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Related Link: A Plateful of Eating Advice

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Yet another new set of dietary guidelines emerged last week. This one was dished out by the American Heart Association (AHA), which updated recommendations it issued in 2000. Add that to the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the revised Food Guide Pyramid and food recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, among others, and it all piles up to a heaping platter of advice to eat right.

While the number of dietary guidelines is increasing, the recommendations remain remarkably consistent, with a few exceptions.

Boiled down, much of what they urge will sound very familiar: more fruit and vegetables, more whole grains, more beans, more nonfat and low-fat dairy products. And, yes, less unhealthy fat, especially the trans fats commonly found in fried foods, baked goods and a lot of restaurant fare.

The AHA guidelines are the first to put a number on how little trans fat one should eat: just 1 percent or less of total calories. For someone who eats 2,000 calories daily -- considered the "average" intake -- that's about two grams of trans fat per day , or roughly the amount in half a small bag of fast-food fries. (By comparison, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines urge Americans simply to keep their intake "as low as possible.")

The AHA guidelines, like so many others these days, go beyond the kitchen and dining room to other areas of life. Where past guidelines stressed healthy eating, "the new ones broaden that concept to include the importance of a healthy lifestyle," notes Alice Lichtenstein, chairman of the AHA Nutrition Committee.

So consider physical activity -- and not smoking -- just as much a part of that picture as how many glasses of skim milk you drink. Or as Lichtenstein says, "The key message is to focus on long-term, permanent changes in how we eat and live."

Here are some details of the AHA guidance, which is designed to reduce the risk of heart and other cardiovascular diseases:

Skim the unhealthy fat further. Not only does the AHA set a number for trans fat, but it also advises trimming saturated fat to 7 percent of total calories -- a lower level than the 10 percent recommended by the U.S. guidelines. "The point is not to calculate the amount of saturated and trans fatty acids in the diet, but to choose foods that minimize your intake," Lichtenstein says. "So choose leaner cuts of meat and lower-fat dairy products, smaller serving sizes; avoid foods made with hydrogenated fats and . . . include more vegetarian options and fish in the diet."

Make all your grains whole and high in fiber. The U.S. guidelines suggest whole grains for at least three of your six to eight daily servings of cereal, bread, crackers and pasta. The AHA says all of those servings should be whole grains.

Skip the dietary supplements. Antioxidant supplements, including vitamins A, C and E, are "not recommended" because they have not been proven to help reduce cardiovascular risk. And there's growing evidence that they may increase the risk of other health problems, particularly in smokers. Also not recommended: phytochemicals or flavonoids in supplements. Ditto for the use of folate or other B-vitamin supplements to lower blood levels of homocysteine, a substance linked to increased risk of heart disease.

Eat at least two meals of fish weekly. Best choices are oily fish rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as herring, sardines, salmon, lake trout, mackerel and albacore tuna. But forgo fish oil capsules unless you have been diagnosed with heart disease and can't eat at least two meals of fish per week. People with high triglyceride levels who are under the care of a physician may benefit from omega-3 fatty acids in capsules. The U.S. guidelines also recommend two servings of fish per week, but they doesn't address fish oil capsules in the same detail as AHA.

Have a soy burger. AHA recommends soy foods to help replace higher-fat animal products, but don't use soy as a way to reduce blood cholesterol, triglycerides or other heart risk factors.

Aim for a healthy blood glucose level . Diabetes is a huge contributor to heart disease, so the AHA advises aiming for a fasting blood glucose level of less than 100 milligrams. Weighing too much is a big contributor to abnormal blood sugar, so the AHA advises finding the right number of calories to reach and maintain a healthy weight. ?

Join Sally Squires, author of the recently published "Secrets of the Lean Plate Club" (St. Martin's Press), online today from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub, where you can also subscribe to the free LPC weekly, e-mail newsletter.

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