When Arijit was a young boy, he couldn’t understand why his parents didn’t allow him to eat outside. His mother would always hand over a tiffin to him with a proper home-cooked meal when he went to school or college. He was envious of his friend Bhaskar, whose parents gave him pocket money to eat at the canteen. He watched Bhaskar devour burgers, chips and cold drinks with delight, and he thought his friend was privileged to be allowed these ‘luxuries.’
But today, Arijit understands the difference it has made because he is fit as a fiddle, energetic and is performing well in his personal and professional life. Due to good nutrition, he has no metabolic, gut or skin issues.
On the other hand, Bhaskar has grown obese and confronted all three diseases that unhealthy eating can cause. He has metabolic, gut, and skin-related problems, apart from being lethargic and getting tired easily. Apart from that he is lethargic, gets tired easily.
As with Arijit and Bhaskar, our food choices dictate our health. Bad food can lead to metabolic, gut and skin issues at an early age. Unfortunately, Bhaskar’s case is not an aberration. Chronic illnesses due to bad food choices has become a norm, affecting one in every 3 or 4 adults across the world. Hence, the need of the hour and in all urgency, is to make informed choices regarding the food we eat.
In this blog, we explain the relation between nutrition and disease, how does food affect your body, chronic disease and its prevention visa-vis nutritional choices and lifestyle behaviours, and dispel some myths around dietary factors.
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Chronic illnesses and the Role of Ultra-processed Food
A chronic illness is a long-term health condition that typically lasts for more than 3 months. It is categorised as a Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) as it is does not spread from person-to-person. It is rather, mostly caused by individual diet and lifestyle choices and is therefore also termed as ‘lifestyle disease.’
The disturbing news is that it is responsible for 75% of all deaths globally, out of which 75% occur in the middle and low-income countries.
The rapid increase in incidence of chronic disease lately, has been attributed to ‘westernisation’ of our food, lifestyle and environment. What was once called ‘Aristocrat’s disease’ because it only affected nobility, is now commonplace due to chemical farming, hybridized crops, and ultra-processed foods that are shorn of fiber for longer shelf-life and easy transportation.
The question on your mind right now would be – what is the link between diet and health issues?
Well, ultra-processed food is a trifecta of excess sugars, refined carbs and refined oils. Consumption of foods with such dietary risk factors causes excess insulin secretion resulting in Hyperinsulinemia – a major factor in the development of Insulin resistance, which is one of the underlying conditions for the development of most chronic or diet related diseases.
Some example of chronic or dietary diseases include:
- Metabolic disorders: diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease, strokes, fatty liver disease, Gout, PCOS and infertility, arthritis, and cancer.
- Autoimmune conditions: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis, Psoriasis, Multiple Sclerosis etc.
- Gut disorders: GERD, Inflammatory bowel disease, Irritable bowel syndrome etc.
- Skin issues: Eczema, Psoriasis, Rosacea, Acne, Hives
- Brain disorders and degeneration: Parkinson’s, dementia, Alzheimer’s
- Others: Asthma, COPD, Degenerative arthritis, Men’s health, etc.
Once a person starts suffering from the long-term effects of unhealthy eating in the form of chronic diseases, his quality of life deteriorates drastically. Like Bhaskar, he cannot be efficient and carry out day-to-day activities with ease. In worst case scenarios, he cannot function independently. Therefore, these are some medical conditions that require special diets, or when a doctor suggests following a diet.
Now that we know what diseases are linked to poor diet, we need to understand link between nutritional choices and overall health.
The Role of Nutrients in Our Bodies and Reason for Imbalance
Arijit’s parents understood what Bhaskar’s parents didn’t – the role of nutrients in our body and the importance of a wholesome, diverse, nutrient-rich diet. And that was what made most of the difference.
Our bodies requires various kinds of nutrients, each of which help us in different departments. For instance, macronutrients such as carbs and fats provide energy to our cells and organs so that they may perform their function optimally. Proteins are the building blocks of our body and are responsible for cellular repair and regeneration.
Micronutrients such as minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and phytochemicals (plant-based chemicals), assist in thousands of chemical reactions in the body, every second. They have a huge impact in modulating our body’s metabolism.
The problem with ultra-processed foods that Bhaskar consumed all his life, is that they contain macronutrients such as carbs and fats in excess and of the wrong type (simple carbs instead of complex, and unhealthy fats instead of healthy), while being deficient in proteins and micronutrients. As a matter of fact, majority of us Indians are protein deficient. Protein deficiency may not be evident in blood samples, but it can lead to several issues. Some of these issues are; suboptimal functioning of the body, compromised immunity, loss of muscle mass, and in extreme cases, wasting and protein energy malnutrition.
In terms of micronutrients, most of us have vitamin B deficiency and suffer from compromised functions of the neurological and cardiovascular system. Magnesium and Potassium are relaxation minerals which have been depleted from our current food system. Magnesium deficiency can lead to mood disorders, fatigue, cardiac arrhythmias, insomnia, chronic pain, fibromyalgia and constipation.
The Importance of a Balanced Diet
For the body to function optimally, it requires both macro and micronutrients in the right quantities and in their most pristine and uncorrupted form. If either of these are compromised over a long period of time, the body goes into dysfunction and imbalances culminating in health problems and diseases.
Restrictive diets are often prescribed for weight-management. These maybe low-fat diets such as vegan and raw food, or low-carb diets such as paleo, keto and carnivore. All such restrictive diets are propagated without a proper understanding of the science behind it, and by demonizing carbs and fats. Although they may be good for a very short tenure when used judiciously, they are not sustainable and can often have adverse implications.
‘Low-fat’ diets are low in protein, vitamin B12 and Omega 3. It is essential here, to differentiate between saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). While PUFA which is found most commonly in refined oils contributes to cardio-metabolic disorders, saturated fats such as coconut oil, A2 ghee and A2 butter are beneficial to our body. On the other hand, ‘low-carb’ diets are low in healthy fibers (prebiotics) and involve low intake of essential diet components such as vegetables and leafy greens.
Another talking point of fad diets is sugar. It can be taken as a condiment, but should never be the whole meal, as is the case with sugary breakfast cereals. Sweets are meant to be relished on special occasions in moderation, not routinely. Although it is not possible to eliminate sugar entirely from our diet, its consumption should be regulated. The upper limit for healthy individuals should be 2 tsps per day, but to eliminated for chronic diseases patients.
Dietary salt is believed to be a major factor causing high blood pressure. However, restricting consumption of salt for health benefit is an absolute myth! Prior to the invention and use of refrigeration, our ancestors were consuming around 15 g of salt every day, and yet they did not suffer from high blood pressure. This is because they had well rounded healthy lifestyle and their bodies were able to dispense of the extra salt without any problems.
Strategies for Reducing Adverse Health Effects through Dietary Changes
The functional medicine approach treats chronic illnesses as ‘foodable.’ That is, they can be reversed with diet correction rather than being dependant on medication lifelong. All that you should know is, what and when to eat and which foods to avoid.
Contrary to popular perception, not all carbs and fats are bad. In fact, minimally processed carbs and good fats provide energy. One should avoid simple carbs that are processed and polished (such as white rice and wheat) and eat complex carbs such as millets, whole grains and pulses, that support better metabolism.
Minimally processed foods are also rich in nutrients. Consuming proteins and healthy fats in every meal ensures nutrient dense foods every day. Protein intake should be at 1 g per kg of body weight per day.
Non-vegetarians should prefer organic, pasture-fed meat and wild or small and sustainably farmed fish. Use saturated fats such as coconut oil, A2 ghee and A2 butter instead of refined oils for cooking. Avoid oily fried foods from the market.
Prebiotics and probiotics are essential elements of a balanced diet for improving gut microbiome, the underlying issues to most chronic diseases.
Fibers are non-digestible carbohydrates and act as good prebiotics. They also slow down the absorption of glucose into the circulatory system, thus ensuring a slow and sustained release of glucose into the body.
Eat at least 25-50 g of fiber per day. Leafy greens and a rainbow of veggies in your lunch and dinner should ideally be more than or equal to the complex carb intake.
Include anti-inflammatory foods (such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, flaxseeds, etc.) in your diet. Foods rich in antioxidants (like cherries, cranberries, plums, oranges, grapes, pears, green, orange and yellow vegetables, nuts and seeds, sprouts, etc.) are also a must.
Apart from the above, dairy products should be avoided and sugars in all forms should be limited to 2 g per day. White salt should be replaced with Himalayan/ rock salt (sendha namak). It is also advisable to avoid eating high-carb and high-fat foods at the same time.
One should be mindful of when to eat as well. Practise late breakfast and early dinner. Fast at least once or twice a week and always stay hydrated with structured (sun-charged water).
Lifestyle Behaviours to Reduce Chronic Disease Risk
“You are what you eat” is an old adage that is often used to describe the link between nutritional choices and overall health. Although it would be more appropriate to say, you are what you eat and digest. Bhaskar had been eating ultra-processed foods. But even if he ate nourishing meals, it would help him so much because of our body is not able to absorb the nutrition if we suffer from gut dysfunction and inflammation. Hence, it is important to correct gut dysbiosis, leaky gut, infections and ensure your holistic well-being.
Toxin build up in the body can lead to multiple chronic disorders. Therefore, constipation is one of the root causes of a majority of chronic diseases. You should ensure regular and proper bowel movement and also detox on a regular basis. Use supplements to balance nutritional deficiency or insufficiency.
Physical activities and maintaining muscle strength and tone is of utmost importance. Resistant training (weight bearing exercises) should constitute 75 % of physical activity and the remaining 25% should be aerobics. Yoga and controlled breathing techniques increase the mitochondrial biogenesis, and therefore, help in preserving cardio-metabolic health.
Sleep disturbance even in a single day, may increase the stress hormones, disturb the circadian rhythm and affects overall health. Hence, you should sleep for at least 7-8 hours daily and have a regular sleep schedule.
Staying in proximity with nature, limiting blue light toxicity and grounding for at least 25-30 minutes per day is good for mitochondria and cellular health. Most importantly, you should always stay hydrated.
It is worth reiterating here that it’s not your ‘defective’ genes that are responsible for chronic illness. The fault lies in epigenetics, or the impact of your diet, lifestyle and environment on your genes. Therefore, factors like living in the same house, eating the same food, following the same lifestyle for years, etc., determine epigenetics of the family. Hence, there are commonalities in health issues.
Understanding and Combating Nutrition Misinformation
Misinformation peddled to sell products and services over years, have led to a lot of misconceptions around nutrition.
For instance, most of the “weight loss” diets advocated popularly, follow the “calorie in – calorie out model”. This basically means, we should burn more calories by exercising than we add with eating. What about the machinery’s health to process this simplistic wrong formula?
The problem with this model is that our body has nutrient sensors, but no calorie sensors. Hence, it is more important to count nutrients rather than calories to be healthier. Zero calorie diet are actually harmful for our gut microbiome and they impact metabolism, albeit indirectly.
Some other common myths around nutrition have been dispelled below:
“Carbs are bad” – Not all carbs. Minimally processed carbs should be eaten in the right macro portion. Ultra-processed carbs shorn of fibers are bad.
“Fats are bad” – Not all fats. Saturated fats are in fact, good for your body. Vegetable oils and trans-fats are unhealthy.
“Proteins are good” – Not all proteins, especially when majority of us have gut dysbiosis. Only naturally sourced proteins are healthy for our system. Corn-fed chicken / fish / beef are high in Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) that could cause fatty liver, unless moderate physical activities are involved.
“Fats makes you fat” – No, not fats. Excess sugar consumption causes high insulin levels and makes you overweight and obese.
“Cholesterol rich foods increase the blood cholesterol” – The cholesterol in food doesn’t raise triglycerides, neither does it reduce HDL-C. In fact, insulin resistance is responsible for high TG/HDL ratio.
“Home cooked foods are healthy” – Not if we use ultra-refined foods, oils and sugars.
In summation, chronic disease are the long-term effects of poor diet, lifestyle and environment. We can prevent or reverse chronic diseases by following a healthy lifestyle and eating healthy, nutritious foods. At the same time, it is also our personal responsibility to quit bad habits such as alcohol and tobacco use if we want to maintain good health.
We should also not be over-dependent on healthcare professionals for each and every aspect on improving our health. Now that we have the answer to ‘how does food impact heath’, equipped with knowledge and guidance from healthcare professionals, we should take charge our own health.
Wellfinity.in has the best team of dieticians, nutritionists and functional medicine experts ready to guide you and provide the knowledge you need. And we are just a call away. Login to Wellfinity.in for more info, or feel free to call.