By Dr. James Mittelberger
Did you know that unhealthy food is perhaps the leading cause of death in America? The typical American diet of highly processed, high calorie, high fat foods is killing us. More people have died from heart disease and Type II diabetes in the last two years than from COVID-19. Obesity, heart disease and Type II diabetes all are serious problems related to diet.
How did we get here? By the end of World War II, the American food industry was tasked with producing huge quantities of cheap, easy to prepare foods. They have succeeded. The solution was foods loaded with sugar and fat that taste good to most palates. Fast foods, highly processed foods, and fatty meats became the high volume staples of American cuisine.
Unfortunately these foods are terrible for our health in large quantities. Processed foods cause glucose to enter our bodies in an unnatural, rapid way. This causes toxic increases and swings in the hormone insulin, stimulating obesity and diabetes. The fats in meat also stimulate inflammation and increase bad fats in our blood, which often causes heart disease and strokes.
The good news is that we have choices. We can choose to eat foods that provide vibrant health.
Healthy Choices Make a Difference
A great study leading to a model for healthy longevity is called “Blue Zones.” National Geographic explorer Dan Buettner studied five regions of the world where people live remarkably long, full lives, with many living beyond 100 years. This Blue Zone research focuses on key healthy habits in diet, lifestyle, stress, and social environment. Whole communities of people can add 10-15 more years of healthy, vibrant life!
Below are some steps you can take to eat the right foods and improve your health.
Avoid Highly Processed Foods. Highly processed, refined food is stripped of its original nutrients and fiber. This food is absorbed too quickly and lacks essential nutrients. Examples of refined foods include candy, pasta, cookies, white bread, and other foods with lots of sugar or refined carbohydrates. If you eat one of these processed foods, eat it in small quantities together with more natural foods.
Add Plenty of Fiber. Eat more high fiber foods like brown rice, vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, and whole grains. Fiber helps our bodies thrive by feeding healthy bacteria in the intestines. They create a healthy intestinal environment protecting us from toxins and inflammation and strengthening our immune system.
Eat many servings of fruits and vegetables – Fruits and vegetables are generally packed with all kinds of essential nutrients and natural fiber, providing more healthy sources of energy. And they taste great!
Avoid Fatty, Processed Meats. If you eat meat, avoid red meat. Especially avoid cured meats like bacon. Fish is a very healthy alternative.
Make your plant-based, natural diet delicious. To begin eating like the healthiest people in the world, take a look at the recipes for healthy meals on www.BlueZones.com. You will find interesting recipes as well as healthy eating guidelines that promote longevity.
Jan Speer, a registered dietitian and colleague at the Center for Elders’ Independence, has several ideas for making healthier choices while grocery shopping.
Avoid Being Tempted by Processed Foods. Find healthy groceries by shopping the perimeter aisles where fruits and veggies, meats, and dairy are displayed. Boxed and frozen foods are generally found in the middle aisles. By avoiding these aisles, you will be less tempted to purchase processed foods.
Take Advantage of Healthy Convenience Foods. Convenience has made its way into the produce section. Buy microwaveable bags of broccoli, carrots and other veggies. In three minutes, you have a very healthy plate.
Shop Farmer’s Markets. Visit one of the 21 certified farmers’ markets throughout the county. Freshly picked, colorful fruits and vegetables are displayed at these year-round markets. Many sellers will happily share ways to cook and eat what they offer. You can find a list of markets on the county’s website.
Stay Hydrated, Avoid Sugary Drinks. Beverages are an aspect of healthy nutrition that is often overlooked. Many beverages are filled with sugar or high fructose corn syrup causing insulin to spike very high, very quickly. Instead of soda, choose sparkling water or green tea. Better yet, drink water with a slice of lemon or your favorite fruit.
Start With Just One Healthy Change. The good news is it’s never too late to start making healthy, prudent food choices. Speer recommends making changes one meal at a time. “No need to do a complete overhaul of your diet all at once. Start off with making changes with your snacks or lunch.”
By changing your eating and drinking habits and making healthier choices, you can live longer and better. You can do it!
James Mittelberger, MD, MPH, is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at UCSF, and is board certified in Internal Medicine, Geriatrics, and Hospice & Palliative Medicine. He is the Chief Medical Officer at Center for Elders’ Independence, which offers all-inclusive PACE senior healthcare at its newest location in Concord.