1. What’s your take on polenta? How about grits?
— Andrew Parrish
In the vast majority of cases, polenta refers to whole ground cornmeal. In some European countries, it is traditionally made from buckwheat or semolina (wheat).
Here in the US, polenta can be purchased in a dry ground form or in a “ready-to-use” tube. It is a whole grain and, therefore, a good source of B vitamins, fiber, and magnesium, and potassium. Word of caution: “degerminated” cornmeal is not a whole grain (by definition, a whole grain must contain the endosperm, bran, and germ components).
Grits are made from hominy, which is (generally white) corn that has been soaked in an alkaline solution before being ground up to a much finer consistency than polenta. The soaking process removes the corn kernels’ bran and germ, so fiber content is significantly reduced.
FYI: Polenta “fries” are quite tasty. Here’s an easy recipe.
2. A few people in my office are on a sugar-free diet, and were talking to me about how bad carrots are. According to them, carrots should be avoided because they are very high in sugar, which the body turns into fat. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to give up carrots, but is that true?
— (Name Withheld)
Not at all. One large carrot only has 3 grams of naturally occurring sugars. Even if they were higher in sugar, they are such a wonderful source of nutrition that eschewing them would be severely misguided.
I condone and encourage limiting one’s intake of added sugars, but the occasional fruit and vegetable phobias I encounter are simply unwarranted. Trust me — our current public health issues are not the result of people eating too many carrots or grapes.
3. If the body absorbs iron from animals more efficiently than plants, can’t one argue that we need some animal protein?
— Matt Marovich
Not necessarily. It is true that vegetarian and vegan adults have slightly higher iron needs due to lower absorption rates from plant-based foods.
Whereas omnivorous men and post-menopausal women need 8 mg of iron a day, their herbivorous counterparts should aim for 14 milligrams. Pre-menopausal omnivores require 18 mg a day, while vegetarian and vegan women in that category should get 33 mg a day.
Vegetarian/vegan men and postmenopausal women are usually able to meet their increased iron needs from food alone. Pre-menopausal women may need a supplement or a serving or two of iron-fortified foods.
Depending on which plant food you are talking about, anywhere from 2 to 20 percent of its iron content is absorbed by the body. By contrast, absorption of iron from animal products ranges from 15 to 35 percent.
Beans, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, and blackstrap molasses are the richest sources of plant-based iron. Remember, though, that consuming plant-based iron along with some vitamin C (i.e.: broccoli, tomatoes, lemon juice in water) helps increase absorption.
Also, of note: the human body is smart and adaptable. When iron stores decrease, its iron absorption capabilities are heightened.
4. Some health forums I read are sharing recent findings that smoothies are not good because the fiber in the food gets destroyed. Have you heard this?
— Beth Yung
Ah, yes — Dr. Esselstyn’s recommendations have gone viral and caused quite a meltdown with smoothie fanatics. This is what he says:
Avoid smoothies. The fiber is so finely pureed that its helpful properties are destroyed. The sugar is stripped from the fruit, bypasses salivary digestion and results in a surge of glucose and the accompanying fructose contributes to inflammation and hypertension.
While concoctions made from “fruit puree bases” blended with juice are low in fiber and offer none of the health benefits associated with whole fruits, blending frozen bananas and blueberries with hemp milk and almond butter results in a healthful and nutritious concoction which retains all the fiber and nutrients in each of those foods.
Similarly, green smoothies (i.e.: bananas and peaches with kale and spinach) are a nutrition powerhouse. Unlike juices, which discard fiber, whole-food smoothies leave it intact.
Consider, for example, that homemade hummus (a blended food) retains all the fiber contained in the chickpeas that go into it. The same goes for the fiber in a smoothie made with whole strawberries, oats and ground flax.
I don’t see any reason to fear whole-food smoothies.