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March 5, 2009 – Vol. 3 • No. 7
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Healthy eating key to living well

Let’s face it.

Eating healthy has as much sex appeal as watching grass grow on an inner city playground.

None. Nada. Zippo.

But like everything else associated with life and death, it’s almost mandatory.

Take eating five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. It’s considered a benchmark of healthy eating and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tried to spread that word years ago.

The response has been less than enthusiastic. In a 2007 report, the CDC determined that less than one-fourth of adults in this country claimed to have consumed the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

The numbers ranged from a low of 16 percent in Oklahoma to a high of almost 33 percent in Washington, D.C.

In Massachusetts, more than 27 percent of adults said that they had consumed the desired amount. Unfortunately, the statistics for blacks were not as good. Only 23 percent of black adults in the state said they ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

It doesn’t have to be that way. By now, most know that healthy eating helps avoid a slew of problems prevalent among African Americans. It decreases the risk of several chronic diseases — heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers — as well as obesity.

It is so important that the federal government has stepped in. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture have established dietary guidelines — science-based advice to promote health and reduce major chronic diseases. The most recent guidelines, published in 2005, provide a general framework.

The new guidelines stress a balanced diet of six food groups — whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry and fish, and legumes, nuts and seeds. Although not a food group, unsaturated fats — olive oils, avocados and nuts – are also recommended.

Whole grains provide energy and fiber, and are found in cereal, whole wheat bread and brown rice. Fruits and vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber, while milk, meat, fish, beans and nuts are rich in proteins.

The guidelines also limit the consumption of sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats — those found in fatty meats, dairy products and fried foods — that have been shown to increase the risk of heart disease.

To facilitate a healthy regimen, the federal government has provided two eating patterns that consumers may follow — MyPyramid (http://www.mypyramid.gov) and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan.

Research studies have shown that the DASH plan is effective in lowering blood pressure and preventing hypertension in those without the condition.

Even the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has entered the fray. NCI, in affiliation with black churches such as the Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester, developed the “Body and Soul” program that encourages church members to eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

In some situations, government officials are taking strong actions. In July 2007, New York became the first city to prohibit restaurants from using trans fats in an attempt to lower the risk of heart disease. In Massachusetts, Brookline followed suit, and in September 2008, Boston implemented the first phase of its own ban on trans fat, prohibiting its use in cooking oils in restaurants and other food service establishments. The law’s second phase, effective March 2009, bans trans fat in baked goods.

But even with governmental intervention, people are still not getting the message. One of the reasons is information overload.

And confusion. Take carbohydrates, for example. Carbohydrates are essential — they make glucose, or sugar, which provides fuel for the body. Most people think of carbohydrates as breads, cereal and pasta, and they are right. But many do not realize that fruits, vegetables and milk are also carbohydrates.

People with diabetes or glucose intolerance have to be mindful of their intake of carbohydrates.

Another problem is that one dietary plan doesn’t fit all. The amount of recommended food varies by age, gender, physical activity and health status. More importantly, it varies by taste.

That’s the point that Constance Brown-Riggs tries to instill in her clients. Brown-Riggs works for the American Dietetic Association, and is a registered dietician and certified diabetes counselor.

Brown-Riggs stresses practicality. “You have to reach people where they are,” she says. “You can’t suggest a diet that includes cottage cheese and cauliflower if a person doesn’t like that particular food.”

The first step, she says, is taking a personal inventory and determining individual health risks.

A person should then look at the general dietary guidelines and compare it to what he or she is doing.

“Then make a plan,” she says. “Be practical and realistic. Start from square one and take small steps.”

She cautions not to do everything at once. “It will not last,” she warned.

Brown-Riggs says she recognizes the difficulty in changing eating habits. But health professionals often add to the problem by making the mistake of not showing a person how to eat what he or she likes to eat.

And that’s a big part of the problem.

Brown-Riggs says that people can eat many of the foods they like — even soul food. “People make the mistake of categorizing food as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ” she says.

That misses the point.

The foods that many blacks eat are very high in nutrition — it’s how they are cooked that’s the problem.

Collard greens, for example, are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and fiber. But when “doctored up,” they contain salt, fats and added sugars — all of which contribute to chronic health problems.

Brown-Riggs offers a solution. Seasoning with smoked turkey breast instead of ham hocks allows the flavor without the added fat.

If you cannot do without candied yams, use less sugar or a brown sugar substitute. Sweet potato casserole is even better since it requires less fat. The reason is simple. Sweet potatoes already contain naturally occurring sugars and complex carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

She recommends patience to those trying to lose weight. “Don’t get on the scale every day,” she explains. “You probably won’t notice that much of a difference … You didn’t gain the weight overnight; you won’t lose it overnight either.”

If there is a recipe you like, look at the ingredients. Pay attention to the fat content. Use 1 or 2 percent milk instead of whole milk.

Sodium is particularly harmful. It contributes to high blood pressure and can cause a buildup of fluid in those with congestive heart failure or kidney disease. Brown-Riggs recommends using a small amount in food preparation and not at the table.

She offers hope. “Taste buds change and that’s good news,” she says. “Give it a chance.”

Fruits and vegetables contain health-promoting nutrients that combat cardiovascular disease — the leading cause of death in this country.

Constance Brown-Riggs, M.S. Ed., R.D., C.D.E., C.D.N.
Registered Dietitian-Certified Diabetes Educator
National Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association

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