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Friday, September 30, 2011

An Apple a Day Keeps Diet Related Disease Away

Note: This is the first in a series of six posts discussing the Food Day principles. Today we're thrilled to have food blogger and consultant Amy Scheuerman with us to discuss the importance of good nutrition and its impact on overall well-being. In anticipation of our Community Sourced Potluck on October 24, we're encouraging others to share their experiences with "real food" on our Food Day microsite.

By Amy Scheuerman

Me visiting the farmers’ market in October is like a kid running wild in a candy shop: I want to eat everything. Instead of Fireballs, I get cherry tomatoes; instead of lemon drops, I get thumb-sized yellow squash; instead of fruit-roll-ups, I enjoy late summer plums; best of all—instead of diabetes or some other diet related ailment, I get a trim waistline.

apple orchard
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 8.3% or about 25 million Americans, currently have Type II Diabetes. These numbers are expected to increase, which means the problem is getting worse rather than better. Also, as you age, your risk of diabetes increases: if you’re over 65 you have a 25% chance of having diabetes. Since Type II Diabetes is a preventable, diet-related disease, you can think of it as a culmination of bad food choices made over a lifetime.

Diet is also related to things like high blood pressure, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer. All of these deadly diseases are less likely to effect you if you eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less salty, sugary, and high-fat processed foods.

If you’re interested in improving your health and preventing diet-related disease, food from a garden, farm, or the edges of the grocery store, is a great place to start. Whole, unprocessed foods have many, many health benefits to offer. They’re high in dietary fiber, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, contain anti-oxidants and phytonutrients, and are generally free of sodium. The health benefits of eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans are so great that that I have to limit myself in singing their praises or risk overrunning my word count.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans have loads of water-soluble, dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is something we humans can’t digest, which might sound like something you don’t want in your diet, but in fact the health benefits are endless. Everyone knows that high-fiber diets are good for keeping you “regular,” but you may not know that regular bowel movements may prevent or alleviate irritable bowel syndrome. Lots of dietary fiber in your diet is also associated with a lower risk of colon cancer.

Aside from aiding digestion, fiber also makes you feel more full, reducing over-eating and helping you to maintain weight. Dietary fiber can attach itself to cholesterol and flush it out of the body, improving heart health and blood pressure in the process. Dietary fiber can even help in the prevention of diabetes: water-soluble fiber slows the absorption of sugars from foods. This helps maintain steady blood sugar levels, which help in the prevention or diabetes and also improve the health of those living with diabetes.

Just as important as what you’re getting from delicious whole foods (fiber, vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, great flavor) is what you’re not getting. When you start basing your diet around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, you miss out on a lot of things commonly found in processed foods, most of which are bad for you. A diet high in whole foods tends to be low in sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sugar. Each of these bad boys causes diet-related health issues that dietary fiber prevents.

Sodium, a great preservative and flavor enhancer, is used in colossal amounts in processed foods (canned soups are a particular culprit, but even supermarket bread and canned veggies can pack a sodium punch). Bacon, that favorite preserved meat, has over 300 milligrams of sodium in just one slice . With the daily recommended allowance of sodium at 2,300 milligrams, three slices of bacon puts you right under half of what you should be getting in a day…just with breakfast! The problem with too much sodium? It can be harmful to your kidneys and raise your blood pressure. While certain people are much more sensitive to sodium that others (older adults, African-Americans, people with kidney disease), you’re wildly unlikely to be hurt by reducing the amount in your diet. By eating whole foods and reducing processed foods in your diet, you can take control of where you add sodium. This lets you know how much you’re getting and can use it to add flavor, rather than to make something able to sit on a shelf for a few hundred years.

Added sugars, in pretty much any form, are bad news. People are built to crave sugar. The common assumption is in hunter-gatherer days finding it meant something energy-rich a hunter-gathered person would do well to stock up on. In modern times with beet, cane, and corn sugar all cheap and abundant, we’re suffering from too much of a yummy thing. Sugar is something you should limit for many reasons: it’s easy to over-indulge and eat more calories than you burn in a day, leading to overweight or obesity; too many simple sugars without adequate dietary fiber can cause blood sugar to flip-flop like a bad political candidate, upping your risk of diabetes; finally and most controversially, there’s some evidence that too much sugar can be metabolically toxic, essentially meaning that we’re poisoning ourselves when we eat it . The good news is that if you cut out sodas, cakes, and candies, it’s easy to limit added sugar in your diet. And you can use fresh fruits to add sweetness without hurting yourself.

Saturated fats hit your heart twice. All fat is high in calories: gram for gram fat has more than twice the calories of proteins or carbohydrates. This means it’s a good idea to limit fats in your diet because it’s easy to overindulge and gain weight. Saturated fats (fats that are solid at room temperature, like lard or butter, or the marbling in a steak) have more heath consequences than unsaturated fats (liquid at room temperature, like olive oil) because once in your body they develop groupies in the form of cholesterol. When you eat saturated fat, your blood cholesterol levels go up, and high blood cholesterol leads to increased risk of heart disease and stroke . Not only does saturated fat apparently get lonely in the body and bring in cholesterol for a party, but the two go hand in hand in the foods you eat as well. Most meat has both saturated fat and cholesterol, a double whammy when it comes to heart health. Eating a diet that is low in meat, eggs, and cheese is a great way to limit saturated fat and lower your risk of heart disease. Eating lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans increases your dietary fiber, which reduces blood cholesterol and makes eating a little meat a lot more healthful.

It’s harvest season here in the Boston area, so this week I challenge you to head to the farmers’ market and think of it as your candy shop for the afternoon. You’ll see apples and plums, squash and kale, lentils and cranberry beans, all foods that are delicious and healthful. Indulge in some local food and know that while you’re enjoying your meal, you’re also reducing your risk of diet-related disease.

Amy Scheuerman is a writer and consultant with a focus on food, nutrition, and agriculture. She has an MS in nutrition from Tufts University and has worked at restaurants, grocery stores, farms, and schools. When not working for America's Test Kitchen or with the Culinary Guild of New England, Amy enjoys visiting farmers markets around Boston and posting her food and ag musings on EarthboundKitchen.com.

Help spread the word about "real food" by joining us on October 24 for our Community Sourced Potluck, featuring local celebrity judges, gift bags packed with delicious goodies, and, of course, lots of homemade, locally sourced eats.

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