Your Food and Your Health
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said Hippocrates, who some call the father of medicine, in about 400 BC. Today in 2014, we understand without a doubt that he was correct. What we eat really does matter. The food choices we make and the way we think about food have a profound influence on our health, our mood, and our longevity. Food truly has the power to either harm or heal our bodies. The patients who come into my office have a wide variety of conditions and concerns. More often than not, lifestyle modifications such as getting more exercise and eating a more nutritious diet can contribute to making them feel better and genuinely be healthier long term.
Now, I’m not the kind of doctor who will tell someone never to eat their favorite foods. We all need to be able to splurge from time to time on ice cream with the grandkids or beer and pizza during the big game. Fad diets that deprive you of all the things you love or restrict you to a certain type of food might result in some short-term gains but, long term, they can leave you feeling depleted and depressed. Instead, I teach my patients about balance and moderation, about striving for an overall approach to a healthy way of eating that can be sustained over the rest of your lifetime.
Let’s take a look at the way we Americans typically eat and the impact it has on our health.
- Supersize Me. No, don’t! Gargantuan portion sizes are one of the biggest problems we have in the United States, both compared to other nations and compared to what they used to be 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve been trained to think that more is better, that all-you-can-eat buffets and free refills on large sodas and popcorn at the movies are a good idea. At the end of the day, most people don’t have any idea how many calories they might have consumed. If you ever go to see a physician about weight management, one of the things you will likely be asked to do is to keep a food journal. If you write down absolutely everything you eat over the course of the day, you may be shocked.
- Quick and Easy. Over the years, we have increasingly turned from fresh, homemade foods to convenient, preservative-laden “food-like” items with a much lower nutritional value. Fast foods, highly-processed packaged foods, deep fried foods – none of these quick and easy meal choices are good for our bodies. Yes, we sometimes need to rely on canned or frozen items, or we have to grab something from a drive-through on the go. But these situations should, ideally, be the exception, not the rule. Try to cook at home as much as you’re able to.
- I’m Allergic! Food allergies can be very serious and sometimes come on rather suddenly, even when you’ve never before had allergic symptoms to something you’ve eaten all your life. Some common food allergies in adults include nuts, shellfish, citrus fruits, and wheat. If you feel a slight tingling sensation in your mouth or feel a little flushed or itchy, it could be a sign that you’re developing an allergy to the food you are eating. If it happens with any regularity, by all means, discuss it with your doctor. And if you eat a food that you’re fully allergic to, symptoms can include tight throat, swelling tongue, and wheezing because your airways have become constricted. If this happens, get to the emergency room right away.
- Side Effects. You may be surprised to learn that certain foods can have adverse reactions with prescription medications. Some examples are dark leafy greens, which can diminish the effects of Coumadin (a blood thinner) and grapefruit which affects liver enzymes and, therefore, the way many drugs are metabolized in the liver. Any time your doctor puts you on a new medication, remember to ask about any potential interactions and side effects.
- What’s All the Gluten-Free Hoopla? Awareness about gluten sensitivity has increased dramatically over the past several years, and “gluten-free” diets and foods seem to be all the rage. Here’s the scoop. Gluten is a protein found in doughy foods made from wheat, such as breads, pastas, cakes and other baked goods. Some people suffer from a debilitating condition called Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by gluten-containing foods that affects the digestive system. Other people (some estimates are as much as 5-10% of the population) are gluten sensitive or intolerant, which means that eating things like bread, pasta, and doughnuts can result in an overall sense of malaise and feeling “yucky,” gastrointestinal problems, headaches, irritability, fatigue, and more. Here’s what I suggest: if you think that gluten might be causing you trouble, cut it out of your diet entirely for a few days and see how you feel.
- Sugar, Sugar/Honey, Honey. The latest research is proving how chemically addictive sugar can be – as addictive, some say, as cocaine. And hidden sugar lurks in places you would never imagine. It is highly prevalent in processed foods to enhance taste. We actually do need some sugar in our diets to produce glucose for brain function. It’s far better to consume your sugar in a more natural state, like raw sugar, honey or agave. Try to avoid the standard white table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup whenever possible. Sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners, while they do reduce calorie intake, are not necessarily a healthier choice. This is the subject of some controversy and can be confusing. Best to stick with the “real” foods, like honey, and use them in moderation. And enjoy your favorite sweet treats on occasion, just not every day.
- Sugary Beverages. Sweetened beverages, including soda pop, sweetened iced teas, and sugary juices are a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic in the United States. The calories in these drinks, not to mention the chemical additives, coloring, and caffeine, are just not good for us. Try to reduce, or even eliminate, your consumption of this stuff.
- Alcohol. In moderation, an occasional adult beverage is just fine; in fact, a glass of red wine with dinner even has healthful antioxidant properties. We recommend a maximum of one drink (a 6-oz glass of wine, a beer, or a shot of liquor) per day for women, and two for men. Any more than that becomes a deterrent to good health.
- Caffeine. The “need” for caffeine can become an addiction – a tough one to kick. Part of our American culture, many people drink three or four cups of coffee a day and don’t think much of it. Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the nervous system. Some contend that caffeine can improve memory and concentration while others are concerned about high blood pressure, decreased bone density, and other effects. I’ll say it again: moderation, moderation, moderation! Perhaps enjoy just one cup of coffee, tea, or other caffeinated beverage per day.
- So, what should we eat?!? Okay, so we’ve covered the food “don’ts;” let’s talk about how we do want to feed our bodies. To get a well-balanced meal, I tell my patients to picture a plate of food. One quarter of the plate should be filled with protein (see below); another quarter, a starch such as rice or a potato. And the other half of the plate should be overflowing with fresh vegetables. Here are some of the wonderful, healthy things to abundantly consume:
- Fruits and Veggies, of Course. We’ve all heard since childhood that we should eat our veggies, yet many of us still don’t get as much as we need. Try to eat a colorful selection of fresh produce every day. These foods will supply you with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and macronutrients to fuel your body. And, if you fill yourself up on fruits and vegetables, you won’t be so hungry for unhealthy foods.
- Protein. Our bodies need adequate protein – an important building block. Get your daily intake from a chicken breast, piece of fish, or lean beef. Other good sources are nuts, eggs, dairy products, and beans.
- Water. You may be dehydrated without even knowing it - especially older adults, and especially at our altitude here in Colorado. Did you know our bodies are comprised of 70% water? We need water to keep our organs functioning properly, digest our food, hydrate our skin, and more. Drink way more water than you think you need. Eight glasses a day would be great! Other beverages, like sodas, coffee, and tea don’t count – they are actually dehydrating.
- Fiber. Fiber is essential to keeping our digestive systems regular. The best sources of fiber are legumes (beans), vegetables and fruits, as well as whole grains. You should be able to get enough fiber by eating healthful foods but, if you need a little help, you can take a fiber supplement.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D keeps our bones strong. The majority of Americans are Vitamin D deficient, largely because we do not spend adequate time outside in the sunshine (our primary source of Vitamin D). While fatty fish like salmon and tuna, as well as fortified milk, cereal and orange juice, contain it, it is difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food sources.Ask your physician to test your Vitamin D level. Then you may want to spend a little more time in the sun and/or take a supplement.
- Iron. Iron is required to produce hemoglobin in the blood. Too little iron in your diet can cause you to become anemic; to feel weak, tired and grouchy. Get your iron from liver, red meats, dark, leafy greens, and beans.
- Multivitamin Supplement. For most patients, I suggest adding a high-quality multivitamin supplement to ensure they are getting the necessary nutrients. If you choose to take one, be sure to mention it to your physician.
Clearly, food is a vitally important aspect of our health and well-being. So please talk to your physician about any food-related questions or concerns you may have. And enjoy your healthy life.