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How a healthy diet can prevent chronic disease

Here's how making some changes could boost your health.

Cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes.

Among these groups, there are four common behavioural risk factors – smoking, physical inactivity, poor nutrition and harmful use of alcohol.

Because of these shared factors, there is great potential for combining prevention and care, and treating selected chronic diseases together to keep people healthy for as long as possible.

By nature, the development of chronic disease happens over time. The implications are that diet is important across the lifespan, poor diet is likely to have a damaging effect if prolonged or occurring at critical points of the development phase, and modifications in diet may play a pivotal role in managing the disease process.

Let’s look at some common chronic diseases in detail, and the role diet may play in their prevention and management.

“To make room for these foods, there is a need to reduce foods with poor nutrient profiles.”

Heart disease

Heart disease, including heart attack and heart failure, is the number one cause of death among adults aged 65 and older. Heart disease is also associated with other chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

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Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, skim and low-fat dairy products, and low-fat meat and meat alternatives are the foundation of a heart-healthy diet. Dietary fat is a nutrient of concern because of its link to an increased risk of heart disease. Foods high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are better for the heart than foods high in saturated fats.

Diabetes

Diabetes treatment calls for controlling blood sugar. Like fats, after quantity, it’s about controlling quality. I tell my patients to focus more on whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less on refined flours and sugars. If they need to control their weight or have difficulty controlling their blood sugar when living with diabetes, I recommend counting carbohydrates and spacing their carbohydrate intake evenly in meals and snacks throughout the day.

Cancers

For people in their 60s, it’s still possible to reduce the risk of cancer with a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If someone already has cancer, it’s important to keep calories/kilojoules and protein intake up to prevent weight loss, which is linked to reduced quality of life and health.

Building a healthy diet

The Australian Dietary Guidelines suggest a healthy diet includes more than six serves of vegetables (especially green vegetables), three serves of fruit (especially coloured fruit), 2-3 serves of fat reduced (not fat free) dairy products, two serves of lean meats (or meat substitutes), eggs and fish (especially fatty fish), nuts and seeds from time to time, and cereal foods fortified with folic acid. Monounsaturated fats and oils should also be included.

To make room for these foods, there is a need to reduce foods with poor nutrient profiles. There is also a need to reduce sodium by not adding salt (or salty sauces) to food after it is cooked and avoiding very salty foods on a regular basis.

It is important to pay attention to diet quality. Meeting our recommended intakes for protective nutrients will go a long way in reducing the burden of chronic disease that we face.

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