amounts of sugar, fat and synthetic additives like colouring (to make it white), flavouring, sodium, corn syrup solids, trans fats, stabilisers, emulsifiers, anti-caking agents and so on. Not only do they boost the calorie count of your standard cup of coffee, they also overload your system with chemicals.

It's best to avoid creamers completely as they are highly processed. If you are lactose intolerant, try non-dairy milks like almond, rice, quinoa or soya.

9. COOKING OLIVE OIL TILL IT SMOKES

Olive oil offers a range of health benefits, from reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease to protecting against the development of breast, lung and skin cancers, and reducing inflammation. As far as healthy fats go, it is one of the best.

The problem is that many of us don't know how to use olive oil correctly. "Olive oil can be used for low-heat cooking, but when you heat it to the point where it smokes, you change its molecular structure and it loses all of its health benefits," says Pooja.

To preserve this good fat's integrity and nutrition, it's best to use it raw in salad dressings or to drizzle over goods, or cook it at a low temperature. For high-temperature cooking, Helen recommends using unrefined coconut oil, avocado oil or macadamia oil instead. All have high smoking points.

10. TOPPING STRAWBERRIES WITH SUGAR AND CREAM

Besides being packed with vitamin C and fibre, strawberries have a low glycaemic index.

Where we go wrong with this healthy fruit is by serving it with sugar and cream, says Helen.

"Strawberries are a great breakfast, snack or after-dinner treat on their own," says Helen.

Adding sugar turns into a good bowl of strawberries into a high-glycaemic dessert, which causes a quick spike and crash in blood sugar levels, while the cream pile son unwanted saturated fat and even more calories.

If you love strawberries but can't stand their tartness, try drizzling them with a little honey or maple syrup - no more than a tablespoonful though.


 

This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Shape.

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