Filed under: Nutrition
Food and health are hot topics these days. Just turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or glance at the margins of your social networking site and you’ll hear and read about the supposed health benefits of dietary supplements containing this or that food component and the promises that they will “burn belly fat” or some similar claim.
Many of these promising food components belong to a group of compounds referred to as phytochemicals—chemicals produced by plants as a means of protecting the plants from various diseases.
Interestingly, when you eat plants (such as fruits and vegetables), the phytochemicals they contain might protect you from disease too. Researchers have found that people who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. Scientists haven’t discovered exactly how these compounds work to protect us, but they have discovered that they seem to have a synergistic effect. That is, the compounds seem to work better in combination, especially when they are supplied in their natural form—whole foods. Consuming isolated single compounds, as in dietary supplements, rarely has the same beneficial effect as eating the whole food. See these resources about fruits and vegetables and how they may impact your overall health.
Focusing on single nutrients (in pill form) is not only expensive, it just doesn’t offer the promise that a balanced, varied diet can. Focus on food, instead. For more information about the benefits of food versus dietary supplements, check out this OPSS brochure, “Nutrition: Fueled for Fitness.”
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight can be a challenge, especially when trying to juggle the demands of active-duty service, deployments, family, and life in general. Knowing that the next weigh-in is looming can be stressful and can sometimes lead to eating behaviors that spin out of control to become a life-threatening eating disorder. But even if you don’t have a classic eating disorder, you might have what is called “disordered eating.”
“Disordered eating” refers to eating foods or having eating patterns that can lead to serious nutritional consequences such as deficiencies in key nutrients and electrolytes. It can compromise a person’s strength and/or stamina and lead to more frequent illness or injury. This could happen to a Warfighter, spouse, child, or other family member.
Examples of disordered eating include emotional eating, binge eating, night eating, highly restrictive dietary patterns, and avoiding foods considered “bad.” Some individuals use over-the counter products such as weight-loss supplements or laxatives; others participate in excessive exercise as a means to control weight. What starts out as a way to lose a few pounds or tone up could become a serious problem.
If you’re wondering if you practice disordered eating, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you eat in secret?
- Are you terrified of gaining weight?
- Are you always counting calories/carbs/fat grams or some other component of food?
- Do you think your identity and self-worth depend upon your weight and body shape?
- Do you exercise a lot (maybe too much) to maintain your weight or appearance?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you might have disordered eating. It’s important to get help before your problem becomes more serious than you can handle. Nutritional and emotional counseling from professionals—registered dietitians, counselors, and therapists—can help. Support from friends and family is important too. See the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for more information on disordered eating.
Eating disorders require psychiatric, medical, and nutritional treatments and can have serious nutrition-related health consequences for a Warfighter, spouse, child, or an entire family. The cause of eating disorders is not well understood, but military members may be particularly susceptible due to the unique stressors associated with military life, and many military members with eating disorders may go undiagnosed. Treatment of eating disorders is complex and challenging. For more information, read HPRC’s InfoReveal on eating disorders.
Nutrition experts at the Institute of Medicine—or IOM—of the National Academies of Sciences gather extensive information to make nutrition recommendations for the American public. One major result is known as the Dietary Reference Intakes, or (acronym number one) DRI. You might come across some of the DRI’s acronyms when reading how to fuel your body or considering a dietary supplement, so it’s helpful to know what they mean and where they came from.
The Estimated Average Requirements (acronym number two: EAR) are the average amount of nutrients that half of all healthy people need each day. EARs differ depending on life stage and gender. Remember, though, they’re simply an average. Scientists use statistics based on this average to calculate the Recommended Dietary Allowances (acronym number three: RDA).
The RDAs are the daily nutrient goals for essentially all healthy people, again based on life stage and gender. For example, the RDAs of some nutrients (such as vitamin C) for a 13-year-old boy are very different from those for a 25-year-old pregnant woman.
The Adequate Intakes (acronym number four: AI) are the—you guessed it—adequate daily amounts of nutrients that healthy people of a particular life stage or gender need. AIs are given when there isn’t enough scientific evidence for a stronger recommendation, that is, an RDA. For example, the IOM suggests an AI for one type of omega-3 fatty acids—alpha linoleic acid—of 1.6 grams per day for men and 1.1 grams per day for women because scientists just aren’t sure yet how much is optimal.
Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (fifth and final acronym, for now: UL) are the highest daily amounts of nutrients that you can consume without risk of toxicity. Many vitamins and minerals—even essential ones—can be toxic when consumed in excess. For example, because too much vitamin A can cause liver damage, a UL has been established for this essential nutrient.
So, if you remember nothing else, remember to get your RDAs and AIs every day, but don’t exceed the ULs!
The USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center provides links to the DRI Tables, but generally speaking you can meet all your daily nutrient intake goals (the RDAs and AIs) by following a healthy diet that includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products. And be aware that recommendations do change. IOM reviews the most current nutrition science and updates the tables when necessary to keep up with the latest knowledge, which means better health for Warfighters and their families.
For optimal health and performance, Warfighters should try to eat at least six servings of vegetables (about three cups) every day. It’s tough, though, when you really don’t like vegetables. Here are some tips to help even die-hard veggie-haters work a few vegetables into their diets:
- Add vegetables to foods you already love! Macaroni and cheese, pizza, spaghetti sauce, soup, and omelets are great vehicles for spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, and other dreaded veggies. (Many of the vegetables in the MREs are hidden this way!)
- Grill your vegetables! Grilling adds those familiar flavors that we love so much. You can even baste them with your favorite low-fat marinade for extra flavor. Too cold to grill outside? Roasting vegetables in the oven makes many bitter-tasting vegetables taste sweeter.
- Drink up! You can find lots of tasty vegetable juices in grocery stores nowadays. Look for lower-sodium versions or the vegetable-fruit juice blends. You can even custom-blend your own by mixing bottled carrot juice with your favorite fruit juice.
- Get adventurous! Just because you hated something as a kid doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way about it as an adult. Give vegetables another try—you might be surprised how tasty they really are.
Of course, these tips work for picky family members, too. How many vegetables should they eat? That depends—on their age, sex, and activity level. This chart from the USDA will guide you.
September is National Whole Grains Month! Whole grains are natural sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that are essential for good health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 recommends that at least half of your grain choices should be whole grains.
Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:
- Start with a hearty breakfast that features whole-grain cereals such as steel-cut oats, bran flakes, or shredded wheat. Eat breakfast on the run? Try switching to whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels instead of plain bagels. Substitute low-fat bran muffins for pastries.
- Lunchtime sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls are full of flavor and fiber. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-grain corn tortillas.
- Dinner sides can really shine when you replace white rice with exotic black or red rice or wheat bulgur. Add wild rice or barley to soups, stews, and casseroles. Whole-grain pastas give a nutty flavor to many dishes.
- Snacks can feature whole grains too: popcorn, graham crackers, or granola bars are tasty, healthy options.
- And don’t forget dessert: brown rice pudding, oatmeal cookies, or whole-wheat baked goods are just the ticket—wholesome and satisfying.
Remember, eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more health-promoting nutrients but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more information about the health benefits of whole grains and even more tips on how to include them in your diet.
Sodium—a component of table salt—is an essential element. It helps your muscles and nerves function correctly and maintains the proper balance of your body’s fluids. However, too much sodium in your diet may increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and certain types of cancer.
The average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium every day, mostly in the form of salt. But the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults limit their sodium intake to just 2,300 milligrams per day—roughly the amount in one teaspoon of table salt.
The guidelines also recommend that certain “at-risk” groups limit their sodium intake to about 1,500 mg per day: adults over the age of 51, African Americans, and people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or kidney disease.
Recently, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) looked at the evidence supporting the current recommendations regarding sodium intake. IOM concluded:
- Research supports current recommendations to reduce sodium intake to about 2,300 mg daily.
- More research is needed to support the recommendation that those “at risk” should cut back to 1,500 mg or less a day.
Bottom line? If you’re in an at-risk group, speak to your doctor or registered dietitian about whether you should reduce your salt intake. For just about everyone else: Cut back on the salt.
How? Most of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed foods—tomato sauce, soups, canned foods, bread, and prepared mixes—but it can also come from foods naturally high in sodium—cheese and some types of seafood. Also, many restaurant foods are high in sodium, but sometimes you can request low sodium items. The best way to ensure a low sodium diet is to eat whole foods such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables; lean, unprocessed poultry and fish; unsalted nuts; whole grains; and low-fat dairy products such as skim milk or yogurt. For more information, check out this CDC web page.
For additional information and other conclusions from the study, see the news release (which includes a link to the full study) from the National Academies.
June is National Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Month. And it’s no wonder—during the warm summer months many fresh fruits and vegetables are at their peak. So take advantage of nature’s bounty and make an effort to include more fruits and vegetables into your family’s diet. Here are some tips to help:
- Start early: Top your morning breakfast cereal with fresh berries, bananas, or peaches for added flavor and nutrition.
- Add some crisp lettuce leaves and juicy tomato slices to a sandwich or wrap.
- Kids love foods they can “dip,” so encourage them to dip their veggies in a delicious, healthy fresh tomato salsa.
- Keep fresh veggies and fruits on a platter in the refrigerator so kids (and you!) can grab some any time—cooling off by the pool, reading a book, or cooking dinner.
- Go to a farmers’ market to find the freshest, in-season produce.
- Plant your own garden—or just a small tomato plant on the back porch. There’s nothing quite like homegrown fruits and vegetables.
- Have some dessert! Fruits are full of natural sweetness—the perfect way to round out a meal.
Eating fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases. To find out how many fruits and vegetables you and your family should be eating, use this great calculator from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more information about the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables as well as lots of great tips to help you incorporate fruits and vegetables into your diet.
Some recent evidence suggests that probiotic foods can contribute toward a healthy population of microorganisms in your digestive tract (gut). But what exactly are probiotic foods?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotic foods contain “live microorganisms which, when consumed in adequate amounts as part of food, confer a health benefit on the host.” In other words, they are foods that contain microorganisms (primarily bacteria and yeast) that may play a role in keeping the human gut healthy.
An astonishing number and variety of microorganisms—some good and some bad—occupy every nook, cranny, and passageway of our bodies. Most inhabit our digestive tract and play key roles in digesting food and digestive health. Maintaining the proper balance of good and bad organisms is essential. In fact, having more “bad” than “good” microorganisms is also associated with increased risk for short-lasting diseases such as colds and gastroenteritis and long-lasting diseases such as asthma and certain types of cancer.
More than 5,000 different strains of bacteria may reside in the average person’s digestive tract, which makes it hard to determine which ones might be good and which ones might be bad. But generally speaking, two strains seem to offer the greatest benefit to humans—Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Both can be found in many widely available probiotic foods.
Fortunately, it’s easy to find probiotic foods these days. Take a walk down the dairy aisle of your local grocery store and you’ll likely find yourself inundated with products promising a variety of beneficial health effects, many of which are attributed to the products’ probiotic content. Choices include traditional fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and buttermilk as well as foods far from the dairy aisle such as sauerkraut, pickles, and miso (a soybean product).
Keep in mind that if you eat a greasy cheeseburger, fries, and a sugary soda followed by a yogurt “chaser,” it’s unlikely you’ll see much benefit from the probiotic organisms in the yogurt. The greatest benefits from eating probiotic foods occur when they are part of a diet that includes whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and low-fat sources of dairy and protein. For more detailed information, read “Oral Probiotics: An Introduction” from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) contribute nearly one-third of the average person’s daily calories!
Solid fats, as the name implies, are solid at room temperature; they include both saturated and trans fats. They tend to raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease. Sources of solid fats include butter, cheese, meats, and foods made with these products, such as cookies, pizza, burgers, and fried foods. For more information, read how to tell the difference between solid fats and oils.
Added sugars can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay. Although some foods such as fruit and milk contain naturally occurring sugars, added sugars are usually found in processed foods such as sodas, sports or energy drinks, candy, and most dessert items. It can be hard to identify added sugars on food labels, but you can learn how to recognize hidden sources of sugar.
Foods containing SoFAS are often high in calories but don’t provide many important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or fiber. Fortunately, it’s easy to cut back on SoFAS by eating a diet rich in whole foods such fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein, and following the MyPlate guidelines.