Is it really true that how we live affects health? The research certainly says so. More and more studies keep pointing to sensible eating, regular exercise, no smoking, minimal alcohol and less stress as the best ways to control disease and enjoy a higher quality of life.
Nutrition is more than the food you eat. It's also how you digest, absorb and metabolize these nutrients. But assuming your body uses food well, there's ample evidence showing that what goes in your mouth has a good deal to do with your health and life expectancy.
Fiber or roughage, the undigested portion of plants, continually proves itself to be an invaluable part of a healthy menu. Upping your fiber intake, particularly with the water soluble fiber found in dried beans and oat bran, is an inexpensive and safe way to lower blood cholesterol (1). Dietary roughage also wards off constipation, improves diabetic symptoms, helps treat hypertension, decreases the risk of colon cancer and generally fills you up.
Decreasing the fatty foods you eat is an excellent way to battle heart disease, some cancers, high blood pressure and maintain a more slender waistline. Even immunity is compromised if you eat too much fat (2). However, some fat is necessary to maintain health. Fish oils and essential fatty acids (EFAs), found in vegetable oils, are beneficial in the right amounts.
An example of how diet affects health is the ongoing 10 year old China-Cornell-Oxford project. Researchers discovered that Chinese who eat low-fat, high-fiber foods and exercise a lot have less cancer, obesity and heart disease (3,4,5).
Without vitamins we become very sick or die. Most vitamins come from our food; others are produced by our body. Vitamins K, B12, thiamin and folic acid are manufactured by micro-organisms in our intestine, while our skin uses sunshine to make vitamin D.
No one questions that vitamins are necessary for good health. However, scientists and doctors continue to debate the kind and amount of nutrients we need, and how vitamins really affect disease. In a perfect world food is the ideal source of vitamins. Unfortunately, cooking, storage, processing, refining, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and nutrient-poor soil all steal some of food's nutrition. Stressful living conditions, pollution and inadequate eating habits demand that most of us supplement our diets with additional vitamins. In addition, your size, sex, age, health, physical activity, biochemical make-up and where you live all create individual vitamin requirements.
New research says that vitamins' effect on health is even more far reaching than we thought just a few years ago. Antioxidant vitamins, most notably C, E and beta-carotene, seem to protect against some cancers, heart disease and other illnesses. Vitamin B6 helps those with PMS, carpal tunnel syndrome and diabetes. Osteoporosis may be prevented with vitamin K. Most importantly, immunity, the body system that governs health in general, is affected by vitamins A, E and B6 (6).
Washers, dryers and all the other labor-saving devices we've come to depend on have made life easier and getting exercise harder. Some have accepted this trend and lead sedentary lives. However, regular exercise, whether it's aerobics class, walking or gardening, is essential for good health.