September 2020




    Trailblazing new research shows that what we eat can do far more than simply provide energy and help keep us lean.  When we wisely and consistently choose our foods, we can prevent or even reverse diabetes and treat chronic pain, depression and more.  Here’s what to pile on your plate.

    The secret to a long, healthy life could be right inside your pantry and refrigerator.  Increasing the amount of protective foods you eat can prevent a lot of disease.  Alternatively, getting too little of six types of food (and too much of four) is associated with nearly half of all U.S. deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.    We skimp on nuts and seeds (the top things we need more of), seafood, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and tend to ingest too much salt, processed meats, sweetened drinks and unprocessed red meats.  The overall health burden of not eating enough of the good foods is actually greater than the health burden of eating too much of the bad.  That’s very important, because it sends a positive message.  There are really, really good things we’re just not eating enough of.  In other words, a healthy diet is as much about addition as subtraction.  Usher in more of the beneficial stuff (biweekly servings of cold-water fish; a daily snack of nuts and fruit), and you’ll feel better overall.  Then target specific nutrients to fight diseases and conditions from digestive woes to depression.

    Support your stomach.  Your gut and intestines are home to your microbiome, a collection of trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that influence your health in big ways.  Eating the right things feeds the so-called good bugs that live there, positively affecting not only digestion but metabolism, mood, immune function, inflammation and gene expression.   On the other hand, a poor diet can quash microbial diversity and negatively impact all these systems.  When you change how you eat, you reap the rewards quickly.  Within a day (yes, a day!) of shifting a diet for the better, gut composition starts to improve.  What to eat: the rainbow, with all the fixings: vegetables, fruits and herbs, plus whole grains, nuts, seeds and beans.  When gut bacteria feed on  and ferment the fiber in plant foods, they produce compounds called short-chain fatty acids: one type is butyrate, which has anti-inflammatory effects and serves as a main source of nutrition for cells in the colon, benefitting overall digestion.  Eating more than 30 different types of plants per week creates a healthier gut microbiome than eating fewer than 10.  To pack 10 or more into one meal, blend a smoothie with mixed greens, assorted berries, nut butter, avocado, ground chia seeds and almond milk.  Check off the remaining 20 by remixing your salads with walnuts, cannellini beans, mint and sugar snap peas. 

    Soothe chronic pain.  Inflammation is one potential side effect of an unhealthy microbiome.  It is also a driver of many different kinds of pain.  We set it off system-wide when an imbalance of good and bad microbes damages our gut and allows a noxious substance called bacterial endotoxin to “leak” into the bloodstream.  Eat to support your microbiome and you can prevent this from happening.  Certain foods may also target pain more directly: those rich in polyphenols, such as berries, show particular promise for alleviating arthritis, while vitamin C-rich picks may calm the immune system and reduce symptoms of autoimmune disorders, including lupus flare-ups.    What to eat: citrus, bell peppers and broccoli, along with blueberries, nuts, spices, black tea and spinach, preferably doused in EVOO, which contains oleocanthal, a polyphenol with anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen.

    Balance blood sugar.  A staggering 88 million Americans (more than one in three) have prediabetes, and more than 30 million have type 2 diabetes. Many who have elevated blood sugar are not aware that they have it. These diagnoses are often avoidable and reversible with good nutrition.  The top priority for prevention and management is concentrated carbohydrate reduction as part of a healthy diet.  Consuming healthy carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains) in measured amounts at each meal and snack can help reduce A1c (a marker of average blood sugar over several months).  This marker doesn’t budge for people eating a more typical diet recommended by doctors for diabetes management.   Carbohydrate-controlled individuals also lost more weight and were able to scale back on diabetes medications.  What to eat: replace most refined/concentrated carbohydrates (breads, crackers, cereal) with whole-food carbohydrates from fiber-rich vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, legumes, oats and beans.  Pick your favorites and pair them with protein and fat to blunt blood-sugar spikes.   Draw the line at 90-120 grams of carbohydrate foods per day, at most 45 grams per meal.  That’s not as spartan as it may sound: wild salmon, roasted asparagus and a half-cup of roasted potatoes cooked in olive oil is a delicious meal. Substitute within food groups to suit your taste.   Or choose a cup of whole-milk Greek yogurt with ground chia seeds and berries.

    Lift your mood. Yes: you can eat yourself happy, and not just with ice cream.   That’s what an emerging field called nutritional psychiatry is finding.   Following a Mediterranean style of dining can reduce depression symptoms to the “normal” range within 3 weeks.   Other research suggests that B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium and zinc can quell depression and anxiety, in part by influencing mood-regulating chemical messengers like serotonin in the brain.  Gut health plays a role as well.  Consumption of probiotic foods like yogurt and certain probiotic strains (e.g. L. rhamnosus) reduce anxiety.  What to eat:  All the things you would enjoy in the Mediterranean.  Make your plate colorful and diverse: five servings of vegetables, two of fruit, three each of whole grains and lean protein, plus three tablespoons of nuts and seeds, two tablespoons of olive oil and one serving of dairy, which is optional.  For omega-3s, B vitamins and zinc, sit down to three servings of cold-water fish and shellfish per week, and add cinnamon and turmeric to meals when you can.



    If you have one of these conditions (or a family history of them), specific nutrients may be able to help.  Ask your doctor and eat up!

    Type 2 diabetes: Sip ginger tea or add cinnamon to your morning coffee or oats.  Both spices contain compounds that can lower post-meal blood-sugar levels.   Magnesium-rich foods also aid in carbohydrate metabolism and glucose regulation; get more from dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards), a handful of almonds, or a one-ounce square of 80% (or greater) dark chocolate.

    Arthritis: When consistently consumed, turmeric helps counter pain through the same pathways that anti-inflammatory drugs use.  Add a teaspoon to smoothies or chicken salad or consider a standardized turmeric-extract supplement.  Tart cherry juice (refreshing with seltzer) has also been repeatedly proven to lower levels of C-reactive protein, a biomarker of inflammation-associated aches and pains.

    Cancer: To aid in prevention, the phytonutrients in almost all fruits and vegetables have beneficial properties.  Aim to eat a wide range.  Broccoli sprouts contain a particularly potent cancer-fighting compound, sulforaphane, which can help regulate cell growth and clear damaged cells from the body.

    Stephanie Eckelkamp