Healthy Eating

Daniel DeNoon

Benefit to improving diet and exercise at the same time

Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

When you decide it’s time to live a healthier lifestyle, you’re likely to get better long-term results if you start improving your diet and increasing physical activity at the same time. It may seem better to improve just one thing at a time.  But while you don’t have to make drastic changes overnight, a new […]

Daniel Pendick

New study links L-carnitine in red meat to heart disease

Is red meat bad for your heart? A new study suggests it is, but not for the reasons you might expect—like the saturated fat or cholesterol in red meat. A team from a half dozen U.S. medical centers says the offending ingredient is L-carnitine, an amino acid that is abundant in red meat. Their work shows that eating red meat delivers L-carnitine to bacteria that live in the human gut. These bacteria digest L-carnitine and turn it into a compound called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which has been shown to cause atherosclerosis, the disease process that leads to cholesterol-clogged arteries, in mice. There’s still a long way to go before we know the full story about L-carnitine and heart disease, but this work suggests that cutting back on L-carnitine (and avoiding L-carnitine supplements) may be good steps for heart health.

Reena Pande, M.D.

Getting more potassium and less salt may cut heart attack, stroke risk

Reena Pande, M.D., Instructor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Salt is a cheap, easy way to turn on taste buds. That’s one reason why it’s in so many of the foods we eat. It’s so commonly used that most Americans consume more than double the recommended daily limit for it. Three new studies in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) once again confirm the relationship between salt intake and health problems. They show that reducing salt intake can help lower blood pressure and lower the odds of having a heart attack or stroke or developing heart failure. They also show that consuming more potassium is also linked to lower blood pressure and lower risk of stroke. Current dietary guidelines recommend that Americans get no more than 1 teaspoon of salt a day. That’s the equivalent of 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day. Most Americans get much more than that. It’s possible to cut back by avoiding processed and packaged foods, using herbs and spices to season food instead of salt, and other strategies. It’s best to get potassium from food, especially fruits and vegetables. Green leafy vegetables, beans, and bananas have a lot of potassium.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Distracted eating may add to weight gain

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

If you are worried about your weight, paying more attention to what you eat, not less, could help keep you from overeating. Multitasking—like eating while watching television or working—and distracted or hurried eating can prompt you to eat more. Slowing down and savoring your food can help you control your intake. That’s the bottom line from a report published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It offers two key conclusions: 1) Being distracted or not paying attention to a meal tended to make people eat more at that meal. 2) Paying attention to a meal was linked to eating less later on. Mindful eating is a good solution. It can reduce daily calorie intake, help make healthier food choices, and add to the enjoyment of eating.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Survival skills for all-you-can-eat buffets

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

All-you-can-eat buffets are a boon for hungry, thrift diners and a nightmare for dieters or those trying to maintain a healthy weight. If you are in the latter camp, here are two tips from Brian Wansink, the master of mindful eating: 1) Take a walk around the entire buffet to scope out your options before serving yourself. 2) Put your food on a small plate instead of a big one. Those come from observations of more than 300 men and women dining in two dozen all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurants. Understanding the many factors that influence what and how you eat can help you take more control of your eating habits. Who you eat with, how you are feeling, and activities like parties or shopping can influence when and how much you eat.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Study supports heart benefits from Mediterranean-style diets

Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

The results of a new trial being made public today should get everyone interested in following a Mediterranean-style diet. What makes these new results so important is that they come from a randomized controlled trial, what many consider to be the gold standard of medical research. In the five-year trial, there were fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths from cardiovascular disease among participants who followed a Mediterranean-type diet than among those following a low-fat diet. A Mediterranean-style approach to food represents a diet of abundance, not restriction. Add not smoking and daily physical activity to this flexible eating strategy and you have a blueprint for protecting, and perhaps even improving, health.

Holly Strawbridge

Going gluten-free just because? Here’s what you need to know

Holly Strawbridge, Former Editor, Harvard Health

After being confined to health-food stores for years, gluten-free foods have become the latest food fad. Supermarket aisles abound with products proudly labeled “Gluten free,” and many restaurants now offer gluten-free options. For people who can’t tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, this abundance is a blessing. But lately it’s become hip to go gluten-free. Based on little or no evidence other than testimonials in the media, people have been switching to gluten-free diets to lose weight, boost energy, treat autism, or generally feel healthier. People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better doing this, but most won’t get a significant benefit from the practice—and will pay more for food because gluten-free products are expensive. It’s important to know that it can set you up for nutritional deficiencies such as a dearth of B vitamins and fiber.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Can you become addicted to chocolate?

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The term “chocoholic,” usually said with a smile, actually nods to a potentially serious question: can a person become addicted to food? There are three essential components of addiction: intense craving, loss of control over the object of that craving, and continued use or engagement despite bad consequences. People can exhibit all three of these in their relationships with food. It’s most common with foods that deliver a lot of sugar and fat — like chocolate — because they trigger reward pathways in the brain. In some animal studies, restricting these foods induced a stress-like response consistent with the “withdrawal” response seen in addiction. Much of the scientific discussion about food addiction has been sparked by the epidemic of obesity sweeping the U.S. and many other countries. Many people who are overweight crave food, lose control over eating, and experience negative health effects that should, but don’t, serve as a deterrent. The influence of stress on eating provides another link between food and addictive behavior.

Heidi Godman

Think fast when kids want fast food

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

An army of nutrition experts is constantly reminding us that most fast food is bad for health. But they’re not around to back you up when your children or grandchildren unleash powerful weapons of cuteness to convince you to stop at a fast-food chain. It’s hard not to give in when the ones you adore put on the pressure, even when they’re older. One new study links several weekly fast-food meals with increased risks of asthma, rhinitis, and eczema. Another shows that when kids eat out they take in up to 300 more calories than when eating at home. Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian who is a clinical nutrition manager at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, offers some advice for when fast food is the only option.

Patrick J. Skerrett

The trick to recognizing a good whole grain: Use carb-to-fiber ratio of 10-to-1

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

“Whole grain” has become a healthy eating buzzphrase, and food companies aren’t shy about using it to entice us to buy products. Browse the bread, cereal, or chip aisle of your favorite grocery store and you’ll see what I mean. Last year, nearly 3,400 new whole-grain products were launched, compared with just 264 in 2001. And a poll by the International Food Information Council showed that 75% of those surveyed said they were trying to eat more whole grains, while 67% said the presence of whole grains was important when buying packaged foods. But some of the products we buy may not deliver all the healthful whole-grain goodness we’re expecting. Identifying a healthful whole-grain food can be tricky. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health says the best way is to choose foods that have at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate. Fiber and carbs are both listed on the nutrition label.