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Getting the Most Nutrition From Food
By Andy Bellatti

While the mere act of selecting and purchasing healthy foods is a major component of eating well, improper storage, preparation, or consumption of foods can dramatically decrease the amount of nutrition we derive from them.

There are several strategies worth sharing with clients and patients to help them tap into the full nutrition potential of various healthy foods.

1. Keep the potato peeler in the drawer.
Keeping—and eating—the peel on fruits and vegetables accomplishes more than adding flavor and texture to dishes. It also makes nutritional sense. Apple peels, for example, contain 65% of the fruit’s fiber and 100% of its quercetin content. In the case of potatoes and sweet potatoes, the peel contains significant amounts of fiber, potassium, and quercetin. Pear skins offer half of the fruit’s fiber content, along with pectin and vitamin C. Eggplant skin, meanwhile, is a good source of potassium, fiber, and magnesium.

When peels are eaten, organic produce is the gold standard. However, even when dealing with conventional varieties, the health benefits from phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals found in fruit and vegetable skins are worth biting into.

2. Take advantage of olive oil’s benefits before they disappear.
While extra-virgin olive oil is a wonderful source of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, a recent study published in the Journal of Food Science and conducted by the agricultural department at the University of Foggia in Puglia, Italy, discovered that antioxidant levels in olive oil decreased by 40% after six months of storage.

Encourage clients who purchase olive oil to look for brands that specify production dates on containers. The more recent the production, the higher the amount, and bioavailability, of healthy compounds. If such a date is not available, it is preferable to buy olive oil in small containers to ensure faster replacement times.

Since olive oil’s antioxidants are damaged by exposure to light, heat, and air, it is best to buy olive oil in tin containers, store it at cool temperatures—on a shelf directly above the stovetop, a popular location in many kitchens, is not at all ideal—and close the lid immediately after use.

3. A little fat goes a long way.
It is common knowledge that vitamins A, D, E, and K need to be consumed with a small amount of fat (as little as 3 g) to be properly absorbed. Often forgotten, though, is the fact that many phytonutrients, such as carotenoids, are fat soluble.

While baby carrots make for a lower calorie, healthy snack, encourage clients to eat some fat along with them (eg, hummus or another dip made of healthy fats) to ensure optimal nutrient absorption. Since many of the phytonutrients in celery sticks and apples are also fat soluble, these foods are better accompanied by nut or seed butters rather than fat-free dips.

Similarly, raw salads should always contain some fats (preferably from olive oil-based dressings or the inclusion of avocado slices, seeds, or nuts) for maximum nutrient absorption.

4. Head to the frozen foods section.
When produce is not in season, frozen varieties are the better nutritional choice. Since frozen fruits and vegetables are packed immediately after picking, they retain their nutrients for longer periods of time than fresh produce shipped from halfway around the world.

5. Marinades make a difference.
When meats are grilled, a particular variety of human carcinogen (chemicals known as heterocyclic amines) is formed. Fortunately, some advance preparation can dramatically reduce the production of heterocyclic amines. A recent study in the Journal of Food Science determined that beef steaks marinated in store-bought, spice-rich marinades for at least one hour contain anywhere from 52% to 88% fewer of these compounds. Rosemary proved to be the spice with the most powerful reduction effect. In the absence of a marinade, rosemary rubs on different meats can also be suggested.

6. Chopping rules.
Although chopping vegetables into small bits results in greater nutrient losses during cooking than cutting them into larger pieces, there are some exceptions to this rule. Some phytonutrients in garlic and onions—the allyl sulfides, to be exact—are made more available 15 minutes after chopping (but before being exposed to heat).

— Andy Bellatti is a master’s degree candidate on the RD track in New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies, and public health. He has completed his graduate studies and plans on taking the RD exam in the summer of 2010.