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For Immediate Release: July 14, 2009

NW: Questions about Western diet and cancer, herbs and spices for salt, macadamia nut oil

Week of August 10, 2009
Contact: Mya Nelson, (202) 328-7744

Nutrition Wise
Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN
American Institute for Cancer Research

Q: What exactly is a Western diet and what about it increases cancer risk?

A: A Western diet is generally identified as a diet high in red and processed meats, refined grains and sweets; sometimes it also includes high amounts of sugar-based soft drinks and animal or saturated fat. Increasingly, research on how diet can reduce risk of cancer is looking at how different aspects of our diet interact as they promote or inhibit cancer development, rather than focusing on one nutrient or food at a time. Although evidence is clear in linking a Western diet with heart disease, the studies linking Western diet patterns to increased cancer risk are inconsistent. We don’t know if the inconsistencies reflect differences in how studies define a Western diet, the impact of other risk factors (like weight, smoking and alcohol), or individual susceptibility. There are many reasons why a Western diet may increase cancer risk, ranging from its lack of fiber, antioxidants, and cancer-protective phytochemicals, to an excess of cancer-promoting compounds in meat and unhealthy fats. Scientists say we know enough that it’s smart to limit red and processed meats and sweets and adopt a mostly plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

Q: I’d like to cut back on salt by using herbs and spices more often but how do I get started?

A: Experiment! If you already have herbs and spices, start with what you’ve got. You can get a chart listing herbs and spices that work well with specific foods by checking the National Institutes of Health WebThis link will open in a new window. site and typing “Flavor that Food” in the search box. A good starting point is about a quarter-teaspoon of dried crumbled herbs per serving with much less for ground herbs or spices. Without salt, you need larger amounts of herbs and spices than you might expect. Try some of the herb and spice salt-free blends if you don’t feel confident about choosing your own combinations. Just remember that many blends, such as lemon pepper or chili powder, include salt when you don’t expect it, so check the list of ingredients or make sure the sodium listed on the Nutrition Facts panel is near zero. Try fresh onion and garlic, and garlic or onion powder (not the garlic or onion salts), too. And remember that flavoring without salt can also include lemon or lime juice, flavored vinegar, or even a hint of a flavorful oil (toasted sesame, walnut, pumpkin seed).

Q: Why do some sources say macadamia nut oil is one of the healthiest oils?

A: The nutrition benefits of macadamia oil stem from the type of fat it contains. It is mostly monounsaturated fat, which does not raise blood cholesterol and does not seem to promote inflammation. From a cooking perspective, it has a high smoke point, meaning it can be used in high-temperature stir-frying or sautéing without smoking. However, macadamia nut oil can be difficult to find in stores in some locations and is often rather expensive. Macadamia nut oil is a healthy choice, but other oils with mostly monounsaturated fat and smoke points as high or higher include not only the equally expensive almond and avocado oils, but also the more reasonably priced peanut and pure or extra light (not extra virgin) olive oils. Calorie content of all these oils is the same, so enjoy the flavor they add to food, but don’t overdo.


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