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How Healthy Is Your Diet, Really?

pHion Balance  |  0 Comment

If you’re among the millions of Americans who are overweight, obese, or afflicted with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, you’ve probably heard of “heart-healthy” diets: Ornish, Pritikin, DASH, Mayo Clinic, Esselstyn, Mediterranean, and so on. Your doctor may have even recommended that you begin one of these programs.

Even if your physician has never urged you to adopt a healthier eating plan, you may have tried one of the innumerable trendy diets that seem to dot the landscape, such as Zone, South Beach, Atkins, Paleolithic or Biotype. Most of these programs – and their promoters – fade from the scene when the latest “best-seller” diet comes along. This is not to say they don’t have merit; it’s just that none of them seems to be sustainable, either on a personal or societal basis.

Unfortunately, despite decades of research, not even the experts can agree on what constitutes a healthy diet. In large part, that’s because human physiology is incredibly complex; nutritional concepts that seem to be corroborated by one group of researchers are often challenged by others. Marketers who are more interested in monetary gain than health promotion take advantage of this confusion and misrepresent otherwise meaningful data from clinical studies. Finally, a powerful food industry exerts pressures that influence dietary guidelines disseminated by health policymakers.

So, what’s the average non-scientist citizen supposed to do? Well, you may just have to pick one or two trustworthy sources of information and stick with them. One reasonably reliable authority is the American Heart Association, an organization that pools data from well-designed studies and distills it into recommendations that most of us can understand. The following guidelines are among the more durable counsel that has emanated from this and similar agencies in recent years:

Watch Your Portion Sizes

This is one dietary issue that seems to challenge almost everyone. Serving sizes are listed on most food items, but many people don’t even read, much less heed them. When a can or box of prepared food contains four servings and you down the whole thing yourself, you’re headed for trouble.

For foods that don’t have serving sizes listed, consumers can turn to online or printed guides. A serving size is a specific amount based on measurements most people recognize, such as ounces or cups. For example, a serving size of cooked pasta is about 1/2 cup, while a portion of meat or fish is 2 ounces (about the size of a card deck).

Eat Fruits and Vegetables

Like it or not, plant foods are simply the best way to get the antioxidants you need to ward off cancer, delay aging, keep your arteries pliable, reduce inflammation and preserve brain function. In addition to their antioxidant content, fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber and low in calories, so they’ll help fill you up without tipping the scale in the wrong direction. And, if you’re consuming more fruits and vegetables (you should try for 7 to 10 servings daily), you’ll likely eat fewer of the foods that aren’t as good for you.

Whole Grains Are Good

Notwithstanding the claims of low-carb fans, carbohydrates have always been an important energy source in human nutrition, and you need some carbs to stay healthy. However, not all carbohydrates are the same. Avoid refined and processed grains and limit your intake of simple carbohydrates (you’ll recognize these by their sweetness). Instead, rely on whole grains, which are richer in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure, whole grains won’t trigger a post-meal insulin surge that leads to insulin resistance, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Be Fat-Selective

Despite the perennial controversy about the importance of different types of fat in human health, it’s pretty clear that some fats increase systemic inflammation and increase your risk for heart disease and cancer. The American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats comprise no more than 7% of your total calories, and you should avoid trans fats altogether (1% of total calories is the upper limit here). Use polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, such as canola or olive oil, and choose margarine's that contain cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, such as Benecol or Smart Balance.

Most foods list their fat composition on the label, which is put there for your convenience. Beware of items that are advertised as “low fat”; some contain trans fats, which may be disguised in the ingredients list as “partially hydrogenated oils.”

Be Picky about Protein

In addition to carbohydrates and fats, proteins are the third “macronutrient” required for human nutrition. Proteins furnish essential amino acids that your body uses to synthesize hormones, neurotransmitters, enzymes, immune molecules and structural components. Choose high-quality sources of protein, such as lean meats, fish, egg whites, low-fat dairy products, legumes and soy products. And remember that most people only need about 1 gram of protein for each kilogram of lean body weight per day – that’s about 50 to 60 grams – so don’t overdo it. Excess dietary protein will simply be converted to fat.

Shake Off the Salt Habit

At least30% of American adults have hypertension (high blood pressure) and at least half of these people are salt sensitive, meaning their blood pressure rises in response to the sodium in their diets. Ideally, you should consume less than 1,500 mg of sodium daily from all sources (about 2/3 tsp of table salt). If you become a label reader, you’ll probably discover that you’re consuming too much salt; most processed foods are packaged with salt to make them more palatable.  

Americans are a faddish bunch. In the midst of an obesity epidemic that is threatening our collective well being and eroding the underpinnings of our healthcare system, we’re more likely to leap headfirst into the latest vogue diet than we are to critically examine what’s wrong (and what’s right) with our current eating habits and make a few sensible changes. However, if you adopt the recommendations listed here, you could rightfully claim that your diet is healthy. Really.

Here's to your wellness,


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