Your Health Library
Eat to Beat Disease
Everyone can benefit from eating a health-promoting diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, lean meats, and fish. A healthy diet is also low in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.
In fact, says David L. Katz, M.D., 80 percent of all heart disease could be prevented with such a diet, combined with regular exercise and no smoking. The diet could also prevent up to 90 percent of all diabetes and 60 percent of cancers, as well. Dr. Katz is director and cofounder of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine.
If you have a family history of a chronic condition, however, you can gain added benefits by personalizing your diet to prevent specific diseases. To simplify that task, here are three major health concerns and key food tactics to help stack the dietary deck in your favor.
Halt heart disease
What you eat and how you prepare food can strongly affect your heart disease risk, Dr. Katz says. The following food tips can help reduce your risk:
Use olive or canola oil. These plant oils contain heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, which can reduce blood cholesterol when used instead of saturated and trans fats, such as butter, vegetable shortening, lard, and partially hydrogenated oil. Both saturated fat and trans fat, which mimics saturated fat in the body, raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol more than anything else in your diet.
Use heart-smart bread spreads. If you already have high LDL cholesterol, Dr. Katz suggests using spreads such as Take Control, Smart Balance, or Benecol instead of butter or margarine. These spreads contain ingredients that help reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
Eat fish twice a week. Fish, especially cold-water fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and herring, are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids help reduce the rate for plaque buildup, decrease triglycerides, and reduce blood pressure.
If diabetes runs in your family or you’ve been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, take action now by losing weight if you need to.
“Weight gain is the leading risk factor for diabetes,” says Dr. Katz.
The quality of your diet can influence your risk for diabetes, too. To help maintain healthy blood-sugar levels, try these strategies:
Seek out soluble fiber. Soluble fiber keeps blood glucose and insulin levels stable. It helps slow food absorption so your blood sugar doesn’t routinely spike. Spikes can stress the pancreas, Dr. Katz says. Foods high in soluble fiber include oatmeal, beans, peas, lentils, barley, apples, bananas, strawberries, brown rice, and whole-grain bread and cereal.
Avoid highly processed foods. Foods made from refined starches and added sugar—including doughnuts, chips, cookies, cakes, pastries, crackers, white bread, and granola bars—raise blood sugar and put a major demand on the pancreas. If your diet is filled with such foods, start substituting brown rice for white rice, for example, and whole-grain crackers and bread for regular.
If cancer runs in your family, a healthy plant-based diet that emphasizes brightly colored fruits and vegetables is your best bet for warding off this killer. But your strategies can be even more specific, depending on the type of cancer you’re targeting:
Eat plenty of low-fat or nonfat dairy products if colon cancer is your concern. Aim for 1,000 mg of calcium a day, the equivalent of three 8-ounce glasses of skim milk.
Consume plenty of whole grains. Besides soluble fiber, whole-grain foods, such as whole wheat bread and bran cereals, also are good sources of insoluble fiber, the kind that speeds waste through the digestive tract. Plus, whole-grain breads and cereals, as well as beans, barley, and lentils, are excellent sources of vitamins C, E, and A. These vitamins are antioxidants that may help neutralize free radicals, which have been associated with an increased risk for cancer.
Limit alcohol. The American Cancer Society advises moderate alcohol consumption—no more than one drink a day for women and two a day for men. A higher intake has been associated with an increased risk for breast and colon cancer, as well as a host of other conditions. “Moderate alcohol intake may reduce your risk for heart disease, which is something to consider if you have heart disease in your family,” says Dr. Katz. “But if you have a family history of breast or colon cancer, you’d be well-advised to avoid alcohol altogether.”
Finally, eat reasonable portion sizes of even healthy foods. Too much good-for-you foods can cause weight gain, which can hurt your heart and raise your risk for diabetes and some cancers.
Online Medical Reviewers:
Coleman, Ellen RD
Fiveash, Laura DrPH, MPH, RD
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care.
Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.