Dietary Choices: Establishing a Foundation for Health

This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each day, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.

Today’s topic:
Dietary Choices: Establishing a Foundation for Health

It is abundantly clear that our dietary habits are the most intimate predictors of our long-term health. From the foods we consume, our body extracts vitamins and minerals, fats, carbohydrates and proteins, and other necessary components that support all aspects of its metabolism. This process is only as good as the input provided. If we eat healthfully, and the foods we eat are nutrient-dense, the body is able to extract a majority of what it needs for health directly from our diet. In contrast, if the majority of what we eat is unhealthy, and the food we eat is empty calories with little or no nutritional value, there is a great propensity to develop deficiencies of key nutrients that impact the body’s metabolic functions. Thus, the key is not how much we eat; it most certainly is the type of foods we consume.

The Basics
The fundamentals of a good diet begin with eating food that provides the body what it needs to function optimally. First and foremost, this includes making dietary choices that give the most bang for your buck, nutritionally speaking. As the essential components of the diet are proteins, carbohydrates and fats, making wise choices by selecting the most healthful types of these nutritional building blocks can go a long way in promoting health.

Protein is a major building block for the body in that it is necessary for immune function, growth and development. Our muscle mass is composed of protein, and antibodies, enzymes and hormones are protein-based. Adequate protein intake also serves to stabilize blood sugar levels. Thus, it is essential to ensure optimal intake of protein as well as to eat sources of protein that contain a full complement of amino acids. Good sources of protein include meats, fish, poultry, dairy products and eggs as well as various vegetarian sources of protein including beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Eating a variety of healthy protein-containing foods ensures the body has the amino acid building blocks that are necessary for cell and tissue repair.

Carbohydrates are important for energy production. They can be divided into two major groups – simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates consist of the simple sugars such as sucrose, fructose, lactose and others, and are also found in fruits. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Simple carbohydrates are broken down and metabolized faster than complex carbohydrates, which consist of longer chains. Simple carbohydrates raise blood glucose levels more quickly than complex carbohydrates. Depending on an individual’s activity levels, a diet consisting of more simple or more complex carbohydrates can be necessary. However, intake of more complex carbohydrates is usually more beneficial since it raises blood sugar levels more slowly, avoiding spikes and crashes due to varying blood sugar levels. Complex carbohydrate-rich foods also tend to be healthier as simple carbohydrates are present in large amounts in most processed foods. Dietary fiber contained in fruits and vegetables is also a complex carbohydrate that isn’t metabolized or digested by the body but contributes to health in many important ways. Unrefined, unprocessed foods are often highest in dietary fiber and are therefore healthier choices.

Fat is also an essential component of a healthy diet. Fat provides a concentrated form of energy for the body and is necessary for normal brain development. However, excessive fat intake has been linked to obesity and several diseases. It turns out that the type of fat consumed determines its likely effects on health. Fats consist of saturated fats, primarily found in animal products, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, generally found in most plant foods. Fish is an excellent source of polyunsaturated fatty acids as well. While excessive intake of saturated fats can raise blood cholesterol levels, the “healthy” polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may lower blood levels of cholesterol. Another adverse contributor to unhealthy cholesterol levels are the trans-fatty acids. These occur as a consequence of the process of hydrogenation of vegetable oils, such as in the production of margarine. These fats can raise cholesterol levels, particularly levels of bad cholesterol, while reducing levels of good protective HDL cholesterol levels. Needless to say, they should be avoided.

Environmental Factors and Food Additives
Along with the notion that high quality and healthier types of proteins, carbohydrates and fats should be eaten preferentially, consideration should also be given to eating “clean” foods such as those that are organic and those devoid of synthetic pesticides, chemicals and hormones. Eating these foods is healthier for the body as they tend to be higher in nutritional value and easier for the body to process, as it has to devote fewer resources to detoxifying the synthetic chemicals and unnatural compounds that can themselves have detrimental effects on the body’s physiology. Choosing organic fruits and vegetables when possible, as well as free-range meats and wild-caught seafood, can ultimately improve health.

Just as important as any of the macronutrients discussed, is the necessity of consuming water. As our bodies are two-thirds water, decreased water consumption (which can lead to dehydration) can adversely affect the numerous metabolic processes the body undergoes on a daily basis. Water is essential to the body’s detoxification systems and is a critical component of all cells. Furthermore, water is involved in digestion, circulation, absorption of nutrients and the maintenance of proper electrolyte balance. The consumption of adequate amounts of pure water ensures the health of all cells and tissues.

When it comes to a healthy diet, the bottom line is to ensure we eat nutrient-dense foods that contain healthy proteins, carbohydrates and fats, providing essential vitamins and minerals, consume whole foods that are free of synthetic pesticides, chemicals and hormones, and take in adequate amounts of pure, fresh water. By avoiding processed foods and beverages, we can eliminate excessive consumption of simple carbohydrates and sugars and foods with additives and artificial ingredients. Sticking to a diet composed mainly of whole natural foods leads to healthier outcomes in the long run.

There are many models of traditionally healthy dietary habits that have been employed by cultures throughout the world. One such dietary concept is the Mediterranean model. In fact, recently there has been a tremendous amount of interest in the so-called “Mediterranean Diet” and its value in health promotion. This dietary lifestyle first caught the attention of nutritionists because it seems to violate a fundamental dogma of modern nutrition – it has a high total fat content!

Yet study after study has shown less heart disease and fewer cancers among population groups that practice this dietary lifestyle.1,2 So what is it about this “diet” high in total fat that leads it to be so seemingly healthy?

Next Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging topic:
The Mediterranean Diet

1. Serra-Majem L, Roman B, Estruch R. Scientific evidence of interventions using the Mediterranean diet: A systematic review. Nutr Rev 2006;64:S27-S47.
2. Colomer R, Menendez JA. Mediterranean diet, olive oil and cancer. Clin Transl Oncol 2006;8:15-21.

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