The New Food Fixes

Are foods with added vitamins really healthier? We sort through the hype.

By Bari Nan Cohen

Bottom line: Sticking to a plant-based diet that is rich in low-glycemic-index foods can help control diabetes and reduce risk for other conditions, such as heart disease.

To Prevent Heart Disease

Forgo: Cereals with added potassium and fiber; juice, yogurt, or margarine supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids and plant sterols.

Feast on: Fish. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are naturally rich in the omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce blood pressure and may help keep arteries clear. Pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, which may help lower blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels. Dry roasted or raw nuts are a good stand-in for meat because they contribute less saturated fat to your diet. And for cholesterol control, go with whole grains yet again. "Use barley as a substitute for white rice," Jenkins says. "It has beta-glucan, which can keep cholesterol down."

Bottom line: A plant-based diet naturally limits the amount of artery-clogging saturated fat you consume. If you find that diet alone is not controlling your cholesterol sufficiently, then you may want to put orange juice with added plant sterols on the menu — these sterols can help lower cholesterol and may be even more effective than a statin, Collins says. Keep portions in moderation, though — plant sterols can potentially reduce the absorption of other fat-soluble vitamins in that meal, plus the calories in the juice add up fast.

To Prevent Cognitive Decline

Forgo: Beverages — and potato chips — enhanced with ginseng and B vitamins, and snack bars with isoflavones.

Feast on: Blueberries, cranberries, and strawberries, for their anthocyanidins; wine, grape juice, and grapes for resveratrol; and dark chocolate for epichatechin — all phyto chemicals that are beneficial in fighting age-related cognitive decline, such as memory loss. The B12 in nonfat dairy products, and in lean meat and fish, also boosts brain function. Soy contains isoflavones, which have been shown in some studies to mimic the cognitively helpful effects of estrogen in the brain. Seasonings may also help: Research has shown that the compounds in turmeric can have a positive impact on cognitive health.

Bottom line: "Diets that promote good cardiovascular health also promote good brain health," D’Anci says. "Your brain is dependent upon blood flow and blood glucose. If you have vascular problems, you aren’t getting adequate nutrients to the brain." Modeling your diet on the Mediterranean or traditional Japanese diet may yield great results for your heart and brain. "Both have foods that are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants," D’Anci says.

To Prevent Osteoporosis

Forgo: Calcium-fortified juice and pasta.

Feast on: Dairy products that are low in fat and fortified with vitamin D. If you’re lactose intolerant, go for soy milk fortified with calcium and D. Try to get three servings a day of either. (Vitamin D is critical in helping your body absorb calcium. You get it naturally from sunlight, but using sunscreen and being indoors may keep you from getting enough.) You also need vitamin K, which works with D to build bones, so include dark leafy greens and fruits like kiwi, blackberries, blueberries, and grapes in the week’s meals.

Bottom line: Many of us think that bone health is only about getting 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day. But Robert P. Heaney, MD, professor of medicine at Creighton University, in Omaha, adds a caveat. "We need calcium, certainly," he says. "But the body can’t use the calcium properly if we are lacking other nutrients."

To Prevent Eye Problems

Forgo: Peanut butter enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids; juices with added vitamins or beta-carotene.

Feast on: Spinach, kale, collard greens, and fish. While there aren’t hard-and-fast numbers for how much of them you should consume for optimum eye health, it’s safe to say that loading up on leafy greens and getting at least two servings of fish per week is a great insurance policy overall, and may decrease your risk of macular degeneration.

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