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Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Focus

December 2014

Food and Your Health


  • Obesity, or excess body fat, has a significant impact on our risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, and arthritis.

  • What we eat also contributes to our risk of chronic disease. High amounts of saturated fat and trans fat, for example, can lead to cardiovascular disease.

  • The MyPlate method for food choices provides adequate nutrients for a healthy diet and can reduce the risk of chronic disease.

  • Proposed changes in nutrition fact labels on foods should help consumers make more informed choices about the foods they buy and thus lead to better dietary habits.

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Food has an enormous impact on our health and well-being, so understanding the connection between what we eat and how it affects our health is critically important.

“Food influences how we feel physically in the short-term,” says Edward Saltzman, M.D., Academic Dean for Education and Associate Professor of Nutrition at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, “and in the longer term, what we eat has a tremendous impact on our risk for a number of chronic diseases.”

Dr. Saltzman, who is also Chief of the Division of Clinical Nutrition at Tufts Medical Center, was joined by Amy Taetzsch, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., a registered dietician and weight loss counselor in the Energy Metabolism Lab at the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, for a two-part December edition of Physician Focus, Food and Your Health. Hosted by primary care physician Bruce Karlin, M.D., the program discusses how food affects health and how consumers can become more informed about diet and nutrition.

Food affects health in two ways, says Dr. Saltzman. “Food contributes to our body weight,” and obesity, or excess body fat, raises the risk for a host of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, stroke, and arthritis.”

What we eat, he says, also plays a key role.

“The composition of our diet,” adds Dr. Saltzman, “has a tremendous impact on our risk for a number of diseases. Most people, for example, are familiar with the effects of diet on cardiovascular disease, due to the intake of saturated fat and trans fat.”

So how should people choose the foods they eat?

Ms. Taetzsch recommends The MyPlate nutrition guide, which was introduced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2011 and which replaced the Food Pyramid. It is the recommended method of proper dietary intake today, and works as follows: take a nine-inch plate and fill it with one-half fruits and vegetables, one-quarter grains and starches, and one-quarter meat and protein. Add a side serving of low-fat dairy.

“The MyPlate method provides adequate nutrients,” says Ms. Taetzsch, “to sustain a healthy life and reduce the risk of chronic disease.”

Both experts agree that eating fewer processed foods is also highly recommended. “The fewer steps any food goes through to get to your table, the better it is for you,” says Ms. Taetzsch.

Both the physician and the nutritionist acknowledge, however, that many times that’s not possible. That’s why reading food labels is so important. By reading these labels carefully, consumers can determine how much of such items as sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and added sugars are in the food.

Current food labels can be confusing, but changes are on the way that should help people make more informed choices about the foods they buy. The new labels will highlight serving sizes, calorie amounts, and important nutrients such as vitamin D, potassium, and calcium.

So when it comes to food and health, what do the experts recommend as basic steps?

“The MyPlate method,” says Ms. Taetzsch, “is a great way to get a balanced diet. Eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, choose lean protein and low-fat dairy products.”

Adds Dr. Saltzman: “Try to consume the least amount of processed foods as possible, because the long-term health benefits are worth it. A more plant-based than animal-based diet is also recommended, as well as decreasing added sugars.”

He concludes with four tips for healthy eating: “Watch your calorie intake, eat more nutrient-dense foods, limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and read food labels carefully.”

View Food and Your Health Parts 1 and 2 for more conversation, including discussion about the difference between hunger and “feeling full;” what to look for in the proposed changes in food labels; and the experts’ opinions on more than a dozen individual topics, such as gluten, probiotics, “super foods,” organic versus non-organic food, genetically modified organisms, and vegan versus vegetarian diets.

MMS/Richard Gulla

Tufts University Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Food Safety

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Nutrition

United States Department of Agriculture Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

U.S. Food and Drug Administration


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"Food and Your Health" PSA

From left, Bruce Karlin, M.D.; Edward Saltzman, M.D.; Amy Taetzsch, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
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