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Avoid the Holiday Jelly Belly: Follow Dietary Guidelines

By Maureen Williams, ND

Current lifestyle and dietary guidelines tell us to eat more fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes per day—but does sticking to the guidelines help us stay healthy? A new study says they do, finding that people who adhere most closely are least likely to develop the type of abdominal fat that is linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Examining habits

The current study, published in Diabetes Care, is an offshoot of the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing project that has been following the habits and health of 5,209 community-based participants and their children since 1948. The 2,926 participants answered questions about diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol habits, and underwent tests to measure superficial belly fat deposits (subcutaneous abdominal fat) and the belly fat that is deposited deep between the abdominal organs and poses a serious health risk (visceral abdominal fat).

Answers to diet and lifestyle questions were compared with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the most recent recommendations set forth by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Agriculture. The guidelines encourage a minimum of 30 minutes per day of physical activity in addition to high intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy foods and recommend minimizing saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, salt, and sugar.

Healthy habits lead to less belly fat

Better compliance with dietary guidelines was associated with less subcutaneous and visceral abdominal fat; similarly, sticking to exercise guidelines was also linked to less subcutaneous and visceral fat. Women who were smokers or former smokers had more visceral abdominal fat than women who had never smoked, but in men, only former smokers had more visceral fat stores. Light to moderate alcohol consumption was associated with more subcutaneous but not visceral fat in women and less visceral fat in men compared with high alcohol consumption.

People with a combination of healthy habits had the lowest visceral abdominal fat. The protective effect of a healthy diet was most evident in overweight people, while the benefits of regular exercise were most evident in normal-weight people.

Follow the guidelines for good health

  • Eat plenty of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
  • Animal foods such as meat and dairy should be lean or low-fat, but fatty fish is a good choice.
  • Make beans, whole grains, and nuts part of your regular diet.
  • Avoid excessive intake of saturated fats (from animal sources) and trans fats (from partially hydrogenated oils).
  • Limit your daily intake of salt and added sugar.
  • If you choose to drink alcohol, limit it to not more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day—make it 60 minutes per day if you need to lose weight.

For more information about the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, go to www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines.

(Diabetes Care 2009;32:505–10)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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