Eat to Fight Disease

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Even if your genes predispose you to an illness, a well-designed diet can help reduce your risks. Start by taking a good look at the health of your parents, aunts, uncles and siblings. Then check your grandparents and their siblings. Once you know which diseases run in your family, you can hedge your bets with the following diet plans:

Cancer.
Foods high in fiber, such as beans and whole grains, and those high in vitamins A and C, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, appear to help protect against colon and breast cancers. The benefits of a very low fat diet—where fat makes up 20% or less of calories—are currently being studied.

Diabetes.
If one parent has diabetes, you have a 10% to 20% chance of developing it. If both parents have it, your risk rises to 50%. When it comes to diet, the best prevention is to maintain your weight within normal range. Diabetics are now encouraged to eat a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, protein and fat at each meal and to monitor blood sugar levels several times a day.

Heart Disease.
If you have a family history of heart disease, you’re more likely to be among the one-third of Americans who are sensitive to dietary cholesterol. To reduce your risk, cut the fat in your diet to less than 30% of total calories and decrease saturated fats from animal foods and hydrogenated (hardened) oils, such as margarine and vegetable shortening, to less than 10%. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that means no more than 67 grams of total fat and no more than 20 grams of saturated fat each day. Many experts agree that these amounts should be reduced even further.

Hypertension and stroke.
Weight control is probably the first priority for anyone with high blood pressure. Then comes salt. Americans on the whole eat too much of it, and although only 25% of hypertensives are sensitive to sodium, it’s a good idea for anyone with a family history of hypertension or stroke to limit his daily sodium intake to the 2,000 to 3,000 milligrams recommended by the American Heart Association. And recent studies indicate that those who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables are less likely than others to suffer strokes.

Obesity.
Believed by many to promote disease and by some to be a disease in itself, obesity afflicts one in three adults in this country and one in four children. To control weight gain, learn appropriate portion sizes, keep fat intake below 30% of calories, emphasize fresh fruits, vegetables and grains in the diet, and exercise.

Osteoporosis. A diet that includes substantial amounts of foods high in calcium—dairy products, leafy green vegetables and canned sardines and salmon with bones—is a good start toward protecting your bones. Diets high in protein from meat, poultry and fish may cause calcium to be excreted from the body, which increases the risk of osteoporosis.

Nutritional biochemist T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University says that regardless of family history, the healthiest diet for everyone is one that consists primarily of plant foods.
—LINDA RICHARDS, R.D.