Healthier longer with better dietary choices
We are living longer – but we are NOT living healthier longer.
In fact, the average person will live their last 12 years in poor health and at some level of disability and dependency (UK Office of National Statistics). [See see data here.]
Who wouldn’t want to avoid that?
Yet 7 simple tweaks in your lifestyle – changes that are totally in your control – can help you avoid that outcome, adding over 10 years of active, healthy life to your lifespan.
Top risk factors for loss of healthy life years
A fascinating report from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation called “The State of US Health”, published in 2013 and based on data from the 2010 “Global Burden of Disease Study”, showed that the top ten risk factors for losing good health were as follows. UK figures are likely to follow the same pattern. They show the number of years of healthy life lost.
|Risk factor||Years of healthy life lost|
|Dietary risk factors||678,282|
|High blood pressure||442,656|
|High BMI (overweight)||363,991|
|High blood sugar||213,669|
You can see that dietary risk factors from poor food choices are by far the biggest factor in contributing to ill health in later years, and thence to frailty and dependency. Indeed, almost three times the risk posed by physical inactivity – although that’s not an excuse for lack of exercise!
Assuming you don’t smoke, then 5 of the remaining 6 top reasons for losing your health can be modified by better dietary choices! Because, of course, high blood pressure, overweight, high blood sugar and high cholesterol are all strongly affected by diet.
Dietary risk factors for loss of healthy life years
The breakdown of the Dietary Risk Factors is in this table – taken from the same study. Note that DALYs stands for Disability Adjusted Life Years, which is the technical measure used by the researchers for Years of Healthy Life Lost.
This huge study shows that diets low in fruits, seeds and nuts, vegetables, Omega 3 from seafood, whole grains and fibre correlate with a high risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
But that’s made worse by high intakes of sodium (salt), processed meats, trans-fats, and sweetened beverages. Notice that processed meats are a much higher risk factor than fresh red meat.
SODIUM = salt = sodium chloride
PROCESSED MEAT is considered to be any meat which has been modified in order to either improve its taste or extend its shelf life. Methods of meat processing include salting, curing, fermentation, and smoking. Processed meat is usually composed of pork or beef, but also poultry, while it can also contain offal or meat by-products such as blood. Processed meat products include bacon, ham, hotdogs, sausages, salami, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and meat-based sauces. Meat processing includes all the processes that change fresh meat with the exception of simple mechanical processes such as cutting, grinding or mixing.
TRANS FATS are also known as trans fatty acids or trans-unsaturated fatty acids. In processed foods, they carry the description “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”. In 2015, the US FDA set a 3-year time limit for removing trans fats from all processed foods.
SUGAR-SWEETENED BEVERAGES include packaged soft drinks such as colas, other flavoured fizzy drinks, sweetened iced teas, “energy” drinks, sweetened flavoured waters etc etc.
Increasing plant foods is the single most important dietary change
Of course we already know that increasing your intake of plant foods, particularly in unprocessed forms – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices – is the single most important dietary change you can make.
So rather than just repeat that the overwhelming evidence is that we need to be eating 9 portions of fruits and vegetables a day (source: The American Cancer Society) or 10 portions a day (source: Imperial College, London) – let’s focus on the easiest ways to create good food choices.
Not all fruit and veg are created equal. So it pays to focus on the ones with the biggest bang for your dietary buck.
1. Make a stir-fry regularly
Throw in spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, kale or cabbage, add chopped tomatoes, maybe some thin carrot sticks or peppers and cook with extra virgin olive oil and some garlic.
That’s a very good helping of cruciferous vegetables for their cancer-protective glucosinolates, heart-protective polyphenols and the additional cancer-protective carotenoids like lutein and lycopene, plus selenium (cancer-protective) and vitamin K (cardio-protective).Ring the changes by adding mange-tout, mini sweetcorn, red onions, butternut squash, courgettes. Try to get a mix of colours and don’t overcook – keep some bite in the veg.
- Vege omelette with at least 3 veggies
- Veggie soup with 4/5 varieties
- Mixed roasted vegetables – think beetroot, sweet potato, carrot, onion, butternut squash, whole cherry tomatoes, aubergines
2. Make your own fruit smoothies
Any blender will do. That way you can blend at least 3 fruits together – say a whole apple (other than the core) with a mixture of different-coloured berry fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries and maybe kiwi fruit. Blend with dairy or nut/soy/oat milk.
Or simply make a fruit salad.The red/blue berries are especially high in carotenoids. A recent Japanese study showed that women in their 70s who had the highest level of carotenoids in their bloodstream had a 100% better chance of surviving the next 10 years than those with low carotenoid levels.
Fruits can be fresh, frozen or tinned (drain them first if in sugar syrup, or use the juice if in fruit juice).
Buy fruit in season or grow yourself and freeze. Berries are easy to open-freeze after washing, but why not try cooking a compote of single or mixed fruits like plums, damsons, rhubarb, cherries, gooseberries? Just wash, stone, slice if large and cook until soft. No need to add any sugar. Cool and freeze in plastic boxes. Use in smoothies or add to breakfast cereals and yoghurt (see next item).
3. Add nuts and seeds to breakfasts and more
Add a small handful of nuts and/or seeds to your breakfast cereals or fruit, or sprinkle on to stir-fries, curries, bakes and pasta.
People who eat a portion of nuts and seeds a day are shown to have a lower risk of heart disease and even dementia. Add almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and especially flax seeds to any dishes you can. You’ll add fibre, minerals and healthy fats to your day’s food intake, and higher fibre is linked to lower levels of diabetes, because it slows the rise of blood sugar after eating.
Nuts and seeds help reduce the levels of inflammation in your body, which helps reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. Consumption of nuts also correlates with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
4. Add two portions of oily fish a week
Salmon, herring, mackerel and sardines all contain Omega 3 which reduces inflammation within body tissues. Inflammation increases with age and is a clear marker for heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s. The latest advice for heart health is to eat at least two, ideally three, portions a week. Each of these fish is easy and quick to grill. Or buy tinned and eat warm or cold.
5. Snack on dried fruit
Raisins, figs, prunes and apricots are nutrient-dense and fibre-rich. A handful at 3pm will boost your energy level and fruit intake. Try them with a cup of tea instead of cake or biscuits – it’s like fruit cake without the cake!
Or why not try a dried fruit salad? Steep dried fruits in green tea with honey and sprinkle with nuts. [see recipe from Health Defence Cookbook online here]
And finally one fun and one easy way to boost your nutritional status:
6. Nibble on a couple of squares of dark chocolate
It’s high in heart healthy and DNA protective anti-oxidants.
7. Take a health supplement
A comprehensive vitamin/mineral health supplement that includes vital plant nutrients like polyphenols and carotenoids can give you a baseline intake of healthy nutrition every day.
To some this might seem controversial, but Dr Paul Clayton is a former Chair of the Forum on Food and Health at the Royal Society of Medicine, so his special area of study is nutrition.
“It’s quite wrong”, he says, “to say that the nutrients in a well-designed supplement are processed by the body any differently from the same nutrients in food.”
So if you take anti-inflammatory polyphenols like curcumin, green tea extract, or Omega 3 fish oil, or carotenoids like lycopene or lutein in a supplement, these will have a direct health benefit in just the same way as the same nutrients would from food.
Dr Clayton continues:“Of course it is also true that WHOLE foods will contain other nutrients – like fibre or nitrates – that a supplement will not. So you should use a supplement in the way it is intended, and as the name implies, ie. as a way to supplement or boost your intake of the nutrients we know improve long term health.
“Since we know that it is really hard for people to get the ideal optimum level and variety of nutrients each and every day, I am positive that a comprehensive supplement is both important and valuable.
“But I don’t believe a simple one-a-day vitamin pill will make much difference. An effective supplement needs to be far more comprehensive and include the sort of polyphenols and carotenoids that make fruits and vegetables so healthy.”
Dr Paul Clayton set out his conclusions on what makes an ideal diet in a book called Health Defence. Health Defence summarises 30 years of research from around the world on staying healthy well into old age.
A supplement called NutriShield is, with his permission, based on those conclusions. See www.nutrishield.com.
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See online here for delicious recipes from the Health Defence Cookbook incorporating healthy foods featuring in a Mediterranean Diet.
Consumption of fruit and vegetables and risk of frailty: a dose-response analysis of 3 prospective cohorts of community-dwelling older adults. Esther García-Esquinas et al. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2016