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From Vice to Virtue – Foods That Have Been Rehabilitated

From Vice to Virtue – Foods That Have Been Rehabilitated
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By Steve Weinstein

In Woody Allen’s 1973 dystopian comic masterpiece “Sleeper,” a health-food nut has awakened 200 years in the future and requests wheat germ, organic honey, tiger’s milk. How, one of his doctors marveled, could people have been so easily fooled by “the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties”?

What about deep fat fried foods, thick steaks, cream pies and hot fudge, another doctor asks. “Those were thought to be unhealthy,” the first doctor sighs, “precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

Of course, this is satire. … Or is it? Every time we pick up the newspaper or turn on a news channel, it seems, there’s another story about how what we all thought was a vice has overnight become a virtue.

Canned tomatoes, for example, contain far more lycopene than the real thing picked fresh off the vine. In fact, stewed, sauce, paste — all contain far more Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that sends your immune system into overdrive and helps prevent many cancers associated with aging, including prostate cancer.

So go ahead and have that slice of pizza for lunch. Hell, have two. But remember that pizza, as well as tomato soup, ketchup and far too many canned tomato products, contain as much as two-thirds of a total recommended daily intake of sodium, the easiest path to sky high blood pressure and clogged arteries.

Things have gotten so topsy-turvy that even the single most toxic commercially sold ingestible product has been found to have a health benefits. A 2011 study found that the noxious weed — no, not the fun one you can buy in Denver but cigarettes — can help ward off Parkinson’s disease. The bad (lung cancer, emphysema, heart attacks and a dozen other deadly conditions) still far outweighs the good.

Below are foods that were once considered horrible for anyone over 50 that have been rehabilitated. Some of them will surprise you. At least one or two may even shock you.

EGGS & HARD CHEESE

Anything that delicious has to be bad for you, right? Wrong. For years, we were told to avoid whole eggs and solid, ripened cheeses because of the high levels of cholesterol and fat in spelled hardened arteries. So we limited ourselves to bland egg-white omelets and those godawful pourable egg products.

Rejoice! Recent research has shown that the cholesterol from six egg yolks a week only moderately spikes cholesterol levels. Even better, eggs are not only rich in flavor, but are a far healthier choice of protein than processed meats.

As for hard, aged cheeses like Parmesan, whose very names evoke Old World cuisine at its finest, it turns out they contain far less lactose than non- or low-fat cheeses. Lactose intolerance increases big time for most people as the age. Not only that, but one study found that these wonderfully pungent delicacies will actually help you lose weight, tighten your waistline and lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Like eggs, they are also a highly efficient delivery system of quality protein. And here’s the most important part: These cheeses are among the single best ways to bump up your calcium intake — a crucial part of our diet as our bones grow brittle and wither with age.

COFFEE

Anyone over 50 has grown up with the “knowledge” that coffee gives you the jitters. It’s addictive. Drink too much and you can’t sleep. So that’s why an entire generation embraced decaf as the reasonable alternative.

Well, guess what? Coffee is one of the most important foods people over 50 should be ingesting every day. The way decaf is processed is downright unhealthy. And here’s the kicker: the caffeine in other food products, such as soft drinks, chocolate or tea didn’t have the same beneficial effects.

The past few years have seen a tsunami of studies that, one after another, reinforce the health benefits of drinking as many as six (yes, six) cups of java a day.

Since 2011, large-scale studies have revealed that coffee helps prevent Parkinson’s disease (no need to take up cigarettes); a host of other neurodegenerative disorders; diseases like oral cancer and Type 2 diabetes; and improved liver function.

What is it about coffee that has so transformed the image of the world’s most popular beverage? Coffee — and coffee alone — has a unique blend of 1,000 compounds and antioxidants. And if you limit yourself to that one cup in the morning, you can get over the 3 o’clock slump without any guilt: One study showed that coffee actually increased life span in those over 50 who consumed as many as six cups a day.

Most importantly for over-50s, caffeine fiends were found to be far less likely to suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s. They had increased mental acuity, their mood is elevated and they were 20 percent less likely to suffer from depression.

ALCOHOL

No single food product has been as maligned as booze, especially in America, where the history of alcohol consumption reflects our national character.

As any connoisseur of Westerns knows, the tavern was the center of civic life in the Old West. Carrie Nation’s and the Women’s Temperance Union so demonized demon rum that the we even tried to outlaw it. Well, everyone knows how well Prohibition worked. But the stigma that drinking equals alcoholism has remained to this day.

Not any more. The ancients believed in vino veritas, “in wine, there is truth.” If a few drinks can loosen tongues, it also does a whole lot more. Just consider:

  • Moderate drinking raises levels of “good” cholesterol and lowers the bad stuff, thus lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood clots, hardened arteries and stroke.
  • A university in (where else?) Italy found that a few drinks a day improves your chance of keeping the Grim Reaper away by 18 percent.
  • Alcohol will improve your sex life. Moderate drinkers, according to one study, had 30 percent less erectile dysfunction.
  • My grandfather began each day with a shot of whiskey and never had a cold until he died at 88. Turns out, Grandpa was onto something. All alcohol reduces the risk of catching a cold by 60 percent according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Red wine has been found to contain extraordinary amounts of antioxidants to bolster the immune system. It protects the heart, lowers blood pressure, prolongs life and inhibits the development of fat cells. At last the secret is out as to how all those Frenchwomen stay so thin.
  • For those over 50, moderate consumption of alcohol significantly lowers the risk of diabetes, gallstone and dementia. The latter is especially surprising, since alcohol consumption has been for so long associated with decreased brain capacity. But a long-term study of 365,000 people is finding that moderate drinkers are nearly one-quarter less likely to develop some form of dementia.
  • A glass of wine or even a shot of booze at the end of the day helps many people relax. If you have trouble falling asleep, it’s worth a shot.

The key word is “moderate.” One or two cocktails, beers or glasses of wine a day is fine. Too much more, and you’re a drunken mess.

CHOCOLATE

This one may come closest to the “Sleeper” model. But don’t make hot fudge your main course just yet. Despite the widespread publicity (a lot of it, not surprisingly, coming from companies like Hershey) about dark chocolate, there’s a catch: All those antioxidants need plenty of hydrogenated fat and sugar to make them palatable.

This doesn’t mean that chocolate is bad for you. In moderation, dark chocolate does convey enough health benefits so that what was once considered a guilty pleasure isn’t quite as guilty. Always look for dark chocolate, the darker the better. And don’t pig out.

SUNLIGHT

Not a food per se, but in recent years, direct exposure to sunlight has most definitely been considered a vice. Turns out, it’s the only way to get quality Vitamin D, one of the most essential vitamins as we age.

Since those healthy-looking tans became associated with skin cancer, many people have become photophobic. Yes, too much sun is definitely harmful. But too little is also.

Several minutes a day basking in the sun will also elevate your mood (especially in winter), lower blood pressure, help regulate sleep patterns and — this is the surprising one — actually lower the chance of getting carcinogenic melanomas.

 

 

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Steve Weinstein
Steve Weinstein is a journalist who had interned at the Sunday Times of London and has written for New York Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal (online), CNBC.com and The Village Voice among others. He has edited Crain's New York Business, Edge Media Network, the New York Blade and New York Press, and authored The Q Guide to Fire Island (Alyson, 2007). He lives in Midtown Manhattan with two Staffordshire pit bulls.