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Protect Yourself: Watch Out for Fat and Salt

The U.S. Surgeon General's Office has noted that in the 2000s, some 61 percent of Americans are overweight -- up from 46 percent in the 1970s. More than ever, Americans enjoy cheap and convenient food...from McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. But along with this convenience come empty calories, refined sugars and artery-clogging fats. This isn't good. As a society -- and as individuals -- Americans need to reverse that trend.

Why? Because epidemic obesity will lead to a health crisis as serious as AIDS, tuberculosis or anything else we've experienced. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. It causes or contributes to 300,000 deaths in America each year...and costs $117 billion in health care. And both of those numbers are going up.

Following current trends, obesity will overpass smoking as the number one preventable cause of death in America by 2020.

People are responding. One-quarter of all men and almost half of all women are trying to lose weight, according to the American Journal of Public Health. And Americans spent upwards of $33 billion a year on weight-control products and services.

But other, troubling signs remain. In the 1990s, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services boosted their guidelines for what a person's normal weight should be. The feds said that a "normal" 5-foot-6-inch woman under 34 could weigh 118 to 155 pounds; over 35, she could weigh 130 to 167.

This upward adjustment is a dietary version of the phenomenon economists call bracket creep (when inflation raises the incomes of middle-class people into upper-class tax brackets). In this case, overweight people are reclassified as not overweight.

Reclassifying guidelines to include heavier people in a "normal" category may make people feel better about themselves, but it hints at long-term trouble. Overweight people are two to six times more likely to develop hypertension; when they lose weight, there is a notable reduction in this risk (and others).

American Heart Association dietary guidelines emphasize reducing total fat (not just cholesterol) and keeping a balanced diet. In 1995, the AHA reduced its recommendation of no more than 30 percent of fat in the daily diet to no more than 20 to 25 percent. Less than 10 percent of the fat in the daily diet should come from saturated-fat (animal) sources. AHA dietitians insist that simple adjustments to the average balanced diet can achieve these goals.

Lowering fat intake can also reduce your risk of getting colon cancer. Fat is a factor that promotes colon cancer; the problem occurs when most calories are derived from fat. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men in America (lung cancer is first). The risk of colon cancer increases significantly over the age of 50.

And then there's salt. Research indicates that reducing sodium intake actually can prevent hypertension from developing. About 80 percent of consumed sodium comes from processed foods; 20 percent is added during preparation or at the table.

With fat and salt parameters set, you have considerable flexibility in choosing a healthy diet. But a few points are worth remembering:

  • Potassium-rich foods, such as bananas, may play a role in the prevention of high blood pressure. The National Academy of Sciences estimates 1,600 milligrams a day to be a minimum goal. One banana provides about 450 milligrams of potassium. Other potassium-rich foods are cantaloupe, dairy products, orange juice, beans, broccoli and potatoes;
  • You can still drink coffee in the morning -- even with caffeine -- without worrying about hypertension, as long as you drink it in moderation.
  • Onions and garlic contain quercetin, which many scientists believe has a preventive role in heart disease linked to free-radical tissue damage, and S-allyl cysteine, which has been shown to lower levels of LDL.
  • A USDA study found that as the substance homocysteine increases in older people, so does the risk of artery narrowing. Fortunately, folic acid can correct elevated homocysteine -- and it's easy to get folic acid through your diet. Green vegetables and citrus are excellent sources.

An important caveat on dietary standards: Too little fat in the diet may be as risky as too much. Below 20 percent, key fat-soluble vitamins (A, D and E) may not be absorbed, and the body does not produce these essential fatty acids.

Essential fatty acids are necessary to prevent hardening of the arteries, increased risk of clot formation, high blood pressure and heart disease.

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