Foods that fight 'lifestyle' diseases

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The good news is that Australians are living longer than ever before – but the bad news is that we’re not living healthier. More and more of us succumb every year to “lifestyle” diseases and conditions, which are caused by the way we choose to live our lives.

Around 1 million Australians are currently living with type 2 diabetes. Worryingly, we are now seeing children diagnosed with this dangerous and life-threatening condition, mirroring the rocketing rate of obesity in children and adolescents. A young person diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is likely to die 15 years before other children of their age.

Diseases such as cancer and heart disease are also on the rise. One in three Australians will die from cancer, while heart disease is our biggest killer of all. Some cases cannot be prevented, but many can.

So don’t despair – we all have the power to turn the tide! The simple facts are that just by changing what and how we eat, we can prevent 60-70 per cent of chronic (long-lasting) disease and premature death. And changing our lifestyle can prevent 80 per cent of chronic disease and premature death.

Billions of dollars are spent every year to entice us to eat foods that contain high levels of sugar, salt, refined carbohydrates such as white flour, saturated fat and cholesterol. Everywhere we look, we are surrounded by fast foods that are easy to buy and easy to eat.

If we can only resist the marketers’ sweet talk, there is plenty to learn from communities around the world where most people do not die early due to chronic disease. Dan Buettner, a researcher with National Geographic, studied five communities of people in what he called the Blue Zones.
Inhabitants of these “zones” – in California, Costa Rica, Italy, Greece and Japan – generally live into their nineties and beyond without disability or disease, and Buettner discovered they have some common lifestyle factors that boost both their length and quality of life.

These communities see food as medicine, not just something to satisfy their hunger. Most community members stay physically active well into their final years. They avoid processed foods, grow their own plant foods, and eat very little meat or none at all.

They take time to see the big picture – as one community says, “ikigai”, or “have a sense of purpose” – a reason to get up in the morning. Most participate actively in their community in some way, maintaining connections with other members, and prioritise spending time with their loved ones.
There is good scientific evidence to back up Buettner’s findings. Among many other leading organisations, the World Cancer Research Fund recommends eating mostly plant foods and less red meat, while the American Institute of Cancer Research agrees that a diet filled with a variety of plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, wholegrains and beans helps lower our risk of many cancers.

Several studies have found many benefits from a Mediterranean-style diet, with olive oil as its main source of fat instead of animal meat, including cutting the risk of age-related dementia. Diabetes, heart and cancer research organisations worldwide list the following as their top disease-fighting plant foods – and as you’ll see, most are easily included in the diets of even the fussiest eaters!

  • capsicum

  • wholegrain breads and cereals

  • broccoli

  • green leafy vegetables

  • apples

  • tomatoes

  • onions

  • garlic

  • berries

  • avocado

  • red grapes

  • nuts

  • seeds, legumes, herbs and spices (eg yellow turmeric)

  • soy beans and soy products such as milks

  • tofu.

So by making even small, gradual changes to what we eat and how we live, we can all start the journey towards what Sanitarium likes to call “wholicious living” (which simply means a way to better health and wellbeing).

References

  1. Ford ES, Bergmann MM, Kröger J, Schienkiewitz A, Weikert C, Boeing H. Healthy living is the best revenge: findings from the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam study. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Aug 10;169(15):1355-62

  2. Kvaavik E, Batty GD, Ursin G, Huxley R, Gale CR. Influence of individual and combined health behaviors on total and cause-specific mortality in men and women: the United Kingdom health and lifestyle survey. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170:711-8

  3. McCullough ML, Patel AV, Kushi LH, Patel R, Willett WC, Doyle C, Thun MJ, Gapstur SM. Following cancer prevention guidelines reduces risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2011;20:1089-97

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