The world is facing a global health crises, and knowing why a healthy diet is important is at the heart of solving it.
A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine has calculated that over 1 in 10 people, globally, is now obese. And with it comes an increased risk for an expanding set of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, chronic kidney disease, many cancers, and an array of musculoskeletal disorders.
Studies from across the globe, published in leading medical journals, have converged on the notion that dietary risk factors are now the leading cause of illness and premature death. The single best answer, then, to the question, Why is a Healthy Diet Important?, is to live a long and healthy life. But how exactly does it do that? Are there any other benefits to a healthy diet?
Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the world. A recent publication in JAMA showed that nearly half of cardiometabolic deaths were due to poor diets (this translates to over 318,000 deaths in the US every year).
The Mediterranean Diet is one that has been well studied. Not only are 2 of the 5 Blue Zones - areas with disproportionately high rates of active centenarians - located in the Mediterranean, but studies routinely show that adherence to this diet helps reduce cardiovascular disease.
One way it does so, for example, is by reducing your risk for high blood pressure - one of the leading risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Roughly two-thirds of Americans have hypertension or prehypertension. One significant cause for hypertension is a diet high in sodium. Indeed, 9 in 10 Americans consume more than the upper recommended limit for sodium every day. According to the American Heart Association (AHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO), roughly 80% of this sodium intake comes from processed foods. So switching to healthy, balanced diet will directly lower your risk!
Micronutrient deficiencies can cause problems for both the mother and her child. The CDC promotes a list of vitamins and minerals that are particularly important for expectant mothers, including calcium, folic acid, iron, and iodine.
Iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation in newborns, according to the WHO. This largely affects developing nations where salt iodization is less prevalent. But even in the US, iodine intake has been declining. A relatively recent report from the Journal of Nutrition showed that the average iodine intake of US women of reproductive age has declined to roughly the threshold for adequate intake. And as this other recent report highlights, low iodine intake before pregnancy may result in poor fetal neurodevelopment.
Folic acid and vitamin B12 are also important for reducing the risk of neural tube defects, and reducing iron deficiency anemia is important for preventing preterm births and children with low birth-weight. And a recent publication in Science showed vitamin B3 may help prevent birth defects as well.
Macronutrients are important to keep in balance too. A report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed several studies showing poor birth and long-term health consequences may be associated with maternal diets that are either too low or too high in protein.
And a generally well-balanced diet that keeps your weight is important too. CDC research has tied overweight and obese mothers to an increased risk of complications during pregnancy.
Surgery puts catabolic stress on the body triggering inflammation and depleting nutrients. Studies have shown that 30-55% of patients are malnourished when they’re admitted to the hospital. And summarized by Today’s Dietitian, “malnutrition increases the risk of death after surgery, significantly raises the risk of postoperative complications, and is a chief reason why patients are readmitted to the hospital. In addition, hospital stays are longer and health care costs can be more than 60% greater for malnourished patients. It affects all ages, but the elderly are especially vulnerable.”
But for those that are seen by a nutritionist and follow procedures to stay nourished before and after surgery recover faster and reduce their risk of infection.
Most studies that suggest proper attention to nutrition is important for athletic performance won’t come as surprise. Whether we know this ourselves, anecdotally, or have read stories about the diets of Olympic athletes like Michael Phelps, we intuitively get it.
For example, ultra-endurance athletes - those engaged in aerobic activity for 6 or more hours at a time - have nutritional needs that exemplify the extreme. A review in Extreme Physiology & Medicine walks the energy, hydration, macronutrient, and micronutrient needs for ultramarathoners and the like.
And while most of us don’t plan on running 100 miles at a time, their attention to both macronutrients, micronutrients, and hydration highlight the needs for all nutrients to be considered for optimal athletic performance.
A blog post from Harvard Health reminds us that our brains are always “on.” Thus, the food we eat directly fuels them. It states that “Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function.”
A systematic review and meta-analyses (a type of study that aims to pool data from several studies to get a better picture) showed that Mediterranean Diets, typically viewed by nutrition experts as one of the healthiest diets in the world, was strongly associated with older adults’ global cognition.
Polyphenols (e.g., phenolic acids, stilbenes, lignans, flavonols, and anthocyanidins) comprise a class of approximately 8000 compounds with antioxidant properties, and are found in fruits, vegetables, tea, wine, juices, plants, and some herbs. According to a recent review in the journal Neural Plasticity, convergent evidence does suggest polyphenols can “mitigate risk for neurodegenerative diseases, age-related cognitive decline, and oxidative stress via mechanisms involving the maintenance of metabolic homeostasis and the promotion of synaptic plasticity.” Omega-3 fatty acids show similar beneficial properties too.
And more generally, many reviews continue to show a reduced risk of diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for those eating healthy diets like the Mediterranean Diet.
Recent research published in Science showed that a diet containing sufficient plants may improve resilience against the flu. It turns out, when your gut flora digest certain plant flavonoids, bioactive metabolites called desaminotyrosines are produced that are beneficial against the influenza virus by augmenting your body’s antiviral response.
But it’s important to remember that nutrition, more generally, is important for immunity. Malnutrition is one of the leading causes of immunodeficiency, and can stem from both undernutrition of energy or key vitamins and minerals, or overnutrition in the form of obesity - each of which are known to impair immune cell function.
Nearly 10% of the globe now has diabetes, and substantially more have prediabetes. It has been known for some time that poor diets are a risk factor for developing diabetes, but more studies are showing that a healthy diet can both manage - and potentially reverse - diabetes potentially on par with medication. Using a combination of medicine, a healthy diet, and physical activity can really do the trick. But it’s exciting to know that diagnosing and managing diabetes early with a switch to a healthy diet could literally, save your life!
The American Cancer Society highlights poor diets as a key risk factor for several cancers. Obesity has been shown to be associated with cancers of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium (the lining of the uterus), esophagus, pancreas, and kidney, among others by causing, among other reasons, misregulation of the hormones estrogen and insulin.
For example, processed meats has been labeled by International Association for Cancer Research as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means, after review over 800 studies, they have determined that processed meats are known to cause cancer in humans.
Studies from the field of nutritional psychiatry routinely demonstrate through observational studies that a healthy diet is associated with a decreased risk of depression. One major link to this connection comes, unsurprisingly, from your gut. Your gut produces serotonin and is lined with neurons and other gut bacteria. The gut-brain axis intimately connects your dietary patterns and your moods. There’s more to that gut feeling that you might have realized.
A recent article published by researchers from Harvard&utm_content=) in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at the diets of nearly 74,000 adults and showed that eating a healthy diet with high quality whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fish over at least 12 years showed a 9-14% risk reduction in all-cause mortality.
With a list this long full of reasons to why a healthy diet is important, it’s no wonder you will live a longer, healthier life! You will reduce your risk of many chronic diseases, cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, and poor mental health. No to mention, a healthy diet tastes great!
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