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In with the good, out with the bad

The rule for healthy eating used to be so simple: If you ate, you were healthy; if you didn’t, you weren’t. Of course, that rule applied at a time when the average adult didn’t make it much beyond his or her 40s. Now that we are living to 80 or beyond, we know that the foods we choose govern heart health and influence our chances of developing cancer, osteoporosis, age-related vision or memory loss, or a host of other chronic conditions.

So which foods, or nutrients, are best? You know part of the answer: fruits and vegetables. But when it comes to fats, carbohydrates, and protein, many people are in the dark.

Rethinking meals

Two meals that deliver approximately equal amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and calories — how different can they be? Pretty darned different. The salmon meal below has less than half the saturated fat and cholesterol, more than twice the fiber and unsaturated fats, and more slowly digested carbohydrates than the meatloaf meal.

Not-so-great meal

Excellent meal

Meatloaf (3 ounces)
Mashed potatoes (1 cup)
Corn (½ cup)
Iceberg lettuce (1 cup)
Ranch dressing (2 tablespoons)
Chocolate ice cream (½ cup)
Salmon (3 ounces)
Bulgur (1 cup)
Almonds (½ ounce)
Carrots (½ cup)
Green beans (½ cup)
Spinach salad (1 cup)
Olive oil and vinegar (2 ounces)
Orange sherbet (½ cup)
742 Calories 745
31.3 Protein 30.3
7.1 Fiber 17.3
72.3 Carbohydrates 72.2
11.9 Saturated fat 5.8
18.7 Unsaturated fat 28.2
113 Cholesterol 54

Fat isn’t a four-letter word

For nearly 50 years, one misguided message has trumped all others: “Fat is bad.” That just isn’t true. In fact, some fats — the unsaturated fats found in olive oil, canola and some other vegetable oils, nuts, and oily fish like salmon and sardines — are utterly good for you. Others, of course, aren’t. Artificial trans fat is a disaster for your arteries and general good health. It is found in fried fast foods, stick margarines, many commercially prepared baked goods, and any food made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil or vegetable shortening. Saturated fat, found mainly in red meat and animal fat, vegetable oils like palm and coconut oil, and full-fat dairy products, is somewhere in between — okay if eaten in moderation, but trouble if you overdo it. Cut back on saturated fat by swapping meat for fish or beans.

When it comes to fats, don’t be afraid to embrace the positive. Your choices are varied and tasty, from pungent olive oil to creamy avocados and crunchy walnuts. Olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, avocados, walnuts, and most other nuts are other good sources of monounsaturated fat. To get more polyunsaturated fats in your diet, use vegetable oils such as corn and soybean oil for cooking and in salad dressings.  

Slow carbs, not low carbs

Carbohydrates, the essence of wheat, rice, potatoes, and other starchy foods, were once the go-to gang for healthy eating. When the Atkins diet blasted carbohydrates as the villain responsible for weight gain and poor health, millions of Americans turned their backs on bread, pasta, and even fruits and vegetables. The truth about carbs is somewhere in between.

As with fats, carbohydrate-rich foods come in different shades of good and bad. What makes one a better source of carbohydrate than another? Two things: its effect on blood sugar, and the other nutrients that come with the carbs.

Your body turns foods made of highly processed carbohydrates, like white bread and cornflakes, into blood sugar in a flash. Eat these at every meal and for snacks in between, and the resulting roller coaster of blood sugar and insulin can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes.

By contrast, whole grains and other slowly digested carbohydrates smooth out the peaks and troughs of blood sugar and insulin. They also deliver much-needed fiber, unsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients.

More power to protein

The low-carb craze turned much-needed attention to what protein can do for health besides building muscle and maintaining the immune system. It turns out that eating protein instead of refined starches can make you feel full longer, and that the body spends more energy digesting protein than it does digesting carbohydrates. Eating protein in place of easily digested starch also improves blood levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and other risk factors for heart disease.

To your body’s protein-making machinery, it doesn’t much matter where you get your protein. In terms of long-term health, though, it does. Your heart doesn’t benefit from the wallop of saturated fat that comes with a steak or dish of ice cream, but it responds beautifully to the healthful oils in salmon and nuts or the fiber in beans.

December 2007 update

Stroke symptoms are covered in our special report on healthy aging
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