A recent study caught my attention. The study evaluated how people in the United States are doing in regard to making improvements in their dietary habits. And improvements there are, however we still have a ways to go. Scientists looked at data over an 11 year period starting in 1999 and finishing in 2010. They evaluated the quality of the American diet. I found this interesting primarily because in all of my years of counseling people on how to lead a healthier lifestyle, when we deal with the dietary aspects, we almost always concentrate on what not to eat, but sometime we forget that there are thing we really must eat in order to stay healthy, have energy and ward off disease. The study found the following improvements:
- The average AHEI (Alternate Healthy Eating Index) 2010 score increased from 39.9 in 1999–2000 to 46.8 in 2009– 2010; researchers attributed more than half of the gain to reduced consumption of trans fats.
- Americans are eating more whole fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes and polyunsaturated fats.
- We are drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
What areas need a lot more improvement?
- We need to eat more vegetables.
- We need to eat less red and/or processed meat.
- We have increased our salt intake, which researchers found “disconcerting.”
- The gap in diet quality between rich and poor is growing. Income-related differences in diet quality are likely associated with price (healthy foods generally cost more) and access (low-income people may have limited access to stores that sell healthy foods), according to the authors. They also noted that education plays a role: Dietary quality was lowest and improved more slowly among those who had had 12 or fewer years of schooling.
Although it’s highly beneficial to avoid trans-fats, heavily processes foods and too much alcohol, what is it that we need to eat in order to have a healthy life and good quality of life through old age?
Let us first look at food quality. Approaching it from the standpoint of what we need to eat, will help us with good health and longer life. Number one is quite simple: lots of vegetables and fruits, and a wide variety of both. We do know from scores of studies that any society (unlike the United States) which incorporates an abundance of vegetables and fruits into its diet has less instances of heart disease and cancer, as well as deaths from these and the other “western” diseases. Five to six portions of vegetables and three portions of fruits on a daily basis are crucial. Again, variety is very important, as different fruits and vegetables contain different vitamins and minerals and different types of antioxidants and flavonoids. It also keeps your eating varied and more enjoyable.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, another essential dietary change one can make is to reduce, or even eliminate completely, refined grains (white flour and the like) and to stick with whole grain products.
Why in the world would someone take whole wheat grain, crack the grain, pulverize it with rollers, and separate the endosperm from the dark, fibrous bran and the wheat embryo? Why would they take out important nutrients, vitamins, unsaturated fats, fiber and magnesium? And if intact grains are so healthy, why did we stop eating them and shift to highly refined grains?
White flour was a novelty for the upper classes. The fact that you could take this brown, grainy flour and “purify” it also helped make bread and cakes lighter, airier and fluffier. Buying white flour became a status symbol. White flour can also survive longer without refrigeration. But the damage we have done to ourselves in the process has been severe.
- Whole grains protect against diabetes. According to two large ongoing studies, people who consume whole grains are 30% less likely to develop diabetes. Because whole grains take longer to digest, you don’t get repeated insulin spikes, which lead to Type II diabetes.
- Intact grains mean less heart disease. Also according to a large study, women who consume more whole grains were 30% less likely to develop heart disease than those who consumed refined grains. It stands to reason that for men the results should be similar.
- Less refined grains mean better GI health. The fiber in whole grains helps keep the stool soft and bulky. This prevents constipation, which is the number one gastrointestinal complaint in the United States. 725 million dollars is spent annually on over-the-counter laxatives. Whole grains also help to prevent diverticulitis and diverticulosis.
- Whole grains may prevent cancer. A recent overview of 40 control studies indicated that whole-grain consumption reduced the chances of developing mouth, stomach, colon, gall bladder and ovarian cancer.
Processed meats are not good for you, according to a study in 2010, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) have found that eating processed meat, such as sausage or processed deli meats, was associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. So what should we eat for protein? White meat chicken without the skin and fish are a better choice, and if you do want some meat from time to time, try to get unprocessed meat and preferably from free-grazing cow. Of course, vegetable proteins are a great choice, like tofu, quinoa, beans, and lentils.
And let’s not forget to drink enough water. 10 cups per day is a minimum requirement. In the hot summer, more is better and if you are exercising like you should be, make sure you are adding water before and after your workouts. According to the guidelines issued by the American Council on Exercise, one should drink 2 cups of water within an hour before exercising, consume about a cup for every 10-15 minutes during the workout, and consume 2 or 3 cups of fluid at the conclusion of the workout.
When we emphasis what we need to eat as opposed to what we shouldn’t eat, we will begin steering away from the foods that cause us harm. And let’s not forget the other component to good health and quality of life—EXERCISE!
Focusing on the sources of nutrition that we need for good health will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”