There's a lot of confusing information about food out there. One day you hear a report that drinking coffee is good; the next day a new study claims that drinking coffee will lead to a heart attack. Is pasta okay to eat, or is it the enemy? I get frustrated, and I'm sure you do, too. Who do you believe? Many patients have told me they thought fat-free was healthy, only to later learn that fat-free products are often loaded with sugar. Or they start eating yogurt as part of their goal to start the day with a healthy breakfast; then they find out that their brand of yogurt has as much sugar as a candy bar.
When I was researching my book, AARP New American Diet, I had a lot of these questions in mind. In order to cut through the clutter, I relied heavily on the most recent and comprehensive clinical studies from two of the most respected names in health: the National Institutes of Health and AARP. Many of the studies you've heard on what people have done to live a longer and healthier life have come out of this lengthy study.
Here are seven easy changes you can make today to help settle some of these health questions in your life, and start on the path to a longer, healthier life:
We eat way too much salt, or sodium chloride. The sodium in the salt is what makes it harmful to the heart, blood vessels, and kidneys. We all know that too much salt causes high blood pressure. What we often don't realize is how much salt exists in the food we wouldn't even suspect. Bread is the greatest source of sodium in the American diet. People get twice as much sodium from bread and rolls as they do from snacks such as potato chips, nachos, peanuts, and pretzels. Because pizza dough is typically made from white flour, pizza is a major source of excess salt. Americans consume an average of more than 3,300 mg of sodium a day. The American Heart Association states that sodium consumption should be less than 1,500 mg a day. Processed foods contain three-quarters of the sodium consumed. I know some of you add salt to your meals to give the food flavor. It's better to lightly salt foods you prepared yourself than to eat sodium-filled processed foods. Just taste it before you shake it. Some of you are probably even like my sister, who sprinkles salt on her food before she even tastes it. This is a learned behavior that you can change. I also recommend using kosher salt, which usually has the least amount of sodium.
Believe it or not, diet soda might actually cause you to gain weight. How is this possible? Aren't they "free" of calories? The drinks may be free of calories, but they are not free of consequences. It turns out that we need to look at the effect of sugar substitutes on the brain. When we eat, signals from the tongue tell the brain food is on the way, and the brain coordinates the rest of the body to expect a flood of calories. Sugar substitutes are so chemically similar to sugar that they fool our taste buds and brain into thinking that we are eating real sugar. Instead of squelching our appetites, diet soda may instead motivate us to eat. Add to this the fact that sweetness as a taste can have addictive properties, and suddenly sugar substitutes, which to the brain "taste" many times sweeter than regular sugar, increase the craving to get those calories from sweets. And there shouldn't be any confusion anymore about coffee. Drinking up to three cups of coffee a day has been shown not only to help with weight control, but also to reduce the incidence of diabetes and dementia.
Don't be afraid to go nuts! Eating good fats, especially the monounsaturated fatty acids that are in nuts, can improve blood sugar control. Two ounces of nuts daily as a replacement for foods such as candy or chips improves people's blood sugar. Nuts can be part of a plan to avoid diabetes, to improve control of diabetes, and to lose weight.
One of the biggest problems with sugary foods, like juices and juice blends, is that they are low in nutrients. In addition, a high amount of sugar basically acts like a toxin in our bodies, causing problems with insulin release and fat deposits. On the other hand, it looks as though there may be a reduced rate of death from heart disease with moderate consumption of red wine, including a reduction on the rate of stroke in women. The key is to have no more than one glass a day. Too much alcohol causes numerous health problems, including an increase in the risk of cancer.
I know many of you enjoy bacon, but there really are no health benefits to it. Along with cured meats and cold cuts, bacon has too much sodium. And don't think turkey bacon is a healthy alternative, because it isn't. In terms of sodium content, it can actually have more sodium. A recent study showed through nearly 30 years of follow-up that each additional serving of red meat per day was associated with a 13 to 20 percent increased rate of dying from heart disease, with the highest rate attributed to the consumption of processed meats. The danger is most likely from the saturated fat and nitrites. One of the biggest myths about food and cholesterol I encounter concerns the consumption of eggs. Eggs do contain cholesterol, so many people are afraid to eat them (or at least the yolks) at all, but in fact, eggs have many health benefits. They are low in calories, high in unsaturated fat, and high in vitamins, minerals, and protein. As long as you don't eat more than four eggs a week, your cholesterol should be fine. There's no evidence that eating four eggs a week, including the yolk, increases your risk of heart attack.
You already know you should be cooking with olive oil instead of butter. But what about coconut oil? It has been in the news lately, and many patients have asked me whether it's healthy. The big concern I have about coconut oil is that it contains a lot of fat and therefore a lot of calories. One tablespoon has more than 100 calories and more than 12 grams of fat, at least 90 percent of it saturated. The theory for weight loss is that coconut oil speeds up metabolism and thereby burns calories. However, the data have been mixed. Some small studies have shown benefits, but other studies have shown either no benefit or some harm. I don't think the high number of calories and the high amount of saturated fat are good for you, so until there are better studies, I say save the coconut oil for when you're on vacation in a tropical paradise. We already have better options for cooking, such as extra-virgin olive oil.
Sometimes you should simply give in. A healthy diet is not about denial. I don't want you to never eat something if you truly enjoy it. So, if you truly enjoy cupcakes, you should have one every so often. Once a week, perhaps, but not every day. "Cheating" can actually help you to successfully manage your cravings and therefore control your weight. Researchers recently learned that desserts like cake and cookies can help dieters lose more weight and keep it off in the long run if they indulge only occasionally and if they employ some tricks. One trick is to indulge in the morning, when the body's metabolism is revved up; that way, you're better able to work off the extra calories throughout the day.
 C. N. Freeman, E. D. Cummins, C. Tucker, J. Ostland, & B. J. Hock. "The Addictive Properties of Sweetener Consumption Using a Conditioned Taste Aversion Animal Model for Dependency." Journal of Behavioral and Neuroscience Research 2011, Vol. 9(1), 1-6.
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