Food matters. Scientists estimate that at the last turn of the century (2000), the combination of a poor diet and lack of physical activity was the underlying cause in 15% of deaths in the United States, and many believe that the true number may be even higher. Unhealthy eating can kill you! Much of the difference in death and disease rates in different cultures can be explained by eating patterns.

There are so many studies, so much information, so many opinions that it can be hard to identify what you should really worry about. If you read food labels, what should you focus on? Calories? Fat grams? Carbs? It can be hard to know what it is about your diet that matters most.

Here’s what research says about the primary aspects of food that matter in health and disease:

  1. Sugar matters. Regardless of your weight, added sugar appears to be a significant factor in heart disease, mental health, and other illnesses. Insulin resistance (more than eating too much sugar) is associated with diabetes, reproductive problems, and much more.
  2. Fats matter. Saturated, unsaturated, trans – it can be confusing. Your body needs some fat intake regularly. The data blaming trans fats for a number of health risks is very convincing. The data on saturated fat and red meat is less overwhelming, while omega-3 fatty acids (i.e. fish oil) are clearly beneficial in many ways.
  3. Fiber matters. Fiber comes from natural fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, etc.), and whole grains. Too little fiber has been associated with many illnesses, including heart disease, obesity, some cancers, intestinal problems, and diabetes.
  4. Inflammation matters. Chronic inflammation is an underlying factor in many illnesses including cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. Dietary factors including the glycemic index, type of fats, and other phytonutrients affect inflammation significantly – some positively, some negatively.
  5. “Organic” matters just a little. Organic foods are mostly free of pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, etc. There is no clear evidence they are more nutritious. And in general the level of chemicals in non-organic produce is low, probably low enough to have little or no effect on health for most people. If you want to go organic, but don’t have the extra money to buy organic for everything, consider the Dirty Dozen as top priority. (The Dirty Dozen is a list of the fruits and vegetables containing the highest levels of pesticides. The list is revised each year.)

Nutrition Data has provided a useful source of information on just about any specific food you’re interested in. If you want to know how any food scores on the above items, simply input the food you’re interested in on the website, and you’ll get a ton of information including the nutrient makeup, glycemic load, inflammatory index, and a whole lot more.

The One Thing

Even with what matters in your diet narrowed down to five things, it can still be difficult to choose what’s most important. So let’s narrow it down even further, to ONE THING. And here it is:

Processed food is unhealthy. Unprocessed food is healthy.

It’s really as simple, and as challenging, as that.

Unprocessed foods are as close to their natural state as possible. Many processed foods have added salt, sugar, flavorings, preservatives, or other chemicals. Refined grains are processed because of how differently they react in the body compared with whole (natural) grains. Processed foods usually have a longer shelf life, come in a package, and are often highly flavored. These foods are implicated in cancer, heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. And these foods make up the majority of what most Americans eat! This is probably the single most important dietary factor of all.

And processed foods are the same foods that promote inflammation, contain the least fiber, and contain the most sugar, unhealthy fats, and artificial chemicals – all the “bad” stuff from the list of 5 things above.

If you want to be healthier, make the move away from processed. This week choose one processed food you normally buy, and purchase a less processed alternative. That might mean:

  • frozen stir-fry instead of a TV dinner
  • instant oatmeal instead of boxed breakfast cereal
  • fajita-style chicken instead of lunchmeat
  • sliced peaches instead of ice cream

It doesn’t have to be straight off the produce truck to be less processed. The trick is to choose food one step less processed than you’re used to.

Then next week, choose another processed food you eat, and do the same.

Continue make gradual changes until 80-90% of your food is unprocessed.

I promise you that you’ll be healthier and feel better as a result.

This post is adapted from a section in Dr Carol’s book Dr Carol’s Guide to Women’s Health. Get your copy today!

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Your Turn: Do you think your diet is healthy? What processed food would you swap out first?

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