Last week, while perusing a popular health magazine for new recipe ideas, I came across an article titled “Five top foods for weight loss (and five that will make you gain).” This in itself wasn’t a surprising title; it seems every other day a new food is deemed a “good” or “bad” choice for your health.

I am usually not into labeling foods “good” or “bad,” but this particular article caught my attention due to the subtitle, which mentioned the evidence for such claims came from a Harvard University study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. 

The so called “potato chip study” was conducted over three four-year intervals and tracked the eating habits and weight gain of a total of 120,877 men and women in the United States.

This extensive study found that the top five foods associated with weight gain over a four year period were potato chips, potatoes (prepared in any form), sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats and processed meats.

Are these findings surprising to scientists? Not really. Potatoes themselves are not an unhealthy food. They provide a good source of carbohydrates and potassium, and if prepared without the addition of high-fat ingredients, they can be a welcome addition to any diet.

However, as the Harvard study pointed out, Americans more frequently consume potatoes covered in hydrogenated oil – so much so that potato chips had to be separated out of the “potatoes” category.

I am not advocating everyone take the evidence of this study to the extreme and think they can never enjoy French fries or a steak again. However, it does hit home that foods high in hydrogenated oils (fried foods), saturated fat (red meats and processed meats) and added sugars (sugar sweetened beverages) shouldn’t be consumed every day as part of a healthy diet.

So what foods should you aim to be eating every day instead? Researchers found that fruits, vegetables, nuts, low-fat yogurt and whole grains were the foods most highly associated with weight loss or with healthy weight maintenance.

Are these findings surprising? Not really. Generally speaking, these foods are either low in fat, high in fiber or both. With fewer calories to burn and fiber to prolong digestion (which makes you feel fuller for longer), it simplifies the task of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

But it’s not just the benefit they have on body weight that make them appealing. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, low-fat dairy and whole grains should be consumed on a regular basis because they are packed with the essential vitamins and minerals that your body needs to function at its best. Eating these foods on the regular is also associated with a reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, among many other benefits.

Diet is not the only factor influencing health status. The study also found that watching less television, avoiding smoking and alcoholic beverages, exercising regularly and sleeping 6-8 hours a day were correlated with weight loss or healthy weight maintenance.

So what’s a good way to take these findings to heart and incorporate them into your daily routine? Don’t go overboard! Just try to make one change at a time at different points throughout your day. Here are three suggestions:

First, try switching refined grains for a whole grain product, like choosing whole wheat bread or pasta.
Second, instead of snacking on potato chips, swap in a piece of fruit or an ounce of unsalted nuts.
Third, when you’re tempted to watch repeat episodes of your favorite TV show, stick to just one episode and go do something active with a friend instead. The weather won’t stay nice forever, so enjoy it while you can! 

Mom was right. If you want to stay healthy in college, you can’t eat French fries for every meal, you shouldn’t spend all day in front of the television and you’ve got to get enough sleep each night. Just don’t let her know that there’s scientific evidence around now to prove her point.

If you are interested in reading the study in its entirety, search for “Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men” on the New England Journal of Medicine website: http://www.nejm.org.

This week’s recipe is an interesting combination of the top five healthy foods in the “Potato chip study.” You may have never used Greek yogurt in a pasta sauce, but it is an easy and delicious low-fat substitution for cream.

Spicy Southwest Pasta 

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients: 

12 ounces whole wheat pasta (spirals or bow tie shapes work best)

For sauce: 

1/4 cup non-fat Greek yogurt 

1 Tbsp lime juice 

1 Tbsp tomato paste 

2 tsp taco seasoning (look for small package in spice or ethnic foods aisle) 

pinch of red pepper flakes (add more for a bigger kick)

For skillet: 

2 tsp olive oil 

? white onion, diced 

1 tsp (1 clove) garlic, diced 

1 cup corn, (frozen or canned) 

2 Tbsp cilantro, chopped 

2 (14 oz.) cans diced tomatoes, drained 

1 (4 oz.) can green chiles, drained
– salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Cook pasta according to package. When draining pasta reserve ? cup cooking water.
Combine all ingredients for pasta sauce in a bowl until blended well. Store in refrigerator.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook about 5 minutes until garlic is lightly browned and onions are tender. Add corn and cilantro and cook 1-2 minutes. Add tomatoes and chiles; cook additional 3-4 minutes.
Add in creamy Greek yogurt mixture and ? cup reserved cooking water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in prepared pasta. Garnish with additional cilantro or sliced scallions and enjoy!