Only Four Foods?

January 24, 2017 in Health Claims, Nutritionism by Joyce Bunderson

Is my glass half full or half empty? I was working on a continuing education unit; (CEUs are required to keep my registration status current.) a catchy concept was presented that eating four foods would significantly reduce heart disease. Of course, that really perks up the attention of a dietitian/nutritionist. Wow! Only four foods! I continued to watch the training. There was quite a bit of excellent research-based evidence presented. But when I finally learned of the four special foods – disappointment, but not surprise filled my heart. Only one of them, almonds was really a food; the other three were really components of food or subgroups of food. That is what got me to the question of half empty or half full. Have we moved toward recognizing the fallacy of nutritionismone nutrient trying to do the work of the entire team? Perhaps this is a step forward, now three nutrients, not just one, plus almonds, are supposed to do the heart-health work of the entire team. But it is still a watered down nutritionism.

The foods that were named in the presentation for reducing the risk of heart disease are: viscous fibers; almonds; soy protein foods; and plant sterols. Certainly almonds and foods containing soy protein can be found at the market, but maybe we can benefit more effortlessly, if I share a little more information.

First, let me talk a bit about viscous fiber. Let’s begin with its name – viscous fiber. We generally call it soluble fiber. The compounds that make fiber soluble are found in the wall of plant cells. This type of fiber absorbs water in the intestine and makes a thick, jelly-like mass. We’ve known for decades that this type of fiber slows the absorption of glucose and decreases cholesterol (great for diabetics or pre-diabetics).

Since there are no bins of viscous fiber at the grocery store and I don’t want you to be like the sailor in the who poem who says, “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” Let me tell you how very easy it is to get soluble (or viscous) fiber into your diet. Beans/legumes/pulses – whatever you call them are an excellent place to start. Grains like barley and oats are good sources. Many, many vegetables and fruits, including: eggplants, okra, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, turnips, apricots, mangos, and oranges are excellent sources of this type of fiber.

Second, almonds were given a prized place on the list. The list names almonds, specifically almonds. At our home, sliced almonds are consumed each day that cereal is served for breakfast – that’s most days. But the reality is that all nuts are a healthy choice as related to decreased cardiovascular risk. If you enjoy another type of nut, eat what you enjoy; the evidence is insufficient to limit yourself exclusively to almonds.

Soy protein foods hold the honored third position on the four-food answer to heart disease risk. If you’re just getting started, maybe try one meal a week utilizing soy protein. The surprise is that it can be tasty. If you want it to be tasty and easy, you may want to consider a soy burger on a sandwich thin (only 100 calories for both halves of the sandwich.) You may be interested in some of the thirty-five ways to add soy to your daily diet that the people at the Soy Connection offer.

Last, but certainly not least is including plant sterols. Ditto to the “Where are the plant sterols in the market?” style question. Since plant sterols occur naturally in many grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes (including tofu), nuts and seeds, you’re already getting them if you’re doing the first three recommendations. If you want to bump it up a notch, then concentrate on increasing plant-based eating, as vegetarian diets have about double the amount of sterols of regular diets.

I guess I’d have to say it a tie in the half empty/half full issue. The more we realize that eating more plant-based foods, the healthier we will be. It’s not just eating four foods or four components of food. When we’re eating more plants, we usually eating fewer animals based foods, which contribute to the cholesterol problem in the first place. A very large variety of health problems are improved by moving toward the increase of plants in our diet and decrease in the amount of animal-based foods. This is a doable goal.