Foods to Avoid
The danger of eating too much salt is that it can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) or make it worse, and hypertension is an enormous contributor to strokes, heart failure, and heart attacks. If you don't have high blood pressure, high salt intake can lead to it, so be moderate in your salt intake. The recommended range for healthy adults is 1,500-2,400 mg/day. People who are older than 50, are black, or have hypertension or other health conditions like chronic kidney disease or diabetes may be more sensitive to the blood pressure raising effects of salt. They should aim for the lower end of the recommended range. If you have any of these risk factors, talk to your doctor about how much salt you should eat.
Why does salt cause hypertension?
Through a process called osmosis, salt in the bloodstream causes the body's cells to release water. This keeps the circulatory volume higher than it should be, increasing pressure on the blood vessel walls. The blood vessels defend against this increased pressure by reinforcing their walls and making them stiffer to resist the increased pressure, resulting in atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. The blood vessels lose their elasticity and can no longer dilate to accommodate increased fluid volume, and the result is hypertension.
Where Are You Getting Your Salt?
You might be surprised to learn that most of the salt you eat is probably not coming from the salt shaker on your table! It's estimated that a full 80% of the salt Americans eat every day comes from processed and prepared foods, foods that have been altered from their natural state and come prepared and packaged, like cakes and cookies, canned foods, snack foods, frozen dinners, and so on. Salt is used in processed foods for a number of reasons. It makes crackers and pretzels less dry, sweet foods like cake taste sweeter, and foods like soup taste more savory. Fast food, like French fries and burgers, tends to be very high in salt as well. Only 10% of the salt most Americans eat every day comes from home cooking or from a salt shaker. The remaining 10% comes from natural sodium in fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish.
So your best choice for low-sodium eating is to use unprocessed, fresh food that you prepare yourself. If you make pasta, rice, or noodles, skip the kinds that come with flavor packets, which are usually loaded with salt. Use herbs and spices instead of salt for flavor. If you don't have time to make homemade food, check the labels of processed food carefully and make the best choice.
Cholesterol and High-Fat Foods
High blood cholesterol and high levels of triglycerides (fats) in the bloodstream can cause atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance that occurs naturally in your body, and there is always some in your bloodstream. Cholesterol is necessary for your body's health because it helps to produce cell membranes and other substances.
There are two forms of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol). LDL-cholesterol transports cholesterol to the tissues of your body, where it is stored. HDL-cholesterol, on the other hand, can actually help your body get rid of excess cholesterol by transporting it to the liver for excretion.
Your body produces all the cholesterol you need. The cholesterol you consume when you eat animal products (all cholesterol comes from animal-derived foods) is extra and unneeded. When there's too much cholesterol, specifically, too much LDL-cholesterol, in the bloodstream, it gets deposited in the walls of the arteries and begins to build up. Together with other substances, like calcium, it forms hard deposits, or plaques, that narrow and stiffen the arteries in the process called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, hypertension, and many other problems.
Saturated Fats and Trans Fats
Saturated fats, along with trans fats, are the main dietary factors in raising blood cholesterol levels. Not only can they raise total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol, they also lower HDL-cholesterol. And eating too much saturated fat can result in major health problems even if you don't have high cholesterol. Saturated fats have been linked with insulin problems that can lead to cancer, diabetes, ovarian disorders, and other conditions.
Saturated fats are found in both animal and plant fats and oils (all fats and oils are mixtures of different types of fat). Saturated fats are defined simply as fats that have all the hydrogen molecules they can hold. Fats that are solid at room temperature (for instance, butter, coconut oil, and lard) have a higher percentage of saturated fat than oils that are liquid at room temperature. Butyric acid, lauric acid, and stearic acid are all saturated fatty acids.
Trans fats are implicated in high blood cholesterol levels, too, although they are unsaturated. They have been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, immune dysfunction, obesity, and reproductive problems. Trans fats are created when vegetable oils undergo a process called hydrogenation, in which hydrogen is added to them to make them solid and less likely to become rancid. They are used in commercial baked goods and for cooking in most restaurants and fast-food chains. Cookies, crackers, and other commercial baked goods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are high in trans fats. So when shopping, avoid any product that lists "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil" as an ingredient.
Consuming excess calories or abusing alcohol can cause fatty liver, the build-up of excess fat in the liver. Your liver normally contains some fat, but fat that constitutes over 10% of the liver's weight is considered excess. The excess fat can lead to inflammation of the liver, which can become scarred and hardened over time as a result. This condition is called cirrhosis, and it can lead to liver failure. Risk factors for fatty liver include obesity, diabetes, and high triglyceride levels.
How Much Fat Should You Eat?
If you have high blood cholesterol, then eating less cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat is a vital first step in fighting atherosclerosis. Even if you don't have high cholesterol, you should limit your intake of saturated and trans fats because they have been linked to so many health problems. How much fat you should eat is generally figured as a percentage of your daily caloric intake, which varies with your age, sex, and activity level. Consult with your doctor about what percentage of fat is right for you. As a general guideline, the American Heart Association recommends limiting dietary fat to 30% of total calories. The fats you do eat should be mostly unsaturated, mostly vegetable fats, and fish oils.
Refined Carbohydrates and Simple Sugars
Most people are aware of the dangers of eating the wrong fats. But there are healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates as well, and they may be just as bad for you as the wrong fats. Excess carbohydrates are converted into triglycerides, carried in your bloodstream, and stored in your body as fats. High levels of triglycerides can result in atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke. Eating too many refined carbohydrates and sugars is associated with an increased risk of diabetes as well.
What Are Refined Carbohydrates?
There are two basic types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are found in foods like fruits and milk products, as well as in refined sugars like table sugar and syrups. They are quickly broken down by your digestive system to provide quick energy. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods like whole grains, vegetables, and beans. Complex carbohydrates take longer for your digestive system to break down and so give you a "time-release" form of energy.
Refined carbohydrates are complex carbohydrates that have been processed to remove the hull, bran, fiber, and some nutrients. Foods like white bread, white rice, white pasta, white-flour pretzels, many cereals, and baked goods like cakes and cookies are chock full of refined carbohydrates. Some of these products may be "enriched" with vitamins and minerals, but many important nutrients are still left out.
What Are Simple Sugars?
Simple sugars occur naturally in sweet foods. There are many different kinds, and their names often end in "-ose." Fructose and glucose, for example, are found in fruit, some vegetables, and even dairy products. Naturally occurring simple sugars often occur only in very small amounts in nature and are highly processed before they are used in food as sweeteners. High-fructose corn syrup, for instance, is a highly processed sweetener derived from corn. Sugars are added to processed foods not only for sweetness, but also to improve foods' structure and texture, enhance flavor, control crystallization, provide a medium for yeast in baked goods, and prevent spoilage.
Simple sugars are high-calorie sweeteners. Be sure to read product labels to determine if sugars have been added. Examples of added sugars are:
- Sucrose (sugar)
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Corn syrup
Why Are Simple Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Bad for You?
Triglycerides are fats that provide much of the energy your cells need to perform. Like cholesterol, triglycerides are manufactured by your body and also come from the food you eat, like butter and oils. When you consume more calories than you burn, the excess is converted into triglycerides, carried in your blood, and stored in fat cells throughout your body.
High triglyceride blood levels are strongly associated with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, which leads to heart disease (including heart attack) and stroke. High triglycerides are often accompanied by other conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, like obesity and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that also includes excessive belly fat, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Sometimes high triglycerides are a sign of poorly controlled diabetes, low levels of thyroid hormones, liver or kidney disease, or rare genetic conditions.
How Many Carbohydrates Should You Eat?
Recommendations vary, but it's estimated that for a healthy person, 45-65% of daily caloric intake should come from carbohydrates. But the greatest part of that carbohydrate intake should come from complex sugars and unrefined carbohydrates: nutritionally dense foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Whole-grain carbohydrates and sugars from fruits and vegetables are much less likely to lead to metabolic and other health problems.
Making the Switch
It's easy to make the switch from refined carbohydrates to whole-grain products. Brown rice and whole-grain pasta, bread, crackers, and many other products are readily available. But check the label carefully before you buy, and make sure the words "whole" or "whole grain" appear before the name of the grain. Many breads, for example, that are labeled "12-grain," "stone-ground," or "hearty wheat" actually contain refined-grain flour.
There are different approaches to reducing your intake of sugars. Noncaloric sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose can be substituted for sugar in drinks and many recipes, and they can be found in numerous commercial products. The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association endorse their use by diabetics and those on weight-loss diets. However, the safety of synthetic sweeteners is controversial, and at least one, saccharin, sold under the name "Sweet 'n Low," has been found to cause cancer in lab animals.
Unless a person has diabetes, a better choice may be to avoid synthetic sweeteners and lower intake of simple sugars in other ways. Here are some tips:
- Eat fresh or dried fruits, which are full of vitamins and other nutrients, instead of simple sugars.
- Try making recipes with half the sugar they normally call for.
- Have a cup of tea (or glass of iced tea) with a teaspoon or two of sugar, instead of a sugary soft drink or sweetened fruit drink.
- For breakfast, have an unsweetened cereal and add your own sugar or honey on top.
- If you crave a sweet, dip a piece of fruit in sugar rather than have a piece of candy.
- Don't completely deprive yourself of sweets. If you do, you'll probably end up binging on them to satisfy the need they fill. Try to moderate your intake instead.
Understanding Wellness (VIDEO)
What Is Wellness?
Smoking & Your Arteries
Foods to Avoid
Foods to Enjoy
Fiber Helps Lower Cholesterol
Good Fats: Omegas 3 & 6
The Daily Nutrition You Need
Speed Up Your Metabolism
Benefits of Exercise
Related Health Centers:
The 9 Visual Rules of Wellness, Wellness and Prevention Part I, Wellness and Prevention Part II, Reverse Aging