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Plan Your Plate

Shifting to a Healthy Eating Style

What’s the eating style that’s best for health? Is it a Mediterranean eating plan? Low carb? Vegetarian? With all the eating styles out there, it’s hard to know which one to follow.

Healthy eating is one of the best ways to prevent or delay health problems. Eating well, along with getting enough physical activity, can help you lower your risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and more.

The National Institutes of Health has provided excellent guidelines for healthy eating. The next two issues of Alliance Handshake will be devoted to discussing key points covered in a special issue on healthy eating in NIH News in Health. This issue will cover sugar, fats, and salt. Our next issue will cover fiber, making healthier choices, and tips for eating out.

For more about healthy eating, go to: newsinhealth.nih.gov/specialissues/eating/plan-your-plate


Sweet Stuff

Most of us love sweet foods and drinks. Is sugar truly bad for us?

Sugar has a bad reputation that’s mostly deserved, because we consume too much of it. It’s now in just about every food we eat.

How about artificial or low-calorie sweeteners? What have scientists learned about the sweet things that most of us eat and drink every day?

Our bodies need one type of sugar, called glucose, to survive. Glucose is the number one food for the brain, and it’s an extremely important source of fuel throughout the body. But there’s no need to add extra glucose to your diet. Your body can extract glucose from the sugars and other carbohydrates in your food. It can also produce new glucose, mostly in the liver. That’s why you can survive for a long time without eating.

Some sugars are found naturally in foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and milk. These non-processed natural foods are healthful additions to your diet. When you eat an orange, for instance, you’re getting a lot of nutrients and dietary fiber along with the natural sugars.

Limit Added Sugars

Much of the sugar we eat isn’t found naturally in food but is added during processing or preparation. Sugars are usually added to make foods and drinks taste better. But such products can be high in calories and lack the healthful benefits of fruits and other naturally sweet foods.

Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet. Juices naturally contain a lot of sugar. But sometimes, even more is added to make them taste sweeter.

should avoid?

Recommendations about dietary fat have shifted over the last two decades. From the 1970s through the 1990s, nutrition researchers emphasized eating a low-fat diet. This was largely because of concerns about saturated fats. Saturated fat that’s in the bloodstream raises the levels of LDL cholesterol—the “bad” cholesterol. This in turn raises the risk of heart disease.

But when people started following low-fat diets, they didn’t only cut saturated fats. In many cases, they replaced healthy unsaturated fats with processed carbohydrates.

Studies have shown that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat reduces the risk of heart disease. However, replacing saturated fat with simple carbohydrates, such as added

sugar and white bread, does not.

There’s still this misconception that eating fat—any kind of fat—is bad, that it will lead to heart attacks or weight gain. That’s not true. People really should eat healthy fats.

Healthy Fats

Unsaturated fats are good for you. These fats come mostly from plant sources. Cooking oils that are liquid at room temperature, such as canola, peanut, safflower, soybean, and olive oil contain mostly unsaturated fats. Nuts, seeds, and avocados are also good sources. Fatty fish – such as sardines, salmon, and herring – are rich in unsaturated fats too.

Large studies have found that replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats can reduce your risk of heart disease by about the same amount as cholesterol-lowering drugs.

Wise Choices – Choosing Fats

  • Eat plant-based foods. Plants can contain healthy fats, as well as important vitamins and minerals.

  • Include plant oils in your diet – canola, peanut

Reducing Salt

A very modest decrease in the amount of salt,

hardly detectable in the taste of food, can have dramatic health benefits. The salt we add to our food actually accounts for about 10% of our salt consumption. Most of the salt we eat comes in processed foods from stores, restaurants, and dining hall. You may already know that fast foods, cold cuts, and canned foods have a lot of salt. Many people don’t realize that a lot of our salt is from breads and cereals. About 15 to 20% of the sodium in the average American diet comes from grain products, such as breads, cereals, crackers and chips.

Wise Choices – Cut back on Sodium

  • Look at Nutrition Facts labels and try to choose prepared foods that have less than 5% of the Daily Value of sodium per serving.

Corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, and honey are examples of sweeteners added to foods and drinks, especially regular sodas.

To find the total amount of sugar in food, look for “Sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label under the category “Total Carbohydrate”.

Over time, excess sweeteners can take a toll on your health. Several studies have found a direct link between excess sugar consumption and obesity and cardiovascular problems.

Artificial Sweeteners

The safety of artificial sweeteners has been debated for decades. To date, researchers have found no clear evidence that any artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S. cause cancer or other serious health problems like birth defects in humans.

Wise Choices – Cut Added Sugars

  • Choose water, milk, or unsweetened tea or coffee instead of sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and fruit drinks.

  • Reduce sugar in recipes. If a recipe says 1 cup, use 2/3 cup.

  • To enhance flavor, add vanilla, cinnamon, or nutmeg.

  • Eat fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruits without added sugar. Choose fruits canned in their own juice or water rather than syrup.

  • Use fruits to top foods like cereal and pancakes rather than sugars, syrups, or other sweet toppings.

  • Read the ingredients list to pick food with little or no added sugar.

  • Use the Nutrition Facts label to choose packaged foods with less sugars.

The Skinny on Fat

The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown

Fat is an essential nutrient for our bodies. It provides energy. It helps our guts absorb certain vitamins from foods. But what types of

fat should you be eating? Are there any you

olive, safflower, soybean, sunflower, corn and nut oils.

  • Replace foods containing saturated fats – butter or lard – with healthier unsaturated fat options.

  • Limit fatty red meat. Instead eat more fish, poultry, or lean meats.

  • Reduce sugars and replace processed grains, such as white bread and white rice, with whole grains and brown rice.

The Salty Stuff

Salt, Blood Pressure, and Your Health

Salt is essential to our body’s fluids. That’s likely why we evolved to enjoy its taste. On the other hand, anyone who’s gotten a mouth full of seawater knows that too much salt tastes terrible. Maybe your body’s trying to tell you something. It turns out that too much salt can lead to a host of health problems.

Dietary salt, or table salt, is made from two chemical elements: sodium and chloride. That’s why its chemical name is sodium chloride.

Health Effects

The best-known effect of sodium on health is the relationship between sodium and blood pressure. Dozens of studies, in both animals and people, have linked a higher salt intake with higher blood pressure. Reducing salt intake, on the other hand, lowers blood pressure. Some research also suggests that excessive sodium intake increases the risk of stomach cancer. Scientists continue to investigate this possible connection.

How Much Salt?

Experts recommend that adults take in less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day—that’s what’s in about 6 grams of salt, or about a teaspoon. People with high blood pressure should shoot for 1,500 mg. But right now, American adults eat an average of about 3,600 mg of sodium per day.

  • Use fresh poultry, fish, and lean meat rather than canned, smoked, or processed.

  • Choose fresh or frozen vegetables that have no added salt.

  • Rinse canned foods to remove some of the sodium.

  • Add less salt – or none – when cooking.

  • Use reduced-sodium bouillon, dressings, and sauces like soy sauce.

  • Use fresh herbs and buy spices and blends without added salt.

  • Cook at home instead of eating out when possible. But, when eating out, ask that no extra salt be added to your food.


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