How Does Food Impact Health?
Food is medicine.
Yes, what you eat affects your health. It can help you manage and prevent chronic illness, which in turn prevents absenteeism and helps you feel better all year long. While food cannot replace medication entirely, a nutritious diet is your best defense against chronic illness. Rather than curing an illness, food can be used as prevention.
The importance of a Healthy Diet to Wellness
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains helps manage:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High cholesterol
- Diabetes (blood sugar)
How does food affect health?
Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself by fighting infection, increasing blood flow, and signalling that something is wrong. Under normal circumstances, inflammation is a good thing, until there is too much of it! Chronic inflammation has been linked to many chronic conditions including hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Making sure that your diet is filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains will help you decrease inflammation. Additionally, these steps can help you decrease inflammation:
- Aim for 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables/day
- A low-stress way to do this is to focus on making at least half of your plate vegetables. A helpful trick when it comes to vegetables is that the deeper the color, the more it is packed with ammunition to fight inflammation. Try to include leafy greens, berries, and others! Our favorite inflammation-fighting leafy greens are spinach, kale, collards, arugula, and endive. Berries that are high in antioxidants and can decrease inflammation are blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries. There are tons of other vegetables that fight inflammation, too, but some to note are bell peppers, chili peppers, grapes, tomatoes, and cherries.
- Consume about 30 grams of fiber each day.
- You’ll probably get plenty if you’re getting your 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables as stated above because produce tends to be packed with fiber! Another key is to make sure you’re eating whole grains, such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat bread, quinoa, buckwheat, bulgar, barley, and rye. It’s a good idea to focus on incorporating those grains, rather than focusing on limiting refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, corn cereals, crackers, cookies and cake.
- Get plenty of healthy fats
- Specifically try to include unsaturated fats like olive, fish, or flax oils rather than saturated or trans fats. Look for omega-3’s from fatty fish like salmon, tuna, anchovies.
- Try some spices or herbs with anti-inflammatory compounds
- There are tons of options that can be used to season your favorite dishes! Some that we love are ginger, rosemary, garlic, turmeric, oregano, cumin, cayenne, cloves, nutmeg, willow bark, and feverfew. We also have a few recipes for no-salt seasonings.
- Focus on plant-based or lean animal proteins
- Some good sources of plant-based proteins are legumes, nuts and seeds. On top of the usual nuts and seeds, we suggest pine nuts and chia seeds! Not sure how to add chia seeds? Take a look at our blog with tips, hacks and recipes. We also suggest incorporating one cup of pinto, black, red kidney or garbanzo beans twice per week.
- Other considerations
- If you have food intolerances, make sure to avoid those foods, if you are unaware of your food intolerances, you may want to have some nutrition testing done
- Try to limit the amount of sodium you consume
- Alcohol may increase inflammation
Healthy food choices for specific conditions:
Some specific diseases are particularly responsive to change in diet. For instance, heart disease and diabetes can be well-managed with changes in diet.
Here are the highlights to manage heart diseases including hypertension and high cholesterol:
What is Hypertension?
Hypertension Food Tips and Health Hacks:
- Sodium (salt) can increase blood pressure. Sources of salt include not only added salt at the table. There can be much more sodium in processed foods than from the salt shaker! Make sure to read nutrition labels.
- How much sodium is in table salt?
- 1 tsp salt = 2400 mg sodium; we typically recommend 1500-2000 mg/day
- Potassium can help mitigate the effects of salt. Fruits and veggies, which we suggest fill half your plate, are good sources of potassium. Starches like whole grains, beans, and potatoes are also good sources of potassium!
- The DASH diet can also help manage hypertension. Want to learn more about it? Take a look at this link to find out more!
- The REBEL plate is our version of MyPlate. It’s a great visual aid for creating balanced meals.
High Cholesterol Food Tips and Health Hacks:
- Saturated fat and trans fat raises LDL cholesterol which is commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol. Common sources of saturated fat are fatty meats, butter, high fat dairy (cheese, yogurt, cream), fried foods, and pastries. While trans fat is not super common, it can be found in hydrogenated oil or in certain processed foods like some peanut butters, baked goods, and shortening.
- Fiber, on the other hand, helps reduce LDL cholesterol
- Include lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains to increase your fiber intake!
Diabetes Food Tips and Hacks:
- Be mindful of carbohydrates:
- sugar vs starches
- Both sugar (in sweetened beverages, fruit, juice, milk) and starch can raise blood sugar. Starch is digested and converted to sugar. Look at the label for total carbohydrate, which includes both starches and sugars.
- Starches raise blood sugar slower than simple sugars
- See graph of how different foods affect blood sugar
- sugar vs starches
- Glycemic index and fiber
- Low glycemic foods have a higher fiber content, are digested slower, and do not raise blood sugar as quickly
Hopefully these tips have given you inspiration on ways to modify your diet to decrease your risk of chronic diseases and or manage your inflammation, blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes
For more of our favorite blogs to help you manage or prevent heart disease and diabetes:
- Three reasons you should eat hummus
- Eight heart healthy snacks
- Three ways to prevent heart disease
- Nourishly: The best new app for diabetes management
- Diabetes friendly recipes to satisfy your cravings
- Diabetes friendly grocery shopping
Interested in having us speak at your next event on how food affects health? We regularly speak at corporate events, healthcare and other community events! Contact us for more information.
Our Anti-inflammatory Dietitians
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Rebecca Bitzer loves to empower Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs) and their clients. Co-author of Welcome to the Rebelution: Seven steps to the nutrition counseling practice of your dreams and Taste the Sweet Rebellion: Rebel against dieting.