Still, it’s important not to overplay the benefit that PHS II found for preventing cancer. “The effect in this study is relatively small,” Dr. Kormos says. Rather than relying on supplements, it’s a better to obtain nutrients from food, which contains a variety of healthful ingredients. Fruits and vegetables contain many biologically active ingredients that may help to prevent cancer in ways that vitamins and minerals alone do not. “A healthy diet still seems superior to taking a multivitamin, and ifyou already eat a healthy diet, there may be less overall benefit from taking the extra vitamins,” Dr. Kormos says. You’ll hear similar advice from the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
In considering the pros and cons of multivitamins, stop for a moment and ask what you expect to gain andwhy you think you need a supplement to begin with. “If people ask me if they should take a multivitamin, I usually ask, Why do you think you need one?” Dr. Kormos says. “They say, well, I don’t eat this, I don’t eat that. But a multivitamin is not going to replace the things missing from your diet. Whatever money you are spending on your multivitamin, it’s probably better to spend it at the farmer’s market or the grocery store on healthy foods.”
For much of the 20th century, nutrition research focused largely on the health risks and benefits of single nutrients. The findings translated into public health messages telling us to reduce fat; limit cholesterol;increase fiber; get more calcium; take vitamins E, C, and D; and so on. But as scientists learn more, they’re finding that the health effects of food likely derive from the synergistic interactions of nutrients and other compounds within and among the foods we eat. This has led to a shift from nutrient-based recommendations toward guidelines based on foods and eating patterns. There’s no single healthy diet. Many eating patterns sustain good health. What they have in common is lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, along with healthy sources of protein and fats. Consistently eating foods like these will help lower your risk for conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer. If you’d like to make this largely plant-based approach to eating one of your good-health goals for 2012, here’s how to get started.
1. Build a better plate.
In the fall of 2011, nutrition experts at the Harvard School of Public Health and
colleagues at Harvard Health Publications unveiled the Healthy Eating Plate (see below), a visual guide to healthful eating that improves on the government’s “MyPlate.” Both guides are meant to simplify the task of planning healthy meals. The Healthy Eating Plate is made up of one-half vegetables and fruits, one-quarter whole grains, and one-quarter healthy protein. “Whole” and “healthy” are important words here. Refined grains (think white breads, pastas, and rice) have less fiber and fewer nutrients than whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice . Healthy proteins include fish, poultry, beans, and nuts — but not red meats or processed meats. Many studies have shown that red meats and especially processed meats are linked with colorectal cancer — and that you can lower your risk for heart disease by replacing either type of meat with healthier protein sources. So eat red meats sparingly (selecting the leanest cuts), and avoid processed meats altogether.
2. Pile on the vegetables and fruit.
Vegetables and fruits are high in fiber and contain many vitamins andminerals as well as hundreds of beneficial plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that you can’t get in supplements. Diets rich in vegetables and fruit can benefit the heart by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and inflammation and improving insulin resistance and blood vessel function. In long-term observational studies, people who eat more fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain, and those who eat more fruit also have a lower risk of stroke. Hint: Fresh fruits and vegetables are great, but don’t avoid the frozen kind (or dried fruit or canned fruits and vegetables minus the heavy syrup or salt) when they’re more convenient.
3. Go for the good fats.
At one time, we were told to eat less fat, but now we know that it’s mainly the type of fat that counts. The most beneficial sources are plants and fish. You can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol by eating mostly polyunsaturated fats (including vegetable oils and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, seeds and nuts, and canola oil) and monounsaturated fats (in avocados and many plant-based oils, such as olive oil and canola oil). Saturated fats (found mostly in dairy and meat products) and trans fats (hydrogenated fat found in many fried and baked goods) boost LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing your risk of heart disease. Worse still, trans fats reduce your “good” HDL cholesterol. Hint: As long as you replace bad fats with good ones, you can get up to 35% of your calories from fat.
4. Replace refined grains and potatoes with whole grains.
Whole grains retain the bran and germ of the natural grain, providing healthful fiber, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Many of these substances are removed from refined grains, such as white bread and white rice, and are barely present in starches such as potatoes. Starches and refined carbohydrates are digested quickly, causing surges in insulin and blood sugar, boosting triglycerides, and lowering HDL cholesterol. These changes increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. The rapid rise and fall of blood sugar and insulin can also make you hungry, raising the risk of weight gain. Potatoes aren’t all bad; they’re a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. But eat them only occasionally, in small amounts, and with the skins on (that’s where the fiber is). Hint: Be adventurous. In addition to whole wheat and brown rice, try quinoa, millet, farro, and amaranth. Some of these whole grains can be cooked like hot cereal or rice, and some are ground into flour for baking.