Many new studies are focusing on how what we eat affects our health. But the messages can be puzzling. A number of foods and beverages have both positive and negative effects. Here's a guide to the pros and cons of some hotly debated items on the dinner table.
Soy: You probably didn't grow up eating soy foods. But now, just about every supermarket carries tofu, soy milk and products made from soy that taste like cheese, hot dogs, sausages and more.
Pros: Soy is an excellent source of high-quality protein and is low in artery-clogging fat. It's also rich in important nutrients such as iron, zinc, and often calcium. Some studies show that soy protein moderately lowers cholesterol. Others indicate that soy isoflavones (plant compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen) combat osteoporosis by reducing bone mineral loss. Whole soy products, such as tofu, soybeans, soy nuts, tempeh and soy milk, have also helped some women cope better with symptoms of menopause.
Cons: The most serious side affect of soy is its potential to increase the risk of breast cancer in those who are predisposed. Any woman who has had breast cancer, or who is at risk, should discuss the pros and cons of soy with her doctor. Soy has also been shown to interfere with thyroid function. It may inhibit the gland's ability to do its job in people who are iodine deficient, and it reduces absorption of thyroid medications. Iodine deficiency is rare in this country, but if you're on any thyroid medication, take it several hours before or after consuming soy foods.
Try adding whole soy foods to your diet unless you have had breast cancer or your doctor advises against it for other reasons.
Red meat: Red meat has been demonized to such an extent that most people consider it a guilty pleasure at best. While juicy chops may not be my first choice for healthy eating, they're not off the table either.
Pros: Red meat is an excellent source of high-quality protein, containing all of the essential amino acids. Beef also is one of the best sources of bioavailable iron (which our bodies sop up) and a good source of B vitamins, zinc and selenium.
Cons: Many meats (prime rib, salami, bologna, hot dogs and sausages, to name a few) are loaded with saturated fat, which increases the dangerous LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and in turn increases your risk of coronary heart disease. Red meat is also associated with increased risk of colon cancer, gallstones and gout.
If you choose to eat red meat, buy eye round or sirloin, both among the leanest and tastiest cuts. Or try venison, ostrich or buffalo. Game meats such as these are much lower in fat and calories than beef.
Alcohol: Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, is responsible for most of its health benefits and detriments.
Pros: Alcohol reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and ischemic stroke by relaxing blood vessels and boosting levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. A compound found in red wine called resveratrol can improve blood flow and prevent LDL (bad) cholesterol from damaging arteries. Moderate consumption of alcohol (one glass per day for women and two for men) also is associated with a reduced risk of type two diabetes.
Cons Alcohol can increase blood pressure and triglycerides and should be avoided by those with liver disease, including hepatitis. It also exacerbates heartburn and acid reflux. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can increase a woman's risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, excessive drinking has been linked to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus and pancreas. Lastly, alcohol derails those trying to lose weight. It's caloric, but it doesn't fill you up the same way food does, and it can even stimulate your appetite.