The majority of Americans are sick. Almost seven out of every ten are overweight or obese. Heart disease is killing someone every 40 seconds. A record-breaking 29 million have diabetes. One in every three has hypertension. Worse yet, these diseases, once considered life-threatening only for adults, are now affecting children. High cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and sugar, and other symptoms are found in kids as young as six-years-old. That’s because one in three children are overweight or obese. Their future is even more bleak, since they are the first generation to be fat from such a young age.
Americans are overnourished in calories, sugar, refined grains, and fat and undernourished in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. We weren’t meant to be fat. We have no defenses against overconsumption of overly processed, high-caloric foods combined with lack of exercise. In fact, obesity is the canary in the coal mine of disease. Excess body fat, especially around the middle, increases the risk for breast cancer, prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, lung cancer and just about every other cancer. Rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, stroke, asthma, sleep apnea, arthritis, gallbladder diseases, menstrual and sexual problems, and gout go up as body fat increases. Mood, mind and memory also suffer with higher rates of depression, hostility, Alzheimer’s, fatigue, sleep disorders and social, self-esteem, and academic problems closely associated with body fat excess. A fat American has a three-fold increased risk for dementia down the road compared to a fit American.
Disease is an effect, not a cause. It is the direct effect of eating the Western diet and living a sedentary lifestyle. Almost all of this is preventable and within a person’s control. Ten lifestyle habits have been identified that would almost totally eradicate these diseases. The top three of those habits that could lower risk by 80% or more and are 1) feet, 2) forks, and 3) fingers, as Dr. David Katz at Yale University has said. Feet being daily exercise, Forks being a healthy diet, and fingers being not smoking.
Let’s take diet, for example. While nutrition is not a black-and-white science, there are a few issues that are clear. People who consume the most colorful fruits and vegetables and 100% whole grains also tend to have the leanest bodies and lowest disease risks. In fact, following those three guidelines alone can lower risk for heart disease by 80%, diabetes risk by 90%, and cancer risk by 60%. (Archives of Internal Medicine 2009;169:1355-62/ Archives of Internal Medicine 2010;170:711-8 / Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention 2011;20:1089-97.) Four out of five heart attacks could be prevented in both women and men if they followed that advice. (Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2014 64:1299-306/BMC Medicine 2014;12:168./ Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2015;65:43-51)
Here is the challenge. How many colorful fruits and vegetables can you eat in a day? Aim for eight or more. That means at least two servings at every meal and at least one at every snack. If you just switched from 8 ounces of potato chips (America’s favorite snack food) to 8 ounces of watermelon, you’d save yourself more than 1,000 calories! Can you swap out all or most of the foods containing refined grains, such as breads, cereals, snacks, crackers, cookies, etc. made with even a dusting of white flour or rice, for 100% whole grain items? I dare you!
Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D.