The food we choose to eat is one of the most impactful health care decisions we make each and every day. The very good news is that we now know a lot about what constitutes good choices for our mind and body. The hard part is saying no to the foods that are less healthful but often very tasty and widely available.
Let's start with what we know from a number of studies that included tens of thousands of people over the past two decades: Diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber and low in red meat, butter, cheese, and processed meats reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain forms of cancer such as colorectal, prostate, and breast. Additionally, there is evidence that the incidence of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's disease, and other forms of dementia are reduced by following these dietary recommendations.
A number of diets provide guidance on how to make healthy choices. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet has been shown to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health. The popular Mediterranean diet includes eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts; using healthful fats such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices instead of salt; limiting red meat to a maximum of a few times a month; and eating fish and poultry with small amounts of lean dairy. This diet, which emphasizes plant-based foods and moderation in general, has been shown to be associated with good health and longevity.
Given these benefits, it is no surprise that the number of vegetarians in the U.S. has risen 600% in the past three years. With so many choices, the options can seem overwhelming, so a great place to start is The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 (choosemyplate.gov/dietary-guidelines).
While a vegetable/fruit-based diet is clearly beneficial, it is important to be aware that a food item is not universally healthful just because it comes from a plant. Refined grains, for instance, such as white rice, breads, crackers, and cereals, can do more harm than good and have been shown to increase risk of heart disease. Some packaged foods, even if the first ingredient is a whole grain, vegetable, or fruit, may contain too much sodium or added sugar. What to do? Follow the guiding principle of choosing items that are processed to a minimum.
Realizing the benefits of a plant-centered diet doesn't mean you need to become a vegetarian or vegan overnight. Studies show that decreasing intake of animal-based foods by just a couple of servings per day can make a difference in your health. Review your dietary preferences, current approach, and lifestyle with family, friends, or a health professional. Start slowly with a few plant-based substitutions. Just like with beginning an exercise regime, make just one or two changes a week, and watch how quickly your overall diet will improve.
Please remember to discuss any dietary changes with your doctor, especially if you decide to eliminate all animal-based foods and dairy. You may have certain health conditions that could be affected by a major change in what you eat, or you may need to add a supplement.
Enjoy researching all the great plant-based foods out there. There are many options that are not only good for you but tasty too. I guess Mom was right after all when she said, "Eat your vegetables."
In good health,
Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.