Vegetables may be even more important than fat when it comes to your health.
"Choose a diet with plenty of grain products, vegetables and fruits" beat out "Choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol" for the No. 3 slot in the 1995 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Although subtle, this shift demonstrates what health professionals see as a change in priority.
Fat control is still very important for reducing risks for heart disease, some cancers and obesity. And lots of people have caught on to this. Lower fat products flood the market place, the Nutrition Facts food labels give us the inside scoop, and a consistent downward slide in adult cholesterol levels has been gathering speed in the past 15 years.
We need to keep this up. Despite the fact that heart disease deaths are decreasing, heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of both men and women.
But the position shift between fat and plant foods calls our attention to facts we know now that we didn't know before. Research is becoming more and more clear about the value of vegetables in reducing risks for heart disease, stroke and cancer. The Dietary Guidelines keep reminding us that, as a nation, we need to get busy replacing some of the animal food in our diets with more plant foods.
The guidelines note that grain products, vegetables and fruits provide minerals, vitamins, complex carbohydrates including starch and fiber and other recently discovered elements (such as phytochemicals) that protect against cancer.
In recent years, reliable studies have made clear that oatmeal, oat bran, carrots and other plant foods high in soluble fiber really do help lower blood cholesterol levels. One study says walnuts do, too. Yet another study says diets rich in soy products can help lower cholesterol for people whose low-fat diets can't get them below 300 mg/dl.
Separate studies from Harvard show both men and women who eat enough fruits and vegetables to raise blood levels of vitamins C, E and beta carotene are less likely to suffer strokes than those who eat few. Still other studies show diets high in folic-acid-rich foods (orange juice, beans, dark green leafy vegetables and some fruits) may lower heart attack and stroke risk by lowering blood levels of homocysteine.
Even more surprising, Mediterranean people with diets rich in olive oil have very low rates of heart disease. And more than 100 studies show people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of several kinds of cancer.
The good news is that the substances offering disease protection are so widespread in plant foods that the best guideline is to enjoy a wide variety of choices from each group, rather than looking for one miracle food.
Oatmeal is great, especially with walnuts, raisins and cinnamon. But you don't have to eat it every day. The same is true for oranges, beans, spinach, or broccoli. Mix and match for the widest array of nutrients. Beat boredom with variety.
Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.
Pub Date: 3/26/96