March 9, 2016
In our country and most “progressive” countries, virtually all of the leading causes of death (cardiovascular diseases, followed by cancers and diabetes related deaths) are strongly influenced by dietary habits. A lifetime of poor dietary habits greatly increases the risk of having and dying from one or more of these disorders.
While the majority of the world (and numerous people right here in the US) struggle with hunger, most illnesses that we general practitioners encounter are related to overindulgence in food or under consumption of the proper nutrients, whether due to lack of knowledge or lack of means.
Americans are exposed to many confusing “health” and diet fads. There are, however, a few basic tenets we can all agree on that do lead to an overall better quality of life. These tenants also lead to better outcomes in the event that one does develop one of the above mentioned ailments, even when a genetic predisposition exists.
First and foremost, I think it’s very important to view food/nutrition as fuel and building blocks for our bodies, rather than indulgences. In order for our metabolism to work properly, our hearts to beat correctly, our brains to learn effectively, our bodies to move, our muscles to grow, we need the appropriate building blocks.
The USDA compiles the latest scientific understanding of nutrition and health, and puts out a report every 5 years, now called the Healthy Americans Report. More details are available at their website: ChooseMyPlate.gov. The following suggestions are taken mostly from this website:
Eat slowly, chew your food well, and dedicate time and attention to eating. Ideally eat with friends or family. Do not be distracted by TV, phones, IPads, games, work, etc.
- Eat smaller portions but more frequently throughout the day to maintain a healthy metabolism. In particular, eat smaller portions of your processed carbohydrates and proteins, and try putting your food on a smaller plate so your smaller portions appear bigger.
- Drink mostly water, or maybe tea, but avoid sodas and juices. Try adding some raw fruit or veggies to your water (strawberries, blueberries, lemons, limes, oranges or cucumbers, mint leaves, etc.). This gives it a little essence of flavor but doesn’t add excess sugar.
- Eat more vegetables and fruit, but especially concentrate on the vegetables, since fruit has a lot of sugar naturally. Current recommendations call for 5-9 servings of vegetables and fruits daily!
- Eat more whole grains: opt for whole grain breads or pastas. Eat more nuts, seeds, legumes such as beans and lentils. A handful of nuts make a great pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon and won’t weigh you down.
- Eat more fiber: this will fill you up and speed up the transit time of food so you don’t absorb as much fat. Be sure to keep well-hydrated – otherwise you may paradoxically develop increased constipation! Current recommendations call for at least 38 gm of fiber for men and 25 gm for women daily. (Your fiber rich foods are your vegetables, whole grains, leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds). Throw extra nuts, flex or chia seeds into your cereals and salads; fill up your sandwiches with greens and vegetables.
- Limit your intake of saturated fats (found mostly in meat and dairy products), sugar, processed carbohydrates, and sodium (found in most processed foods such as canned or frozen meals, deli meats, and salty snacks).
- Limit your processed food intake: any time you rely on someone else to provide you with the nutrients you need, chances are they’re going to sneak in a lot of addictive, cheap substances such as sodium, saturated and trans fats, sugars and corn syrup, etc. The more you prepare your own foods, the more you can be certain of eliminating these dangerous substances from your diet.
- Think of the changes that you’re making as running a marathon: you’re gearing up for a lifetime of healthy habits. Make changes one day at a time, and don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals.
- Get adventurous with food: try new veggies and whole grains. If you don’t like it today, don’t eliminate it from your list of foods just yet. Try it prepared in a different way before you entirely give up on that vegetable, fruit, or grain.
- Try healthy substitutions: start by making your favorite dishes, but try to make them a little healthier. For example, use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef, try sour cream or plum butter or apple butter instead of butter and shortening in baking recipes, use avocado instead of mayo on your sandwiches, etc.
- Don’t forget regular exercise. Ideally you should engage in cardiovascular exercise for the health of your heart and lungs and also resistance and weight-lifting exercises to maintain proper muscle tone and bone density.March is a great time to remind yourself of those New Year Resolutions you may have set, and to refine your fitness program in a more realistic way. The weather is also getting nicer, so I wish you the best in your “spring cleaning” of your fridge and pantry and of your diet.