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Diet headlines serve up wine, hold the trans fat

/ Source: The Associated Press

Order from a menu of vegetables, fish, wine and chocolate, but hold the trans fats and sugary sodas. That might best sum up the diet headlines of 2006.

The year’s biggest nutrition news sometimes echoed what moms and food scientists have been harping on for years. Other times, it seemed too good to be true.

Often, the news centered on food choices many want removed from the table, but in a year that included white-bread icon Wonder Bread baking two whole-wheat versions, there were still plenty of healthy options available.

The year started out sweet — more data suggesting dark chocolate might be good for the heart — and ended with trans fats grabbing big headlines — New York City became the first in the nation to ban these unhealthy fats in restaurant food.

Although moms say save dessert for last, chocolate news deserves the first look. It made lots of mouths water, but nutrition experts say it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

A study published in February found lower blood pressure and lower risk of death in older Dutch men who ate the equivalent of one-third of a chocolate bar daily. And research later in the year found improved blood flow in adults who drank flavanol-enriched cocoa. Flavanols are compounds also found in red wine that researchers believe help keep blood vessels healthy.

The two studies build on previous suggestions that chocolate, especially the dark variety, might be good for the heart. But the research is not conclusive and scientists still don’t know if there really is a connection.

“Certainly nobody should start eating chocolate because they think chocolate is good for their heart,” said Tufts University nutrition professor Alice Lichtenstein. “At this point we don’t know.”

Drink up!

Same goes for red wine.

In November, a headline-grabbing study found that huge doses of a red wine extract called resveratrol seemed to help obese mice live longer, healthier lives. Some scientists think the ingredient, found in grape skin, is one reason French people have less heart disease than Americans.

But no one knows if resveratrol would benefit humans the way it did mice, and it would take enormous amounts of red wine to equal the dose used in the experiment.

A safer approach would be choosing foods with more proven benefits, including fish. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish, especially oily kinds like salmon and tuna, at least twice a week. They contain omega-3 fatty acids that can make blood less likely to form clots that cause heart attacks.

See food?

A study published in July said diets high in fatty fish might also reduce risks for a major cause of age-related vision loss.

The Institute of Medicine weighed in, declaring in October that benefits from eating seafood twice a week outweigh risks of mercury exposure. Children and pregnant women, however, are still urged to avoid big predators such as shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, which have higher mercury levels.

Research in April said a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet heavy on fish instead of meat, along with lots of vegetables and grains, appeared to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.

Brain boosters

More brain-boosting news came in October when researchers reported that eating lots of vegetables appeared to help slow the mental decline sometimes associated with aging.

The best were spinach, kale and collards, which contain vitamin E, an antioxidant believed to help fight cell-damaging chemicals.

What not to eat — and drink — got lots of attention in 2006.

Several reports said sugary sodas are a major cause of obesity, and in May beverage companies agreed to stop selling non-diet fizzy drinks in U.S. schools.

As New York’s board of health moved toward its decision in December to ban artificial trans fats from restaurant food, some fast food operators made the move in advance.

And the heart association became the first major health group to recommend specific dietary limits for the fat. Trans fats, found in many cookies, crackers and fried foods, raise levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad kind that contributes to heart disease.

Health experts said they hoped other cities would follow New York’s lead — and also adopt the city’s plan to require restaurants to list calories on menus.

“That will have an even greater impact on the nutritional health of our population than just the trans-fat ban,” said Dr. Robert Kushner, medical director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s weight management program in Chicago.

“That will hopefully start to chip away at the increasing prevalence of obesity ... the story that never goes away,” Kushner said.