By Taras Makarenko, certified Nutritionist at Hong Kong Sports Clinic
Healthy eating is often considered a cornerstone of good health and with good reason. The latest scientific evidence shows that food can influence our health in specific and beneficial ways and that we can use this knowledge to make informed decisions about what we eat and drink. Let’s explore the benefits of healthy eating for longevity and disease prevention, including the latest scientific information on how food can impact our health.
The Impact of Healthy Eating on the Body’s Defense Systems
The field of medicine is increasingly recognizing the importance of food as a powerful tool to promote health and prevent disease. In fact, some experts believe that food may be the most powerful medicine we have.
The reason for this is that food is easily accessible and dietary interventions do not rely on expensive pharmaceutical treatments. This is especially important when it comes to non-communicable diseases, which are the biggest health threats for people worldwide and include cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and neurodegenerative conditions. Treatment of disease alone is not a sustainable solution for noncommunicable diseases, in part because of the substantial cost of new drugs.
Therefore, the question becomes, how can we do a better job at preventing disease, before we must cure it? One modern answer: food.
The Role of Healthy Eating in Disease Prevention
What is clear is that our health is in an active state, protected by a series of remarkable defense systems in the body that are active from birth to our last day alive, keeping our cells and organs functioning smoothly. These defense systems are influenced by diet, and when we know what to eat to support each health defense, we know how to use our diet to maintain health and beat diseases.
One of the key benefits of healthy eating is its impact on the body’s defense systems. The five defense systems are
- DNA protection
- Angiogenesis is the process by which blood vessels are formed, and it is essential for health because it brings oxygen and nutrients to every cell in our body. Angiogenesis gone wrong is a common denominator in more than seventy different diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and more. A new field of medicine called angiogenesis-based therapy has been created, and some of the innovative treatments stop blood vessels from growing in diseased tissues, such as in cancer. There are many approved drugs and medical devices based on angiogenesis, helping patients live longer and better lives. The good news is that we can influence this defense system by incorporating foods like soy, green tea, coffee, tomatoes, red wine, beer, and even hard cheese into our diet.
- Regeneration is powered by stem cells that maintain, repair, and regenerate our bodies throughout our lives. Certain foods can mobilize them and help us regenerate. For example, a 2018 study published in the journal Stem Cell Reports found that a flavonoid called apigenin, which is found in parsley, thyme, celery, and chamomile tea, can stimulate stem cell growth in the brain and improve cognitive function. Other foods, like purple potatoes, can kill deadly stem cells that spark cancer growth.
- The microbiome is made up of almost 40 trillion bacteria that inhabit our bodies, and they play a crucial role in defending our health. Not only do these bacteria produce health-supporting metabolites from the foods that we swallow and deliver to our gut, but they also control our immune system, influence angiogenesis, and even help produce hormones that influence our brain and social function. We can boost our microbiome by eating foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, cheddar cheese, and sourdough bread. For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Nature found that a diet rich in fiber and fermented foods can increase the diversity of the gut microbiome and improve overall health.
- Our DNA is our genetic blueprint and is designed to be a defense system. It has surprising repair mechanisms that protect us against damage caused by solar radiation, household chemicals, stress, compromised sleep, and poor diet, among others. Not only can certain foods prompt DNA to fix itself, but some foods turn on helpful genes and turn off harmful ones, while other foods can lengthen our telomeres, which protect DNA and slow aging. For example, a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients found that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains can improve DNA repair capacity and reduce DNA damage.
- Finally, our immune system defends our health in sophisticated ways that are much more complicated than we previously thought. Recent discoveries have completely changed our understanding of the immune system. Foods like blackberries, walnuts, and pomegranate can activate the immune system, while other foods can dampen its activities and help reduce the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. For example, a 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found that a diet rich in polyphenols, which are found in fruits, vegetables, tea, and nuts, can modulate the immune system, and reduce inflammation.
Dietary Patterns for Disease Prevention
It is important to note that healthy eating is not a replacement for good medical care, but rather a way to support and enhance it. By incorporating healthy foods into our diet, we can boost our own defense systems and help the body heal itself. There is no single magical food for any one disease or for overall health and longevity, but taking deliberate preventive measures using our diet is just plain common sense.
Research has shown that certain dietary patterns are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases. For example, the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers. Similarly, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins, has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease.
On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats has been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases. For example, a diet high in saturated and trans fats is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, while a diet high in refined sugars and carbohydrates is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and obesity.
One of the difficulties of healthy eating is that it can be hard to know what to eat. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as everyone’s dietary needs and preferences are different. However, there are some general guidelines that can help. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats is a good place to start. Limiting processed foods, refined sugars, and unhealthy fats is also important. It is also important to pay attention to portion sizes and to eat mindfully, savoring each bite and paying attention to hunger and fullness cues.
Healthy eating can have a profound impact on our health and longevity, as well as our ability to resist disease. The field of medicine is increasingly recognizing the importance of food as a powerful tool to promote health and prevent disease. By supporting our body’s defense systems through diet, we can help the body heal itself and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, eating a variety of healthy, whole foods and limiting less-healthy ones can help us achieve optimal health and longevity.
- Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: results from three prospective cohort studies. PLoS Medicine. 2016;13(6):e1002039.
- Schwingshackl L, Missbach B, Konig J, Hoffmann G. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and risk of diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Public Health Nutrition. 2015;18(7):1292-1299.
- Lai HTM, Threapleton DE, Day AJ, Williamson G, Cade JE, Burley VJ. Fruit intake and cardiovascular disease mortality in the UK Women’s Cohort Study. European Journal of Epidemiology. 2015;30(9):1035-1048.
- Bao Y, Han J, Hu FB, et al. Association of nut consumption with total and cause-specific mortality. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013;369(21):2001-2011.
- Grosso G, Mistretta A, Marventano S, et al. Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2014;54(5):593-610.
- Schwingshackl L, Missbach B, Konig J, Hoffmann G. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet and risk of cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. International Journal of Cancer. 2015;136(12):E231-E244.
- Huang T, Yang B, Zheng J, Li G, Wahlqvist ML, Li D. Cardiovascular disease mortality and cancer incidence in vegetarians: a meta-analysis and systematic review. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2012;60(4):233-240.
- Martínez-González MA, García-López M, Bes-Rastrollo M, Toledo E, Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Delgado-Rodriguez M. Mediterranean diet and the incidence of cardiovascular disease: a Spanish cohort. Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases. 2011;21(4):237-244.
- Zhang Z, Xu G, Yang F, et al. Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2016;70(3):299-307.
- Sotos-Prieto M, Bhupathiraju SN, Mattei J, et al. Association of changes in diet quality with total and cause-specific mortality. New England Journal of Medicine. 2017;377(2):143-153.