Q: I'd like to improve my general health but don't know where to begin. Do you have any suggestions? - F.M. Thomson
A: Minor changes in diet and lifestyle can make a big difference in overall health. Here are several ways to reduce your risk of disease and improve general health:
Eat fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society suggest you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber and low in calories and sodium. Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustard greens and turnips are particularly nutritious.
A serving consists of one medium-size piece of fruit, a half cup of juice, or one half to one cup of cooked or raw vegetables.
Use olive oil. All fats are not created equal. As a heart-friendly, monounsaturated fat, olive oil can lower levels of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, and raise levels of high-density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol. "Replacing saturated fats such as butter with olive oil is very beneficial to the heart," says Dr. Arthur Bleakly Chandler Jr., a board-certified cardiologist and member of University Hospital's medical staff.
Go vegetarian, sometimes. Weave two or three vegetarian lunches and dinners into your weekly diet. This can cut your total fat intake, if the meals don't rely on fatty cheeses or salad dressings. A low-fat diet also can lower your risk factors for heart disease, certain types of cancer and other conditions. Try red beans and rice, black bean burritos with salsa and pasta dishes with vegetables or tomato sauce. Use herbs, spices and lemon juice to jazz up meatless dishes without adding fat or calories.
Eat whole grains. The American Heart Association recommends people eat six or more servings of bread, cereals, grains, pasta, dried beans and starchy vegetables every day. Whole grain breads and cereals are particularly rich sources of complex carbohydrates and fiber. The soluble fiber they contain can help lower blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels and reduce your risk of heart attack. Whole wheat breads list 'whole wheat' or 'whole wheat flour' as the first ingredient on the label. Look for cereals with the word bran or fiber in the name.
Throw away your fryer. Broiling, baking, roasting, poaching, steaming or stir frying foods lets you retain the natural flavor without adding fat and calories.
Get walking. If your general health allows, walk 30 minutes most days of the week. You'll burn calories, reduce stress and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. "Walking is a great tool to help with appetite and weight control and improve your overall level of conditioning," said Dr. R. Daren Marionneaux, a family practice physician and member of University Hospital's medical staff.
Remain flexible. Regular stretching can help prevent joint and muscle pain and injury, increase your range of motion and improve your balance. Stretch your calf, thigh, hip, low-back, neck and shoulder muscles at least three times a week. Stretching may not be advised if you have certain types of injuries.
By making small changes such as these over the course of a few months, you can incorporate good habits into your lifestyle and improve overall health.
If you have a question or would like more information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, University Hospital Seniors Club, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta GA 30909.
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