Investing in our health is perhaps the most important “investment” that we can make and it is well established that our eating habits and patterns play an important role in our future health. While we cannot change our genetics, research in the area of longevity gives us some great insight into healthy eating patterns. It also reminds us that while many “diets” focus solely on weight loss, we need to consider the big picture for health. Here are a few tips to help you select wise food choices to help prevent or slow the progression of various diseases.
Cardiovascular Health & Diabetes
In general, think fresh and lean! Go for fresh or frozen vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Choose whole grains and skip the refined versions. Skip the simple carbs found in sodas, juice and sweetened drinks and foods. Avoid processed, fried and hydrogenated foods, but do include healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado nuts, and seeds. Nuts and seeds are a great nutrient source of plant protein, fiber, antioxidants, phytosterols, and minerals, and are a low-glycemic food. Include 2 to 3 serving of fresh fish each week.
Overall, strike a healthy balance between calories in and calories out.
Reducing Cancer Risks
Many colorful fruits and vegetables have cancer-fighting properties. A comprehensive review of thousands of studies on diet, physical activity, and weight conducted for the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research pointed to the benefits of eating mostly foods of plant origin. Foods such as broccoli, berries, and garlic showed some of the strongest links to cancer prevention.
Avoid processed meats, salty foods, alcohol, sugary drinks and huge helpings of red meat. Gently sautéing, steaming, or braising foods in liquid are the healthiest cooking techniques. Grilling vegetables is safe, but try to avoid charred or blackened foods.
Super stars for cognitive health include:
- Dark leafy green vegetables
- Berries (especially blueberries)
- Olive oil
- Limit alcoholic beverages (no more than 1 drink/day for women and no more than 2 drinks/day for men. If you don’t drink don’t start.)
Calcium, vitamin K and vitamin D are important for building and maintaining healthy bones, so be sure to include green leafy vegetables, Brussels sprouts, broccoli as well as dairy products or calcium and vitamin D fortified non-diary beverages.
Lutein and zeaxanthin are believed to protect eye tissues from sunlight damage and reduce the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration. Great sources of these nutrients include dark green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, turnip greens and spinach, broccoli, peas, kiwi, red grapes, yellow squash, oranges, corn, mangoes, and honeydew melon. Beta-carotene is found in deep orange foods, such as carrots and butternut squash, plus dark green foods including spinach and collard greens contain beta-carotene which may slow the progression of macular degeneration. Your body needs fat to best absorb these nutrients, so be sure to eat them with a bit of healthy fat such as a drizzle of olive oil or a few slices of avocado.
What about taking nutritional supplements?
While the average American’s diet is far from ideal, not so fast with reaching for a bottle promising a quick nutrition fix. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other healthy foods contain substances not contained in a pill. We can't get the same synergistic effect when we isolate nutrients. Taking certain vitamins or minerals in higher-than-recommended doses may even interfere with nutrient absorption or cause side effects.
There are special situations where supplements should be consumed.
- If you are following a Vegetarian or Vegan eating pattern, be sure you ingest reliable sources of B12. The Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is a great source for more information.
- If you’ve had bariatric surgery, please consult with your doctor. Absorption issues post-surgery can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Depending on the specific type of surgery, deficiencies can include vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, thiamine, folic acid, iron, zinc, and magnesium.
- If your doctor has determined that you have low blood levels of a specific nutrient such as Vitamin D or iron, you will be prescribed a supplement.
It is very important to remember it is not one particular food that makes or breaks it. The field of nutrition is a young science and we have so much to learn about the fine details, however, it is safe to say we know that eating a variety of plant-based foods and limiting processed foods is better for us. Finally, it’s never too late to make improvements in our eating habits, so get started with a few changes today!