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Women and Nutrition: A Menu of Special Needs

by Dori Stehlin

To keep levels in the good range, the National Cholesterol Education Program of the national Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends eating no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. Cholesterol is found only in food from animal sources, such as egg yolks, dairy products, meat, poultry, shellfish, and--in smaller amounts--fish and some processed products containing animal foods.

Even more important than limiting cholesterol to under 300 milligrams is keeping saturated fat to under 10 percent of total calories, says Nancy Ernst, the nutrition coordinator for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

"Don't even think about cholesterol in your diet," says Ernst. "Focus on reducing saturated fat."

Fat

In the United States, out of every 100,000 women, approximately 27 die from breast cancer each year. In Japan, breast cancer deaths are fewer than 7 per 100,000. Some scientists think that the difference in death rates may be related to the different amounts of fat in the average diet in each country--40 percent for American women versus 20 percent in Japan.

"We believe pretty strongly in the link [between high-fat diets and breast cancer]," says Jeffrey McKenna, director of NCI's Cancer Awareness Program.

Population studies have also linked high-fat diets to other cancers, particularly colorectal cancer.

Fat does, however, serve a purpose in the diet. Fats in foods provide energy and help the body absorb certain vitamins. But it is as easy as pie (and doughnuts, ice cream, and sirloin steaks) to eat too much.

For a healthy diet, the diet and health report of the National Research Council recommends reducing fat to no more than 30 percent of total calories (see box to figure out how). But that's not all. In terms of heart disease, the kinds of fat you eat are as important as how much.

There are three kinds of fat--saturated, polyunsaturated, and mono-unsaturated. All three are equal when it comes to calories--9 per gram (compared to 4 calories per gram for protein or carbohydrate). But they aren't equal when it comes to how they affect your health.

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