Food as Medicine

There’s a lot of controversy out there about what the elusive miracle diet is. As I always say, before you choose what type of diet to accomplish a goal, you’ll likely have to choose what your goal is. One person may want a diet to help them improve their cardiovascular health while another may want a diet to lose weight or improve their diabetes. Unfortunately, when it comes to food, there isn’t often a one size fits all solution. Recently, after a NY Times article by Nicholas Bakalar featured results from a large study in The Lancet that reported eating full-fat dairy was actually associated with a much lower risk of heart disease, lots of people have been asking what this really means in terms of what they should be eating to optimize their heart health.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that our perceptions of what’s “healthy” and what’s not is heavily influenced by food lobbyists and companies marketing their products. When we start to look at food as “medicine” for our health, doctors and scientists try to put it under the same level of unbiased scrutiny as they would when researching new medications or diseases. This is why doctors love evidence. If you have a well-designed study that looks at the effect of something in a large number of people, the results will be more widely applicable to help inform your decisions. That’s much more validated and very different than someone saying something is good for you in a paid advertisement. Quality research helps answer the question you’re left with: “Does this actually apply to me?”

Enough about that. Let’s dive into some useful information about real research that’s out there regarding your trusty food groups. Many researchers have looked into different things that are associated with heart disease. For example, for every additional service of red meat someone has per day, their risk of dying from heart disease increases by 16% according to a previous publication in The Lancet from the PURE Study. Another study that looked at various food groups found that eating more of the following food groups was associated with less heart disease: whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, dairy, and fish.

As you can see, when it comes to research, people can be much more critical of things than how skinny someone looks in an ad while eating a new miracle food. Getting back to the point that different diets may be different depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s important to realize that weight loss isn’t the only goal. In fact, there’s some recent research and controversy in the medical community about whether obesity in and of itself is a risk factor for heart disease if it’s not accompanied by any of its usual companions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Tips

Since it can get complicated and frustrating trying to figure out optimal diets and nutrition, I’ll leave you with 2 “f” words that encompass my favorite tips regarding food for cardiovascular health so you’re not left saying a different “f” word instead:

  1. Fiber
  2. Fresh

Fiber is great to keep track of for many reasons, mainly because it’s present in a lot of healthy foods and absent in a lot of unhealthy foods. When you eat fiber, it makes you feel full so you end up eating less. Also, the way your body processes fiber, it holds onto sugar fat, limiting the amount that gets absorbed. Aside from the fiber itself, it’s just as good as the company it keeps. Fiber is abundant in foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, which all frequently also contain other healthy things like vitamins and anti-oxidants. As demonstrated in many studies,

fiber intake alone has been associated with lower risk of heart disease.

bowl-of-fruit-1205155_640I like to tell people to shoot for 35 grams of fiber per day. 35 isn’t a magic number, but if you start paying attention, you’ll find that this is a fair amount of fiber. If you’re eating that much, odds are you’re eating a fairly healthy diet. If you start paying attention to how much you currently eat and it’s nowhere near that, ease your way into it. Eating a lot of fiber can cause bloating, gas, upset stomach, and even diarrhea or constipation.

Fresh is another catch-all thing to remember and should remind you to not eat processed foods. Eating processed and ultra-processed foods, which runs the gamut from canned foods with salt, sugar, and preservatives added, to eating something-flavored snack-packs that are mass produced and contain more ingredients that sound like a science experiment than the thing it actually tastes like (ex. fruit snacks). When people talk about processed foods, it’s important to be able to identify what that means when you see it. That said, it’s actually easier to decide what it’s not.

Fresh foods are easy to identify. For example, you should be able to spot a fresh vegetable or fresh fish when you see it. Fresh should be your friend. That said, most of us will be eating a certain degree of prepared or processed foods. The best way to find the happy medium is to look at the ingredient label. Key fact about ingredient labels:

ingredients are listed in order of how much is in the product.

gm-food-1668167_640If you’re buying canned vegetables and the first ingredient is something that sounds like it belongs in a science experiment instead of an actual vegetable, you may want to put that back. The processing of foods often removes their nutritional value and adds things that are less healthy. Fresh frozen foods are often less processed than their canned counterparts.

To conclude this whirlwind introduction to thinking about food as medicine and how doctors think about nutrition, hopefully you’ll be able to make more informed decisions about what you eat. Most importantly, diets shouldn’t be all or nothing. In order to stay happy and healthy, you have to be realistic with what you can do. Just remember, the saying you are what you eat may have some truth to it.

 

If you have questions about nutrition or heart health, ask us here.

Published by: Mark P. Abrams, MD

I'm an Internist, Educator, and Cardiology fellow in training. As the Director of Patient Engagement at Heartbeat Health, my goal is to make trustworthy information easily accessible and more available so that people can become more active members of their healthcare teams. By joining together, we can work toward keeping more people healthier, happier, and living longer fulfilling lives.

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