We all know that what we eat can significantly impact our health. When consumed in excess over time, certain beverages like alcohol, and foods such as highly processed foods, or those high in saturated fats, sugar, or artificial ingredients may contribute to, or exacerbate, poor overall health and chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and more.
What may be less understood is the healing power that foods can provide. Many foods already contain properties our bodies need that medications are used for, such as promoting gut health, anti-inflammatories, anti-viral compounds, and more. While there are a number of chronic illnesses that can’t (and shouldn’t) be treated with diet alone, many conditions can be prevented, reversed or greatly improved with healthy eating habits. There are three important ways that food can help you live a healthier, happier life.
- Drastically reduce your risk for chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancers, heart disease, and more.
Improve Your Quality of Life and Reduce Pain
- Reduce uncomfortable and painful occurrences of gas, bloating, heartburn, constipation, diarrhea, joint pain, muscle aches, headache, etc.
- Reverse some conditions, reduce the risk for progression or worsening of some illnesses, and/or a lower likelihood of conditions coming back out of remission.
Most of western medicine, focuses on trying to help you once you already have a problem, like managing symptoms and promoting survivorship. In our ‘pill for every ill’ culture, there’s less of a focus on #1, prevention. We can choose to use food, nutrition science and eating patterns to “get ahead” of many issues, manage the severity of symptoms and help keep us healthy and well for the long term.
Nutrition is about finishing the marathon—it’s not about winning a sprint. With food and lifestyle, results aren’t permanent. There’s always work to be done. The trick is finding joy in that work. Some of the joy comes from seeing results, but as a culture we’re so results focused that we forget it’s the journey that really makes all the difference. The real power of nutrition is in doing, not in knowing. But knowing is the first of many important steps, so let’s start there.
Food as Medicine: Eat to Live
Eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods is the key to getting the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy. Lucky for us because this diversity makes eating a lot more interesting and enjoyable! Research shows that diets like the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet and other plant-based diets are most helpful in optimizing wellness and promoting longevity. Regardless of what diet you follow, it’s easy to get enough protein, phytonutrients, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals to help your body function optimally. You can do this by building a balanced plate: 50% of your plate is veggies, 25% whole grains or starchy vegetable and 25% protein.
Your body needs protein to build and repair bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. It also helps support immune function. Whether you eat meat or have opted for a plant-based diet, there are plenty of options to ensure you get enough of this vital nutrient.
- Protein sources include fish, chicken, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, lentils, tofu, peas.
These are chemicals produced by plants to help protect them from things like the sun and insects. They also provide significant benefits to people who eat plant-based diets. Many phytonutrients give plants their color, so eating a wide variety of colorful plants provide our bodies with a diversity of nutrients—like antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral/bacterial/fungal compounds—that help keep us healthy. Phytochemicals support our immune system, help our cells communicate better, protect our DNA from environmental and age-related damage, and promote natural detoxification processes.
- Phytonutrient sources include colorful fruits and vegetables (such as spinach, kale, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, peaches, mangos, melons, citrus fruits and berries), nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, herbs and spices (like ginger, turmeric, echinacea, oregano.)
Getting enough fiber each day is key to a healthy gut. Considering that 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut, this is an important way your food choices can impact your overall health. Mood, appetite, weight, immunity, headaches, food sensitivities, inflammation are all linked to your gut, so promoting a healthy microbiome can improve many areas of your life.
- Fiber sources include whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice), beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients found naturally in food that our bodies need to develop and function normally. These include A, C, D, E, and K, and the B vitamins. The 16 essential minerals include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium (we definitely get enough of this one!), magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, and selenium, molybdenum, and chromium. These vitamins and minerals support a variety of functions in our bodies, such as bone development, immune health, protein synthesis, wound healing, repairing cell damage, DNA synthesis and more.
If you eat balanced meals and snacks most of the time, you should be able to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs—and getting them through food is the ideal way. But there are times when supplements may be necessary if you are unable to get the all the nutrients you need from your diet alone, or in the context of certain health conditions. This is something a dietitian can help you determine.
There are other important ways that food, diet and lifestyle factors can impact our health.
Refers to the proteins that sit on top of our genes and turn them on or off to express or not express them. While we can’t change our genetics, we can tap into some of the environmental drivers of the expression of our genes. Foods like garlic, grapes, broccoli, cabbage, kale, edamame, teas, herbs and spices, like turmeric, contain phytochemicals called polyphenols, that act as epigenetic regulators and can impact the progression of certain diseases.1
Research shows that modest caloric restriction can help us live longer – hang on… it sounds worse that it is! We’re not talking about a starvation diet. A recent study found that cutting caloric intake by 15 percent for two years slowed aging and metabolism and protected against age-related neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, as well as cancer, diabetes, and others.2 Additionally, Vitamin D is a nutrient linked to promoting a longer life by protecting our DNA as we age.3
Role of Obesity
Obesity, independent of diet and exercise, is a risk for many chronic illnesses including 13 different cancers, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune conditions. While BMI and weight certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of a person’s eating habits, being mindful of weight gain later in life can help.
It’s not just what you eat that impacts your well-being. Other factors such as when you eat, how much you eat at one time and how fast you eat, also play a role. For example, mindful eating is shown to help with weight management and distinguishing between emotional and physical hunger. What you eat, when you eat, how you eat acts like a dial that turns symptom intensity up or down.4
Diet, sleep, exercise, stress, and other lifestyle factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, all work in an interconnected fashion together to impact your health.
But, food isn't always the answer.
- Beware of being over promised. Instead, think about the role of integrative medicine. The right mix of western medicine with the right lifestyle changes may be the perfect combination for you. Keep in mind that if a fad diet sounds too easy to be true, then it probably is! Also, dismissing medical advice or conventional treatment for unproven diets may worsen your condition.
- Your doctor may recommend that you take medications for a period of time, and then phase them out as your lifestyle behaviors change. Or, you may need to stay on medication long term for certain conditions. Partner with your health care providers for a plan that is right for you.
- The pursuit of food as medicine can get overwhelming. The goal isn’t perfection it’s about making healthy choices when you can and when you want to. Getting caught up in having the perfect diet can backfire in terms of your mental and physical health. Be sure you speak with a professional if you think your food as medicine pursuit is stressing you out or causing disordered eating behaviors or thoughts.
Food as Medicine: Live to Eat
The idea that healthy food tastes like cardboard or sandpaper, that it’s incredibly bland, boring or even disgusting is a common misconception. I get it—we’ve all had poorly prepared veggies that are soggy with oil or grey and limp from over boiling. No one wants to eat that!
Thankfully times are changing, with examples of gorgeous, vibrant and flavorful nutritious foods flooding social media, network cooking shows and Youtube channels. Now you can actually enjoy eating the kinds of foods that help you live a long and healthy life!
There are many great resources for healthy and delicious diet plans and recipes, depending on your specific health goals and conditions. Here are a few of our go-to sources.
Or, search for Mediterranean or DASH diet recipes on Google and you will find plenty of tasty and tempting options.
About Stacy Kennedy