Food choices remain an essential ingredient for health

Eating Well

March 11, 1997|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

These days, fewer people are dying from heart disease, yet it is still the No. 1 killer of both men and women. Although age, gender and genes are beyond our control, we can significantly reduce our risks through lifestyle choices. Loss of only 10 percent of body weight, regular aerobic exercise and quitting smoking lead the list. Food choices, of course, can make a significant difference.

Nutritional factors that affect your cholesterol:

Saturated fat is the single most important factor affecting blood cholesterol levels. Animal fats from red meat, butter, cheese, milk and other dairy foods are the main sources, along with coconut and palm-kernel oil used in baked products like crackers, cakes and cookies.

Many meats now come from animals bred to reduce saturated fat. "Nutri-Facts" posters in grocery stores give saturated fat content of various cuts of fresh meat. Nutrition Facts labels on processed foods like milk, cheese, yogurt, frozen meals and baked goods are required to provide both total fat and saturated fat information. Limit saturated fat to 7 percent-10 percent of total calories daily.

Polyunsaturated fat found in vegetable oils like corn, soy, safflower and sunflower oils and most margarines provides vitamin E and essential fatty acids needed for good health. It lowers total cholesterol by lowering both the bad LDL and the good HDL cholesterol. Food labels are not required to list it, but some do so voluntarily. Limit to 7 percent-10 percent of total calories.

Monounsaturated fat from olive and canola oils, olives, nuts, seeds and avocados lowers your bad LDL without lowering the good HDL cholesterol. This is good! It's not required on labels, but may appear voluntarily. Limit to 10 percent-15 percent of total calories.

Dietary cholesterol, found only in animal products, appears to have only a small effect on raising your blood cholesterol. Health agencies continue to recommend the 300 milligram per day limit, and it is required on food labels. Four egg yolks per week are fine. Shrimp, although high in cholesterol, are saturated-fat free, so are OK in reasonable amounts.

Soluble fiber found in oat bran, oatmeal, corn bran, rice bran, fruits, vegetables and legumes (including black beans, pintos, chickpeas, lentils and split green peas) act like a sponge to soak up cholesterol. But they're not magic. Combine with a low-fat diet for best results.

Soy foods including soy flour, nuts, milk and burgers, along with tofu have been shown to lower very high cholesterol (over 300 milligrams per deciliter). The exact mechanism for this effect is unknown.

Alcoholic beverages including beer, wine and distilled spirits have all been shown to reduce heart disease risks -- either by raising the good HDL or by reducing clotting -- when consumed in small quantities. But health experts are reluctant to recommend it. Possible side effects include increased cancer risks, higher triglycerides, hypoglycemia in diabetics, as well as weight gain, impaired judgment and poor coordination -- unnecessary risks in the light of other available strategies.

Other nutritional factors that reduce heart disease risks:

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils don't affect your cholesterol, but they reduce blood clotting, which reduces heart-attack risks. Three ounces weekly of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines or anchovies or six ounces weekly of milder fish, like tuna, may do the trick.

Folic acid, a B vitamin, reduces heart-attack risks by lowering a potentially deadly blood chemical called homocysteine. Best folic acid sources include orange juice, beans, peas, lentils and dark green leafy vegetables.

Fruits and vegetables have been shown in numerous studies to reduce heart disease, stroke and cancer risks.

Vitamin E is gaining recognition. Some studies show meeting the RDA of 8-10 milligrams daily reduces risks. Other studies suggest supplementation at 400 to 800 International Units. Possible side effects of mega doses include interaction with other medications and increased risks for bleeding strokes. Talk to your doctor before you dose.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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