We are all exposed on a daily basis to a barrage of “healthy” diet and nutrition information - on television, over the internet, and in print. How do all of us sort out “fake” facts (unsubstantiated opinions) from advice based on solid science and medical studies? I recently ran across an article in an online medical journal that suggested six healthy eating diet tips (supported by multiple published studies in the medical literature) all physicians should shared with their patients as part of an annual wellness visit.
1. Avoid all processed foods.
Processed foods are all foods prepared outside the home. Examples include packaged snacks, smoked meats, white flour, sugar-sweetened foods, and of course sodas and colas. Why? Because of their high salt and sugar content. These foods are the source of more than 70% of the salt (a risk factor for high blood pressure in susceptible individuals) in the American diet and significant sugar in one form or another. As we face the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes, sugar is now the “new tobacco”, to be avoided whenever possible. It is estimated that avoiding processed foods and drinking sugared sodas decreases one’s risk of dying rate by 10%.
2. Choose natural foods with a wide variety of colors and textures.
Replace those processed foods with natural foods - foods as close to their original, natural states as possible. Replacing processed foods with nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables will significantly improve your long-term health and longevity. As a rule of thumb, the American Heart Association recommends that at least one half of your plate be filled with fruits and vegetables.
3. Choose realistic, balanced diets for weight loss and weight maintenance.
A successful diet plan is the one that you can stick to. Many diets have proven effective for weight loss and weight maintenance, but there is no single one that is easier or better. When a diet fails, it is generally because it is too restrictive, unbalanced, or causes too rapid weight loss leading to a rebound weight gain and the vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting (lose - gain - lose).
The common factors in successful diets (which we should all make part of our daily eating) include:
- An increase in vegetables and fruits
- An emphasis on foods high in fiber
- More whole-grain foods;
- Minimal sugar (especially sugar-sweetened beverages);
- Adequate protein (especially non-meat protein)
- Using healthy fats (oils).
4. Use healthy oils for heart health.
This includes a move to oily fish (such as salmon) which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids as our “meat” or protein for one or two meals a week, and cooking with one of the healthy oils - olive oil, avocado oil, canola oil, walnut oil, flaxseed oil, or chia seed oil.
5. Forego red meat and live longer.
Along with avoiding processed foods, this dietary change offers the most health benefit. Although red meat is the principal source of protein in our traditional American diet, research has repeatedly shown that consumption of red meat is linked to increased risks for cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Long term studies of over 100,000 health professionals followed for 28 years showed that cutting (not eliminating) red meat consumption - either by eating half servings of red meat or substituting fish, poultry, legumes, or nuts - almost 10% of the deaths could have been prevented.
6. Consume fermented foods/probiotics and fiber for gastrointestinal and overall health.
I’ve recently written several columns explaining the beneficial effect of certain colon bacteria (our microbiome) on our health. Adequate dietary fiber (from fruits and vegetables) keeps the microbiome healthy and in balance. Probiotics (kefir; unpasteurized, fermented foods) contain microorganisms that may confer additional gastrointestinal benefits.
These six changes in your daily diet are based on multiple well supervised studies in the medical literature and will increase your overall health. I think you are beginning to see a common dietary theme. More fruits and vegetables, less red meat (replaced with more soy, beans or fish to keep a healthy protein intake), and elimination of all sugars. Having tried to make these changes myself, I understand how hard it is to break personal food choice habits, and if you are the cook, your family’s eating habits as well. But keep at it. Even small changes will make a difference.