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10 Evidence-Based Dietary Tips

By Gay Falkowski

Knowing what to eat when you have MS can be downright confusing. After all, the jury is still out on dietary protocols aimed at delaying MS progression or reversing its effects. Yet, anecdotal "evidence" abounds on the Internet. So, what should you put on your plate? Foods that fill your nutritional needs and lower your risk of serious complications, such as heart disease and diabetes. Credible research has established which foods can help you be nutritionally fit and which foods can harm you, whether you have MS or not. A good source – one preferred by MS Focus – is the Nutrition Source at the Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source provides timely, evidence-based information on diet and nutrition. Expert faculty from the Department of Nutrition and other invited experts review all content before it is posted on the site, and all content is re-reviewed regularly. Learn more at www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource. To help you get started, here are 10 evidence-based dietary tips for disease prevention:

1) Choose healthy fats. A diet rich in mono- and polyunsaturated fat can help lower your risk of diabetes and heart disease. Canola oil and olive oil are great choices, as are the fats in avocados, nuts, and seeds. Healthy fat provides a terrific source of energy as well as a great depot for storing it. It is an important part of cell membranes, helping govern what gets into cells and what comes out. The body uses cholesterol as the starting point to make estrogen, testosterone, vitamin D, and other vital compounds. Fats are also biologically active molecules that can influence how muscles respond to insulin’s “open up for sugar” signal; different types of fats can also fire up or cool down inflammation.

2) Say "no" to trans fats. Trans fats are worse for cholesterol levels than saturated fats because they raise bad LDL and lower good HDL. They also fire inflammation, an overactivity of the immune system implicated in heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. And they contribute to insulin resistance. Now that the once-ubiquitous but invisible trans fats are listed in bold print on food labels, it’s easier to spot them in packaged foods. Keep in mind, though, that according to the FDA, a product claiming to have zero trans fat can actually contain up to a half gram. So you may still want to scan the ingredient list for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “vegetable shortening,” and look for an alternative product without those words, especially if it’s something you eat regularly.

3) Skip the red meat. Studies from Harvard have established a long list of hazards linked to the consumption of red meat, especially processed red meat – increased risk of mortality, heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, stroke. For protein, replace the steaks, chops, hot dogs, and bacon with nuts, beans, poultry, or fish.

4) Avoid processed foods. Sugar and salt, contributors to many health problems, are often "hidden" in processed foods.

5) Focus on plant foods. A diet high in whole grains can help lower the risk of diabetes and keep appetite in check. Choose a good variety of whole-grain foods prepared in interesting ways.

6) Cut back on refined carbs. White bread, white rice, white pasta, and potatoes cause fast and furious increases in blood sugar. Over time, eating lots of these refined carbohydrates and sugar may increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. The healthiest sources of carbohydrates — unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans — promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients.

7) Choose water, coffee, or tea instead of sugary drinks. Data shows that sugary drinks relate to obesity and other diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease for the whole population. For those at higher genetic risk, drinking sugary beverages becomes even more harmful.

8) Monitor your salt intake. Too much sodium can increase blood pressure and make the kidneys work harder. High blood pressure is a leading cause of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease, and more. Current recommendations urge us to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, equivalent to about a teaspoon of table salt. The bar is set lower — 1,500 mg a day — for those with cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure.

9) Increase flavor of healthy foods. Salt substitutes, including herbs and spices, and citrus (such as lemon) can provide more flavors with less sodium. For example, citrus and sodium activate the same taste sensors so less sodium can be used when they are combined. Explore your supermarket for low-sodium versions of traditional high-salt products, or experiment with new alternatives.

10) Consume more whole foods. An orange has two times as much fiber and half as much sugar as a 12-ounce glass of orange juice.