Carol Cummings, RN, BSN, Expert on Aging Well

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02 March 2017

Healthy Eating

There is no question that food can have a powerful impact on well-being. The question is: which foods should we avoid and which should we embrace? The answer is not always as easy as it seems, and often it depends on who you ask.

I have learned that once a dietary recommendation is established as conventional wisdom it is nearly impossible to undo – even in the face of new evidence. This is especially true for seniors whose diet is affected by health or medication issues.

For National Nutrition Month, I am focusing on three of the most hotly debated diet topics and the latest research on each. While this information is important for seniors who are navigating new food restrictions, we can all benefit from understanding the latest dietary trends.

 1. Sodium Intake

The current recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest that Americans should restrict sodium to a daily intake of 2,300 mg for people under 50 and 1,500 mg daily for those over 50 years old. But experts are questioning these recommendations.

A 2013 report from the Institute of Medicine published in the American Journal of Hypertension looked at a meta-analysis of studies and concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the CDC recommendations. The report states that low levels of sodium intake can have negative metabolic consequences and evidence for the dangers of higher levels is insufficient. Their conclusion suggests a safe range of sodium intake is between 2,645-4,945 mg. 

 2. Good Fat/Bad Fat

The low fat diet messaging of the 1980s is engrained into American culture, but by now, most of us know it is outdated advice. Old habits are hard to break, and many people still try to keep their fat intake below 30 percent of their total calories. However, experts agree that this is what led to our country’s obesity epidemic as Americans substituted large amounts of processed carbohydrates for fat.

The next message pumped into American kitchen’s was good fat verses bad fat, which said we should minimize saturated fats found in animal products in favor of monounsaturated fats found in plants, nuts and seeds and omega 3 fats found in fish.

There are serious questions surrounding this diet. The 2016 publication of results from a never before published decades old study showed that while exchanging vegetable fat for saturated fat lowered cholesterol, there was no evidence that it resulted in lowered mortality from cardiovascular disease. Study authors conclude that, “Findings from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.”

3. Limit Sugar    

Most folks have some awareness that sugar is bad for us, but I doubt if many can articulate exactly why. The truth is that while the evidence supporting salt and fat’s contributions to poor health is coming into question, the evidence for sugar being a major contributing factor for many chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and liver disease is mounting.

In a recent attempt to improve my health, I decided to eliminate sugar from my diet and began reading ingredient lists on packed foods. What I found astounded me! Try to find a commercially bottled salad dressing without sugar added to it. And that goes for many, many, many other products, even those considered to be “health foods” like dried kale and power bars. In fact according to Sugar Science, a group of researchers dedicated to disseminating the evidence about sugar’s impact on health, 74 percent of packaged products contain sugars that go by 61 different names. In spite of overwhelming evidence, on a much larger scale that we ever had for salt or fat, we don’t see major public health campaigns related to sugar. But Sugar Science is trying to change that through social media campaigns and pressure on the FDA to change food labels.

So what are we to do in the face of conflicting recommendations? It is true that once a belief about dietary recommendations is widely accepted, changing that belief can be difficult, even in the face of new evidence.

The lesson: beware of conventional wisdom. Think for yourself, be informed. Eat whole, natural foods and talk to your health care practitioner about the research.

Be Well on Purpose!


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