How to Eat Heart Healthy

News & Notes nutritionist Rovenia Brock weighs in on the latest trans fat craze, the low-down on sugary kids' cereals and the benefits of probiotic supplements.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Eating smarter on the go is getting a lot more convenient these days. Snack foods, like chips and cookies, now come in smaller low-calorie servings. Many fast food restaurants have also added healthier options on their menus, and chains like KFC, Wendy's and Taco Bell have stopped cooking with trans fat oils. But can clever marketing actually help Americans eat healthier?

For answers to this and more, NPR's Farai Chideya caught up with NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Nutritionist; Author, "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy"): Certainly it is a good thing that they're getting rid of trans fat - the stuff that heart attacks are made of. At the same time, you can't - trans fats in the presence or having no trans fats in the presence of a bad diet does, you know, doesn't make for, you know, a healthy lifestyle.

So you really want to make sure that you watch all of the foods that you consumed, that you watch your total fat consumption. And we should say that you do need some fat in a diet to help utilize and absorb fat-soluble vitamins and you need fat in your diet for a number of other reasons just for normal body maintenance.

FARAI CHIDEYA: Now you and I have talked a little bit about healthy menu choices in fast food restaurants. If you need to grab some food on the road, what are the best choices to look for?

Dr. BROCK: Well, my personal favorites are some salads. The Fruit & Walnut Salad, the Asian Chicken Salad found in McDonalds. There are fruit and yogurt parfaits. There are other fruits that you can get in both a McDonalds and other fast food restaurants as well.

I would say go with broiled chicken or grilled chicken. Watch the special sauces that you pile on those sandwiches whether we're talking poultry or meat. You want to stay with things that are - stay away from those things that are deep fried because those are the things that will tend to contain more fat and calories.

CHIDEYA: So you've got trans fats in the restaurants, trans fats being legislated, but then there's trans fats in your own house or at least potentially. How do you avoid them when cooking at home and when buying the things that you need to buy?

Dr. BROCK: Well, you usually will find, Farai, trans fats in prepared foods so - or in processed foods, baked goods, things like cakes, pies, cookies. Those are the kinds of foods at home that you're more likely to find contained trans fats.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's move from fats to sugars. Last week, Kellogg announced it's going to reduce the amount of sugar and sodium in kid cereals like Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks.

Dr. BROCK: Oh, happy day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Are you being serious or sarcastic?

Dr. BROCK: I'm being serious.

CHIDEYA: Tell me why.

Dr. BROCK: I think it's high time that this happened. I mean, for years now, Kellogg's and other cereal companies have marketed to children on Saturday morning television, in the midst of their cartoons, high sugar and high calorie cereals that really had little nutrition and so - I think this is a step, a huge step, a giant step in the right direction.

CHIDEYA: Well, a couple of different issues. One, how does the amount of sugar in kid's products, and I'm thinking here not just of cereals but there's all sorts of other things marketed to kids affect obesity. And secondly, is sugar addictive?

Dr. BROCK: I think it depends on who you are as to what - I'm taking - I'm answering the second question first. There are some people that have a condition called insulin resistance, which means they really do crave sugary foods and carbohydrate foods that contain mostly sugar.

That said, answer to your first question, I think sugar is a huge factor in the obesity rates of children and adults and particularly children with regard to the cereals, with regard to snacks that are typically served in any American household from cakes, cookies and pies and the like.

So it's a big problem. The rise of type 2 diabetes in pre-teens and young people, I would say, between the ages of seven and 14 is really something that we've got to begin to reverse, and it has to do in large measure with over consumption of calories, of course, but in the case of children, many of these calories are high sugar foods.

CHIDEYA: Just in the way that you have issues like trans fats and how fast food restaurants have made some changes in their menus, now we see that children-oriented products are having some changes. Do you think this is part of a growing trend and do you think that kids who eat healthier things if those healthier things are marketed to them?

Dr. BROCK: Absolutely, I do and I also think that parents are the first example of what kids will or won't eat. Why not treat them with healthier options. And the earlier you start, the very best results you'll achieve because if we can see, for example, fatty plaque development in the arteries of three-year-olds, we used to see in the arteries of six-year-olds. Now cardiologists and pediatricians are seeing it in the arteries of three-year-olds, then we know that the earliest as is humanly possible that you can introduce healthier lifestyle options into the life of your children, all the better.

So having said that, serve things like vegetables. Serve things like fruit. Cut them in. If they're younger children, like preschoolers, cut them into interesting shapes and have fun with the preparation of whatever the healthier snacks or options are going to be. But the first example that they see, that kids see of what to eat and what not to eat is at home.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk last about probiotic supplements. What are those?

Dr. BROCK: Well, probiotic supplements are supplements that actually contain healthy bacteria. Now I know when I say the word bacteria, some people might be cringing. But consider this: Your digestive system changes overtime. So as we aged, you start to lose what's known as good bacteria from your gut. And the reason it's necessary that your body naturally contain good bacteria in the mix of bad bacteria that go there is because you need these good bacteria to help you - help your body to absorb and utilize certain nutrients like B vitamins, for example, or Vitamin K, even carbohydrates.

So if you have these good bacteria in a normal healthy balance then you will be able to utilize these nutrients at a maximum level. But in addition to that, there's something like five million Americans who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, and for those people, they know all too well that the symptoms that come with this. I'm talking about diarrhea, constipation, urgency, gas, bloating. They plan their lives around it.

And so the reason that people take probiotic supplements is to, one, offset those kinds of symptoms and to be able to take control of their lives again and to help to put back that healthy bacteria. There are two other things that we should mention and that is that if you change your diet, if you experience sudden changes in diet, changes in your environment, or if you for some reason have to take antibiotics, that healthy bacteria found in your gut gets unbalanced. So you start to lose it and for that reason, probiotic supplements are recommended.

So let's say you're planning your summer vacation and you're going to change your environment and you might be introduced to new foods that your system, your digestive system, isn't quite ready for. Of course, this kind of a natural dietary probiotic supplement before you go in your trip, the family vacation, might be a good thing to do.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Ro, as always, thank you.

Dr. BROCK: It's always a pleasure.

COX: NEWS & NOTES nutritionist Rovenia Brock is author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy." She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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