What Makes Good Food Good? 

Empty calorie foods are worse than you think. Here's why.

After smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, food is the main determinant of our long term health—even hereditary or genetic diseases can be influenced by what we eat. Most of today’s debilitating illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer that are rampant in the U.S. can be prevented by a healthy life style that includes a proper diet, regular exercise and avoiding drugs and alcohol.

Food reflects our culture, self image and much else. But it's core purpose is to nourish our bodies.

Food provides us with the energy and nutrients we need for survival. Nutrients such as carbohydrates, fat and protein give us energy and material for building the cells in our bodies. Also important are vitamins and minerals, which though they provide no energy, they form parts of body structures and provide aid necessary for all metabolic processes that maintain our health and keep us alive.

The nutrients found in foods support muscle growth and repair, strong bones and joints, healthy skin, teeth and hair, good vision, proper digestion, good circulation, proper excretion, healing of wounds and illnesses, mental sharpness, proper function of sexual organs and all other bodily functions.

Some nutrients contained in food are considered "essential" nutrients because our bodies cannot manufacture them. Water, certain forms of carbohydrates, some fatty acids, certain amino acids (protein) and all vitamin and minerals are essential nutrients, which, when not obtained from food, can lead to serious and even life-threatening deficiencies in the body.

It's obvious that the best foods are nutrient-dense, but it's not always obvious why that is the case.

Nutrient Rich Foods vs. Nutrient Poor Foods

Foods can be classified according to how rich in nutrients they are. On one end of the spectrum you find foods that qualify as the highest in nutrient density, meaning they contain the highest amounts of nutrients per calorie.

Broccoli, for instance, is one of the most if not the most nutritious vegetable we can eat—the highest in nutrient density. Broccoli is a powerhouse of nutrients per Amira Elgancalorie—its’ rich in potassium, fiber, calcium, iron, vitamin C, vitamin A as well as carotenoids like beta-carotene and lutein and flavonoids, which are phytochemicals important for preventing and fighting disease.

On the other end of the food spectrum, we find foods that are have zero nutrients, such as doughnuts, french fries, white breads, sodas, store-bought baked goods, crackers, chips and thousands of other junk foods.

By providing us with calories but few nutrients, these foods "displace" nutritious foods, creating a condition of mild or not-so-mild starvation -- even as we gain weight from taking in too many calories.

It's a myth that empty calorie foods are neutral -- neither bad nor good. That myth is expressed every day by people who go ahead and have that piece of cake because they were "good" and had a salad for lunch.

The reality is that in order to get proper nutrition, you need 100% of your daily calories in the form nutritious foods. Let's say, for example, that a person needs 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight. If she eats 1,500 calories of nutritious foods and 500 empty calories, she's getting about 3/4 of what she needs for optimum health. This is oversimplified, but you get the idea: Empty calorie foods are not neutral. They're bad, because they displace the nutrients you need.

Another myth is that empty calories plus vitamin supplements equals a healthy diet. In fact foods are marvels of chemistry composition and contain hundreds of compounds such as phytochemicals, for example, that give fruit and vegetables their color, flavors and smells and provide us with important antioxidants. In other words, vitamins are just part of the nutritional quality of foods. There's much else in there -- a lot of it, no doubt, yet undiscovered by science -- that our bodies need.

The other major reason why empty calorie foods aren't mitigated by vitamin supplements is that almost all nutrient-poor foods come loaded with bad stuff like refined sugar, trans fats and so on. Doughnuts, for example, are the epitome of “bad” food. The fact that they’re loaded with sugar and that they offer zero nutrients is not their worst offence. The biggest problem with doughnuts, like nearly all fried and baked goods and most junk food is that they are loaded with artery-clogging trans fats, which not only increase the bad cholesterol but they actually decrease the good cholesterol drastically raising your risk of heart disease and other illnesses.

When our bodies don't get all the nutrients they need, they perceive "starvation" at the cellular and organ level, triggering intense cravings that lead to overeating and obesity. If those cravings are satisfied with more junk food, the nutrition starvation grows, even as we gain weight. It's a vicious cycle that's very common nowadays. People assume that obesity is caused by eating too much food. But its core cause is often not eating enough nutritious foods.

Stay tuned for next issue when I discuss how to get the most out of your calories while getting to know which fruits and vegetables are the highest in nutrition density.

I'd love to hear from you. Click here to send e-mail!

Good Things In Store

When homemade applesauce is not an option, Solana Gold makes several organic flavors of applesauce. For example, in last week’s recipe I called for apricot apple sauce, which Solana Gold makes and it is the best tasting store-bought apricot apple sauce I have ever tried.

Research Department

New research has once again found strong evidence linking vegetarian diets (with no meat of any kind or fish) to reduced risk of developing colorectal cancer. The findings boost and corroborate the many scientific studies indicating that a diet abundant in fruits, vegetables and grains and low in meat, especially red meat, is more beneficial for human health.

According to Oxford University’s Dr. Sanjoaquin who was in charge of the study, the fat in meat causes higher excretion of bile acids, which then produces other substances that promote the growth of tumors. Additionally, meat contains certain compounds that are formed during processing and high heat cooking, which alter the colon’s normal cell growth balances and in turn can result in colorectal cancer.

The study also found that vegetarians who eat more than 5 servings of fruit per week were over 40% less likely to develop colorectal cancer.

For more health research news check out my news site every day for health related breaking news.

Reader Q&A 

Q: Amira, As usual, your newsletter was appreciated and the recipe you provided in your most recent edition sound really good, but I've been hearing really bad things about sucanat. Wouldn't organic sugar (of course used moderately) be a healthier option?
JM, Carpinteria, CA

A: Sucanat is often confused with Sucralose (sold as Splenda). Like sucanat, Sucralose is derived from sugar. It's made by taking replacing three hydrogen-oxygen atoms in each sugar molecule with three chlorine atoms. It's supposed to be 600 times sweeter than sugar and doesn't have as bad an aftertaste as other artificial sweeteners. The body can't metabolize Sucralose, and therefore it adds no calories. The effects on long-term health by eating Sucralose are not entirely known, but doubts in the scientific and health communities are spreading. I'm generally suspicious of "foods" made by chemists, rather than nature, that human bodies don't recognize as food. I would avoid Sucralose.

Sucanat, on the other hand, is basically dehydrated cane juice and it is a great sugar alternative. Along with organic Rapadura and organic molasses, sucanat offers the most nutritional value among all manufactured sweeteners. Sucanat and Rapadura are made from sugar cane juice extracted through a mechanical process (no chemicals are added). The juice is clarified, minimally filtered and evaporated. The remaining syrup is crystallized to create the wholesome sweeteners, which retain all the vitamins and minerals along with molasses and caramel flavor, making them excellent substitutes for any recipes that call for regular granulated sugar.

Organic unrefined sugar is definitely a healthier alternative to white table sugar, however, sucanat is superior to both, nutritionally speaking.

For more on this sweet topic, check out my series on sweeteners on issues 20 and 21, including a detailed sugar comparison table.

Words of Wisdom

"Happy and successful cooking doesn't rely only on know-how; it comes from the heart, makes great demands on the palate and needs enthusiasm and a deep love of food to bring it to life."

Georges Blanc, Ma Cuisine des Saisons

Vegetarian Organic Recipe of the Week

Click on the picture for a closer look!

T-n-T Chipotle, Basil and Tomato Pasta
Serves 6

This delicious pasta dish made with an Italian style sauce or ragú is high in protein and other nutrients. It’s a great meal when you’re feeling under the weather as it has lots of garlic and antioxidants that help prevent and even cure colds.

About the ingredients:
Chipotle is a smoked-dried and very hot chili (jalapeño) pepper that is generally added to soups, stews and sauces for flavor and spiciness. The chipotle chile, which is dried by smoking, has a deep dark red color and looks wrinkled. Dried chipotle is often not easy to find but canned chipotle “en adobo”, a tomato base sauce flavored with spices and vinegar is sold at most supermarkets and all Mexican grocery stores. Canned chipotles will last a several weeks to months. Once the can is open transfer the remaining peppers and sauce to a glass container and keep covered airtight and refrigerate for later use. Dried chipotles will last for several months but must be stored in a cool and dry place.

Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes Equipment: Food processor or blender

Get ingredients ready (use organic ingredients if possible)
Water for boiling pasta in large pot (enough to cover pasta)
1 tablespoon sunflower or canola oil
12 fresh garlic cloves
1 large onion peeled and cut in 4 pieces
1 ½ chipotle peppers (dried or canned)
1 large carrot washed, peeled with ends trimmed and cut into small pieces
12 fresh plum tomatoes peeled and seeded (or 28-oz whole peeled canned tomatoes)
20 fresh basil leaves (plus more for garnish)
1 teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon oregano
¼ teaspoon sage
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon rosemary
8 ounces tempeh, finely crumbled
1 ½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces of finely cubed baked tofu, about ¼ inch (tomato basil or Italian flavor)
10 ounces penne rigate made from durum wheat semolina or your favorite type of pasta
½ cup regular plain soymilk (fresh or aseptic)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Reduced fat Veggy Parmesan cheese alternative (optional)

1. In a large pot, boil water for pasta. Heat sunflower or canola oil in a separate large pot over low heat. Meanwhile, process garlic and onions in the food processor or blender until finely chopped. Take ½ cup of garlic and onion mixture and add it to heated oil sautéing for 5 minutes over low-medium heat.

2. In the meantime, add chipotle, carrots, tomatoes, fresh basil, thyme, oregano, sage, red pepper and rosemary to the remaining onion and garlic mixture in the food processor and process until well pureed and set aside. Add tempeh to sautéing onions and garlic and sauté for 3 more minutes. Add tofu sautéing for another 3 minutes. Meanwhile, cook pasta in boiling water as indicated on package instructions, stirring occasionally. Set timer. When pasta is done, drain then toss well with a teaspoon of olive oil to prevent from sticking.

3. Meanwhile, add the tomato puree content from the food processor to tempeh and tofu mixing well, simmering and lightly covered with lid for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, add soymilk mixing and continuing to stir occasionally, simmering for another 5 minutes covered with lid. Turn heat off, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper, stir well. Add cooked pasta to sauce and mix well. Serve and sprinkle servings with alternative parmesan cheese and fresh basil garnish.

Cook’s tip: To peel and seed tomatoes immerse them in boiling water for about a minute then transfer tomatoes onto a colander placing under cool running water for 30 seconds. Peel skin away, cut in half and remove seeds and core. Sauce may be cooked 2 or 3 days ahead.

Nutrition Facts

Amount Per Serving  
Calories 271.68
Calories From Fat (25%) 67.93
  % Daily Value
Total Fat 8.00g 12%
Saturated Fat 1.26g 6%
Monounsaturated Fat 2.67g  
Polyunsaturated Fat 1.57g  
Trans Fatty Acids 0.00g  
Cholesterol 0.00mg 0%
Sodium 81.10mg 3%
Potassium 492.01mg 14%
Carbohydrates 38.01g 13%
Dietary Fiber 3.28g 13%
Sugar 4.26g  
Sugar Alcohols 0.00g  
Net Carbohydrates 34.73g  
Protein 13.57g 27%
Vitamin A 1844.46IU 37%
Vitamin C 16.37mg 27%
Calcium 65.69mg 7%
Iron 2.81mg 16%
Thiamin 0.44mg 29%
Riboflavin 0.29mg 17%
Niacin 4.11mg 21%
Vitamin B6 0.25mg 12%
Folate 34.53µg 9%
Vitamin B12 0.02µg 0%
Pantothenic Acid 0.22mg 2%
Phosphorus 110.84mg 11%
Magnesium 38.70mg 10%
Zinc 1.02mg 7%
Copper 0.24mg 12%
Manganese 0.59mg 29%

Selenium 0.43µg


Percent daily values based on a 2000 calorie diet



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This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.

Copyright© 2003-2004 Amira Elgan. All Rights Reserved.