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The work ahead in preventing premature death

I have hammered away on the concept that we are what we eat and the idea that by making better food choices we can inoculate ourselves against those things that might damage our health.

Dr. Eva Selhub, an internationally recognized expert, physician, author, speaker and consultant in the fields of stress, resilience and mind-body medicine, recently provided another perspective. Writing in Harvard Health, she reminds us that our brain is always in the “on” setting. It works hard for us 24/7 and requires a constant supply of fuel. That “fuel” comes from the foods we eat, and what that fuel is makes all the difference.

What we eat directly affects the structure and function of our brain and, ultimately, our mood.

Let’s say you have been given a body that is the equivalent of a Lamborghini. What are you going to put in the tank to make sure it runs at peak performance? Regular? That would be crazy, right? You’re going to use premium.

Premium-fuel diets have long been established. They consist of a high amount of vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood and only a modest amount of lean meats and dairy.

Like that Lamborghini, your brain functions best when it gets only premium fuel. Eating high-quality foods full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourishes the brain and protects it from oxidative stress that can damage cells.

Conversely, substances in “low-premium” fuel provided by processed or refined foods have little ability to get rid of the things that damage brain cells.

Diets high in refined sugars have been shown to be harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function.

Diets high in refined sugars have also been associated with a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders such as depression. For many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between food and mood. Today, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there’s correlation between what you eat, how you feel and how you ultimately behave.

Selhub suggests we start paying attention to how eating different foods makes us feel — not just in the moment but the next day. She suggests trying to eat a “clean” diet for two to three weeks, eliminating all processed foods and sugar.

Then, slowly introduce different foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel. By doing this, your body will begin to tell you what foods are the right medicine for you.

Sticking with this automotive analogy just a little longer, we also know that it is bad practice to constantly top off your gas tank. The same rule could apply to overeating.

Stop to consider that heart disease remains the leading cause of disability and death worldwide. According to a paper recently published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, nearly 2,200 people in the U.S. die per day due to cardiovascular problems. That is one person every 40 seconds.

The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology study shows that just a modest reduction in our daily caloric intake could generate protective benefits for our hearts. Overall, participants in the study trimmed their caloric intake by an average of about 12 percent, or about 300 fewer calories per person per day. This equates to about six standard-size Oreos’ worth of calories.

This relatively modest reduction in calories had significant effects on the participants. Though the weight loss was considered impressive, it was not responsible for a majority of the heart benefits. After conducting further analysis, researchers determined that, at most, weight loss accounted for only 25 percent of the improved measurements in heart health.

The study demonstrates a significant hurdle in using caloric restriction to improve human health. It reaffirmed that diets are hard to maintain. Of the 143 participants who originally began the restricted diet, 26 dropped out before the two years were up.

Researchers noted that the goal of caloric restriction research is the reduction — and possible elimination — of aging-related diseases. One glaring problem remaining is that, at present, aging is not considered a medical condition. If a recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago Medical Center and others have their way, this may soon change.

As widely reported, there has not been much good news about Alzheimer’s lately. There remains no cure for or drug to stop it.

According to a pair of studies presented at the annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference earlier this month, researchers provided a glimmer of hope as they reported encouraging results from studies of nondrug approaches. These studies found that the more healthy habits a person adopts the lower the risk of cognitive decline.

Scientists at the University of Chicago Medical Center followed nearly 2,500 people for almost a decade, tracking several lifestyle factors — their diet, whether they smoked, the amount of leisure physical activity they completed each week, how much alcohol they drank and how much cognitive activity they engaged in. What they learned was that the more healthy activities the people adhered to the lower their risk.

According to a Time magazine report, researchers found that people who reported healthier lifestyles overall — those who stuck to a low-fat diet, did not smoke, exercised at least 150 minutes each week at moderate to vigorous levels, drank moderately and engaged in some late-life cognitive activities — had lower levels of Alzheimer’s dementia.

“The core message from these findings is that whatever their genetic risk, people may be able to benefit from a healthy lifestyle,” David Llewellyn from the University of Exeter tells Time magazine.

In other words, food really is medicine.

Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. 

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