Making Smart Food Choices

Okay. So you have your weight goals firmly in mind and three, or four, or even seven times a week, you manage to Hup! Two, three, four at home, or in the gym, or on a walk around the block. The next task set forth by the Guidelines is to put together a diet that supports your new healthy lifestyle.

Picking the perfect plants

From the beginning, way back in 1980, the various editions of the Guidelines have recommended that you build your diet on a base of plant foods. Why? Because plant foods:

  • Add plenty of bulk but few calories to your diet, so you feel full without adding weight.
  • Are usually low in fat and have no cholesterol, which means they reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • Are high in fiber, which reduces the risk of heart disease; prevents constipation; reduces the risk of developing hemorrhoids (or at least makes existing ones less painful); moves food quickly through your digestive tract, thus reducing the risk of diverticular disease (inflammation caused by food getting caught in the folds of your intestines and causing tiny out-pouchings of the weakened gut wall); and may lower your risk of some gastrointestinal cancers.
  • Are rich in beneficial substances called phytochemicals, which may reduce your risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer.

For all these reasons, the Guidelines recommend that a basic 2,000 calorie daily diet include:

  • 2 cups of fruit
  • 2.5 cups of vegetables (include dark green, orange, and starchy veggies, plus beans)
  • 3 or more 1-ounce servings of whole grain products

To protect your bones, the Guidelines advise washing down your plants with 3 daily cups of low-fat milk (349 milligrams calcium) or fat-free milk (306 milligrams calcium) or the equivalent amount of milk products such as cheddar cheese, which has 204 milligrams calcium per ounce.

Figuring out fats

Dietary fat (the fat in foods) is an essential nutrient. Infants need these fats to thrive, and the same cholesterol that may increase an adult’s risk of heart disease is vital to an embryo’s healthy development, triggering the action of genes that tells cells to become specialized body structures — arms, legs, backbone, and so forth.

Grown-ups, however, need to control fat intake so they can control calories and reduce the risk of obesity-related illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

Overall, the Guidelines suggest that your adult diet derive no more than 35 percent of its calories from fat and no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat and that it deliver 300 milligrams or less of cholesterol a day. To reach these goals:

  • Most of your fat calories should come from foods such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils that are rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
  • Dairy products, such as milk, should be low- or no-fat (skim). Poultry and meat should be lean (yes, trim off that visible fat).
  • With trans fats, less is always better.

Counting on carbs

Carbs are your fastest source of energy, but the trick here is to get your carbs complex, which means from plant foods: fruits and vegetables and whole grains. The companion stratagem is to buy and prepare foods with little added sugar.

Together, these two simple steps help control weight, provide vital nutrients, and — as the Guidelines slyly note — “reduce the incidence of dental caries” (cavities). Next!

Limiting salt, balancing potassium

Sodium is a mineral that helps regulate your body’s fluid balance, the flow of water into and out of every cell. This balance keeps just enough water inside the cell so that it can perform its daily jobs but not so much that the cell — packed to bursting — explodes.

Most people have no problems with sodium. They eat a lot one day, a little less the next, and their bodies adjust. Others, however, don’t react so evenly. For them, a high-sodium diet appears to increase the risk of high blood pressure.

When you already have high blood pressure, you can tell fairly quickly whether lowering the amount of salt in your diet lowers your blood pressure. But no test is available at this point for telling whether someone who doesn’t have high blood pressure will develop it by consuming a diet that’s high in sodium.

Because limiting sodium intake to a moderate level won’t harm anyone, the guidelines advocate avoiding excessive amounts of salt. Doing so helps reduce blood pressure levels for people who are salt-sensitive.

What’s moderate use? According to the Guidelines, you should consume less than 2,300 milligrams (approximately 1 teaspoon of salt) of sodium per day. The easiest way to reach that goal is to choose and prepare foods with very little added salt.

At the same time, it pays to consume potassium-rich foods, such as (what else?) fruits and vegetables, because an adequate supply of potassium helps control blood pressure. By the way, moderating your salt intake has another, unadvertised benefit. It may lower your weight a bit. Why?

Because sodium is hydrophilic (hydro = water; philic = loving). Sodium attracts and holds water. When you eat less salt, you retain less water, you’re less bloated, and you feel thinner.

Don’t reduce salt intake drastically without first checking with your doctor. Remember, sodium is an essential nutrient, and the Guidelines advocate moderate use, and not no use at all. Table 1 lists several different kinds of sodium compounds in food. Table 2 lists sodium compounds in over-the-counter (OTC) drug products.

Sodium Compound Function
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) Flavor enhancer
Sodium benzoate Keeps food from spoiling
Sodium caseinate Thickens foods and provides protein
Sodium chloride (table salt) Flavoring agent
Sodium citrate Holds carbonation in soft drinks
Sodium hydroxide Makes peeling the skin off tomatoes and fruits before canning easier
Sodium nitrate/nitrite Keeps food (cured meats) from spoiling — and gives these foods their distinctive red color
Sodium phosphates Mineral supplement
Sodium saccharin No-calorie sweetener

“The Sodium Content of Your Food,” Home and Garden Bulletin, No. 233 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, August 1980); Ruth Winter, A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives (New York: Crown, 1978)

Sodium Compound Function
Sodium ascorbate A form of vitamin C used in nutritional supplements
Sodium bicarbonate Antacid
Sodium biphosphate Laxative
Sodium citrate Antacid
Sodium fluoride Mineral used in nutritional supplements and as a decay preventative in tooth powders
Sodium phosphates Laxative
Sodium saccharin Sweetener
Sodium salicylate Analgesic (similar to aspirin)

Handbook of Nonprescription Drugs, 9th ed. (Washington, D.C.: American Pharmaceutical Association, 1990); Physicians’ Desk Reference, 48th ed. (Montvale, N.J.: Medical Economics Data Production, 1994)

Moderating alcohol consumption

Telling someone to drink alcohol beverages in moderation sounds like Momand- apple-pie advice, right? Right. But — and you’ve heard this song before — what’s moderation, anyway? Laypersons (you and me, babe) may define moderate in terms of the effects that alcohol has on the ability to perform simple tasks, such as speaking and thinking clearly or moving in a straight line.

Obviously, if the amount of alcohol you drink makes you slur your words or bump into the furniture, that isn’t moderation. The Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man. Aha, you say, but what’s one drink? Good question. Here’s the answer:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (150 calories)
  • 5 ounces of wine (100 calories)
  • 1½ ounces of 80-proof (40 percent alcohol) distilled spirits (100 calories)

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005)

Some people shouldn’t drink at all, not even in moderation, including people who suffer from alcoholism, people who plan to drive a car or take part in other activities that require attention to detail or real physical skill, and people using medication (prescription drugs or over-the-counter products).

Keeping Food Safe to Eat

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that spoiled or contaminated food causes about 76 million illnesses — 325,000 of them serious enough to require hospitalization — and 5,000 deaths every year in the United States.

Three years later, the USDA blamed Salmonella organisms alone for more than 3.5 million American stomachaches — or worse. Clearly, keeping food safe to eat is an important goal. To do that, here’s an equation any careful cook can rely on:

Clean stores + clean hands + clean kitchen + proper storage + proper temperature = safe food

That’s the short version of the Guidelines’ guidelines. Sort of tells you how important it is, doesn’t it? Right now, raw is in but not — as the Guidelines explain — necessarily healthful.

To reduce your risk of picking up an icky bacterial disease along with dinner, the Guidelines advise avoiding raw (unpasteurized) milk or any products made from unpasteurized milk; raw or partially cooked eggs or any dish containing raw eggs; raw or undercooked meat and poultry; unpasteurized juices; and raw sprouts.

Life is not a test. You don’t lose points for failing to follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 every single day of your life. Nobody’s perfect, and the Guidelines are meant to be broken — once in a while. For example, ideally you should hold your daily intake of dietary fat to 20 to 35 percent of your total calories.

But you can bet that you’ll exceed that amount this Saturday when you stroll by the buffet at your best friend’s wedding and see Camembert cheese (70 percent of the calories from fat), sirloin steak (56 percent of the calories from fat), salad with Thousand Island dressing (90 percent of the calories from fat), and whipped cream cake (I can’t count that high).

Is this a crisis? Should you stay home? Must you keep your mouth shut tight all night? Are you kidding? Here’s the Real Rule: Let the good times roll every once in a while. After the party’s over, compensate. For the rest of the week, go back to your exercise regimen and back to your healthful menu emphasizing lots of the nutritious, delicious, low- or no-fat foods that should make up most of your regular diet.

In the end, you’re likely to have averaged out to a desirable amount with no fuss and no muss and be right in line with that headline from the first page of the 2000 Guidelines.