Surprising facts about food for a longer life / Joe Nathan’s Column

On July 4, I had a heart attack. Thanks to the skill of HealthPartners, 911, ambulance and Allina’s United Hospital professionals, I survived. I’ve been given a “bonus round,” according to retired Beloit College biochemistry professor and nutrition expert, and a former college classmate, Roc Ordman.

More than 400 people have written wonderful messages to me since the column appeared. I deeply appreciate your response, and want to give back, in a way.

Many people asked for more information. Today’s column shares what I learned from Ordman and Jessica Frach, a registered clinical dietitian with Allina and United Hospital. They’ve helped me learn several new things about food. Here are my five tips:

Jessica Frach, registered clinical dietitian with Allina Health and United Hospital. (Photo by Jackie Hillman)

1. Low or nonfat products are not always a healthier option. We often hear, “Avoid fat.” However, Frach explained: “When a product is low or nonfat, manufacturers add sugar or salt to replace the fat that has been removed. Research is showing that processed sugars can influence heart disease.” Among the common examples: Margarine that contains trans fats should be eliminated, and if butter is used, moderate use is recommended. Include some full-fat yogurt in your diet, rather than low or nonfat yogurt. Avocados are a great example of a healthy fat.

2. Don’t necessarily avoid foods that are high in cholesterol. Frach explained, “Research evidence shows that there is no relationship between consuming dietary cholesterol and raising cholesterol levels.” For example, she urged: “Don’t avoid one particular food, such as eggs, (or) shrimp. Egg substitutes may provide fewer nutrients. Sometimes there may be many added ingredients. You can be missing out on naturally present nutrients, such as vitamins and additional protein.”

3. Most Americans eat much more sodium than we need. National research shows the average American eats 3,300 milligrams of sodium a day. Dietitians recommend no more than 2,300 milligrams. Frach notes that 75 percent of our sodium intake comes from processed foods, such as canned soups, frozen pizza and some breakfast cereals. She encourages that we pay more attention to our sodium intake.

4. Increase the number of foods you eat that are “closest to nature.” Frach echoed what I have heard about the importance of eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

5. Pay attention to margarine, muffins and many fried and packaged foods. These foods may contain trans fats (hydrogenated oils), which can be correlated with heart disease.

These suggestions apply to men and women as well as youngsters. Frach recommends a federal website, She believes that people shouldn’t try to totally eliminate “the bad stuff.” Instead she suggests that we eat more of a variety of foods and balanced meals. You can ask your doctor for a referral to see a registered dietitian who can discuss your specific nutritional needs.

Ordman distributes a free email newsletter on nutrition you can receive by with “Send newsletter” in the subject line. He quotes his wife as saying, “The best nutrition is to be conscious of what we put in our bodies.” His advice is: “Put in happiness, exercise, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Do not put in stress, dead four-legged animals, scary national news stories, worries that you cannot do anything about. Put in love and joy that you have potable water, eyesight and the ability to take a deep breath.”

Heart disease is real. It’s the No. 1 killer of Americans. I was very lucky. Please consider how you can help yourself, and your family, with wiser, healthier eating.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.