The key to a healthy diet might be more about what you’re not eating
I hate to be an alarmist, but low-quality diets continue to contribute to a huge number of deaths. In 2017, poor diet killed 11 million people worldwide. Even though since 1990 that number has come down significantly, improvements in diet could still potentially prevent one in five deaths globally.
The typical North American focus on healthy diet is all about removing unhealthy food; we tell people to eat “less of” various foods in most dietary recommendations.
What if we have gotten this approach all wrong? A new study recently published in The Lancet suggests that instead, we should focus much more on making sure that we are adding in certain foods.
The analysis published in early April was a large review of studies of human nutrition done in 195 countries around the world. Although the review has some important messages, as with any individual study of human health, we always need to be aware of limits in the study design. One important issue to consider was that many of the studies included in the analysis collected information by way of individual surveys.
Think about how you might answer when a food and nutrition researcher asks you to keep records or to recount your dietary intake for the past week. I for one, might be tempted to leave out the sordid details about the little bowl of Cadbury Mini Eggs that I had on Monday night, and talk much more about the lovely salad that I had for lunch that day.
Keeping in mind design limitations, this interesting analysis of a large body of research can provide us with some important ideas for our diet. Probably the biggest surprise in the findings was the global disease risk attributable to low intake of certain foods.
In countries where people had the lowest intake of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, disease and mortality rates due to diet were much higher (even when removing other risk factors from the equation). Although this might not seem like terribly shocking information, what was different about this analysis was that the usual suspects in bad diet seemed to play a much smaller role.
Surprisingly, high consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, processed meat, and trans fat, were much lower down the list in terms of overall global health risks. To be very clear, these foods still pose a significant risk to health, but according to the study, what made the biggest difference were the foods that were not included in a regular diet.
THE BIG RISKS
For example, the researchers found that having a low intake of whole grains was the leading dietary risk factor for mortality for women worldwide. Couple this with the fact that women who eat less than 10 grams of fibre per day are more likely to gain weight during the menopausal and post-menopausal transition, I would suggest that increasing your daily whole grain intake is a simple healthy living hack for women over 50.
An interesting takeaway from the research was beyond the idea of suggesting that we focus more on including certain foods. Asking people to add in something healthy is an easier win from a public health perspective; we know from other studies of human behaviour, people are much more successful at adding in a healthy habit than trying to eliminate an unhealthy one.
THE HEALTH HACK
I’ve written a lot about not making food the enemy. I also think it’s almost impossible to keep up with the latest diet trends and the focus on individual “superfoods”. After decades of watching dietary recommendations change, and after reading volumes of dietary research, I focus on these four things in my own diet:
1. Is there a fruit or vegetable in every meal?
2. Am I taking in enough fibre?
3. Do I love what I’m eating?
4. Am I eating mindfully (e.g., not in a car, not while staring at a screen)?
Number one and two on this list help me to make sure that I am always getting enough fruits and vegetables and whole grains. No points, no calorie counting, no macros – just pure love of food. It’s doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. This approach fueled a body that put in over 1700kms on running adventures alone last year.
One of my favourite ways to cover my four-part list is during breakfast (mmm, I love breakfast). Here is one of my most-used morning recipes:
Affectionately known by my family and friends as “Kate’s Gruel” (don’t be put off by the name – it’s truly delicious):
1 cup of steel-cut oats
I mashed banana
I tbsp of oil (I like a mild olive oil)
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups milk, soymilk (this is my favourite), or almond milk
1. Put the oats in a cereal bowl and cover with 2 cups of water. Leave for 30 minutes.
2. When the oats have finished soaking, put the oil in saucepan and warm on medium heat
3. Drain the oats and add to the pan
4. Add the banana, milk or milk alternative, cinnamon, salt, and vanilla
5. Cook on medium heat until porridge consistency (I like it a little thinner but go ahead and freestyle here)
6. Serve with berries or other fruit, and seeds or nuts (pumpkin seeds or pistachio nuts are especially yummy)
7. Enjoy, and feel virtuous. Announce loudly to your family that you are following the latest healthy living research by adding in more whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fruits. Start your busy day feeling fully nourished.
It’s a simple and delicious way to add in the good stuff. I refrigerate the leftovers and the recipe feeds me for several days.
What are the simple approaches that you take to eating? What are your favourite recipes? I would love to hear about them on our Facebook page.
Your sister in health,
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