Avoiding Nutrition Confusion

What to Study

Foods contain zillions of compounds. When nutrition researchers attempt to connect a food to a disease, they often don't know which component of the food to study. For example, we know that eating fruits and vegetables reduces cancer. But what components are cancer-protective? Is it vitamin C? Folate? Beta-carotene? Potassium? Fiber? Phytochemicals?

Food Affects Our Health in Different Ways at Different Ages

For example, if you are pregnant (or planning to get pregnant), you may be afraid to eat fish in fear the mercury in fish will damage your baby. Yet, fish contains the best sources of the omega-3 fats that are essential for optimal brain development in the fetus. Consuming too little DHA (of a type of omega-3 fat) can contribute to irreversible brain development problems.

With animal studies, a low intake of DHA results in slower brain maturation, attention problems, impulsivity and problem solving skills. With human studies that supplement the maternal diet with DHA, the babies learn faster and remember information better. By the time the babies have reached age four, these benefits translate into higher IQs. And by age five, longer sustained attention.

If you have been scared away from eating fish because of fear of mercury poisoning, you should be sure to look at the whole picture, whether you are a woman contemplating pregnancy or an aging athlete wanting to reduce the risk of heart disease (fish eaters have less heart disease.) The recommended intake is to enjoy DHA-rich fish such as pink salmon once a week--despite possible mercury content--and another 6 oz. per week of low-mercury fish and shellfish (shrimp, crab, scallops, light tuna, pollock). A typical 5 oz. serving of salmon offers 1,000 mg DHA; the recommended daily intake is 220 mg per day.

A Poor Diet Takes Years to Unfold

As a young athlete in your 20s and 30s, you may think you are bulletproof and immune from heart disease. Perhaps you eat whatever you want, whether it’s omelets or pepperoni pizza. And you likely feel fine (today).

But if your “see food” diet (you eat what you see) leads to high cholesterol in your 40s, you will have a higher risk of declining mental status as you age. Arteries clogged with cholesterol and saturated fat lead to not only cardiovascular disease, but also to dementia and Alzheimer's. The longer you live, the higher your risk of dementia. While only one percent of 60-year-olds have dementia, 40 percent of 90-year-olds do. Yikes! What can you do to prevent dementia? Enjoy more fruits and vegetables and fish (twice a week). What is good for your heart is also good for your brain!

Messages to Lose Weight Should Really Be to Lose Body Fat

Don’t crash-diet to lose weight quickly! You’ll lose a significant amount of muscle. This results in a less-healthy body because your health depends on your muscle mass. For optimal health and weight, do strength training to build muscle and eat just a little less at night to lose fat.


Ads for vitamin supplements and drugs downplay the importance of diet and exercise. Hence, pills and potent medications seem more effective than eating well and exercising regularly. Too few people realize that exercise is the best way to improve overall health and immune response, particularly as we age.

No confusion about this: If your parents and/or grandparents live a sedentary lifestyle, let them know they really should take a daily walk (preferably to the gym). Research indicates mice who exercised regularly had faster wound healing, better survival of the flu and viruses and less inflammation. Fit elderly people experience similar benefits. For children and adults alike, eating well to fuel an active lifestyle is without doubt an important key to lifelong health and longevity!

Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). She counsels both casual exerciser and competitive athletes in her private practice at Healthworks (617-383-6100) in Chestnut Hill, MA. She is author of the best selling Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Cyclists' Food Guide and Food Guide for Marathoners. See www.nancyclarkrd.com and www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for more information.
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