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updated 2/4/2005 1:14:56 PM ET 2005-02-04T18:14:56

It's the big picture — a person’s overall eating habits — that counts most for good health, research increasingly shows.

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Whether the health issue is weight control, reducing the risk of cancer or heart disease, or general well-being, no single food or sole nutrient outshines the importance of a consistent, healthy eating pattern.

This healthy eating pattern tends to focus on high-fiber, plant-based foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. The barrier for most people in eating more healthfully is consuming more vegetables.

Consider, for instance, the effect of eating on weight. A continuing study at Tufts University following healthy men and women through their adult years shows that those who eat in a healthy pattern have slight changes in body mass index (BMI) from year to year. In contrast, those who follow a “meat and potatoes” pattern, consuming less vegetables and fruits, are likely to have a six times greater annual increase in BMI.

Vegetables crucial
Overdoing meat is only one unhealthy problem, however.

People in the study who eat in a “white bread” pattern, which is also lower in vegetables and fruits, have a yearly increase in waist size more than three times those eating healthfully. Several other studies besides this one link a healthy eating pattern with lower weight or smaller gains in weight or waist size.

Of course, healthy eating habits mean more than greater vegetable and fruit consumption. They also include eating whole grains, reduced-fat dairy products and limited amounts of fatty meats and sweets. But the boost in vegetable and fruit consumption seems crucial to maintaining a healthy weight. Studies suggest that vegetables, in particular, provide hunger-satisfying bulk with fewer calories than the same portion of most other foods.

Like the issue of weight control, a person’s long-term diet pattern seems to lower the risk of cancer or other health problems more than any one food or supplement. Nutrition researchers think that a wide range of vitamins, minerals, fiber, natural phytochemicals and beneficial types of fat, which are found in a healthy diet, help protect against cancer and other chronic diseases.

An abundance of vegetables is an irreplaceable part of this eating style because they are unique sources of many phytochemicals.

Restaurants vs. home cooking
It might seem odd that Americans have a hard time eating more of something, since overeating is common. But many Americans struggle to bring vegetables and other healthful foods into their meals and snacks.

Part of the problem stems from how often we eat out. Restaurants notoriously emphasize meats and refined grains rather than vegetables, fruits and whole grains. In contrast, meals at home can be put together that have ample amounts of these plant foods.

Many consumers are unable to make the meals they would benefit most from, however, because of today’s dual demands for speedy preparation and flavorful, interesting food.

The American Institute for Cancer Research has developed a new cookbook to address both of these demands. In fact this cookbook, The New American Plate Cookbook (University of California Press, 2005), goes further. Research now suggests that we need to combine healthy proportions of food — emphasizing a wide variety of plant foods — and serve them in portions suitable for our energy needs to protect our health the best.

This cookbook shows how we can balance our meals, control portions and eat good-tasting foods without spending long hours in the kitchen. By satisfying our desire for interesting, tasty food, we can actually increase the nutritious quality of our meals and bolster our health.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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