Try new greens for your salad

90269550I always used to use romaine lettuce for salads, but recently I switched to a spring mix and I love it. What can you tell me about other types of greens for fresh salads?

This is a great time of year to start exploring a wider variety of fresh greens. If you’re adventurous, you can even plant a few varieties and grow your own — leafy greens are cool-season crops and thrive in early and mid-spring.

But even if you’re not interested in developing a green thumb, exploring new types of lettuce can add variety and interest to your salads.

Iceberg lettuce is still the most widely available and most popular type of lettuce. It’s not hard to see why: It tends to last longer in the refrigerator than other types of lettuce, and adds a good crunch to the salad bowl. But it has few nutrients compared to other types of lettuce and leafy greens, so your body will thank you to add darker greens to the mix. A darker color indicates a more nutritious choice.

You can find detailed information about different types of greens around the web. In particular, Colorado State University Extension and the Produce for Better Health Foundation’s “Fruit and Veggies: More Matters” website offer tips on flavor, nutrition and storage. Links to both can be found at

Here are some tidbits gathered from those sites:

  • Watercress has a spicy flavor and is good in salads and on sandwiches. Choose green leaves without any yellow areas or slippery stems.
  • Radicchio has maroon or purple leaves with white veins that form into a loosely wrapped cabbage-like head. Its flavor is bittersweet.
  • Baby bok choy has a crunchy, celery-like texture and a mild flavor.
  • Arugula has a peppery flavor. Choose young, fresh leaves.
  • Red leaf lettuce is similar to romaine lettuce, but is higher in antioxidants and offers color and interest to a salad.
  • Escarole’s flavor varies — lighter-colored portions are mild, but the darker portions of the leaves can be bitter.
  • Spinach is always a good addition to a salad. Choose young or baby leaves. Savoy spinach has curly leaves but offers the same benefits.

Also, Colorado State University Extension recommends rinsing lettuce under cold water just before using rather than before storage to reduce risk of spoilage and bacterial growth on the leaves.

Boost health with more fiber

148769364I’m trying to add more fiber in my diet, but I’m not sure how much I need or if it matters what type of fiber it is. Can you fill me in?

The amount of fiber you need varies a bit, depending on your age and gender.

The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists these goals for adults:

  • Ages 19 to 30: 28 grams per day for women; 34 grams for men.
  • Ages 31 to 50: 25 grams for women; 31 grams for men.
  • Ages 51 and older: 22 grams for women, 28 grams for men.

Unfortunately, most Americans don’t get nearly enough fiber. And that’s too bad, because research continues to show fiber’s benefits.

For example, a study published online in advance of the May 2013 issue of the journal Stroke indicates that for every 7-gram increase in daily fiber consumption, the risk of stroke decreases by 7 percent.

There are plenty of other health benefits of a high-fiber diet, too. Fiber can both prevent constipation and reduce the risk of loose, watery stools, normalizing bowel movements. Eating fiber, particularly soluble fiber, decreases low-density lipoprotein (the “bad”) cholesterol, and it also might help reduce blood pressure and inflammation. A high-fiber diet can help prevent diabetes, and, in people who already have diabetes, it can slow down the absorption of sugar, thus improving blood sugar levels. High-fiber diets are also linked to maintaining a healthy weight, likely because they tend to add volume but no calories to foods and help you feel full longer.

Experts recommend getting a good mix of soluble and insoluble fiber — both provide health benefits. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance, helping lower blood sugar and cholesterol, while insoluble fiber helps move food through your digestive system and bulks up and softens stools.

To increase the fiber in your diet, try eating more of both kinds of fiber:

  • Sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal, oat cereal, lentils, apples, oranges, pears, oat bran, strawberries, nuts, flaxseeds, beans, dried peas, blueberries, psyllium, cucumbers, celery and carrots.
  • Sources of insoluble fiber include whole wheat, whole grains, wheat bran, corn bran, seeds, nuts, barley, couscous, brown rice, bulgur, zucchini, celery, broccoli, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, dark leafy vegetables, raisins, grapes, fruit and skins of root vegetables.

Dry kidney beans need to be boiled

120664789A few weeks ago, I soaked some dry kidney beans to prepare them for some chili. My sister told me that before adding them to the chili, I should boil them to make sure the beans wouldn’t make us sick. I did, but was that really necessary?

You’ve got a knowledgeable sister. Many people don’t know the risk posed by dry red kidney beans when they’re not cooked properly.

The problem isn’t bacteria, but something called “phytohaemagglutinin,” also called PHA, or kidney bean lectin. Lectin is a type of protein that performs all sorts of functions in both plants and animals. But some types of lectin, including this one, can be toxic at high levels.

If this lectin isn’t destroyed by thorough cooking, you’ll be sorry. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Bad Bug Book,” eating as few as four or five improperly cooked red kidney beans can cause severe vomiting within a few hours, followed by diarrhea.

Although some cases have required hospitalization, people normally feel better within three to four hours after symptoms start. That’s one reason why authorities suspect there aren’t many recorded cases of this particular foodborne illness in the U.S.: People usually begin to get over the illness just about the time they might think of contacting their doctor.

Other types of beans also contain PHA, but it’s much more concentrated in red kidney beans. For example, the unit of measurement for the toxin is called “hau,” for “hemagglutinating unit.” Raw red kidney beans have anywhere from 20,000 to 70,000 hau, but that drops to 200 to 400 hau when the beans are fully cooked — not enough to be a problem. White kidney beans, or cannellini beans, contain only about one-third of the toxin as red kidney beans. Broad beans, or fava beans, contain just 5 to 10 percent of what’s in red kidney beans.

The FDA recommends these steps for preparing dry red kidney beans:

  • Soak the beans for at least five hours in water. It’s not a bad idea to change the water periodically, but it’s not necessary for safety.
  • Drain the beans from the final soaking water.
  • Boil the beans in a pot of fresh water for at least 30 minutes. Note: Research indicates that the toxin is destroyed when boiled at 212 degrees F for 10 minutes, but scientists recommend 30 minutes to be certain the beans reach the proper temperature for the amount of time necessary. Don’t use a slow cooker: It likely won’t get hot enough.

Are you getting enough vitamin D?

160426251What does vitamin D do? How much of it do we need?

Vitamin D plays a wide variety of roles. For one thing, it helps the body absorb calcium, which builds strong bones and prevents osteoporosis. Vitamin D’s effect is significant: If you don’t get enough, your body absorbs only 10 to 15 percent of the calcium you consume. With vitamin D, absorption jumps to 30 to 40 percent.

In addition, muscles, nerves, the immune system and many other bodily functions all require vitamin D to do their jobs properly.

The recommended amount of vitamin D for most people is 600 IU (international units) per day. Infants up to 12 months need less, 400 IU, and adults 71 or older need more, 800 IU.

How do you know if you’re getting enough? It’s not easy. Fortunately, nearly all milk in the United States is fortified with vitamin D, at a rate of 400 IU per quart — but that equals just 100 IU per cup. Other dairy foods, including cheese and ice cream, are usually made with non-fortified milk, so they often don’t provide any vitamin D. Fish that’s high in fat, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, is a good source. Beef liver, cheese and egg yolks have small amounts. Breakfast cereal and juice often are fortified with vitamin D. Check Nutrition Facts labels to be sure.

Luckily, people also get vitamin D from the sun. One type of ultraviolet radiation converts a chemical in the skin into vitamin D3, which the liver and kidneys transform into active vitamin D.

However, the sun doesn’t always help much, especially during the winter or if people use sunscreen, and experts are concerned that vitamin D deficiency is much too common. Some people are more at risk: People who are obese tend to have lower blood levels of vitamin D. Those with darker skin and older people have more trouble converting the sun’s rays into vitamin D and thus are also at higher risk.

The only way to know if your vitamin D level is low is to get a blood test. Your doctor then can tell you whether you should take a vitamin D supplement.

Interestingly, some scientists believe the current recommended amounts are too low. More vitamin D, they say, could not only prevent deficiencies but offer additional benefits against a whole range of illnesses and chronic diseases. For example, a recent study in the journal Hypertension found that African-Americans who took 4,000 IU of vitamin D a day for three months averaged a four-point drop in blood pressure.

However, experts are cautious about recommending a higher intake, because excess vitamin D is not passed from the body but is stored in fat tissue. Over time, too much of this good thing can become toxic. More research will help determine if higher amounts are advisable.