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A Healthy Diet You Can Live With

By: Thomas A. Rocco, Jr., MD & Vicki Conary-Rocco, RN, MSN

Articles about nutrition are often complex and confusing. Multiple diets are promoted to be beneficial; yet they often provide conflicting information. For example, some recommend high protein and low carbohydrates, while others stress high carbs and low protein.

Magazines, TV infomercials, and the internet bombard you with the "latest and greatest". With this glut of conflicting information, what can the average person do to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle? As with anything in life, trust your good common sense: if the plan sounds "too good to be true", it usually is just that.

In addition, remember a few basic principles, such as:

  1. Having a healthy breakfast is the best way to start your day.
  2. Eating (more) fresh fruits and vegetables is always a healthy choice.
  3. Real weight loss requires two basic elements: decreased caloric intake in combination with increased caloric output (in the form of regular activity/exercise). However, this does not have to be radical or painful.

Our ancestors performed physical work (exercise) daily. They ate a diet that consisted mainly of whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruit, lean meat, and fish. And they consumed very little in the way of processed foods. By maintaining this healthy lifestyle, obesity (and the numerous health risks of obesity) was not a common problem for them.

Today, we perform little in the way of physical exercise (both at our jobs, and in our homes). Our diet frequently consists of processed food, and "fast foods". In addition, we have been "super-sized"; with our portion sizes often being much greater than needed (even our dinner plates are much larger than they used to be).

As a result, two out of three Americans are overweight or obese. Obesity substantially contributes to Diabetes and Hypertension, which are becoming epidemic. And Heart Disease is still our #1 killer.

In a recent large review on the link between diet and heart health, three dietary approaches emerged as the best way to prevent heart disease. These 3 approaches consisted of:

  1. Replacing trans-fats and saturated fats with mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fat.
  2.  Increasing your consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (from fish or plant sources)
  3. Consuming a diet high in fruits, nuts, vegetables and whole grains (while avoiding processed foods and quickly-digestible carbohydrates such as simple sugars).

To accomplish this, here are some heart healthy ideas to change your eating habits (and your family's):

Idea #1: Eat real food, not synthetic food (avoid processed and fast food)

A major principle that all nutrition experts agree upon is the need for more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains. Most experts recommend 5 servings per day (strive for five). These food choices will give you needed nutrients and fiber, along with protective anti-oxidants and omega-3's .

In addition, this will fill you up; and decrease your consumption of empty calories (such as sugar-loaded foods) that cause you to gain weight. However, less than 1 in 5 of us accomplish this important goal.

Idea #2: Eat more omega-3's and olive oil (avoid trans and saturated fats)

Studies show that consumption of fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids from fish (such as salmon, mackerel, sardines) and plant sources (such as walnuts, canola oil, flaxseed) can substantially reduce your risk of heart disease. Mono-unsaturated fats (such as olive oil) are also heart-protective.

Trans-fats can increase your risk of both heart disease and cancer. These bad fats are found in processed food and commercial baked goods (such as cookies, donuts, pastries, crackers and snack foods). They are commonly found in deep-fried, fast food.

Saturated fats are hydrogenated to prolong the shelf-life of processed food, snacks and baked goods. Pressure is being placed on the food industry to reduce the amount of saturated and trans fats used in processing, baking and cooking. As a consumer, carefully read food labels. You should avoid fried/fast food, and look for choices that are trans-fat free (& low in saturated fat).

Idea #3: Consume more beans and flavonoids:

Legumes (such as beans, lentils, chick peas) are one of the best plant foods you can eat; and are inexpensive. They can help to lower your total and bad (LDL) cholesterol, as well as increase your good (HDL) cholesterol. People who add legumes to their diet, are more likely to maintain a healthy body weight, along with healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels (remember that obesity, hypertension and diabetes are becoming epidemic in the U.S.). They are also a good source of fiber and healthy nutrients (such as potassium, magnesium and folate). In addition, they are an economical food that is easy to incorporate into your meal planning.

Foods like berries, grapes, cinnamon, green & black tea (and even dark chocolate!) are rich in compounds called flavonoids. They appear to have strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties, which can be powerful protectors of your heart. So, enjoy fresh or frozen berries (in your cereals, salads and smoothies). Eat more grapes, and enjoy several cups of tea per day (along with an occasional piece of dark chocolate, or some cinnamon).

Idea #4: Eat whole-grain carbohydrates (especially the bran)

Two components of whole grains (the bran and the germ) are chock full of healthy nutrients, fiber, and beneficial plant compounds. Unfortunately, when grains are commercially refined to make white bread, white rice, and refined breakfast cereals, the healthy components (found in the bran and germ) are removed. So, use whole-grains such as whole wheat, rye, corn, brown rice, and oats (along with whole-grain cereals) to replace refined and processed carbohydrates in your meal planning. These healthy nutrients, bran, and soluble fiber will substantially reduce your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Idea #5: Some Homespun Mantras for Moderation (Have it but halve it & Sample it for the taste but watch your waist)

You don't have to avoid everything you love to eat. However, like most of us, you probably do need to modify what you eat; by using the simple suggestions above and reducing your portion sizes. As mentioned previously, we have gradually super-sized our portions (and often our waistlines).

Practical tips from friends and family members can sometimes make the most sense. For example, my cousin (she's a hairstylist, not a dietician) maintains a healthy body weight because she continually practices her mantra of moderation: I have it but I halve it (she only eats half of the portion). In general, our portion sizes are much more than we require (not to mention having seconds).

There are several simple schemes to help you in estimating correct portion sizes. Visualizing seems to work best for most of us. For example, one cup of cereal flakes is about the size of your fist; and a reasonable portion of lean meat is about the size of a deck of cards.

Another practical tip comes from my colleague's mother. She has maintained her ideal weight for many years, without sacrificing her love of sweets. She enjoys a taste, and then reminds herself that one or two bites (for the taste) is all she really needs. She does not deny her sweet tooth, but practices her mantra of moderation: sample it for the taste, but watch your waist.

Idea #6: Regular exercise cures a lot of ills

The Heart Association recommends 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise (as simple as brisk walking) on most days of the week; and encourages everyone to engage in a variety of activities for exercise. Choose what you like to do, and do it regularly.

Physical activity plays an important role in preventing heart disease. It is beneficial in lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), raising good cholesterol (HDL), preventing/controlling hypertension, preventing/controlling diabetes, and preventing/controlling obesity. Physical activity and regular exercise are an important component of any program to lose weight, reduce body fat, and to maintain ideal body weight.

In addition, regular physical activity promotes well-being by improving your mood, reducing anxiety and tension, and improving your self-image. It also helps to maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints. Maintaining physical fitness truly helps to cure a lot of ills.

You now have 6 heart healthy ideas to help you improve your health and well-being. Together with the enclosed Healthy Eating Pyramid, these simple tips can act as a guide on your quest for a healthy diet you can live with for the rest of your life.

We would suggest that you place these tips and the pyramid diagram in a visible place, such as on your refrigerator. Encourage your family to review it as well, for their own personal pyramid of success in healthy living.

The above article was originally published in the MCMS Doctor's Advice magazine and republished courtesy of the Monroe County Medical Society.

About the Author 

Thomas A. Rocco, Jr., MD & Vicki Conary-Rocco, RN, MSN Thomas A. Rocco, Jr., MD & Vicki Conary-Rocco, RN, MSN

Thomas A. Rocco, Jr., MD, F.A.C.C., F.A.H.A. is a Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a Consultant in Cardiology and Cardiovascular Research at the Veterans Administration. He formerly directed the departments of Cardiology at Highland Hospital and Unity Hospital. His clinical and research interests include Preventive Cardiology, Hypertension, Congestive Heart Failure, and Geriatric Cardiology. He is the Principle Investigator on several clinical research projects, has lectured and published extensively, and has served on numerous community boards and agencies.

Vicki Conary-Rocco, RN, MSN, CCRC, is a Research Coordinator in Cardiology at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She received her RN/BSN degree from Alfred University/St. John Fisher College. She then went on to complete her Masters of Science degree in Managed Care of High Risk Populations from St. John Fisher College. She is a member of Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Society. Mrs. Rocco's nursing experience includes Cardiology, Cardiac Rehabilitation, Emergency Medicine, and Intensive Care Medicine; as well as Health Management and Nursing education. She has worked for, and with, health insurance companies; including the development of a successful Heart Failure disease management program for a local insurer. She has extensive experience in clinical research; and has published in her fields of interest.

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The Rochester Healthnote Library consists of locally-authored articles either commissioned by Rochester Health or republished with the author's permission. The information provided in the Rochester Healthnote Library is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice and treatment. You should always seek the advice of your physician or other medical professional if you have questions or concerns about a medical condition.

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