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It couldn't be any clearer: foods affect health

Published June 20. 2011 05:01PM

In a survey of women conducted on college campuses in the United Kingdom, researchers discovered that 30 percent of the respondents would forfeit at least one year of life to achieve what they consider their ideal body weight and shape.

If only people would feel that fervidly about maintaining optimal health.

Overweight people would be an oddity, type two diabetes would be a rarity, knowing someone with heart disease would be a novelty and this column would be a fading memory.

But as previously mentioned last week, too many people still eat solely to please their taste buds and never consider how food affects their health. Today's column will do its best to change that.

Recently, the popular practice of eating good-tasting rather than good-for-you foods, has caused the incidence of metabolic syndrome to soar. As of 2010, 34 percent of Americans have this condition, an increase of 15 percent in just a few years.

Yet metabolic syndrome, sometimes called MetS, is not really a disease itself; it's a collection of bad body measurements that let doctors know you are already overweight and a prime candidate for heart disease and diabetes. If fact, if you have three of the following, a large waistline, a low amount of "good" cholesterol, a high amount of "bad" cholesterol, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, or high fasting blood sugar levels, you technically have MetS as well as twice the chance of contracting heart disease and five times the chance of developing diabetes.

Fortunately, the syndrome that eating bad foods creates can be quelled by replacing them with good ones.

Eating more vegetables and whole grains, for example, has been shown in studies to reduce insulin resistance, the eventual outcome of having a high fasting blood sugar levels and a key component in type two diabetes. A review published in the June 2010 issue of Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders suggests that following the tenets of the Mediterranean diet not only helps prevent MetS but also treats it.

Similarly, a study that showed heart healthy dieting mitigates MetS also found supplementing a heart healthy diet with nuts and flaxseed further increased its effectiveness.

While not smoking and engaging in exercise also help in the fight against MetS, the aforementioned information should make it clear that eating good food is a great weapon.

And good food fights heart disease, too.

A few years ago, for instance, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University added nitrites to the drinking water of mice for several days in equivalent amounts that a human might ingest through diet. They then induced the mice to have heart attacks, did the same with a control group, and found those drinking the nitrite-laced water suffered an average of 48 percent less heart cell death.

Since virtually all green leafy vegetables are high in nitrites, most in the medical community saw this as proof that eating them helps heart health significantly. Recently, European research found similar heart health benefits with not only green leafy vegetables but also all vegetables and fruits as well.

The observational study of more than 300,000 Europeans revealed that those who ate eight or more portions of produce per day were 22 percent less likely to die of heart disease than those who ate fewer than three portions.

If that seems like a lot of fruits and vegetables, take heart. The researchers declared a portion to be 80 grams. A medium apple would equal nearly two full portions; a large baked potato would be the same.

Yet there's another weapon in your arsenal if you fear developing heart disease and diabetes although it's one rarely used by mainstream America: fiber. A study published in the February issue of Archives of Internal Medicine reported that in a study of 388,000 adults aged 50 to 71, those who consumed the most fiber were 22 percent less likely to die from any cause when compared to those who ate the lowest amount.

Yet the average American only ingests 15 grams of fiber a day, well below the 25 grams suggested for women and the 38 grams suggested for men.

Now if all this doesn't convince you that the foods you choose really do play a major role in your overall health, consider that vegetarian subjects in a Loma Linda University study published in Diabetes Care in April had lower levels of triglycerides, glucose, and blood pressure, a smaller waist circumference and a lower body mass index than meat eaters studied even though the average age of the vegetarians was three years older.

These readings also meant that the vegetarians were 36 percent less likely to have the syndrome that started this column, MetS.

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