So you want to follow a nutritionally correct diet. But does that mean sipping red wine as you down vitamin supplements? Do you have to give up red meat forever? And who among us has not heard about the benefits of broccoli by now?
Keeping up with all the nutrition news these days could drive a person mad. In recent months, studies have been published touting the health properties of everything from red wine to broccoli.
There was the red wine study. Researchers linked the French diet, which includes drinking red wine moderately with meals, with French people's low rate of heart disease. However, some in the health care field say the disadvantages of consuming alcohol outweigh any possible advantages.
There was the broccoli study. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University linked broccoli and other vegetables such as brussels sprouts and kale with a chemical that lowers the risk of cancer.
There was the beta carotene study. Beta carotene, which is found in some dark green leafy vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables and fruits, has been linked in several studies to lower rates of some cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
L Enough already, you say. When did it all get so complicated?
Not to worry: Good nutrition doesn't have to be as complicated as it might sound, health and nutrition professionals say. All it takes is a spoonful of common sense and a dollop of discipline.
Really all you need to know is what you probably learned in school, says Robin Thomas, a registered dietitian who works with the Maryland Dietetic Association: Eat a variety of foods from the four basic food groups.
These are: milk; meat (which also includes meat alternatives such as fish, poultry, legumes, dried peas, lentils and eggs); fruits and vegetables; and breads and cereals.
But there are caveats: The milk should be low fat or skim, meat should be lean and portions should be cut back, eggs should be limited to three a week.
The four basic food groups aside, people are wondering how to relate all of the studies to their diets. Trying to pinpoint the health benefits one particular food can have on a body is a complicated process, says Dr. Paul Akerman, who works in the gastroenterology department at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
"It's very hard to prove that one thing causes another thing," Dr. Akerman says.
This is because most studies relating food with diet are based on studying the habits of certain groups of people. For instance, some populations in Africa and India have diets that are mostly high fiber and low fat. Researchers found that these groups tend to have a lower rate of colon cancer, the doctor explains.
Nonetheless, says Karen Collins, a registered dietitian who works with the American Institute for Cancer Research, the studies show that vitamins and food play a major role in lowering the risk of some cancers and heart disease.
Studies also clearly indicate that eating a low-fat diet can reduce the risk of cancer, she says.
Other things like beta carotene might make a difference in reducing cancer risk, Dr. Akerman says. Beta carotene is a chemical found in orange and yellow vegetables and fruits. It is a precursor to vitamin A, which means that is what it turns into once it's in the body. The studies are ongoing.
Dr. Akerman explains the research regarding beta carotene and cancer prevention. "Cells start looking funny before cancer." But when people who have these precancerous conditions are given beta carotene, "cells start looking normal again," he says.
Health professionals believe that other vitamins, such as C and E, may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.
Whether or not to take vitamin supplements is up to the individual and largely depends on one's eating habits. "The best way to get vitamins is through eating the right balance of fruits and vegetables," says Howerde E. Sauberlich, a professor in the nutrition sciences department at the University of Alabama.
"We recommend, and we are trying to promote, that people have a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables," he says. "But we realize that not everyone does that. So that's where taking a vitamin can help."
Dr. Akerman cautions that people should talk to their doctors about taking vitamin supplements but that nearly everyone could benefit from taking a multivitamin pill.
"A multivitamin pill with iron is probably good, particularly for menstruating women," he says.
It's not hard to adopt good eating habits. For example, Mrs. Thomas, the dietitian who lives in Columbia, keeps a watchful eye on what her family consumes. She is particularly concerned about cholesterol.
"My family has a history of high cholesterol," she says. "We are probably more cautious than the normal family."
The Thomas family history includes a father-in-law who died of a heart attack in his 40s. About 10 years ago when Mrs. Thomas married, she set out to make changes in her husband's diet.