If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
Chronic diseases affect nearly sixty percent of adults in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer are the leading cause of death and disability in the country. Chronic disease can be defined broadly as any condition that:
- Lasts longer than one year; and
- Requires ongoing medical attention; or
- Limits your daily life
The impact of diet on common chronic conditions.
A chronic disease diagnosis can be overwhelming, but the good news is that in some cases, there are ways to manage your chronic condition or even reverse its effects. Food really can be the best “medicine” when it comes to managing our health. Everyone needs to eat and most people enjoy eating, but what you eat matters when it comes to living a long, healthy life.
For example, about one in five people with hypertension (high blood pressure) in the United States are recommended lifestyle modifications as the sole treatment for managing their condition. This underscores just how important the role of diet and nutrition is in managing very common chronic conditions and potentially even reversing them before medication becomes necessary.
Here are our top nutritional tips for managing and preventing some of the most prevalent chronic conditions.
Treating and preventing high blood pressure and heart disease with the DASH diet.
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, is a healthy way to control blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease by limiting foods high in sodium (salt), saturated fat, and added sugars. It is incredibly effective, as studies show that following the DASH diet can lower your blood pressure in as little as two weeks. It is a well-balanced eating plan that emphasizes a variety of foods, including whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, like those found in nuts and certain oils.
Cut back on your salt intake.
One of the most important things you can do to manage your high blood pressure is to lower your sodium (salt) intake. On average, Americans over the age of two years consume 3,400 milligrams of sodium per day, which is significantly higher than the recommendation from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams per day (approximately 1 teaspoon of table salt per day). If you are someone who does not add salt to your food, you may be shocked to find out that 70 percent of the salt we consume is actually added to our food outside of the home before purchase, and not as added salt at the table or during cooking.
Because foods recommended in the DASH diet are low-sodium by nature, you are likely to improve your health just by following those eating guidelines. You can further significantly reduce your salt intake and control the effects of hypertension by:
- Using sodium-free seasonings or spices.
- Reading food labels and choosing low-sodium or no-salt-added options.
- Being mindful of hidden sodium in your food, such as in tomato-based products and processed foods.
- Choosing lean proteins, such as fresh or frozen skinless poultry or fish.
Diabetes management and prevention.
If you have diabetes, you may have a fear of sugars or carbohydrates (which turn into sugar in the bloodstream), but not all carbs are bad. One way to help manage diabetes through the diet is by choosing brown or whole grain carbohydrates, like brown rice, whole grain pasta or bread, instead of white bread, pasta, or rice. Along with other healthy eating recommendations, you can also improve control of your blood sugar levels in diabetes and reduce diabetes risk by eating a diet that is rich in colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil; and lower in red or processed meats and sugar-sweetened beverages like juices or sodas.
Not all cancers are preventable, but the risk of certain types of cancer may be lowered with a healthy diet. For example, diets that include ample fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have been linked with a decreased risk of colon or rectal cancer; while eating more red meat (beef, pork, or lamb) and processed meats (hot dogs and some lunch or deli meats) have been linked with an increased risk of colon or rectal cancer. However, your overall diet is more important than any one single food group. Consider the following guidelines for a nutritious, well-balanced diet:
- Fill up on fiber and lean protein.
- Incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet.
- Choose whole grains and other carbohydrates (e.g. eat brown rice instead of white rice).
- Limit your sugar and alcohol consumption.
- Limit your intake of processed foods.
Making small, incremental changes leads to better, long-term health.
Even if you aren’t diagnosed with a chronic condition like diabetes, it is still important to be mindful of your diet and eat appropriate portions of nutritious foods. Twenty-five percent of American adults with diabetes do not even know they have it, which underscores the importance of healthy eating as a useful tool for both prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a helpful online tool at MyPlate.gov, where you can see how much of each food type you should be eating each day.
When making changes to the way you eat, it is important to make small changes that are manageable in your daily routine so that they can be sustained over a long period of time, such as:
- Cooking more at home.
- Using frozen fruits and veggies. These can be kept more easily and longer than their fresh counterparts, making home cooking much simpler.
- Planning your meals ahead of time.
- Do not eliminate any one food group, but rather, eat everything in moderation.
It’s also helpful to remember to balance your “calories in” with “calories out,” so try to include at least 30 minutes of regular, moderate intensity physical activity per day into your healthy lifestyle.
Finally, establishing a relationship with a primary care provider is one of the best things you can do to help screen for, prevent, and manage chronic conditions. An internal medicine or family medicine doctor will partner with you to make small, lasting changes to your lifestyle that will help you stay healthier and happier.