Nutrition is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. A well-balanced diet includes a wide range of foods to supply essential vitamins, protein, minerals, and other nutrients. Fats and carbohydrates are also nutrients, but a healthy diet adjusts calorie intake according to energy needs. Poor nutrition can contribute to chronic illnesses and medical conditions. Choosing appropriate foods is crucial to meeting your nutritional needs. However, cooking mistakes can turn nutritious foods into unhealthy meals.
Deep-fried foods are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain. Foods absorb fats from cooking oil, and breading or batter coatings add even more calories and fat. Polyunsaturated oils present additional risks because they break down at high temperatures and release free radicals. Reusing oils also increases the concentration of potentially harmful free radicals. Although deep-fried foods may taste good, they can have very detrimental effects on your health.
Oil isn't just for deep fryers. Many cooking techniques utilize oils, and you can use them without consuming too much saturated fat. Avoid hydrogenated or tropical oils, such as coconut or palm, and substitute nontropical oils for solid fats, like butter, margarine, and lard, in recipes. Choose oils with high smoking points, including canola, safflower, avocado, corn, and soybean oil, for cooking. Olive and nut oils with low smoking points work well in uncooked dressings or dips.
Most fruits and vegetables lose nutrients during cooking. As a general rule, nutrient loss increases in proportion to higher temperatures, longer cooking times, and the volume of water used in meal preparation. Boiling water and pressure cookers leach antioxidants and water-soluble vitamins, including vitamin C and most B-vitamins, from produce. Microwaving without water preserves water-soluble vitamins, but it can destroy vitamin K. Use steaming or grilling methods with the shortest possible cooking times to minimize nutrient loss. If you need to boil fruits or vegetables, use the leftover water in another recipe to recover lost nutrients.
Removing the peels from produce is another common cooking mistake. Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and other nutrients. You may be surprised to learn that peels usually contain most of the dietary fiber and mineral content. Peels are also rich in phytochemicals, antioxidants, and vitamins, so discarding peels from your produce also lowers nutrient density.
Many types of plastic contain two chemicals, BPA and phthalates, that may affect the endocrine system. Foods in plastic wrap or plastic containers may absorb these chemicals during microwave cooking. Meats, cheeses, and other foods with high-fat content are most susceptible. To avoid this type of chemical migration, use glass or ceramic cookware when reheating your food.
Fast food and many frozen dinners are known for high salt content, but it's easy to use too much salt in home-cooked meals too. Many Americans consume 9,000-12,000 milligrams of salt per day, but the recommended daily amount is only 1,500 to 3,000 milligrams for most adults. Some salt is necessary, but too much salt may contribute to heart disease and other health problems. Use herbs and spices to add flavor to your cooking instead of reaching for the salt shaker.
Heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, are chemical compounds found in cooked muscle tissue, such as poultry, meat, and seafood. Eggs and cheese may contain small amounts of HCAs too. These compounds may be carcinogenic and increase the risk of some types of cancer, although no conclusive evidence has been identified yet. HCA formation usually occurs in burnt or charred meats prepared with high-heat cooking methods. If you want to avoid HCAs, don't grill or broil meats.
Believe it or not, low-fat diets can be unhealthy. Low-fat labels do not necessarily mean a food product is good for you. Products can qualify for low-fat labels even if they're filled with sugar and artificial ingredients. Some fats are beneficial, such as essential fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and avocados. Insufficient fatty acid consumption may increase the risk of prostate, colon, or breast cancer. Healthy fats are also necessary to absorb and store the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D, and K. Cooking with low-fat or fat-free ingredients is only beneficial in moderation.
Sometimes cookware itself is a potential problem. Nonstick technology often involves plastic polymer coatings that could release toxic fumes. Aluminum has a reputation as a neurotoxic metal, although research has not confirmed this theory. Some people also believe that acidic foods erode copper pots and pans. Erosion lets potentially toxic levels of copper escape while cooking. Although some of these claims aren't confirmed, you can use stainless steel, cast iron, ceramic, or glass cookware to reduce potential risks.
Some cooking mistakes have consequences beyond unhealthy foods. Undercooked poultry or eggs can lead to salmonella poisoning. Cook poultry until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. All undercooked meat can potentially cause bacterial illnesses. Sometimes undercooked pork also contains parasites, such as tapeworms, that can infect people. Most meats should reach an internal temperature of 145°F to be safe.
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