An ear of corn A-OK as part of a balanced diet

We really enjoyed having corn on the cob on July Fourth. One of my children asked why we don’t have it more often. I explained that corn is a starchy vegetable and we shouldn’t eat too much of it. But it got me thinking, how much is reasonable?

Yes, corn is a starchy vegetable. But it’s perfectly fine to enjoy it as part of a balanced diet.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, anyone 9 years or older should aim to eat 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day. That equals 14 to 21 cups a week, and the guidelines recommend that 4 to 6 cups a week, or a bit more than one-quarter of all vegetables, be starchy. Besides corn, starchy vegetables include:

  • Potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Green peas
  • Lima beans
  • Cassava
  • Plantains
  • Jicama
  • Parsnips
  • Water chestnuts

Most Americans get plenty of starchy vegetables because we eat so many white potatoes, which account for 80 percent of all starchy vegetable consumption, as well as 25 percent of all the vegetables we eat. That’s a lot of potatoes. While they’re a good source of potassium, and of fiber especially if you eat the skin, consider diversifying your diet and replacing some of those potatoes with other starchy vegetables. Including, of course, sweet corn.

Corn is a good source of folate, beta carotene and thiamin along with other vitamins and minerals, and has more fiber than potatoes. It also provides zeaxanthin, an antioxidant that may protect against age-related eye disease, such as macular degeneration.

One cup of corn has about 145 calories. (One medium-sized ear of corn has about two-thirds of a cup of corn.) But watch the butter and salt, which of course add significantly to the calories and sodium. Using spray butter (the kind in the pump-spray bottle) judiciously instead of spreading on butter or margarine can trim calories and still provide that familiar flavor.

Or, try something different and roast corn on the cob on the grill. Just husk as usual, and then brush the corn with olive oil and place directly on a hot grill. Turn the cobs periodically and cook until the kernels are slightly charred. Instead of using salt, try pepper, garlic, or other herbs and spices for flavor.

As you’re enjoying the traditional summer favorite, take a look at the other vegetables you commonly eat and make sure you’re getting plenty of variety, including dark green, red and orange vegetables as well as beans, such as pinto or kidney beans. The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating a wide variety of produce to get a broad array of nutrients. For more about vegetables, see

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043,

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, specialist in Community Nutrition Education with Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Limit trans fats, boost heart health

What has been the effect from the ban on trans fats in New York City restaurants?

Restrictions on the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils at restaurants in New York City appear to have slashed the amount of trans fat that their patrons consume.

First, some background: Both saturated fat and trans fat increase blood cholesterol levels. High cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease, so health officials have long looked for ways to reduce such fats in the diet.

Trans fat has a far more negative effect than saturated fat. It’s estimated that an increase of just 2 percent of total calorie intake from trans fat — the equivalent of 40 calories in a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, or 4.5 grams of trans fat — increases the risk of heart disease by as much as 23 percent.

Some of the trans fat we consume comes from milk, meat and other natural sources, but most of it is from partially hydrogenated oils — widely used because they improve the texture, shelf-life and flavor stability of processed foods.

When the Food and Drug Administration mandated in 2006 that trans fat amounts be listed on Nutrition Facts labels, many products were reformulated to reduce or eliminate trans fat. But meals from restaurants and other food-service establishments make up about one-third of the American diet. That’s why New York City and some other localities decided to put restrictions in place.

A study of lunches purchased at New York fast-food restaurants before and after the ban took effect found trans fat consumption decreased considerably, from almost 3 grams per meal to about a half-gram.

Interestingly, other research has found that Americans’ blood cholesterol levels have dropped from an average of 206 in 1988-94 to 196 in 2007-2010, and levels of LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol have dropped from 129 to 116. While no one can be certain what is causing the decline, researchers believe the decreased consumption of trans fat certainly has played a role.

To reduce trans fat in your diet:

  • Read labels. Foods with less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving will say “0” trans fat on Nutrition Facts labels. Also look at ingredient listings. Foods with “partially hydrogenated” oils contain at least some trans fat.
  • When eating out or buying foods at bakeries or other places that might not provide a label, inquire about use of partially hydrogenated oils. And, before going to a chain restaurant, visit or a similar website to look up nutrition information on menu items.
  • Even better: Set a weekly goal to eat out less, and prepare food at home with healthy ingredients.

Why it’s important to eat breakfast

I know I should eat breakfast, but I rarely do. Can you explain why it’s so important? I’m always looking for ways to try to lose some extra pounds, and it seems like a good idea to not eat when I’m not hungry, which is typically in the morning.

On the surface, your habits make some sense. Nutritionists regularly encourage people to become more attuned to their inner hunger and appetite signals, and not eating (or stopping eating) when your hunger is satisfied is doing just that.

But this raises the question: Why aren’t you hungry in the morning? The whole reason the meal is called “breakfast” is because by eating it, you’re breaking the fast you’ve experienced overnight. Do you typically eat a heavy dinner or have a high-calorie snack at night? Cutting back later in the day might be more effective at helping you lose those extra pounds than skipping breakfast.

A new study sheds some light on why this might be. The British study, recently presented at the Neuroscience 2012 conference, focused on the differences in people’s brain activity when they skip breakfast and how that affects their calorie intake later in the day.

For the study, researchers asked participants to come in for two MRIs (magnetic resonance images, or brain scans) before they had anything to eat that day. On one of their visits, they were given breakfast before the MRI; on the other visit, they weren’t. All were given lunch after the tests.

The researchers found that when the fasting participants were shown pictures of high-calorie foods during the MRIs, the pleasure-seeking portion of the brain was activated more strongly than when they had eaten breakfast. The breakfast-skippers also ate more at lunch.

This finding supports other research that shows that eating breakfast can reduce overall food intake for the rest of the day.

In fact, an expert panel at the Institute of Food Technologists conference earlier this year reported that studies of young people show that those who don’t eat breakfast consume 40 percent more sweets, 55 percent more soft drinks, 45 percent fewer vegetables and 30 percent less fruit than those who do.

Breakfasts higher in protein, including yogurt, an egg (including egg in waffles or French toast) or even hummus, for example, seem to have a stronger effect.

So, see if you can change your morning routine to incorporate a breakfast that includes some protein. It just might make a difference in helping you lose those extra pounds.

Whole grains turn up in surprising places

A group of us were watching a football game last week, and someone claimed that the tortilla chips we were eating counted as a “whole-grain” food. I find that hard to believe. Is that right?

It could be. To determine whether a food is “whole grain,” take a look at the ingredients on the food label. You’ll find that many types of tortilla chips and other corn-based snack chips list “whole-grain corn” as the primary ingredient. Whole-grain corn, like whole wheat or other whole grains, is indeed, well, a whole grain.

While this could mean the chips are a better choice than a snack made entirely of refined grains, don’t take that as permission to down a family-size package. While the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half the grains we eat should be whole grains, most Americans eat a lot more grain-based foods than we need, period — often more than double what’s recommended.

So while it’s a good idea to replace the refined grains we eat with whole grains, it’s just as important to remember to keep total grain consumption in check in the first place.

And it’s also important to take into consideration other factors that affect the overall healthfulness of a food: the amount of saturated fat, sodium and added sugars, for example, as well as the number of calories per serving.

Whole grains are preferred over refined grains for a simple reason: Calorie for calorie, they offer more nutrition. Whole grains include the entire grain kernel, which provides nutrients including iron, magnesium, selenium, B vitamins and often dietary fiber. Refined grains, on the other hand, have been milled to remove the bran and germ from the grain — this increases their shelf-life and gives the grain a finer texture, but also strips them of most of their nutrients. Most refined grains are enriched with B vitamins and iron to replace some of what was lost in the refining process, but enrichment can’t replace everything.

To eat more whole grains, choose:

  • Foods with the primary ingredient listed as a “whole” grain, such as wheat or corn.
  • Whole-wheat bread, or bread that contains a good portion of whole grain indicated by being at or near the top of the ingredients list.
  • Whole-wheat pasta.
  • Brown rice instead of white.
  • Oatmeal, rolled oats or whole oats.

Terms such as “multigrain” or “stoneground” do not indicate whether the grain is whole or not.

For more tips, see the Choose My Plate web page at

Mindless eating’ leads to weight gain

I try to eat healthfully and normally do well during the day, but in the evening when I’m watching TV, I snack way too much, even though I’m not really hungry. Any ideas?

What you’re doing is so common that it has a name: “mindless eating.” Researchers, especially Brian Wansink at Cornell University, have explored this concept and have found that when Americans eat, we tend to rely not on internal cues, such as how hungry we are, but on other factors. And that leads to overeating.

One of those factors is eating while distracted — when watching TV, talking with family or friends, or eating in the car. When our attention is diverted from what we’re eating, we simply tend to eat and eat and eat — often not even really enjoying the food or the experience of eating it. Research at Yale University shows that viewing television food ads, especially those for unhealthy food, also triggers more food consumption.

Another external factor influencing how much we eat is serving size: If a larger serving is in front of us, we tend to eat more no matter what. Convenience and visibility of a food is another factor — if it’s easy to reach out and grab a food, we’ll be more likely to eat it. Even the way a room is lighted can cause us to eat more: Dim, soft lighting encourages us to prolong the eating experience and we eat more. Still other factors include stress, boredom or emotional reasons for eating.

The kicker? None of this has anything at all to do with how hungry we are.

So, how do you counteract these subconscious influences on eating? That’s a whole other line of study, called “intuitive eating.” Intuitive eating rejects restrictive approaches of dieting. It avoids the idea of “taboo” foods and encourages us to increase our awareness of what our body is telling us related to hunger, cravings and eating behavior. The idea is to actually pay attention whenever you’re eating, pausing to determine your level of hunger versus your feeling of fullness. The idea is to start eating when hungry, no matter what time it is or if others around you are eating or not, and to stop eating when full, no matter if there is more food at hand. Imagine a scale where 1 is starving and 10 is stuffed: Go ahead and eat when you feel like you’re at a 3 or 4 on the scale; stop when you’re at a 6 or 7. It requires thought and self-awareness, but prevents cycles of starving and binging, and also helps prevent emotional eating.

The concept of intuitive eating also lets people eat whatever food they want, as long as they pay attention to hunger/fullness cues. Research shows that such permission also reduces binge eating and is associated with a lower body-mass index.