The Value Of A Great Diet
Hundreds of studies have looked at the role nutrition plays in health. Although recommendations seem to change as often as the results of a new study come out, there are many acknowledged benefits of eating well. Nutritious foods can help you avoid many chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even cognitive loss.
From the research with the most support come two very important guidelines:
- Eat foods with fiber—whole grains, fruits and vegetables—to help avoid colorectal cancer. Fiber discourages the formation of polyps, which can become cancerous.
- Aim for 5+ servings of fruits and vegetables a day to lower the risk of all causes of death, and death from heart disease in particular. The benefits are even stronger if you eat these foods raw.
Variety is more than the spice of life—it’s the spice of a healthy life. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, no single food or food component can protect you against cancer by itself, but strong evidence shows that eating a variety of plant foods—vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes like beans—helps lower your risk for many cancers. That’s because many individual minerals, vitamins and micronutrients called phytochemicals demonstrate anti-cancer effects in lab studies. Findings suggest that the synergy of compounds working together gives you the strongest cancer protection.
Here’s how you can start to make simple yet effective changes in your own diet to live a healthier life.
Guidelines are great, but putting them into action is hard. Changing habits calls for determination and commitment. Taking a one-at-a-time approach can help you adapt and avoid feeling overwhelmed, which could lead to your giving up in frustration. Try these steps—start with one, stick to it for a week or two, then add a second, and so on:
Rein in calories. Many people are battling excess weight as well as (and possibly because of) eating the wrong foods. Calories eaten need to be balanced with calories burned (from exercise, work and simply being alive). You might need to start by reducing your portion sizes. (You’ll find more on this in the “Lose Weight” section.) Try cutting portions in half, but take twice as long to chew.
Rebalance food choices. The USDA guidelines on how to fill your plate make for a good start. At each meal, fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables, one quarter with whole grains and the final quarter with lean protein. Make gradual cuts in fats—for instance, you might find it easier to go from whole milk to 2% to 1% to fat-free in stages. Reach for fruit, vegetables, or unsalted nuts when you want a snack, and replace at least one meat meal every week with a leaner protein source.
Make water your drink of choice. Cutting out soda and cutting back on fruit juices (juice has too much concentrated sugar even though it’s natural) are important steps to cut less valuable calories.
Switch from butter and lard to liquid oils. When cooking with fat, try to use olive and other oils rather than animal fat. There are cautions about the health value of palm and coconut oils, so you might want to limit them.
Be a label reader. Eating “whole” foods —foods eaten in their natural state—is best because 80% of processed foods in the US include ingredients that are banned around the world. However, it’s very hard to avoid all prepared and processed foods. Read both the ingredients list and the nutrition label on these items
to know if you’re selecting the best brands—low in salt, saturated fat, sugars (from white sugar to corn syrup and everything in between), and refined grains. Avoid all trans fats, typically listed as partially hydrogenated fats, oils processed in a way that makes them unhealthy. Above, proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts Label.
Follow guidelines for conditions you’re at greatest risk for. Everyone can keep these two important guidelines from the American Heart Association in mind:
- To lower cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total calories. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, that’s roughly 13 grams of saturated fat.
- To lower blood pressure, limit salt to 2,400 milligrams a day from all sources—packaged foods and your saltshaker. (If you were to get all your salt just from the shaker, that’s about 1 teaspoon’s worth.) Experts say that topping off at 1,500 mg a day is even better because it can lower blood pressure even further.
Be cautious when eating out. It’s easier to control what you eat at home, but eating out has a great social dimension and it’s fun to try new foods. Work with your waiter to pick the healthier choices or to streamline dishes on the menu by cutting out gravy, cheese toppings, creamy dressings and butter-based sauces. Try to order dishes with lots of vegetables, fruits and/or whole grains, and have appetizer-sized portions when you want to control the amount of fatty or sugary food you’re eating
The USDA Dietary Guidelines, revised every 5 years, are intended to recommend foods from a variety of food groups in proportions that add up to a diet lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber and whole foods. There’s also the famous plate icon (please see above) that guides people to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with grains and a quarter with low-fat protein.
Experts at the Harvard School of Public Health Harvard say it doesn’t go far enough and argue that it is influenced by lobbying efforts from a variety of food industries and that the people who write the guidelines don’t always follow the recommendations of the scientific panel that helps revise them. As an alternative, they created The Healthy Eating Pyramid:
The Harvard plan builds on the positives from the USDA, such as eating more foods from plants and eating more seafood in place of red meat or poultry to reduce saturated fat. Then it takes other recommendations farther:
- Eat a higher amount of whole grains than the minimum of 50 percent recommended by the government
- Limit red meat and processed meats, such as bacon, deli/luncheon meats and hot dogs, which are strongly linked to heart disease and diabetes
- Limit dairy products because high dairy product consumption is associated with increased risk of fatal prostate and maybe ovarian cancers.
Finding a middle ground for health can seem like a challenge, but here are sound recommendations for what to eat to improve your diet:
Fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates deliver well-known vitamins and minerals along with their fiber, and they’re also rich in micronutrients, like antioxidants and phytochemicals, which help you stay healthy and fight off free radicals, molecules that are aging. Many of their micronutrients are hard to replicate in a supplement, so eating a rich variety of fruits and vegetables is important to get them all—they’re often what give their skins and flesh rich color. Experts say to eat a “rainbow” to help get as many of these nutrition powerhouses as possible.
Whole grains. These carbohydrates deliver the outer bran and inner germ layers that the refining process to make white flour, rice and pasta removes. Look for whole-wheat bread (not just “wheat” bread), whole-wheat pasta and brown rice as well as tasty choices like bulgur, quinoa, barley, couscous and oatmeal. Because whole grains aren’t digested as quickly as refined grains like white flour (which the body views as no better than sugar), blood sugar and insulin levels stay more steady—and you’ll feel full longer as you help prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Unsaturated fats. Some fat in the diet is essential, and the best kinds seem to be unsaturated, both poly- and mono-unsaturated. These fats are typically in liquid form, like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut and other nut oils. These are great replacements for butter and other solid fats like margarine. You can also get “good fats” through nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish, notably coldwater fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel.
Proteins low in saturated fat. Proteins are called the body’s building blocks, but you want to make sure your foundation is sound by choosing the healthiest ones. Most animal protein delivers saturated fat as well, so try to limit red meat to twice a week or less and avoid eating the skin on poultry. Fish and some shellfish are great options. If cholesterol is a problem, talk to your doctor about the amount of shellfish and eggs you can eat, but know that egg whites are safe (and you can still get that egg flavor by adding three extra whites to just one whole egg in a scramble, for instance). You can also get protein in plant-based foods like legumes—beans, peas and lentils, tofu and nuts.
Other foods in moderation. There are as many different opinions about eating dairy foods as there are dairy foods. Calcium is an important mineral, but it needs vitamin D to be effective, and D is in few foods (milk is often fortified with D to give you both together). Many studies are finding that being deficient in vitamin D is a serious health threat, upping the risks of colon and breast cancer and brain function loss. The easiest way to get it is from sun exposure, but that’s not always possible or safe because of the skin cancer risk. Talking to your doctor about a simple blood test to check for D deficiency and the need for a supplement makes sense. If you like milk, yogurt, cheese or other dairy products, look for no-fat or low-fat choices and stick to just 2-3 servings a day.
Other foods in limited amounts. Almost all packaged and processed foods are in this category—from refined grains, including salty crackers, chips and other snack foods, to sugar-based drinks and treats. Try to think of these foods as occasional indulgences rather than daily mainstays. Besides supplying few natural nutrients (many are fortified to make them appear healthful), these are quickly digested carbs that can cause blood sugar spikes and aren’t truly satisfying, leading you to eat more and more. The added salts and partially hydrogenated oils that many contain (including some used as preservatives) are particularly unhealthy. Diets high in salt (or sodium) are linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Cartoon: Tiki
While you might not think of alcoholic beverages as food, they have calories—calories that can add up to extra weight without contributing much to health. While some lab studies have suggested that the antioxidant in red wine called resveratrol could be heart-helpful, a recent human study found it had no beneficial impact on health outcomes. Most major health organizations recommend limiting alcohol to two drinks a day for men, one a day for women if at all.
One way of eating that puts nearly all of these smart principles together is the Mediterranean Diet—a lifestyle practiced by people living in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Besides having access to the bountiful fish in these waters, people living in countries like Italy and Greece harvest olives and nuts as well as vegetables and fruits. Years of research have shown a lot of protective benefits of this diet. It helps guard against obesity (a risk factor for many health conditions) and diseases associated with chronic inflammation—metabolic syndrome (a pre-diabetes state), diabetes, heart disease including plaque buildup in the arteries, lung diseases, cancer and cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Rather than focusing on individual nutrients—like just eating more citrus for its vitamin C, for example—the Mediterranean diet takes a holistic approach. It’s thought that the sum of all its parts (or foods) creates the benefits. Because of all the variety from different food groups it includes, it’s not overly restrictive, making it easier for everyone in a family to follow.
Mediterranean Menu Basics:
- Eat primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables—six or more servings each day, plus whole grains, legumes and nuts. As healthy as they are, nuts are very high in calories—have just a handful, about one to one and a half ounces in total, per day; almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts are great choices.
- Eat seafood—fish and shellfish—at least twice a week, preferably grilled, broiled or baked, not fried or dredged in batter. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines and albacore tuna, are rich sources of healthful omega-3 fatty acids. Have moderate portions of poultry a couple of times a week and limit red meat to a few times a month maximum.
- Flavor with herbs and spices instead of salt.
- Drink red wine in moderation if desired.
- Replace butter with healthy fats. The primary oil in the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, mainly a monounsaturated fat, which can help reduce unhealthy cholesterol when used instead of saturated fat. Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils are minimally processed so they have the most antioxidants. Note that the breads in this region are typically whole grain and dipped in olive oil rather than slathered with butter.
- Limit the fats in dairy; consider nonfat plain yogurt at breakfast or in recipes calling for cream.
Make Eating Healthy Fun For The Whole Family
From the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
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