Eating Myself Alive
Jim Atkinson cures what ails us.
I’M A BIG BELIEVER in New Year’s resolutions. Nine years ago I decided to quit smoking, and while it took me a few months, in March of 1998 I stamped out my last butt. At the same time, I resolved not to gain any weight after giving up nicotine—a more difficult challenge—and began exercising at least an hour a day. Nearly a decade later, I weigh the same thing. This year? I’m attacking my diet. And I’m not just referring to cutting out the fries. Healthy eating is proactive: It means consuming more of those foods whose properties prevent such life shorteners as heart disease and cancer. With the help of Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical dietetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, I’ve settled on ten things I’m going to gorge on in 2007. Try my plan yourself—and see how many years you can add to your life by eating more.
1. Go upstream: salmon.
By now you know that fish—and especially salmon—is good for you. What you probably don’t know is how good. According to Walter Willett, of Harvard’s School of Public Health, eating four to six ounces of salmon twice a week can reduce the risk of a heart attack or a stroke by one third (other fatty fish, like tuna, work too). Such fish are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, which appear to lower the risk of heart disease. My plan: Salmon or another fatty fish twice a week. (Grill it for dinner one night, then turn the leftovers into salad another day. Voilà.)
2. A tomato a day keeps the Big C away.
Congress should direct special subsidies to farmers who grow tomatoes, because gram for gram, they are one of the most underrated health foods out there. The main magic is something called lycopene, one of the more powerful carotenoids—substances that seem to protect against various cancers. Some studies show that eating tomatoes daily significantly reduces the likelihood of bladder, stomach, prostate, and colon cancers. My plan: Tomatoes as a daily ritual. They taste great cold on a salad, of course, but, says Sandon, try heating them too, as that enhances the effects of the lycopene. (Think sauces or the canned variety.)
3. Synergy, baby: garlic.
It’s not clear whether garlic lowers your bad cholesterol, but according to some studies, it does benefit your heart by keeping your blood thin and your blood vessel walls flexible. (Its pungency also makes it a good stand-in for salt, a bonus for the blood pressure.) Eat it in combination with other foods and you really pack a punch, says Sandon, thanks to what she calls “dietary synergy”: Throw in some garlic while you’re cooking your tomato sauce, say, and its unique compounds of sulfur interact with the lycopene to even greater disease-fighting effect. You can continue synergizing, in fact, by adding onions (which contain quercetin, a powerful flavonoid that protects against carcinogenesis) or fresh herbs such as rosemary, sage, and oregano (whose phytochemicals do the same thing). My plan: Garlic, garlic, garlic. Substitute it for salt wherever possible; use it to spike pasta sauces.
4. Brown power, part I: whole-grain pasta.
One of the most provocative medical books of the past decade is Kilmer and Martha McCully’s The Heart Revolution. In it, Kilmer proposes that it is not cholesterol from eggs and animal fat that causes arteriosclerosis, it’s homocysteine, an enzyme that, if too abundant in the bloodstream, can destroy the elasticity of artery walls and thicken them, causing heart disease and strokes. A major culprit of such deadly overabundance? Processed white flour. Processing may allow flour to last longer, but it robs it of up to 90 percent of its nutrients, including folic acid and B6, which keep homocysteine levels in check. In other words, to help your heart health, ditch the white stuff. My plan: That garlic-tomato sauce? Pour it over whole-grain spaghetti at least once a week.
5. Brown power, part II: whole-grain bread.
If the devil himself wanted to concoct the worst thing for your health, it’d be a sandwich. (On second thought, it’d probably be doughnuts.) So where’s that leave a sandwich addict like me? As with pasta, when it comes to the heart, you don’t have to push away the bread basket—just opt for brown. The additional fiber has an added benefit: It helps prevent diabetes. My plan: Whole-grain bread for sandwiches; ask for whole-wheat alternatives when eating out. The higher the fiber content the better.
6. The new mayo: avocado.
You don’t get much of a break on calories (one ounce has fifty), but in matters of the heart, this is a no-brainer. Avocado contains oleic acid, an unsaturated fat that helps lower bad cholesterol and raise the good kind. (In one study of individuals with moderately high cholesterol, an avocado-rich diet produced an 11 percent increase in HDL, or good cholesterol, levels.) It also improves absorption of those cancer-fighting carotenoids. My plan: Avocado once a week. Slice and drizzle it with lime juice and eat it whole; use it as a substitute for mayonnaise or cheese on any sandwich.
7. Say yes to red meat.
I have some devout vegan friends, and as someone who has quit both drinking and smoking, I understand that abstinence can be a virtue. On the other hand, if I go without red meat for too long, I get a little weirded out. Can healthier eating in 2007 include steak? Yes, Sandon says. A lean four-ounce piece of grilled sirloin gives you a lot of protein, which helps build muscle mass, and iron, which keeps your blood (and heart) healthy. And you don’t have to worry about the fat—said sirloin contains no more than a chicken breast. My plan: Red meat once or twice a week, but control the amount and leanness (read: Grill it at home).
8. Pintos with that?
Beans run a close second to tomatoes as an underrated health food. Aside from their notorious digestive qualities, beans (especially that Texas staple, pintos) are unusually rich in folate, which helps protect against heart disease. My plan: Substitute beans for potatoes whenever possible; ask for whole beans instead of the heavily larded, refried type at Tex-Mex restaurants. (I know—good luck.)
9. Fig out.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is such a thing as a legitimate between-meals snack: dried fruit. Apricots used to be my favorite, but lately I’ve grown fond of figs. Not only are they a good source of fiber, they also control blood pressure and keep your energy levels high. My plan: Keep dried fruit on hand (at the office, in the gym bag) for an attack of the munchies.
10. Room for dessert? Cave to cantaloupe.
I’ve long since taken a lot of the calories out of my post-dinner sweet-tooth fix by eating a single Hershey’s Kiss. But while that’s not doing me much harm, it’s not doing me much good either—so I’m trying fruit instead. Blueberries and strawberries have become the celebrity fruits in this age of enlightened eating, but the real sleeper here is cantaloupe, which contains a lot of vitamin C and beta-carotene (two antioxidants that help with cancer prevention) and plenty of potassium, which can control high blood pressure. My plan: Cantaloupe for dessert a few times a week, frozen and blended into a smoothie or cut up over frozen yogurt.
A new line of eating
So, you may say, resolutions are good and well. But are there any caveats to this healthy feeding frenzy? Well, yes—two. The first is that I’ll still allow myself a cheeseburger or soft tacos once a week. It’s not that the human body can’t handle any cholesterol or fat; it just can’t take too much of it. The second is that, even if I falter at incorporating one or two of my ten foods here, I’m intent on, uh, staying the course. Because proactive eating is not just a year-long project—it’s a lifelong one.