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Is Polenta Healthy?

If you're looking for departure from staple starches like pasta and rice, try out polenta – a porridge-like dish made by boiling cornmeal in salted water – to add some variety to your diet. As a moderate source of calories and a few essential nutrients, polenta adds some nutritional value to your family's diet. But it's important to practice portion control and to make your polenta from whole-grain cornmeal for the most benefit.

Polenta Nutrition 101

Regular polenta is made from cornmeal, water and salt for seasoning, so the only source of calories in the recipe is the cornmeal. One serving – made from 1/4 cup of whole-grain cornmeal – has 110 calories. The bulk of those come from its 24 grams of carbohydrates, which help fuel your muscles, brain and other tissues to support an active lifestyle. Polenta is naturally low in protein and fat, supplying just 2 grams of protein and 1 gram of fat per serving.

A Modest Amount of Fiber

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One of the benefits of cooking with whole grains is their fiber content, and polenta is a moderate source of fiber. Each cup has about 2 grams of fiber – enough to cover 8 percent of your daily fiber needs, and up to 10 percent of the fiber requirements for your child, depending on age. Fiber is best known for its digestive benefits – helping you stay, um, regular – but it also fills you up between meals. That can be especially important for your kids, because hunger pangs can distract them from their schoolwork and school activities.

A Few Essential Minerals

Polenta isn't an outstanding source of any one micronutrient, but it provides modest amounts of a few minerals. These include magnesium, which plays a crucial role in energy production – so it helps your family metabolize nutrients and get energy from your food – and it's also essential for healthy nerves. A serving of polenta boasts 39 milligrams of magnesium, which is about 12 percent of your daily magnesium needs and up to about half the magnesium needs for your kids, depending on their ages. Polenta also supplies small amounts of iron, zinc and potassium.

Serving Healthy Polenta

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Not all the cornmeal sold at the grocery store is whole grain – in fact, most of the cornmeal they sell is refined – but you'll want to seek it out, since the refined version has less fiber. How you serve your polenta also determines how healthy it is, because polenta made with high-sodium chicken broth and topped with plenty of butter will have much more salt and fat than the cornmeal-and-water variety. If you need a little extra richness, add a drizzle of good-quality olive oil instead of butter, or – better yet – serve your polenta with a generous serving of roasted veggies drizzled with oil. Limit your portion size to 1/2 cup of cooked polenta, or 1/4 cup for smaller children, to avoid overeating.

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