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Basics of a Healthy Diet

Part One - Plant Foods

By Gary F. Zeolla

What is a healthy diet? There are many conflicting claims being made nowadays in this regard. But my approach is rather simple. I have done extensive research on the relationship of the consumption of various foods and the risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other degenerative diseases. Much of this research was conducted on PubMed.

For the most part, foods can be classified as those that reduce the risk of one or more of these diseases and those that increase the risk. So based on this research, I try to consume copious amounts of the foods that reduce such risks while avoiding those that increase risk. So in this series of articles I will summarize the results of my research.

Much of the details to be discussed are covered in more depth in my book God-given Foods Eating Plan. For the purposes of this series, I will omit all of the Biblical references. Those who are interested in such references can consult my book. In this first installment of this series I will discuss various plant foods.

I will not give specific recommendations in terms of the amounts of each of each foods discussed that one should consume as this would depend on many factors. But I will mention what my personal practice is.

Vegetables

There is no single more important step that someone can take to improve their diet than to eat more vegetables. The consumption of vegetables has the greatest association of any foods with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and other health problems.

And with a few exceptions, vegetables are also very “nutrient dense.” This means they are very high in nutrients yet low in calories, so the ratio of nutrients to calories is very high. And vegetables are mostly very “bulky” and hence filling. So for the weight conscious, these are basically “free foods.” They can be eaten in copious amounts without fear of weight gain. And with vegetables, one’s nutrients needs can be met without the consumption of excessive calories.

Potatoes would be the major exception to this rule. White potatoes are a good source of various nutrients like vitamin C and potassium, and sweet potatoes or yams would be even greater sources of nutrients, especially vitamin A. But both white and sweet potatoes are much higher in calories than most other vegetables. So their consumption needs to be limited.

That said, the consumption of most any vegetable is beneficial to one degree or another. But some are especially beneficial.

A booklet published by Men’s Health magazine gives some good suggestions for choosing vegetables:
When you’re in the supermarket produce aisle, tear off one of those plastic bags and stuff it will the brightest colored vegetables you see. Vibrant colors usually correspond with more vitamins, says Anne Dubner, R.D. L.D., a nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. This means go easy on the iceberg lettuce, celery, and cucumbers and load up on carrots, tomatoes, sweet red peppers, and sweet potatoes. These are higher in vitamins like A and C. Or go for darker greens. Romaine lettuce, for example, has nearly seven times the vitamin C and twice the calcium of its paler iceberg cousin (Men’s Health, p.20).

The one exception to this rule about brightly colored vegetables would be cauliflower. As Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper writes, "Cruciferous vegetables, notably broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage (the two "Bs" and two "Cs"), have been identified as strong anticancer weapons. They are also thought to be protective against other conditions including heart disease, diverticulitis, and constipation" (p. 169).

So eat lots of vegetables, especially brightly colored ones plus cauliflower. Your body will thank you for it. As for myself, I generally consume at least five servings of vegetables a day.

Fruit

Fruit is second only to vegetables in terms of nutrient density. The main difference between fruit and vegetables is that fruit is higher in naturally occurring sugars and thus higher in calories. But fruit, again especially brightly colored ones, is still a very great source of nutrients and other beneficial food factors. And fruit is just as strongly associated with reduced risks of degenerative diseases as vegetables.

The health benefits of fruits can be seen in a study done in Britain. The objective of the study was, "To investigate the association of dietary habits with mortality in a cohort of vegetarians and other health conscious people." 11,000 such persons were followed for a period of almost 17 years.

The study concluded, "In this cohort of health conscious individuals, daily consumption of fresh fruit is associated with a reduced mortality from ischaemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and all causes combined" (Key TJ, et al.).

In regards to the naturally occurring sugar in fruit, some claim that fruit should be avoid for this reason. The reason generally given is that such sugar can lead to weight gain. However, a study was reported on my local TV news recently that found that those who consumed at least three servings of fruit a day tended to have lower bodyweights than those consuming less fruit.

The researchers believed the reason for this was that fruit is “bulky” and thus filling, hence its consumption reduced the consumption of other much higher calorie, sweet foods. So the sweetness of fruit can actually be beneficial. Fruit can be eaten when one gets a craving for something sweet, but at a much lower calories cost, yet actually be more filling than higher calorie sweets.

But still, given its higher caloric levels, fruit cannot be eaten as freely as most vegetables. One should strive to eat more servings of vegetables of day than of fruit. Personally, I consume about 3-5 servings of fruit a day. So together, I consume at least eight servings of fruit and vegetables a day. This is at the high end of the 5-9 servings the USDA recommends in its “food pyramid.”

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds used to have a "bad rap" because they are high in fat. However, it is now known that the type of fat in nuts and seeds is actually beneficial. Nuts and seeds contain mainly monounsaturated fat, some polyunsaturated fats, but very little saturated fat.

Monounsaturated fats help to lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol and raise HDL ("good" cholesterol). It is saturated fats (found mainly in animal products) that raise LDL cholesterol. Polyunsaturated fats also help to lower LDL cholesterol but have no effect on HDL cholesterol (Parsonnet, pp. 22-24).

So overall, the best kind of fat to consume is monounsaturated fats, the very kind plentiful in nuts and seeds. In addition, nuts and seeds are a good source of protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins (especially vitamin E), minerals such magnesium, phosphorus, and iron, along with fiber. As a result, nuts and seeds are receiving a resurgence as being a "healthy" food.

In fact, one scientific study states, "Perhaps one of the most unexpected and novel findings in nutritional epidemiology in the past 5 y[ears] has been that nut consumption seems to protect against ischemic heart disease (IHD)" (Sabate J).

Moreover, this study found that nut-eaters do not tend to weigh more than non-nut eaters. This is contrary to popular conception that nuts, due to their high fat content, would be a detriment to controlling bodyweight.

However, it doesn’t take much to attain the health benefits of nuts and seeds. Most studies find benefits with as little as the consumption of five, one-ounce servings a week. And an ounce of nuts or seeds is not much, a little less than a of a cup, which would be a small handful. And given their caloric density, I wouldn’t recommend going overboard on nuts. Personally, I consume about 1-2 ounces a day.

Whole Grains

Breads, cereals, and other grains are the next class of plant foods to be considered. The first important point to note here is the difference between whole grains and refined grains.

Whole grains, which contain the outer bran and inner germ of the wheat kernel, are a storehouse of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The refining process eliminates the most nutritious parts of the grains and most of the nutrients.

And "enriched" grains are anything but. In the "enriching" process only a few of the many nutrients in whole grains are restored. How much of a difference is there between whole grains and "enriched" grains? The book The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals by Elizabeth Somer has the following chart.

The Vitamin and Mineral Content of White Bread Compared to Whole Wheat Bread
White bread contains:
22% of the magnesium in whole wheat bread
38% of the zinc
28% of the chromium
42% of the copper
12% of the manganese
4% of the vitamin E
18% of the vitamin B6
63% of the folic acid
56% of the pantothenic acid (p.263).

In addition to being devoid of the nutrition of whole grains, refined grains are also associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Meanwhile, whole grains are associated with a decreased risk. In fact, whole grains have about the same protective factor as raw vegetables and fruits (Levi F, et. al.).

And another study showed, "Women who consumed more fiber from breads, cereals, and other grains (an average of eight grams a day) had a 37 percent lower risk of heart disease compared to women who consumed a third as much, mirroring earlier results in men" (JAMA," 281, pp.1998, 1999).

And yet another study on whole grains found, "If you have high blood pressure, eating potassium, magnesium, and fiber from breads, cereals, and other grains may cut the risk of stroke, say researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health... Only fiber from breads, cereals, and other grains-not from fruits and vegetables-was linked to a lower risk" (Nutrition Action, November 1999, p. 10).

So it would seem there are benefits from the kind of fiber in whole grains that cannot be derived from the fiber in fruits and vegetables. Putting these three studies together, whole grains can reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke: the three biggest killers in western societies.

But despite these benefits of whole grains, those who promote “low-carb” diets recommend against the consumption of grains. And they are correct that the over-consumption of refined grains is part of the reason for the “fattening of America.” But in many cases they fail to make the distinction between whole and refined grains. Americans as a whole are not over-consuming whole grains. But I will agree with the low-carbers in one respect, the recommendations of the USDA via its food pyramid to make grains the “base” of one’s diet and to consume 6-11 servings is misguided, for two reasons.

First, the food pyramid fails to make a distinction between whole grains and refined grains. Second, the recommendation of 6-11 servings is an excessive amount of carbs for a mostly sedentary population. Even with my vigorous powerlifting training, I only consume about 3-7 servings of whole grains a day.

On my workout days I consume the top end of this range. I simply have found I have more energy for my workouts if I consume 2-3 servings of whole grains about 1-2 hours before my workouts. And I consume a couple of servings afterwards to restore glycogen stores. On my non-workout days I then consume less grains and focus more on high proteins foods.

So yes, you shouldn’t go overboard on the consumption of grains. But as long as they are whole grains, they are beneficial foods. And the judicial use of grains before and after exercise can be beneficial to an exercise program.

Legumes

The last main class of plant foods to look at is legumes. By legumes is meant various types of beans: lima beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans (a.k.a chick peas), and the like.

An article in my local newspaper discussed the nutritional value of beans:
Beans are one of the most nutritionally complete foods, packed with protein, complex carbohydrates and other essential vitamins and minerals. Blackeye peas are an excellent source of folate, an important B-vitamin that can help to reduce risk of heart disease, certain birth defects and several types of cancer.

Large white lima beans are high in dietary fiber, which studies have linked to reduced cholesterol levels and lower cancer risk ("Know your beans," p.B7).

So beans are an excellent food. Now I know some shy away from them due to their possible negative “gastro-intestinal” effects. But I have found as long as I rinse them off thoroughly, I don’t have such problems. And rinsing off canned beans would be a smart move to remove at least some of the added salt. Personally, I consume about three, half-cup servings (or about one can) of beans a week.

A couple of legumes besides beans require special mention. The first is peanuts. Although called a “nut,” peanuts are technically legumes. But nutritionally, they have more in common with nuts than legumes. They are high in monounsaturated fats, and have vitamin, mineral, fiber, and protein contents similar to most nuts. So peanuts would have the same benefits as nuts.

In fact, a study conducted at my alma mater, Penn State, found that consumption of peanuts and peanut butter was associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, just as nuts are.

The study reported, "Besides monounsaturated fats, peanuts and peanut butter contain many other heart-healthy nutrients such as vitamin E, folic acid, soluble fiber, arginine, plant sterols, copper, zinc, selenium and magnesium" (PRNewswire). The 1-2 ounces a day of nuts of seeds I mentioned above that I consume includes peanuts.

The second legume deserving special mention is the soybean. The issues surrounding soybeans are too complex to go into here. But I have already written a two-part article on the pros and cons of soy consumption. It is posted on the Web site at beginning at: Soy: Health Food or Food to Avoid?

Conclusion

Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, including peanuts. These foods constitute the beginnings of a healthy diet.

Now some would stop right there and advocate eating a vegetarian diet, or more specifically a vegan diet, which is a vegetarian diet that does not even include dairy products or eggs. And some people do strive on a vegan diet. I, however, was one of those who did not.

I tried a vegan diet a few years back. And I did feel great, for a short while. But I quickly ran into some health problems, and I now believe that the vegan diet contributed to my development of these problems. And many who have tried to follow a vegan diet have had similar experiences. They feel good initially, but in the long term develop problems. So I do not particularly recommend trying a vegan diet. It is for that reason that part two of this series will look at healthy animal foods.

References:
Cooper, Dr. Kenneth H. Advanced Nutritional Therapies. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.
Journal of the American Medical Association
," 281, pp.1998,1999; reported in Nutrition Action Healthletter October, 1999, p.10.
Key TJ, Thorogood M, Appleby PN, Burr ML. British Medical Journal. 1996 Sep 28;313(7060):775-9. Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up.
"Know your beans," in the Valley News Dispatch. January 29, 2000.
Men’s Health: 101 Nutrition Secrets
. By the editors of  Men’s Health magazine, Emmaus, PA; Rodale, 1999.
Nutrition Action HealthLetter
, Vol. 26, No. 7. November 1999, p. 10.
Parsonnet, Mia, M.D. What's in Our Food? New York: Madison Books, 1996.
PRNewswire. "Good" Fat Peanut Diet Beats Low-Fat Diet for Heart Health. Arlington, Va., Nov. 22, 1999.
Sabate, J. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):500S-503S. Nut consumption, vegetarian diets, ischemic heart disease risk, and all-cause mortality: evidence from epidemiologic studies.
Somer, Elizabeth, M.A., R.D. The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals. New York: Harper Paperback, 1992.

Basics of a Healthy Diet - Part Two - Animal Foods

 

Basics of a Healthy Diet. Copyright 2004 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

The above article was posted on this site February 11, 2004.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.

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