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Disease Prevention: Avoid Heart Disease, Diabetes and More

Disease Prevention & Awareness

The time to start eating them is now

By Carol Sorgen

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic – Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD


If you’ve made it this far in life, chances are strong that you may live into your 80s or even 90s. But will you be living well?

“We probably can’t extend life much beyond what we already have done,” says William Hart, PhD, MPH, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at the St. Louis University Doisy School of Allied Health Professions. “But we can help make those last five to 10 years of life more enjoyable. Living longer isn’t much fun if you’re not healthy enough to enjoy it.”

So what’s the secret to staying healthy as you get older? Exercise, of course. Also, the right food. To get started, add these five nutrients to your diet.

Soy to Manage Your Cholesterol

“No, adding soy to your diet does not mean pouring more soy sauce on your Chinese food,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It does mean adding soy foods such as tofu, soy milk, soy nuts, or the green soybeans called edamame by the Japanese.

Soy has an impressive resume, along with some inevitable controversy. Adding soy to your diet has been shown to significantly lower cholesterol, which can reduce your risk of heart disease. Plus, soy is high in iron, which many women need. Some women also say that soy helps them manage hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause, although those benefits have not been proven by long-term clinical studies.

Still, its cholesterol-lowering benefits are powerful enough. Indeed, the right diet can lower cholesterol as much as medication, according to a study reported July 2003 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. That four-week study found that a diet of soy fiber, protein from oats and barley, almonds, and margarine from plant sterols lowered cholesterol as much as statins, the most widely prescribed cholesterol medicine. Soybeans themselves provide high-quality protein, are low in saturated fat, and contain no cholesterol, making them an ideal heart-healthy food. To lower your cholesterol, the American Heart Association suggests you look for products that provide 10 grams of soy protein per serving, and try to eat three or more servings per day.


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Fiber for Your Whole Body

Once upon a time our diet was made up mostly of whole foods loaded with fiber. While we may have fallen to a wild beast or infection, fiber helped keep our cholesterol and blood sugar levels low, and kept our bowels functioning smoothly.

Now in our frenzied lifestyle, we’re more likely to grab fast food, or use prepared foods at home that have only a passing acquaintance with dietary fiber. It’s a little known fact: Most of us should double the amount of fiber we eat if we want to reap its benefits.

“I don’t think it would be a bad idea to flip the food pyramid and suggest 9-11 servings of fruits and vegetables a day instead of the 5-7 we recommend now,” says William Hart. “None of us eats enough fiber.” The average American eats 12 grams of fiber a day; most health organizations recommend 20 to 35 grams.

Studies have shown that dietary fiber – including foods such as apples, barley, beans and other legumes, fruits and vegetables, oatmeal, oat bran and brown rice — clearly lower blood cholesterol. High-fiber foods are also digested more slowly, so they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels like white bread, potatoes and sweets do. Of course, everyone knows that fiber helps keep you regular, but so do laxatives. Fiber, however, has an added plus: High-fiber foods help us feel full, making it easier to control weight.

You get more nutritional “bang for your buck” with high-fiber food, says Hart.

Antioxidant “Superfoods” to Protect Your Cells and Heart

When you’re thinking “superfoods,” think color, says Beverly Clevidence, PhD, a research leader at the USDA’s Diet and Human Performance Laboratory. That means foods that are deep blue, purple, red, green, or orange. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that provide the color for these foods contain health-enhancing nutrients that protect against heart disease and cancer, and also improve our sense of balance, our memory, and other cognitive skills.

Your “superfoods” color chart should include:

  • Deep green — Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli may help prevent colon cancer, while spinach and kale are good sources of calcium. And kale also helps fight against age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in older Americans.
  • Red — Red tomatoes, especially when cooked, are beneficial sources of lycopeine, which helps protect against prostate and cervical cancer.
  • Orange/yellow – Squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, and yams promote healthy lungs and help fight off skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma.
  • Deep blue/purple – Eggplant, plums, blueberries, blackberries (strawberries, raspberries, and cherries come under this category as well) lower your risk of heart disease by helping the liver “sop up” extra cholesterol, as well as improve your mental functioning.

“I’ve definitely been adding berries to my diet throughout the year,” says Clevidence.

You don’t have to limit your berry intake to in-season either. Fresh, frozen (without sugar), or dried…the benefits are the same.

Got milk? If you want to keep your bones strong and lessen your chance of fractures as you get older, add calcium-rich foods such as low-fat cheese and milk to your diet. Calcium also keeps teeth strong, helps your muscles contract, and your heart beat. Recent studies have even shown that calcium may lower your risk of colon polyps, and help you lose weight. Researchers at Purdue University found that women who consume calcium from low-fat dairy products, or get at least 1,000 milligrams a day, showed an overall decrease in body weight.

“Water is also essential if you’re eating high-fiber foods. Water helps fiber do its job.”

As you get older, the amount of minerals in your bones decrease. Too little calcium increases your risk for osteoporosis and, with it, disabling or life-threatening fractures.

Dairy products are the best source of calcium. Choose skim milk, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat cheese to avoid saturated fats. A single serving can provide you with 20% of the 1,200 milligrams a day you need. You can also add calcium to your diet with calcium-enriched cereals and orange juice. Foods such as dark green vegetables, dried beans, and sardines also contain calcium.

Won’t taking a calcium supplement do the trick? Sure, says William Hart, but calcium-rich foods are also high in protein needed for bone and muscle strength.

While you’re adding calcium to your diet, don’t forget to exercise. Your bones will thank you later. “Calcium alone isn’t enough. Add weight-bearing exercise as well,” says Hart. Take the stairs, park at the far end of the parking lot, walk wherever you can. You’ll help the calcium do its job.”

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Water for Energy and Your Skin

Most people don’t drink enough water,” says nutritionist Susan Ayersman. “We need water to flush out toxins, keep our tissues hydrated, keep our energy up.”

Water is also essential if you’re eating high-fiber foods, says Leslie Bonci at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Water helps fiber do its job.

Don’t stint on water just because you don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, says Bonci. “Just be strategic about when you drink it,” she says. “Drinking throughout the day, and not just before you go to bed should keep you from having to get up during the night.”

If plain water doesn’t quite do it for you, add slices of lemon, lime, or orange for flavor without calories. Or try a sprig of mint for a refreshing change of pace.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be overwhelmed with all these suggestions. You don’t need to add everything in at once. “Make haste slowly,” says Bonci. “Add a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, replace a glass of milk with soy milk…just take it one step at a time.”

Agrees Hart: “It’s simply a matter of deciding to get the foods into your diet.”

Originally published January 2004.
Medically updated August 2007.

SOURCE: William Hart, PhD, MPH, St. Louis University Doisy School of Allied Health Professions. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Beverly Clevidence, PhD, research leader, Diet and Human Performance Laboratory, USDA Agricultural Research Service. Susan Ayersman, CCN, Kronos, The Optimal Health Company. The American Dietetic Association website. The American Heart Association website.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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