Grab the guacamole. Have some almonds. Drizzle a little olive oil on your salad and, go ahead, spread a pat of healthy margarine -- instead of butter -- on your whole wheat toast.
In addition to the benefits they can bring to your heart, your joints, your brain and possibly even your mood, it turns out that healthy fats are also good for -- drum roll, please -- your gallbladder.
Harvard researchers report today in the Annals of Internal Medicine that men who ate the equivalent of a tablespoon of olive oil and a pat of healthy margarine daily were 18 percent less likely to develop gallstones during a 14-year study than those who ate few of these foods daily.
While the researchers didn't study women, "there's no reason to think that the results will be different for them," said Edward L. Giovannucci, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and a co-author of the study of nearly 46,000 health professionals aged 40 to 75. "The gallstone risk factors are similar for men and for women."
Okay, so maybe the risk of gallstones doesn't immediately spring to mind as a motivator for making dietary changes. But there's reason to rethink that: About one in four adults gets gallbladder disease, which accounts for 800,000 hospitalizations per year in the United States. (And yes, many of those people are overweight and over 40.)
Plus, the vast majority of gallstones removed in people 30 to 60 years old are rich in cholesterol -- the very substance that leads to clogged arteries. So the same kind of diet changes that help prevent gallstone formation are likely to "have similar benefits for diabetes and heart disease," Giovannucci said.
No need to go overboard with healthy fat. Men who saw benefits consumed about 18 grams per day, about 7 percent of their total calories (based on 2,000 calories per day.) That's equal to about half a cup of guacamole and a handful of almonds.
Now that you have your gallbladder under control, what else can you do to help preserve your health at midlife and beyond? Here's what's recommended by Robert Russell, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging; Jeffrey Blumberg, professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University; and Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition at Tufts. They say they try to follow this advice themselves.
Eat fish instead of meat or poultry at least twice a week. Not only does this help reduce saturated fat intake, but it boosts healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for your heart, joints, brain and maybe your mood. Russell also advises his patients to limit meat consumption to twice per week to keep saturated fat in check. (To help reduce risk of mercury exposure from fish, choose anchovies, haddock, mackerel and sardines as well as other fish with some of the lowest levels of mercury. See the complete list at www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html )
Toss some wheat germ on your morning cereal. Or on soups or salads. It's one of the richest food sources of vitamin E, an essential vitamin and an important antioxidant. The latest nutritional surveys suggest that most Americans don't get enough vitamin E. While studies have been mixed on the heart benefits of vitamin E, the latest research suggests it may help reduce upper respiratory infections and protect against macular degeneration and possibly prostate cancer.
Drink nonfat milk. It's naturally rich in calcium (which helps preserve bones) and fortified with vitamins A (good for your immune system and vision) and D (good for strong bones). Plus, milk and dairy products are rich in protein (which helps counteract muscle loss that occurs with age), riboflavin (key for a variety of important chemical reactions in the body) and potassium (beneficial in controlling blood pressure).
Indulge in dessert. Just make it fruit instead of ice cream, cookies or cake. While you're at it, have an appetizer of baby carrots with bean dip or salsa. (Or any other favorite veggies. In fact, use cut-up vegetables to scoop the dip.) Doing so will also help you meet the minimum seven (for women) to nine (for men) daily servings of fruit and vegetables advised by the National Cancer Institute and other groups. "The most important recommendation is to increase fruit and vegetable intake," Russell said. "Study after study suggests that it helps prevent so many chronic diseases: heart, obesity, cancer, brain disease and diabetes."
Take a multivitamin. It's cheap nutritional insurance and "an easy way to meet the daily value" for key vitamins, Blumberg said. With age, the stomach produces less acid, making you "less able to absorb B12 from food." (In supplements, B12 comes in a more readily absorbable form.) Also important: supplements of calcium with vitamin D to preserve bone.
Have a soy or veggie burger. It's a good way to "displace hamburgers that are relatively high in saturated fat," Lichtenstein said. Just don't expect miracles from soy. "Current research suggest no independent effect of soy on cardiovascular disease," she said. "The high hopes that we had for soy have been tempered."
Boost fiber. Most Americans fall short in meeting the 25 (for women) to 35 (for men) grams per day, according to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines Committee Report. So switch to whole wheat bread, whole grain cereals (without added sugar) and some beans -- another high-fiber food.
Move more. Age causes a gradual loss of muscle mass that begins in the forties and accelerates after age 60. That loss translates to a lowered metabolism. Add a sedentary lifestyle, and weight gain is a given. Also helpful for physical activity: weight training, which not only builds muscle but helps improve balance (leading to fewer broken bones from falls.)
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