Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 26/3/2018 (1400 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Donna Downie decided she was going to eat her way back to health — at least when it came to her cholesterol.
The 63-year-old Winnipeg grandmother of six was diagnosed with high LDL — the bad cholesterol — more than a decade ago and taking medication didn’t sit well with her.
"So between diet, exercise, and vitamins, three years ago I was able to ditch Lipitor," says Downie, who is retired, along with her husband.
She had help from her dietitian, who guided her toward building a long-term eating plan, boosting her intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, good (unsaturated) fats and lean cuts of meat.
"I had been making some unhealthy choices — too much processed."
While she once indulged in bacon and eggs — a favourite of her husband’s — now she begins her day with oat bran, fruit, ground flaxseed and powdered psyllium husk, making her a baby-boomer poster girl for March’s Nutrition Month.
Themed "Unlock the Potential of Food," the Dietitians of Canada campaign extols the virtues of cooking with children and expanding food horizons by exploring other cultures’ delicacies.
But a key area of focus is a healthy diet’s ability to prevent illness and even to "heal what ails us," its website, www.nutritionmonth2018.ca, says.
"One of the things research really does demonstrate is that there are certain foods or combinations of foods that when consumed on a regular basis can actually help prevent chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes," says Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian with CancerCare Manitoba, who also has a private consulting practice.
Some foods can even reduce cancer risk, she adds.
"It all comes back to eating more fruits and vegetables," and whole grains while obtaining protein from sources such as pulses (beans), fish, chicken and dairy.
"Those are the types of foods we can use to build healthy meals around."
Sunderland says she is often reluctant utter the four-letter word, "the D-word," when discussing healthy eating. While some diets do have merit, such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) to treat blood pressure, "people often shut off their brains because these can sound complicated."
And complexity is often the last thing we need in our busy lives. That’s why we’re often drawn to eating poorly. Processed and fast foods are convenient, she adds.
While pleasurable and easily accessible, they are high in sugar, fat and salt and give us too many calories too quickly. The result is the excess gets stored as fat, and our hunger is only satiated for a brief time.
By contrast, healthy foods "keep our energy levels more stable," Sunderland says.
She cites a small serving of Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts as a good example.
"That combination of a complex carbohydrate and protein will actually keep our energy levels even and that can help prevent cravings."
Although a healthy diet is a means to promote health and prevent disease, it’s not a quick fix. Moreover, when it comes to food’s ability to ‘heal what ails us,’ evidence is limited, says Dylan MacKay, an assistant professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, specializing in nutritional biochemistry.
"Benefits often get overstated," says MacKay, who specializes in nutritional biochemistry and studies how diet and lifestyle affect chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes.
Unquestionably, what we eat plays a role in well being, he says.
But too often people look for fast answers to improve their health and gravitate toward fads.
"These are often based on the idea that certain foods have a curative power with immediate impact, when diet and health involve a long-term relationship," says MacKay, who is involved in an ongoing population health study called The Manitoba Personalized Lifestyle Research, which examines what Manitobans eat.
"In general (Nutrition Month) is important because it gets us thinking about food and how it impacts our health."
But the benefits of a certain foods or diets often get overstated, particularly on the web, where anecdotal evidence is held up as proof a particular diet cures cancer, for example, when there is no evidence based on randomized, controlled trials suggesting it actually does.
Adding to the confusion the food industry has long funded trials that highlight virtues of certain foods to boost sales. Even when findings are meaningful, the public often puts too much stock in them — in large part because of how they are reported.
MacKay adds the public and media often confuse relative risk with absolute risk. For example, people often assume when a study finds a food reduces risk of disease by 50 per cent that they’re significantly improving their health by eating this food.
What they often fail to realize, however, is "you could have an absolute risk of one per cent of getting a disease, and if you cut that to 0.5 per cent, you have a relative risk reduction of 50 per cent," he says.
In other words, the real reduction in risk is much less than we might assume because the absolute risk of disease is already low.
Still eating well can prevent disease. In some cases, like with Type 2 diabetes, diets rich in vegetables and fruits have been shown to reduce the impact of illness.
But positive change occurs incrementally over time, often in conjunction with other improvements in lifestyle — better sleep, less stress, limited alcohol consumption and more physical activity, MacKay says.
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"There isn’t one food that is a silver bullet that’s going to protect our health and prevent chronic disease," Sunderland concurs.
"It’s about investing the time and effort, which can be difficult because it is so easy to fall into bad habits."
Creating new, healthy ones requires commitment. Just ask Downie, the patient with high cholesterol who has been honing her healthy ways for more than a decade. The effort has paid off. Her cholesterol levels are now in check, and just as importantly, she feels good.
"Proper food choices and exercise not only make you feel better physically, but you feel better about yourself in general," she says.
"Even my husband’s eating habits have changed."
An app to track your appetizers
Looking to eat better, but don’t know where to start? The Dietitians of Canada can help.
Get their eating and activity tracker — eaTracker — online or download it from the AppStore or Google Play.
Additionally, you can find healthy recipes for meals and snacks at www.cookspiration.com, which is also downloadable as an app.