Your diet can say a lot about your health.
When it comes to premature death and disease, a poor diet ranks as one of the top risk factors, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Dr. Mark Higdon , a board-certified family physician who leads the Novant Health Family Medicine Residency Program , has been practicing medicine since 1996 and is an advocate for a healthy diet. He also believes some natural remedies can help ease patient symptoms.
“The evidence is pretty well supported when choosing a diet that we should limit intake of ultra-processed foods and focus on whole foods,” Higdon said.
Higdon and his colleagues with the residency program advocate that enhanced wellness and optimum vitamin intake can be found by following some simple dietary recommendations.
1. Go for ‘good taste, good color and good smell’
The Mediterranean diet is rumored to be the key to living a long, healthy life. The diet suggests trading butter for olive oil, increasing whole vegetables, nuts, legumes and seeds while avoiding red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages and highly processed foods. It has been linked to lowering risk of breast cancer.
As part of the national Women’s Health Initiative survey, researchers examined whether diet quality affects bone health in postmenopausal women. Interestingly, they found that women who ate a Mediterranean diet were slightly less likely to suffer from hip fractures.
“There are lots of diet options out there and I think the Mediterranean diet is a superior choice. With any diet however there’s a consistent theme to increase the vitamin intake and effectiveness. Instead of ultra-processed foods, eat whole foods – meaning foods that are in a form closer to that which you can find on a farm,” Higdon said.
Dr. Kelley Lawrence , an associate director for the residency program, said she first learned about healthy eating while living in Taiwan in 2002. “A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine taught me that, in their culture, healthy meals have three properties: good taste, good color and good smell,” she said.
At that time, she began to look at her own plates of food differently – searching for natural, varied colors to indicate a variety of vitamins and nutrients present in the foods.
“With the Mediterranean diet, when you look at the variety of foods recommended, most of them have anti-inflammatory benefits,” said nurse practitioner Zoe Comer, who also works with the residency program. “It is thought that some foods, particularly salmon, healthy oils and fruits, can decrease inflammation overall in the body. These are simply the feel-good foods, and they help your body and mind to thrive.
“Colorful food choices can promote health, provide healing, and both restore and rebalance our nutritional needs,” Comer said.
The experts noted it’s important to pay attention to the types of food you buy when you’re grocery shopping. “As a generalization, the perimeters of grocery stores have the best foods for us,” Lawrence said. “That’s where all the colorful fresh fruits and vegetables are found as well as eggs, poultry, fish and probiotic-rich yogurts.”
Comer agreed. “We find that foods in the center of grocery stores are more processed, looking less like they did when growing on the farm,” she said. “We get much more benefit, for example, eating fresh salmon with a kale salad than with eating energy bars or powdery shakes. Our body can digest real food much better.”
Lawrence said that patients often ask about the best vitamin supplements or the perfect protein powder. “If patients are choosing between supplements and food, I’d rather advise patients to spend their money on the best fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables.”
For those who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, Comer recommended frozen alternatives. Nutrients are most optimal when fresh. Frozen options are your next best choice followed by canned.
2. Don’t be afraid to try natural remedies
“Once someone has contracted the common cold, there is clear evidence that antibiotics, antihistamines, nasal sprays and increased vitamin C are not helpful, but many natural remedies can be used to ease symptoms,” Higdon said.
“Echinacea purpurea and zinc have been helpful. Studies show that zinc lozenges within the first 24 hours of a common cold can help by reducing both the duration and symptomology of the cold,” Higdon said.
Comer also recommended homemade tea made from fresh lemon, fresh ginger and buckwheat honey. “You get good immune boosting, anti-inflammatory effects from the tea and inhaling the steam is great for clearing stuffy nasal passages,” she said.
“A few years ago when the flu hit so horribly, there were some studies that came out and evaluated nonmedicinal approaches,” Lawrence said. One natural remedy that was found to be helpful for reduced duration and symptoms was elderberry extract, which can be found at many drugstores.”
3. Decrease inflammation by making healthier food choices
“We know that food sources high in omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory components,” Comer said. “Healthy oils such as olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, certain spices and supplements like ginger, garlic and turmeric can also provide anti-inflammatory effects.
“Eating foods with higher collagen and gelatin is another potential way to get anti-inflammatory healing effects,” she said.
“There is some thought that fish oils help reduce inflammation of the coronary vessels, leading to a reduction of cardiovascular disease, but that is not yet definitive,” Lawrence said. “Some other foods are thought to cause inflammation, which can contribute to pain and illness – the Cleveland Clinic mentions the nightshade group of vegetables in this category.” Nightshades vegetables are foods that can aggravate arthritis and cause inflammation. These foods include tomatoes, eggplant, white potatoes, peppers, paprika and tobacco.
“There are some studies that say having a small amount of daily caffeine intake can be protective against Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.
Higdon noted that while it’s easy to recommend a healthy diet, it is difficult to definitely recommend consuming commercially produced dietary supplements.
“Take the example of folic acid supplementation. With confidence, we can recommend folic acid supplements and folate rich foods to women of reproductive age, knowing that these prevent neural tube defects in babies,” Higdon said.
In the case of fiber supplements, the true benefit is uncertain. “Most nutritionists and studies support that fiber is important for overall health,” Higdon said, “but much of the commercially produced food products marketed as ‘high in fiber’ inject functional fiber into their product and that is very different from naturally occurring fiber such as that found in fruits and vegetables. Processed foods that have been enhanced with functional fiber certainly increase the level of fiber consumed, but evidence is not there to support that this practice translates into the positive effects for your health.”
4. Choose the ‘farm instead of the pharm’
“When we look at the evidence regarding supplementation with vitamins, there’s plenty of controversy whether we can actually prevent or reverse chronic disease, but some studies suggest a possibility,” Higdon said.
Higdon said many dietary myths suggest that a single food or vitamin is the secret to longevity and health, “but we simply don’t know enough about the various factors, including genetic factors, that influence how the body processes vitamins to be able to make solid clinical decisions.”
Lawrence reiterated the importance of naturally occurring vitamins through whole foods. Or, as Comer said, get back to the basics and choose “the farm instead of the pharm.”
When in doubt, Higdon suggested starting with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for dietary advice.
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