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Food nourishes the body to enable it to perform its various life-sustaining processes. Thus, your diet lays the foundation for your overall health.
But all foods are not created equal, with some ranking higher on the nutritional index than the others. Moreover, different foods have different nutrients to offer, and this needs to be taken into account when planning your diet, especially if it is meant to target any specific deficiencies, illnesses, or other health needs.
You can make a drastic improvement in your physical and mental health just by fixing your dietary habits. Healthy food choices help your body function at its optimal level, develop well, stay young and active for longer, and also prevent or control diseases. (1)
Conversely, poor nutrition combined with unhealthy lifestyle choices such as tobacco use and physical inactivity makes your body sluggish, weak, and prone to disease.
What Does Eating Healthy Consist of?
The very purpose of eating is to obtain energy and vital nutrients that fuel the body. Since no food has every nutrient you need, eating for health looks like eating many different foods that can meet your needs. So, a healthy diet entails a well-balanced collection of a variety of foods that meet all your nutritional requirements.
The foods that fuel you best are generally plant-based foods such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. (2) Foods that come from animals, such as meat and dairy, can be important sources of protein, calcium, and B vitamins.
However, eating lower fat options of animal products is usually better, and eating more plant-based foods than animal-based foods has also been seen to be helpful for health. (2) It is important to note, however, that there is no one perfect way to eat. Consuming the foods mentioned above can be done in many ways and many contexts.
Your daily diet should include at least 3–4 ounces of whole-grain foods, 5–6.5 ounce equivalents of protein foods, and 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy products. (3)
And be sure to eat only small amounts of fats and sweets. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons or 26 grams of added sugar per day for women and children, and no more than 9 teaspoons or 36 grams for men. (4)
Dietary recommendations to help prevent specific conditions:
1. Heart-related problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke)
Omega-3 fatty acids are really good for cardiovascular health and are amply found in certain varieties of oily fish such as salmon, tuna, and trout. Experts recommend consuming about 8 ounces of such fish every week to preserve your heart function.
Too much sodium, on the other hand, is bad for your heart as it increases blood pressure. Hypertension affects nearly half of all American adults, who are advised to keep their daily sodium intake under 1,500 milligrams (mg).
Meanwhile, adults who do not suffer from high blood pressure should keep their sodium intake under 2,300 mg per day. (5)
Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (6) that can help reduce your cancer risk. The more pigmented the produce, the higher is its nutritional content. So go for red, yellow, orange, and dark-green varieties.
This disease is characterized by rapid loss of calcium from the bones, which makes them thin, weak, and brittle. This is an incurable disorder that can only be managed, and diet plays an important role in that regard.
Needless to say, upping your calcium intake is a must if you have osteoporosis. But you also need vitamin D, which helps the body absorb the calcium that you consume. The daily recommended intake is 1,000 mg of calcium and 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D.
Women aged 51 or above and men aged 71 or above need a higher dose of calcium, which stands at 1,200 mg per day. Moreover, the daily intake of vitamin D should increase to 800 IUs as a person crosses the age of 71 years. (7)
Some rich dietary sources of calcium include fat-free and low-fat milk products, green leafy veggies, and calcium-fortified orange juice. Meanwhile, you can meet your vitamin D needs from fortified milk, cereals, and fishes such as salmon and tuna.
Eating polyunsaturated fats can help prevent and control type 2 diabetes, whereas trans fats can increase its risk. Vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds are some of the best food sources of these healthy fats. (8)
What Are Chronic Diseases?
While the definitions vary, chronic diseases are generally understood as long-term conditions that impact health.
Some of the most commonly noted chronic diseases include heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease. (9) However, other entities also count depression, HIV, obesity, asthma, and other conditions as chronic diseases. (10)
Although chronic diseases have been defined to last anywhere from 3 months to a year or longer, they can be lifelong. (11)
The reason chronic diseases are so important to pay attention to is that they impact a large portion of the population. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and diabetes – either alone or combined – account for over two-thirds of all deaths. (12)
More than just mortality, these diseases can impact the quality of life – more time is spent under medical care, and decline in physical ability can occur as well. Yet, many of these diseases can be prevented, or, at least, decreased, through the choices you make in your daily life. What you eat plays a large role and is worth giving importance to for this very reason.
Can Eating Healthy Prevent or Cure Chronic Diseases?
Yes and no. Eating healthily is certainly a very important part of chronic disease prevention and treatment. However, it is not the only piece of the puzzle.
The food you eat has an impact on your body and long-term health, but so do other factors such as exercise, use of tobacco, and alcohol consumption. Therefore, while eating well is not the only way to prevent chronic diseases, it plays a very important part in reducing risk. (13)
What you consume does not just keep your belly full, but it is incorporated into your body for energy, growth, development, metabolism, and more.
The consumption of whole grains has been linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer and can also reduce the risk of mortality from disease. (14)
Additionally, fresh fruits and vegetables provide fiber, energy, vitamins, and minerals, all of which help to reduce the risk of hypertension, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and metabolic syndrome. (15) Consuming unsaturated fats, found in plant oils, nuts, seeds, and legumes, can aid in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. (16)
There is data to back up the impact of healthy eating and exercising on preventing or delaying type 2 diabetes if it has not yet developed. (17) Of course, this lifestyle must be personalized and mediated by a team of health professionals.
Similarly, a healthy diet may prove somewhat useful in controlling the progression and severity of certain chronic illnesses, especially when combined with exercise. But this largely depends upon what the disease is, how advanced it is, and the individual case.
There have been some studies that demonstrated a reduction and reversal of coronary disease with lifestyle factors. However, these studies were small and conducted over a short period. (18)
Some chronic diseases, such as chronic kidney disease, are currently understood as irreversible. However, proper nutrition can help to reduce symptoms and increase quality of life in these instances.
Proposing anything as permanent – whether prevention, management, or reversal – is not assured. Just as every person is different, other factors may bring changes over time, such as aging, genetics, and socioecological components that are beyond personal control. (19)
Eating healthily may not be the only factor in preventing chronic disease, but it does contribute greatly to prevention. Proper nutrition does not guarantee a life without chronic disease, but it is bound to help rather than harm. It provides a better chance toward long-term health, but other factors matter as well.
Since chronic disease impacts individuals differently, the role of nutrition in the midst of a chronic disease requires specialized medical and nutritional attention. The important thing is to eat a balanced diet and to do so consistently. Eating the right amount of these foods and practicing it regularly is key.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of Poor Nutrition?
Poor nutrition can have harmful impacts on health and quality of life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify long-term impacts of poor nutrition as overweight, obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and deficits in brain function. (20)
Poor nutrition, in these cases, can consist of eating excessive amounts of foods that can harm health such as processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages; not eating enough nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; or a combination of the two.
For instance, the mention of brain function deficits is related to low iron and iodine levels in pregnancy and childhood, which can impact brain development in children. (21)
Poor nutrition can lead to other vitamin and mineral deficiencies as well, which result from not eating enough foods that are rich in nutrients or not eating enough at all.
Undernourishment is a danger long term and can cause stunting in children, as well as increased risk of illness. (22) This also becomes more complex in the setting of chronic disease, which can further impact malnutrition among both undernourished and overweight and obese populations. (23)
The simplest take-home idea here is that eating the right foods and enough of them is important to protect against poor nutrition and its effects.
Which Foods Should Be Limited for a Healthy Diet?
As mentioned before, balance is key. While there are things the body absolutely needs, such as vitamins and protein, there are also things it does not need in the diet. Added sugars and saturated fats are examples of this.
In fact, eating excessive added sugars and saturated fats can be harmful, for two reasons:
- First, by eating more of what your body does not need, less room is left to eat what is necessary, which puts you at risk of not getting enough vitamins and nutrients in your diet.
- Second, adverse health effects can result from overconsumption of these things.
For these reasons, foods containing added sugars and saturated fats should be eaten in moderation.
Recommended sugar intake
Too much added sugar can increase blood pressure and chronic inflammation, which can increase the risk of heart disease. (24)
For most individuals, natural sugars are not a problem. These can be found in fruits, vegetables, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, milk, and milk products.
Added sugars, on the other hand, can be found in processed foods and sweetened foods such as desserts, sugary cereals, soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and flavored yogurts.
The American Heart Association recommends adult men to consume less than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) of sugar daily and for adult women to consume less than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) daily. (25) Both of those recommendations are less sugar than is in the average can of soda.
Recommended fat intake
Too much saturated fat can increase cholesterol levels and also increase the risk of heart disease. Saturated fats can be found mostly in animal products, specifically meat, milk, and milk products.
The leaner the food is, the less saturated fat is in it. For instance, skim milk would have much less saturated fat than whole milk. Similarly, white meat such as chicken and turkey has less saturated fat than red meat does.
It is for this reason that adults are generally recommended to choose leaner protein and dairy options or to use different fat sources altogether. The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of total calories. (26)
Unsaturated fats are healthy fats and can be found in plant sources such as plant oils, nuts, seeds, and legumes, as well as fish, which provides an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. Unsaturated fats are good for the body and help it to function properly.
Does this mean you cannot enjoy steak or ice cream anymore? Absolutely not. But these things should not be the staples of your diet. Enjoying foods that contain added sugar or saturated fat can be done in moderation, but the foundation of your eating should be in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins.
Why Are Chronic Diseases So Prevalent in Children Nowadays?
There has been an increase in the prevalence of chronic conditions among children over the past 50 years or so, which can be attributed to several factors. These include genetics, social environments, dietary patterns, levels of exercise, and interaction with media such as television and video games. (27)
Also worth noting is that health screening of children has also increased over recent years, which would raise the numbers of children recorded as having chronic conditions. (28)
Moreover, it has been found that the environment a child is in will impact their overall health and its effects will carry well into adulthood. (29) The emergence of epigenetics has led to an understanding that the health impact of environmental factors such as diet, smoking, and stress can be transferred from one generation to the next during pregnancy and after birth. (30)
Therefore, the understanding of the prevalence of chronic diseases in children has continued to change as research on the development of chronic diseases has changed.
Since health can be impacted from time in utero to birth and onward, it seems to be a mix of genetic and environmental factors that have led to the development of chronic conditions in the pediatric population.
What Lifestyle Changes Should Be Made When Eating Healthily to Reduce the Risk of Chronic Diseases?
Apart from eating well, some lifestyle choices can be made that can also help reduce the risk of chronic disease:
1. Stay active
Exercise is a very important part of this equation. Adults are recommended to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. (31) Additional benefits can also come from muscle-strengthening exercises at least 2 days a week. (32)
However, if these recommendations seem daunting, it has been found that some exercise is better than none at all – getting any kind of movement in your day is beneficial. (32)
Also, physical activity does not have to mean running or going to the gym. It could be going for a walk, doing yoga, swimming, biking, or finding exercises to do at home. There are a lot of resources for inspiration on YouTube and other mediums.
The key here is to find movement that is enjoyable to you and to engage in it often. Your health will thank you!
2. Quit smoking
Another important factor for healthy living is choosing not to smoke. Smoking leads to a variety of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and lung disease, among others. (33)
It can also harm people that are exposed to smoke secondhand, causing stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease. (34)
The risk that comes from smoking is a magnified one: smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by two to four times. The recommendation here is to not smoke at all because of the present risks.
3. Limit alcohol intake
Alcohol also plays a role in long-term health. While drinking at all is not prohibited, excessive drinking does have risks. These include heart disease, stroke, liver disease, cancer, a weakened immune system, depression, and anxiety, to name a few. (35)
Drinking in moderation, or not at all, is recommended. Moderate drinking for adults is one drink or less for women and two drinks or less for men per day. (35)
In the United States, a standard drink contains about 14 grams/0.6 fluid ounces/1.2 tablespoons of unadulterated alcohol. (36)
4. Fix your sleep
The CDC also recommends individuals to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night to help prevent chronic disease. (37) Getting enough sleep is important for both mental and physical health.
5. Take ownership of your health
Getting screened regularly at the doctor’s office will help medical professionals to catch problems in advance and treat them as early as possible. (38)
The CDC also recommends knowing your family history of chronic disease so that you and your doctors can be proactive about preventing chronic disease. (39) While genetics are not something you have control over, knowing what could be present does help in determining preventative measures to be taken.
Key points to keep in mind when planning a healthy diet for preventing chronic illnesses:
- First, every individual is different, which means that eating well can be adapted to personal preferences. Choosing healthy foods and cooking them in a way that creates flavors you enjoy and is within your time and economic allowance are important.
- Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, along with occasional lean proteins or seafood, if available, can lend to a balanced diet. The benefits of a healthy diet include short- and long-term health benefits and are especially helpful in the prevention of chronic disease.
- You do not have to eat perfectly – everything can be done in moderation. As long as your foundation is with foods that promote health, you can be flexible when you need to be. Eating should be enjoyed, so find a balance that works for you.
- The advice for eating healthily provided here is general, and more personalized advice should be sought from medical professionals, especially if health conditions are involved.