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Your Food, Your Health: How to (Possibly) Live Longer by Eating Better

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Let’s face it: we’re all going to go sometime. But obviously, we hope for a little later than sooner. It’s too bad there are no guarantees, but the best way to increase the chance that you’ll be there to blow out all 100 candles on your birthday cake is to make sure you’re living the healthiest life possible. Careful attention to your health can go a long way to preventing (and can even reverse, in some cases) the onset of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

That’s why taking control over your health is so much bigger than just achieving six-pack abs and an enviable weight. And if you’re trying to lose weight, that’s why it’s critical that your focus is on lifestyle change, not entirely dropping pounds. Because long after your extra weight is gone, you still have the responsibility to yourself—and to those important to you—to stay healthy.

  Maybe you have a close family member or friend that has struggled with chronic disease—or perhaps you’ve struggled yourself. Whatever the case, the reach of chronic disease is often close to home, widespread and increasingly common. So it’s scary, but not surprising, to hear some of these stats: 10.7 percent of the 20+ population has diabetes; cancer is the second leading cause of death behind heart disease in the United States; about every 25 seconds, an American will have a coronary event.  

But along with the bad, also comes some good: Two-thirds of cancers are preventable, and as many as 95 percent of diabetes cases are type 2 diabetes, the type that is often—but not always—triggered by obesity. Though the great US of A is still one of the tubbiest nations—CDC data indicates that 68 percent of Americans are either obese or overweight—the rising obesity trend is beginning to level. But there is still room for improvement. To do the most you can to prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes, following a low fat diet, maintaining a healthy weight and a regular exercise routine can go a long way. Obviously, healthy living can’t save you from a chronic disease diagnosis, but it can help make it a lot less possible that you you’ll have to wage the struggle someday. And even if you have a family history of a chronic disease, experts think that those with a family history have the most to gain from healthy eating and exercise. So, chronic disease does not have to be your destiny. 

And there’s more good news: to help prevent cancer, heart disease and diabetes, you don’t have to follow three different ways of eating. Just one sensible approach and a few pointers, like the following, are all you need to stack the cards in your favor for lifelong good health. 

Thin is in
Perhaps the single most important thing you can do is to maintain a healthy body weight. Being overweight or obese significantly increases your risk for pre-diabetes and diabetes, cancer and heart disease. If you are carrying extra weight, simply losing 10 percent of your body weight is often enough to reverse Type 2 or pre-diabetes and can lower your blood pressure, triglycerides LDL cholesterol. Even if you have a normal body mass index (BMI) a high waist circumference can put you at increased risk for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. Take out a tape measure and see where you stand: men should be measure no more than 40 inches around the middle (If you're of Asian heritage, it’s 38 inches). 

Tie ‘em on (your sneakers, that is)
Not only will rigorous exercise help you lose weight or maintain an already healthy body mass, but it also can help you shed abdominal fat (that’s why it’s important to know your waist circumference), which increases the risk of some types of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Exercise also helps improve the way that insulin (the hormone that removes sugar from your blood) functions in your body, so the effects of getting a little more physical can dramatically lower blood sugar.

Go whole
It’s a simple as choosing as choosing whole-grain bread over white; oatmeal over cream of wheat or popcorn over pretzels (Yes! Popcorn—watch the butter and salt, though—makes a great whole-grain snack). Eating a diet rich in whole grains is associated with reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. How so? Whole grains contain more fiber than refined grains and can help keep blood sugar levels more stable. Plus, they have many more antioxidants and nutrients that are heart and cancer protective than their stripped down refined counterparts. Bring on the brown rice!

Be a produce king
There’s a good reason why the National Cancer Institute famously recommended eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day—their vibrant colors hint at the rich load of antioxidants inside. Load up on cancer fighting superstars like cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage and arugula), berries and citrus. Pile on the beans for diabetes prevention; their high fiber content slows the rise of blood sugar after meals. And to keep your ticker happy, the soluble fiber in fruit and vegetables can help lower cholesterol.

Go low (with saturated and trans fat)
Aim to keep your daily consumption of saturated plus trans fat at or below a combined 20 grams. To that end, choosing skim or one-percent dairy, lean meats, fish, skinless poultry and vegetables sources of protein are simple ways to help cut your risk- especially when it comes to heart disease and cancer. Going vegetarian a few times a week can also help keep your saturated fat intake low—nuts and nut butters, eggs and beans make great non-meat protein stand-ins. And to steer clear of trans fat, inspect labels (especially baked goods and snacks) for “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil”—which means that a small amount of trans fat is in the food product, even if the nutrition facts panel reads zero.

Lotsa PUFAs and MUFAs
  That is, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). These two unsaturated fats can help you lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol, while monounsaturated fat can help raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Avocados, olive oil, nuts, and nut butters are great sources of these heart healthy fats. And for more control over blood sugar, try monounsaturated fat-rich almonds; adding a sprinkling to a cup of yogurt or atop a salad can lower the glycemic index of the meal. Also, to your weekly meal roundup, try adding foods with omega 3’s—special polyunsaturated fats found in flax, fatty fish like tuna, and walnuts—that can help reduce cancer and heart disease risk. 

Look beyond your diet
Minding what you eat isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the only way to cut your risk for chronic disease. There are other things you can do: If you smoke, make a concerted effort to quit; adopt a regular exercise program that you enjoy (if you haven’t already); learn to manage your life stress and strive for seven to nine hours of restful sleep a night.