Hippocrates once quoted, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” Flash forward over 2000 years later where recent statistical reports show that over 1.3 million Americans die from chronic disease each year. With such a high number of the U.S. population affected by heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, chances are that each of us knows somebody who has been affected. Some of us have strong family histories leading to chronic disease, or perhaps you are in the midst of fighting a chronic disease yourself right now. Despite the different characteristics of each of these diseases, they do share something in common: risk factors, with one of the major risks being diet.
The fact that food choices strongly influence our health status obviously is not a new discovery. To give a positive spin to this topic however, keep in mind that if poor diet choices lead to the development of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, then healthy diet choices can certainly help lessen symptoms or even prevent further development of chronic disease. On an even more positive note, all four of these disease states can be improved with roughly the same diet recommendations. Here is a closer look at each disease state and the specific diet recommendations that provide that medicinal quality that Hippocrates referred to:
Heart disease and stroke: A diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables improves the cardiovascular system in numerous ways.
o First, phytochemicals, biologically active substances abundant in whole grains, are proven to lower cholesterol levels. The less processed the carb, the more phytochemicals. Quality, whole grain carbohydrates are more calorie dense than fruits or vegetables, therefore controlling the portion is what matters most to prevent weight gain.
o Second, fruits and vegetables are rich in nitrates and nitrites. These convert to nitric oxide in the body, which dilates blood vessels enhancing circulation.
o Third, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are low in saturated fat and rich in soluble fiber, which helps lower cholesterol levels.
Cancer: A diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help prevent the development of cancer or strengthen the efforts to fight against it by supplying antioxidants. These vital substances:
o Neutralize cancer causing agents called free radicals
o Enhance functioning of the cardiovascular system
o Boost immune health
Antioxidants are found in the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, and they are absorbed more efficiently from natural food sources versus a supplement form. Include at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack to get your five servings each day.
Diabetes: Registered dietitians are known to say that if everyone would follow a Diabetic diet there would be no more chronic disease. Some of the dietary guidelines for people with diabetes include:
o Whole grains – Quality carbohydrates are part of a healthy Diabetic diet. Portions should be smaller and planned out, but they are a necessary part of this well-balanced diet.
o Vegetables – These are a go-to anytime for an individual with diabetes. Their low carbohydrate content has very little effect on blood sugars, while their high fiber content helps stabilize blood sugar control and improve satiety.
o Lean protein – Protein is a key component of the diabetic diet. Since it does not contain glucose, it will not raise blood sugars and it will actually slow the absorption of glucose into our systems resulting in better blood sugar control.
Hippocrates may not have known about the benefits of phytochemicals and antioxidants during his time, but based on his quote we can assume that he did notice the results of improved health from a more balanced, healthy diet. This article generally highlights the benefits of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in relation to decreasing our risks for developing chronic diseases.
This is not a comprehensive diet prescription that will completely fix your health, but instead it is a starting point. Consider what foods you may be lacking on a regular basis, and develop a routine to begin incorporating these foods, one by one, back into your regular eating habits. Put the bottles of supplements down. Work to become less reliant on prescriptions. With patient dedication, it is possible to eat your way to better health, and there is no better time to start than right now.
Written by Niki Kubiak, RD, CSSD. Director of Nutrition and Health at Infinite Sports World. Learn more about Niki and her nutrition services at www.infinitesportsworld.com.