On the Table

Healthful diet can tackle more than one problem

CORRESPONDENTFebruary 15, 2012 

Like the sections of an old-timey TV dinner, it's common to compartmentalize diet advice. What nobody may have told you, though, is that you're better off considering your dietary goal as one main entree.

Here's what I mean.

Name a health problem, and there's usually a customized dietary "do" or "don't" to go with it.

If you've got diabetes, for example, you avoid sweets. People with high blood pressure limit salt, and you steer clear of butter if your cholesterol level is high.

If you've ever been a patient in a hospital, you may have witnessed the phenomenon on your way out the door. That's when the dietitian may have handed you a diet sheet, going-away instructions that listed foods to avoid and foods that were OK to eat.

Yes to salt, no to butter, or no to butter and yes to salt.

Such advice targets one health problem but is often silent on your risk for others. Taking a more holistic view may actually be simpler and better for you in the end.

Findings reported last week from a study by researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute are a case in point. The study found an association between prostate cancer and heart disease.

If additional research suggests the two diseases have the same cause, then the same dietary approach could protect against both diseases, too.

It's not surprising to learn that multiple health problems can be caused by - or alleviated - by the same diet. In fact, we already know that overarching diet principles in general support health.

One set is published every five years by the federal government: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those are the recommendations that tell you to eat less salt, sugar, saturated fat and trans fat and to eat more fiber and fruits and vegetables.

It's rare for dietary recommendations to be incompatible with each other, but it happens. Beans are good for your heart, but if you have kidney disease, you may have to limit them.

Whole wheat bread is good for you, too, but you can't eat it if you have gluten intolerance.

Those are the exceptions, though. When it comes to protecting yourself from the most common chronic, degenerative diseases and conditions - coronary artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity - one size pretty much does fit all.

So make it easier on yourself.

Instead of aiming for the prostate diet or the heart-health diet, just eat a plain old healthy diet. It's as simple as that.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the Departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net and follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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