Doctoring Your Diet

Something we Americans often forget — there’s a connection
between what we eat and how healthy we are. Chips and soda do
not a strong body make. Three New Hampshire dieticians give us
some tips on improving our diet.

Control portions

“Americans have lost all sense of what a portion is,” says Elliot Hospital dietician Donna Gleeson. A plate of pasta in a restaurant, for instance, might have four cups of pasta, when the correct portion would be 1/3 to 1/2 cup. Gleeson says research shows when people eat large portions at restaurants they start eating large portions at home, too. “It escalates.”

Sana Dicey, St. Joseph Hospital dietician, agrees. Take bagels, she says. “They have grown larger and larger and larger. Now a mini bagel is the actual size of what a bagel should be.” Sodas grew larger, too. A 12-ounce can has 2-1/2 servings.

People think they’re getting “a bargain for their buck,” says Jacquie Higgins, a dietician at Portsmouth Regional Hospital. But what they’re really getting is fat. “That in turn lead to diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. If we moved more, the large portions wouldn’t be bad, but we’re sedentary.”

How much is enough? Estimate your serving sizes this way: A serving of meat, poultry, and fish should be the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand. A serving of fruit, vegetables and pasta should equal half a baseball. For cheese, it’s the size of your thumb.

Watch sodium intake

The human body needs 500 mg of sodium, less than 1/4 teaspoon, to maintain itself each day. The maximum recommended is 2,400 mg, or one full teaspoon. Most Americans consume twice that — 4,000 to 6,000 mg — putting themselves at risk of developing high blood pressure.

Jacquie Higgins says most people aren’t aware of the amount of sodium in food. Canned soup, for instance, has 600 or 700 mg. “Frozen dinners are one of the worst culprits,” says Higgins. “The more processed it is, the higher the sodium content.”

Sana Dicey adds pickles, cheese and deli meats to the list. When you buy meats or cheese at a deli, Dicey suggests you ask for a print-out with the nutrition facts, including sodium content. Whatever you buy, you should keep sodium to 500 mg or less for a meal; for a snack, it should be 250 mg or less.

Eat nuts “A lot of people resist eating nuts because of the fat content,” says Donna Gleeson. “People have been brainwashed into thinking fat is the enemy. It’s isn’t true. Nuts have heart-healthy fats.” Studies shows nuts can help reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Gleeson says eating nuts is a good way to cure hunger pangs without raising your blood sugar.

An ounce — a handful — might be a good addition to your diet, but you have to watch the calories. An ounce of peanuts has 159 calories; an ounce of walnuts, 180. Sana Dicey suggests, if you eat nuts, use them as a replacement for other fats.

A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed walnuts can significantly decrease levels of bad cholesterol, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease.

Use fish oil

The omega-3 oils found in fish and fish oil are good for you. They act as an antiinflammatory, reducing triglycerides and the bad cholesterol LDL, and raising the good cholesterol HDL. Omega-3 oils can also alleviate arthritis.

Jacquie Higgins recommends eating fatty fish like salmon, bass, mackerel and herring. “There is some concern about pollutants in fish, like mercury,” says Higgins. If you don’t want to eat fish, she says, you can use fish oil as a supplement, 5 to 9 grams a day. She does warn that some people get upset stomach and fishy breath when using them.

Omega-3 oils have been nearly missing from the typical American diet in the last 50 years, says Donna Gleeson. The oils have been removed from many foods; only a limited number have them. “The way meat is raised,” says Gleeson, “they’re fed soy and corn instead of munching on the grass that has omega-3 oils in it.”

Gleeson cites another possible health benefit. A study by a Harvard physician, Andrew Stoll, indicates there’s a connection between a lack of omega-3 oils and depression and hyperactivity.

Take vitamin E

This water-soluble vitamin is said to be an important antioxidant that helps protect cells from everyday damage and the buildup of LDL, the bad cholesterol. A study reported last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests vitamin E can substantially reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Donna Gleeson says vitamin E is important because we are exposed to much more environmental pollution than was the case in the past. She says most middle-aged and older people should supplement their diets with 400 IU of vitamin E. The natural form works better, she adds, because our bodies use only half of a synthetic vitamin.

Foods high in vitamin E include almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, avocado, canola oil, broccoli, olive oil and wheat germ.

Drink water

Everyone agrees our bodies need to be well-hydrated and, in recent years, the mantra has been “eight, eight-ounce glasses of water a day.”

Now, though, that’s being re-thought. Sana Dicey says, “You have people walking around with water bottles. What they’re forgetting is there’s water in foods, like soups and juices. They took it to the extreme saying only water counts.”

Other than soups and juices, foods with a high water content include yogurt, cucumbers, oranges and melons, especially watermelons. Among other things, water is important in eliminating waste products from the body. Jacquie Higgins advises people to continue drinking plain water each day. And, she adds, don’t wait until you’re thirsty. It’s often not a good measure of how much water you need. She says a good way to determine whether you’re getting enough water is to monitor your urine: It should be clear and significant in quantity. NH