The importance of a healthy diet

Key Points

  • Food can be medicine, but it can be also poisonous – dietary factors can prevent or cause many diseases.
  • Examples of food as medicine include vegetables and fruits, healthy fats, fermented foods, spices and herbs. These foods help preventing and overcoming chronic diseases, as demonstrated by thousands of scientific studies.
  • Examples of “food” as poison include processed foods full of sugar and other refined carbs, refined fats, artificial sweeteners and other food additives. These share characteristics of the most common abused drugs, promote inflammation and are important risk factors for many chronic diseases.

 

This article is a general introduction about the benefits of a healthy diet and thus, the different topics are only briefly described. In the next posts, we will explain each of them in more detail.

Eating real food is the basis of our health. With all these “civilization diseases” appearing and skyrocketing, have we stopped a moment to ask ourselves why this is happening? Are we addressing the most fundamental aspect of our health – food?

Interestingly, no matter which healthy diet you consider, the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), etc. (there are many different names for healthy diets), they all have two things in common:

1) they all do recommend eating a high amount of vegetables and fruits as well as including healthy fat sources such as nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil;

2) they all do discourage the ingestion of sugar and highly processed “foods” full of unhealthy fats, sugar and other refined carbohydrates, and artificial additives.

Also, if you look at the places around the world where people are living the longest, you will find that these two nutritional behaviors are always present [1].

In the same way that food can be medicine, in some cases, it can also be poisonous. And we choose which one we have in our body when we choose our everyday food. Our diet affects all the functions in our body, from the immune system to the brain function. Every single cell in our body is affected, either positively or negatively, by what we eat.

It has been acknowledged by thousands of scientific studies that nutrition plays a huge role in the prevention of chronic diseases. And as you may know, prevention is always a more effective strategy than treatment, especially in the case of chronic diseases. However, if you already do have a chronic disease, starting a healthy diet can still give you the chance of improvement, and in many cases, even reversing it – examples of these are obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression, among many others.

 

Food as Medicine

Vegetables and Fruits

Meals with plenty of organic vegetables and fruits provide your body with all the nutrients it needs to fully function. We all need to eat large amounts of fresh organic vegetables (part of which, raw) every day to maintain or achieve health.

Real foods contain high amounts of bioactive components, which provide many health benefits beyond basic nutrition, such as prevention of chronic diseases [2-4].  Indeed, many scientific studies have found that dietary factors can cause or prevent many diseases, such as cancer and heart disease [2-4], which are the leading causes of death in most industrialized countries. Could the majority of these cases be prevented? I totally believe so.

As you probably know, overproduction of oxidants (reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species) in the body is responsible for inflammation and the pathogenesis of many diseases. Vegetables and fruits contain a large amount of antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds that help protecting our cells from oxidative stress and lower the risk of chronic diseases [4, 5].

Indeed, there is an overwhelming amount of scientific studies finding that a high vegetable and fruit intake is associated with a lower risk of developing many types of cancer (for e.g., [6-25]). The additive and synergistic effects of all phytochemicals (chemicals in plants) present in fruits and vegetables are thought to be responsible for their potent antioxidant and other anticancer activities [3]. This means that if you take a supplement with only one of the beneficial compounds found in fruits and vegetables, its benefit might not be as profound as when you eat the whole fruit and vegetable, where you get a whole array of other potent phytochemicals [3].  As the authors in [3] conclude, “the evidence suggests that antioxidants are best acquired through whole-food consumption, not as a pill or an extract”.

But beyond cancer prevention, regular consumption of fruits and vegetables has also been associated with prevention of many other diseases. For example, studies have shown that high vegetable and fruit intake is associated with lower risk of stroke [16-19], type 2 diabetes [20], heart disease [21-23], myocardial infarction [24], hypertension [25], Alzheimer’s disease [26-29], kidney stones [30], eye diseases such as glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration and cataracts [31-33], chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [34].

Also, people that eat a high amount of vegetables have better cognitive function [27,35], and bone health [36].

But the benefits of a high vegetable and fruit intake go beyond prevention, they also help overcoming many chronic conditions, such as depression [37, 38], hypertension [39, 40], glucose metabolism [41] and insulin resistance associated to type 2 diabetes [42, 43]. It has now been acknowledged by many doctors that, in most cases, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible by only changing what you eat. That’s right, type 2 diabetes is not only preventable, but it is also reversible in many cases. I will share more details about this topic in the next posts because I think it’s such an important topic. So many people are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes nowadays, which can lead to many co-morbidities…and this could be so much avoided.

Doing vegetable juices and smoothies are two great ways to increase your vegetable intake. I consider the vegetable juice a very powerful medicine that should be the basis for any disease recovery. In vegetable juices, you separate the juice of the vegetable from the fiber, which allows you to consume a large amount of vegetables at once, which you couldn’t if you would still have the fiber in them. Fiber is super important and you should definitely consume whole vegetables every single day – for which smoothies are very good. But when you want to have a high amount of vitamins and all the other beneficial compounds of the vegetables to overcome a disease, juicing can be a powerful aid. I look at juices as supplements and smoothies as actual meals. Both are important. I will go into more details later on.

Ideally, you should look for fresh organic vegetables that are grown on a local farm near the place you live. Nowadays, there are quite a lot of choices that make this achievable. All throughout Europe, there are many small companies delivering organic vegetable packages every week right at your doorstep. There are also many markets offering  local organic vegetables.

Healthy fat sources

Good sources of healthy fat are also extremely important. Fat has been quite “demonized” in the past few years, but actually some types of fat are very healthy and should be part of our daily diet. Examples of foods containing healthy fats include nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, macadamia), seeds (such as flax seeds, sesame, hemp, sunflower), avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and some wild fish (such as sardines, mackerel and wild-caught salmon). There are many studies proving the benefits of eating these foods for prevention and treatment of many chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes (for e.g., [44-53]).

And no, eating healthy fat will not make you fat….but eating sugar and refined carbs will, as demonstrated by several scientific studies [54-58]. Interestingly, eating healthy fat has been even associated with weight loss [58, 59]. When you eat healthy fats in your meal, they slow down your food absorption, and therefore you can stay full for longer without feeling hungry. It’s true that fat does contain more calories than sugar (9 vs 4 calories per 1g of fat or sugar, respectively), and nevertheless, eating sugar makes you gain more weight, whereas fat can promote weight loss. This is part of the reason why I think that counting calories is meaningless for weight loss: you should rather look at the source of the calories!

Also, refined carbs, not (healthy) fats, increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases [60, 61]. There are a lot of myths surrounding fat and therefore, I will dedicate a post later to this topic.

Fermented foods/Probiotics

Other foods that are authentic medicine are probiotic foods. The gut microbiota has been an extremely hot topic in science in the last years as many studies have been linking gut microbiota function/dysfunction to virtually any condition, namely neurological conditions [62, 63] such as anxiety and depression [64-66], autism [67, 68], learning and memory deficits [69], Alzheimer’s disease [70-72], Parkinson’s disease [73] and etc.

Actually, it has been discussed that probiotics could be integrated in the therapy considered for patients with major depressive disorder [74]. Therefore, incorporating probiotic-rich foods in your diet is extremely important. Some examples of probiotic foods are sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), pickles (fermented vegetables; but please pay attention as normally the ones you buy in the supermarkets are loaded with sugar! Check in organic stores or do it yourself!), kefir (fermented milk), yoghurt (for these dairy products, please choose the ones from organic and grass-fed animals; you can also buy milk from a local producer and do it yourself). If you cannot include at least one of these probiotic foods in your daily diet, you should consider taking a good probiotic supplement, specially if you have been undergoing antibiotic treatment.

Also, prebiotic foods (certain plant fibers) are very important, because they nourish and promote the growth of the good bacteria in your colon. Some examples of prebiotic foods include onions, leek, garlic and asparagus.

Spices and herbs

You should also consider including herbs and spices in your diet, they are powerful medicine as well. For example, you probably have heard about turmeric/curcuma. There is a good reason why turmeric has become so popular lately: literally thousands of scientific studies have shown its benefits for preventing and possibly overcoming many diseases, namely type 1 and type 2 diabetes [75, 76], cancer [77, 78], Alzheimer’s disease [79, 80], among many others. There are many other spices and herbs that have been shown to have many health benefits, and I will go through those in later posts.

 

“Food” as Poison                                                                          

On the other hand, “food” can also be toxic. And I put the “”, because for me, honestly, the word food should be used for the real stuff that come from Nature and that nourishes us. The other refined and chemical “food” items should not have the right to be called food anymore. I’m talking, for instance, about highly processed foods full of sugar and other refined carbs, refined fats (trans fats present in partially hydrogenated oils), artificial sweeteners and other food additives. Did you know that actually all these “foods” have been shown to be super addictive and share characteristics of the most commonly abused drugs [81]? Besides, they promote inflammation and are a major risk factor for many chronic diseases [82, 83], such as type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, stroke, heart disease, psychiatric diseases…you name it. The problem is that the majority of people’s diet is rich in these type of toxic compounds and contains little of the beneficial food items mentioned above.

 

You don’t have to implement all these changes at once. You could start off with a small change, and then gradually implement more healthy choices in your diet. For example, you could begin by reading the food labels and checking the list of ingredients of everything you buy, so that you know what you are eating. Then, you could eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet, while trying to choose whole grains and natural sweeteners such as honey (organic) or dried fruits like dates and figs instead.

Many people think that healthy food, with plenty of vegetables, fruits and healthy fats is not tasty. This is far from the truth. Healthy meals can be really delicious. In this blog, I will give you some recipes of healthy and delicious meals, snacks and desserts that will hopefully help you change your mind about the palatability of healthy foods :).

Some of the next posts on nutrition topics include:

–       Sugar

–       Healthy Fats

–       Eating the Rainbow

–       Proteins

–       Juicing

–       Probiotic foods and the gut microbiota

–       Sweeteners and food additives

–       Spices and herbs

–       Recipes

I really hope that these posts will motivate you to consider changing your diet towards a healthier, natural and chemical-free diet. I am sure that by doing so, you will achieve a higher wellbeing.

I hope you enjoyed this article! Please share it with your friends and family and leave your comment below! 🙂

Thank you for reading!

Live healthy 🙂

Ana

 

Next Post: Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture

 

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4 Responses to “The importance of a healthy diet

  • Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • Ana Coito, PhD
      1 year ago

      Thank you so much, I’m glad to know you are enjoying our articles 🙂

  • AMOS FONDO GABRIEL
    1 year ago

    I just feel insincere if I won’t appreciate this touching article. Healthy diet is a very sensible topic and am glad you made all the efforts to address it and ensured that it is accessible. From now onwards I will be very keen on the foods that I consume lest I contact some terrible diseases.

    • Ana Coito, PhD
      1 year ago

      Thank you Gabriel for you comment. I’m happy you liked the article 🙂 I would also like to invite you to check out our other articles about a healthy lifestyle. We have also been posting some recipes that hopefully will inspire you to have healthier desserts/snacks/meals :).
      You don’t have to change your lifestyle from one day to the other, but if you start implementing changes bit by bit, I’m sure that will make a big difference in your health 🙂

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