Making Smart Food and Dietary Supplement Choices

Research increasingly validates the connections between nutrition and health and the types and amounts of food we eat. Science also helps us understand the impact of nutrition on the likelihood of developing certain diseases as well as the likelihood of maintaining good health and increasing longevity. For example, we know that both dietary excesses and deficiencies are linked to certain diseases. Obesity and high fat diets are established risk factors for the development of coronary heart disease, many types of cancers, ischemic stroke and type 2 diabetes. In fact, these four conditions alone account for approximately 85% of all deaths in the United States.

On the other hand, nutrient deficiencies in our modern diets have also been connected to numerous health conditions. For example, we know that suboptimal intakes of calcium and vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis and inadequate intakes of folic acid at conception and during pregnancy can increase a women’s risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect. Yet many Americans fail to consume the recommended servings of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low fat dairy products to meet their nutritional needs. Many of us rely on fast and convenience foods that are highly refined and often low in vitamin and mineral content. And to make matters worse, as we age we tend to absorb nutrients from food less efficiently. So in honor of National Nutrition Month, vow to improve your nutrition, which in turn will help reduce your risk of disease and promote lifelong health and well-being. Commit to making smarter food choices, achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, and taking appropriate dietary supplements to fill in nutritional gaps, address your specific health needs or assist you in weight management.

Let’s start with making smarter food choices. Unless you’re a farmer or rancher growing, raising and harvesting your own food, chances are you’re like most Americans and find it a challenge to get back to basics and do some home cooking. Finding the time these days to make it to the grocery store to shop for healthy food choices may be difficult. And even if you do make it to the store, taking the time needed to rummage through the aisles and select the smartest food choices from over 40,000 items you’ll find there can be overwhelming. So, to help make your next trip through the grocery store a little bit easier, here are some basic supermarket survival tips:

• Most grocery stores are arranged in about the same way, with the freshest foods placed around the perimeter, or the “square," of the store. That’s where you’ll find the fresh produce, low fat dairy foods, lean meat (poultry, fish, etc.), and whole grain breads—and that’s where you should start.

• Make your first stop in the produce section, where you can choose fresh fruits and vegetables that are low in calories, high in fiber, and abundant in vitamins and minerals. Dark green and deep orange-yellow fruits and vegetables are better choices than pale colored produce. Take advantage of buying organic produce, if you can (less pesticide exposure).

• Next is a visit to the dairy section. Choose nonfat or 1% fat products, which are a great source of quality protein, calcium, and vitamin D without too many calories. If you are a soy milk drinker, you will probably find the ready-to-drink, refrigerated soy milk there, too. Look for a low-fat version.

• On to the meat section, where you should look for lean, protein-rich foods such as skinless chicken or turkey breast meat, fresh fish, extra-lean beef, and extra-lean ground turkey made from white meat. Diets higher in protein may aid in weight loss because studies suggest that protein helps control hunger.

• Then follow your nose to the bakery section. Skip the unhealthy stuff like
muffins, donuts, and scones, and look for whole grain breads that are high in fiber and low in fat, such as 100% whole wheat bread, pitas, and tortillas.

• Once you’ve shopped the square, make a brief trip to the inner aisles to
grab some brown rice and whole grain cereal.

Next, if you’re like 65% of Americans, overweight or obese, now is the time to achieve a healthy weight that’s right for you. And the good news is that you don’t have to lose a lot of weight to reduce your risk for disease and improve your health. A modest weight loss of 5-10% in body weight (10 lbs. for example) can significantly reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease and can also help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Achieving a healthy weight starts by watching your caloric intake and the best way is to make modest decreases in the amount of food you eat each day combined with a significant boost in your level of physical activity. Commit to a comprehensive weight management program, designed to help your body preserve lean muscle which is essential to weight management success. Preserving lean muscle while you lose weight from fat helps preserve your metabolic rate or your ability to burn calories.

And while you’re making those smarter food choices and achieving a healthy weight, remember to make wise supplement choices a part of your daily routine. Despite our best efforts to eat healthier, it never hurts to get some nutrition insurance with a balanced multivitamin/mineral supplement. Supplemental calcium, vitamin D, and the antioxidant vitamins C and E should also be considered. In fact most of us fall short in getting the recommended amount of calcium each day, so taking at least 1,000 mg of supplemental calcium each day is a smart choice, especially for women who are at higher risk of developing osteoporosis.

Adding in other supplemental nutrients that are supported by strong scientific evidence for their potential health benefits is also highly recommended. For example, the research supporting the health benefits of omega 3 fatty acids continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Increasing one’s intake of the omega 3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, has been associated with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and significant improvements in various inflammatory disorders. Higher intakes of EPA and DHA also help to retain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Although omega 3 fatty acid rich fish is a great way to get omega 3 fatty acids, many people are concerned today about heavy metal and PCB contamination in fish. Therefore, one of the best and safest ways to get your omega 3s is to choose a highly purified omega 3 fatty acid rich fish oil supplement each and every day.

Certainly, the old adage from our mothers and grandmothers continues to be valid: “we are what we eat.” So again, make a special effort on behalf of National Nutrition Month to improve “what you are” by eating plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean protein and whole grains. Achieve a healthy weight by cutting your portion sizes, boosting your physical activity and following a weight management program designed to help you preserve lean muscle, and be sure to include a wise array of appropriate dietary supplements to fill in your nutrition gaps, address specific health needs and assist in your weight management efforts.

Here’s to being the best you can be!


Dr. Jamie McManus MD, FAAFP
Chairman, Medical Affairs, Health Sciences and Education