Stress can wreak serious havoc on our bodies, but we actually need stress to a certain extent. For example, if we were running from a bear, we would need our stress response to kick in full force. We would start breathing faster, sending more oxygen to muscles to fuel movement, then our bodies would release stress hormones from our adrenal glands (cortisol) to heighten our focus by tapping into energy reserves for fuel so we could flee the danger. Cortisol isn’t always the bad guy, but when this response is high and chronic it tells your body to eat more than it “needs” because it’s thinking much more about survival, not stress over a work deadline or relationship woe. Cortisol is needed, but high levels of cortisol over time will contribute to those mentioned health impacts, especially abdominal weight gain! The problem is when we’re actually not in danger and our bodies are living in this state chronically. THIS is the magic piece of the puzzle – learning how we can turn off that heightened stress response when it’s not needed.
When it comes to carbs, the more natural and whole, the better. Go for complex carbs like 100% whole-grain breads and pasta, brown rice, starchy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Limit simple sugars from refined grains, processed snack foods, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. Check out our Essential Guide to Carbs.
Sodium. Sodium is found in salt, but most of the sodium we eat does not come from salt that we add while cooking or at the table. Most of our sodium comes from breads and rolls, cold cuts, pizza, hot dogs, cheese, pasta dishes, and condiments (like ketchup and mustard). Limit your daily sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams (equal to a teaspoon), unless your doctor says something else. Check the Nutrition Facts label for sodium. Foods with 20% or more of the “Daily Value” of sodium are high in sodium.
Purchasing organic local produce is better for both the environment and your health, but when the nearest farm is hours away, don't default to a package of Oreos. "Frozen, canned and fresh fruit all have comparable amounts of nutrients," says Christine M. Bruhm, Ph.D., director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis.
FDA regulations for nutritional supplements differ in important ways from those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs. For one thing, pharmaceutical companies have to gather data showing that a new drug is safe and effective in order to get the FDA's approval to market the drug. Makers of dietary supplements don't have to show that sort of proof. Be sure to let your doctor know about any nutritional supplement you plan on taking so you can discuss whether it's right for you and the appropriate dose.
SOURCES: Elaine Turner, PhD, RD, associate professor, department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Florida, Gainesville. Sharon B. Spalding, MEd, CSCS, professor, physical education and health; and associate director, Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership, Mary Baldwin College Staunton, Va. American Dietetic Association web site. Institute of Medicine at the National Academies web site.
Scientists still have much to learn even about common vitamins. One recent study found unexpected evidence about vitamin E. Earlier research suggested that men who took vitamin E supplements might have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. “But much to our surprise, a large NIH-funded clinical trial of more than 29,000 men found that taking supplements of vitamin E actually raised—not reduced—their risk of this disease,” says Dr. Paul M. Coates, director of NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements. That’s why it’s important to conduct clinical studies of supplements to confirm their effects.
Carbohydrates should provide 45%–65% of your daily calories. Most of those calories should come from the complex carbohydrates in high-fiber and unrefined foods, such as bran cereal and other whole-grain products, brown rice, beans and other legumes, and many fruits and vegetables. These carbohydrates are digested and absorbed slowly, so they raise the blood sugar gradually and don't trigger a large release of insulin. People who eat lots of these foods have higher HDL ("good") cholesterol levels and a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A good amount of soluble fiber in the diet lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol, and high-fiber diets reduce the risk of intestinal disorders ranging from constipation and diverticulosis to hemorrhoids. Some studies have shown that fiber may help reduce the risk of colon cancer. Men need more fiber than women: 38 vs. 25 grams a day before the age of 50 and 30 vs. 21 grams a day thereafter.