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A healthy diet for a healthy heart. But with advancing research, it is becoming more and more difficult to understand just what a ‘healthy’ diet is.
Professor Monique Verschuren (Centre for Nutrition, Prevention and Health Services of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, Netherlands), one of the speakers in yesterday’s session ‘Controversies in dietary fat’, understands why it can seem complex. “Take for example fats. People do not always recognise foods that contain a lot of saturated fatty acids. Also the continuing debate about saturated fats, and results of ongoing research that gives more insight into the effect of different types of saturated fat (showing differential effects) can be very confusing for the general public.”
Her advice is to keep it simple. “It is better to focus on dietary patterns than individual foods,” she says. “Eating less salt and less sugar is in itself valid advice, but it is hard for people to know how to go about this and, importantly, to stick to it long term.”
“Probably the most important message to give patients, and the general public, is to eat as little ultra-processed food as possible.”
“People don’t realise how much sugar, fat and salt is ‘hidden’ in ultra-processed food. For instance, some cookies contain high levels of salt, something people might not expect to find in a sweet food. Also, white bread has lost a lot of the healthy parts of the grain. So avoiding ultra-processed foods already ticks a lot of the boxes for healthy eating, and it is advice that is easy for people to understand and to follow,” thinks Prof. Verschuren. This should be combined with a plant-based diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, and moderate—or no—alcohol consumption.
It’s not all about the quality of the food, however. The balance between the quantity of food we eat and our level of physical activity is more and more disturbed, leading to a rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes, important cardiovascular disease risk factors. Prof. Verschuren acknowledges that this is a challenge, noting that, “In today’s society, where there is a fast-food outlet on every corner, it is harder for individuals to make the right dietary choices.”
Education and support will help to point individuals in the right direction for a healthy diet. But this will not be enough to improve the dietary intake of people on a large scale. Our food environment has got to change for the better. “And there needs to be more efforts from industry to reduce the sugar, fat and salt content of foods,” says Prof. Verschuren. “We know that messages about a healthy diet tend to reach mainly the more educated members of society. We want everyone to have access to a healthy diet and managing the content of foodstuffs before they reach the consumer can significantly help towards this. This is already happening in some countries but it is often done on a voluntary basis and the progress is slower than we would like to see.” She notes that restrictions on the numbers of outlets selling unhealthy food and on advertising, as has been successfully done for children in some countries, may also help towards improving the cardiovascular health of our societies.
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