Various foods have been labeled alternately good or bad in the press depending on the latest study, resulting in total consumer confusion. Controversy over salt, sugar, eggs, starches and dietary fat are discussed. Moderation and common sense is advised in all cases.
Sugar and salt were wrongly accused of causing everything from diabetes and hypertension to criminal behavior and hyperactivity. Then margarine went from being the cure for high cholesterol to one of its causes. Fats were the villain of the ’90s — but this year, when pasta and other starches are being blamed for weight gain in America, the confused consumer is asking, “What’s left to eat?” It’s no wonder that so many of us have become nutrition skeptics Where do we go from here? And just what should we be eating? Well, first, let’s talk about some of these controversial” foods.
A Spoonful of Sugar
Mary Poppins was on target when she sang about a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down; recent studies support the theory that sugar becomes a pacifier during painful infant procedures. Researchers now suggest that sugar, once blamed for causing hyperactivity in children, actually produces the opposite calming effect.
Sugar does not cause diabetes and avoiding sugar does not cure it. Revised nutrition guidelines issued last spring by the American Diabetes Association encouraged an individualized approach and stated that blood sugar levels are affected by the total amount of carbohydrate in the diet, regardless of its source. After years of prohibition, people with diabetes are now permitted to eat sugar in moderation, especially when substituted for other carbohydrates.
Most Americans consider salt to be downright dangerous, yet the reality is that only a small percentage of Americans require sodium restriction. While most Americans consume much more salt than the body needs, only those who are sodium-sensitive and/or on special medication need to restrict their diets. Salt does not cause hypertension or heart disease but it may exacerbate an already existing condition in certain individuals. Experts estimate that 20-30% of Americans are predisposed to hypertension and that 1/3 of those are sodium-sensitive. For the remaining 2/3, weight-loss medication and other treatments appear more effective than a low-sodium diet.
The Cholesterol Controversy
EGGS — once declared the equivalent of poison — have landed without breaking. Researchers have discovered an individual variation in response to egg consumption. Additionally, saturated fats raise blood cholesterol more than anything else, including eggs. An excellent source of high-quality inexpensive protein, eggs offer dietary versatility and convenience. Because of their high cholesterol content, eggs were banned in the past from the diets of most Americans. However, this advice seems most appropriate for individuals who have heart disease or confirmed elevations of blood cholesterol.
Focus on Fat
While nutrition trends may come and go, the dictum requiring overall control of dietary fat appears to be “carved in stone.” Actually, rigid restrictions of fat intake (10 – 20% of calories) are unnecessary for most people and may be unhealthy; many nutritionists advise. lowering the current intake of fat from 34% to 30% of calories. For a person who consumes 2000 calories daily, this would translate to approximately 600 calories from fat.
Exploration continues on which type of fat is optimal. At one time, polyunsaturated fats, found in vegetable oils and many margarines, were the darlings of the food industry. More recently, excessive intake of margarine has been discouraged because trans-fatty acids (behaving like saturated fats) are formed during hydrogenation. Although small amounts of margarine may be preferable to butter, olive oil and other monounsaturated-rich fats have moved to center stage. Studies suggest that substituting monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil, avocados, etc.) for saturated fats may lower the bad HDL-cholesterol and protect or raise the good HDL-cholesterol.
The Carbo Craze
The “carbo craze” began in the mid-’80s, when Americans embraced a low-fat diet. Nutrition experts extolled the virtues of unlimited complex carbohydrates as a vehicle for lowering fat intake and losing weight. Yet statistics show that over the past decade, the average American gained eight pounds.
Recent articles blamed pasta and other starches for making Americans fat. While it is unfair to single out these foods, it is important to recognize that no food can be eaten in unlimited amounts without consequences. This recent media blitz emphasized the need to balance carbohydrates with protein and fat, as well as exercise, in order to achieve the perfect health profile.
RELATED ARTICLE: THE SOLUTION
* Forget the “one-size-fits-all” approach to eating.
Although there are common denominators (such as limiting intake of total fat), there no single approach that works for every American; any dietary plan, commercial or noncommercial, must incorporate individual behavioral and lifestyle changes. It essential that each American “know the umbers” of his or her personal health profile. Registered dietitians are able to help translate these numbers and other physician recommendations into workable lans.
* Forget the “good” food/”bad” food philosophy.
Any favorite food can be incorporated occasionally — even on the most restricted diet. Work on emphasizing variety, balance and moderation of food choices.
* The “Mediterranean Diet” contains lessons for many Americans.
Scientists have observed that people in the Mediterranean region who consume a diet rich in vegetables, grains, fruits, fish, poultry and olive oil experience a lower incidence of heart disease and other medal problems than people in the United States or elsewhere in Europe. While the list of popular foods to avoid grows longer, there are foods associated with potentially positive effects, and most of these foods are found in the Mediterranean.
Ms. Platt does counseling in therapeutic and normal nutrition, with emphasis on cardiovascular disease and weight control For six years she served on the Board of Directors of the American Heart Association, New York City Affilate, and she is frequently quoted in various national publications.