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How Nutrition Works

The Basics Of Special Needs Diets

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Tofu is an excellent substitute for meat that  is both low in fat and high in protein.

Special needs diets are often suggested to treat various health problems. If your doctor has placed you on a special diet, don't feel singled out. If you are following a diet prescribed for heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes, in particular, you may need to pay more attention to planning your meals, but the advice for you is basically the same advice we all would be wise to follow.

We can't, of course, provide specific diet plans here, as they need to be individualized for particular circumstances. If you have special needs, seek out a registered dietitian (R.D.) to help you plan your meals; your doctor can help you find one. Here is some information to get you started, though.


Cholesterol-Lowering Diet

People refer to this diet as a "low-cholesterol diet," but that's a misnomer. Although a diet to combat heart disease usually limits dietary cholesterol, that's not the focus. The aim is to lower levels of blood cholesterol. A cholesterol-lowering diet starts by limiting calories -- if you need to lose weight -- and emphasizes limiting saturated fat (to 8 to 10 percent of total calories). It may also limit dietary cholesterol to less than 300 or even 200 milligrams per day.

Saturated fats and trans fats are anathema to those with heart disease, because they have a direct effect on blood cholesterol -- even more of an effect than the cholesterol you eat. Saturated fats come mainly from animal foods such as meat, poultry, and dairy products. Important exceptions include the so-called tropical oils -- coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil -- which are vegetable oils but loaded with saturated fat. Check food labels for trans fat.

Besides substitutions, though, there are other heart-saving hints. Eat more fiber, particularly soluble fiber (found in oat bran, legumes, and fruits). And don't overlook garlic. Research suggests it can raise blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lower blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. It may also thin the blood so that it's less likely to clot and build up as plaque on your artery walls. Here are other suggestions:


  • Choose lean cuts of red meats -- loin, round, tenderloin. Avoid organ meats.
  • Trim all visible fat before cooking.
  • Broil, boil, bake, or roast. Don't fry.
  • Choose poultry. Opt for light over dark meat. Remove the skin.
  • Choose low-fat processed meats (check label for grams of fat).


  • Drink skim, 1/2 percent, or one percent milk or low-fat buttermilk.
  • Choose nonfat or low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese.
  • Limit hard and processed cheeses to part-skim or reduced-fat varieties.        


  • Avoid croissants and fat-laden muffins.
  • Buy reduced-fat or low-fat crackers.
  • Limit commercial baked goods and mixes. Bake your own with preferred ingredients.


  • Make cream soups with skim, 1/2 percent, or one percent milk.
  • Remove any fat that rises to the surface after cooling.


  • Eat them without added butter, stick margarine, or cheese sauces.


  • Choose ice milk, low-fat ice cream, sherbet, fruit ice, Popsicles, or sorbet over regular or premium ice cream. Limit serving sizes.
  • Choose angel food cake, ginger snaps, graham crackers, Fig Newtons, animal crackers, or other low-fat cookies. Avoid commercial pastries. Home-baked cakes made with vegetable oil (or applesauce or Nutella) and egg whites instead of whole eggs are also lower in fat and saturated fat.
  • Use cocoa powder in baking instead of milk chocolate.


  • Choose a diet tub margarine over butter or stick margarine (liquid vegetable oil should be listed first in the ingredients).
  • Use vegetable oil (olive or canola preferred) in baked goods and homemade salad dressings.
  • Purchase fat-free or reduced-fat salad dressings.

Other foods can remain the same. For example, most whole-grain breads, cereal, fruit, and juices have no significant restrictions.Low-Sodium DietThis is a diet usually prescribed for people with high blood pressure. Not everyone is sensitive to salt or sodium, but it's considered prudent for everyone with high blood pressure to watch his or her sodium intake.

Though cutting back on salt can help, weight loss is actually the number one dietary step to take to lower blood pressure. Other steps include eating more fruits and vegetables to increase your potassium and fiber intake. Getting enough calcium may also be important.The American Heart Association recommends a daily sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams. This is the amount in about 1 teaspoon of salt and includes table salt, sodium found naturally in foods, and sodium added to foods and seasonings. Here's how to meet that goal:

  • Take the saltshaker off the table.
  • Check labels for salt and sodium in any form.
  • Whenever you can, cook from scratch; limit your use of mixes, which are usually loaded with sodium. Remember, the more packaged and processed a food is, the more likely it is to have sodium added. Plain oats that you cook yourself, for example, have no salt (and you shouldn't add salt when cooking), but instant oatmeal is full of it.
  • Strictly limit pickled, cured, or smoked foods. Especially high in sodium are luncheon meats, salami, and hot dogs.
  • Soups are notoriously high in sodium. Look for reduced-sodium varieties; they taste much better than sodium-free. Better yet, for low-sodium and economical meals to last a while, make your own soups in large quantities and freeze them in individual portions.
  • Avoid packaged vegetables in sauce. Squirt on lemon juice for flavor.
  • One of the biggest hidden sources of sodium is condiments. Ketchup, mayonnaise, and dressings are big culprits. Use them only in moderation. Other infamous salt hoarders include sauerkraut, pickles, soy sauce, bouillon, olives, and tomato juice.
  • Find herbs and spices you like to substitute for the salt flavor you miss. Hot sauce can make you forget salt rather quickly (read the label to make sure it has no added salt). Freshly ground pepper works well, too.

Proper nutrition is simply a matter of staying vigilant. Whether you are at the grocery store or out at a restaurant, it is important to weigh your food options and make the right choice. Now that you understand the basics of nutrition, you will find that making those decisions almost becomes second nature. Not only is it the best thing for your long-term health, but you will also start to feel and see a difference after only a few weeks.ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

Elaine Frank, M.Ed., R.D., is vice president of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, a registered dietitian, and an instructor in the Department of Health and Physical Education at Henry Ford Community College.

Jeanette Karwan, R.D., is a registered dietitian and the director for product development at the American Institute for Preventive Medicine.

Susan Male Smith, M.A., R.D., is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant who specializes in consumer health writing. She is assistant editor of the newsletter Environmental Nutrition and writes the "Food News" column in Family Circle magazine. Her writing has also appeared in Redbook, McCall's, American Health, and Women's Health Advisor.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.