LIFESTYLE MEDICINE – Part 2: Role of Diet
What is the single most important factor that will maintain your health and prevent diseases, especially the much-dreaded heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer? That is the diet you consume every day. Physicians generally don’t spend much time discussing ‘diet’ with their patients nor is ample time spent on learning about ‘nutrition’ during formal medical school education and health training programs. There is abundant evidence now to support the use of a whole food, plant-predominant diet to prevent, treat and reverse chronic illness. The vast majority of the American population suffers from overweight to obesity, primarily from high intake of ultra-processed, calorie-dense foods rich in saturated fat, sugar and salt.
Let me give you an example. Lillian, an indigent patient, only 45 years old, came to our free clinic suffering from obesity, diabetes mellitus and hypertension. She has no home and primarily lives out of her car. Asked what she eats, she said: “Doc, I have no money. I eat whatever is on the dollar menu from McDonalds.” That turned out to be hamburger, fries and coke three times a day! She is loaded with fat and calories, which explained her condition. So, we gave her special instructions about what to eat within her low income, and our clinic had to make arrangements for her to get vegetables and fruits at a cheaper rate from one of the supermarkets.
‘Food as Medicine’ is an important concept and generally refers to giving top priority to what you eat with the goal of preventing or reversing a disease state and mitigating the symptoms of an already existing disease. Ayurvedic physicians always stress on your eating habits and they prescribe a diet that is appropriate for your ‘dosha.’ They feel that “A healthy digestion is like a steady, strong fire (digestive agni) that transforms the food we eat into easily-absorbed nutrients and easily-eliminated waste.” This leads to good health.
“So, what is the best diet?” you ask. As per Harvard Health News: “A healthy diet is rich in fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, ‘good’ or unsaturated fats, and Omega-3 fatty acids. These dietary components turn down inflammation in your body. And chronic inflammation plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time. It can damage tissues, joints, arterial walls and internal organs. Going easy on processed foods is another element of healthy eating. Sweets, foods made with highly refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages can cause spikes in blood sugar that can lead to early hunger. High blood sugar is linked to the development of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even dementia.” No wonder sugar is called the ‘white poison.’
Both in India and here, we come across many practitioners of yoga, from septuagenarians to nonagenerians, who are quite vibrant, not on any medications and leading productive, happy lives. The secret is ‘healthy lifestyle.’ As one guru correctly said, “Your body is the most sacred place of pilgrimage you will ever come to.” Physicians will readily agree. My grand uncle who lived to 92 years old in a small village in Kerala was a vegetarian, teetotaler, even-tempered, and walked a half mile to the local temple and back morning and evening and never suffered from any major illness during his lifetime!
The Standard American Diet — the fried, fatty, greasy, salty, meaty and sugary with a lot of processed meats — can be inflammatory and quite harmful to the body. Unfortunately, it includes a plethora of Omega-6 fats, fatty meats, cured meats, sugar and processed foods. Avoiding all these especially red meats and sugar as much as you can is the key in the prevention of inflammation. To fight inflammation, “go for whole, unprocessed foods with no added sugar, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils), fish, non fatty portion of poultry, nuts, seeds, a little bit of low-fat dairy, and olive oil.” To these, many people add herbs and spices like cinnamon, ginger and turmeric. You already know cinnamon is helpful in keeping the blood sugar under control and turmeric fights cancer.
You have heard about superfoods, right? They primarily consist of fruits and vegetables like cauliflower, dark leafy greens, berries, especially blueberries, beets, avocado, sweet potato, garlic, cinnamon and many kinds of nuts and seeds. No meat items are included in this category; however, fish and egg whites are quite healthy to the body. Sorry, no snack items such as potato chips, cookies and crackers. So, put yourself on a healthy diet and see the difference.
M.P. Ravindra Nathan, M.D., is a cardiologist and Emeritus Editor of AAPI Journal. For further reading, “Second Chance - A Sister’s Act of Love” by Dr. Nathan from Outskirts Press, can be found at www.amazon.com