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Roots of nutrition for chronic disease prevention

Last Modified: July 29, 2022

Nutrition & Recipes, Diseases & Disorders


This post was written by Lydia Conner, RDN, LD, community outreach dietitian, Parkview Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines chronic diseases as, “conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living or both.” These include heart disease, cancer and diabetes, which are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States.

People often believe that if they have family members with these chronic conditions, they are destined to also have these health problems. However, genetics is only about 20% of what determines our health. Lifestyle behaviors determine the other 80%. Tobacco use, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol and poor nutrition are leading risk behaviors of chronic diseases. Poor nutrition can be summarized as diets low in fruits and vegetables, high in sodium and high in saturated fats.

Eating for health

Good nutrition is key to staying healthy at any age. People with healthy eating patterns live longer and have less risk of chronic diseases. But what about those who already have one or more diagnosed chronic conditions? Healthy eating can help to manage these conditions and prevent further complications. With improved eating can sometimes come a reduction in medication use!

Including more plant foods can benefit us in many ways to fight against chronic diseases. For example, research shows that there is a lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), type 2 diabetes, and cancer for vegetarians than for omnivores (meat eaters). Planning meals based around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds can be a great start to improving your health. This change emphasizes nutrient-dense, fibrous foods that many of us lack in a typical American diet.

By creating a more plant-forward plate, you are getting more of these beneficial nutrients:

  • Antioxidants – Protect our bodies cells against damaging free-radicals. These can help to protect against some types of cancer.
  • Fiber – Can help to reduce cholesterol that can lead to clogged arteries, heart attack, and stroke. Can help to regulate blood sugar levels and with weight management, making us feel fuller longer.
  • Potassium – Helps to regulate blood pressure, making our organs jobs easier.
  • Less sodium – When eating at home more often and eating minimally processed foods; helps to regulate blood pressure.
  • Less saturated fat – Can help prevent buildup of plaque in arteries that cause constriction or blockages in vessels that lead to heart attack or stroke.
  • Less added sugar – Leaves more space for nutrient- and fiber-dense carbohydrate sources that help to promote better blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity.

Consider how many cups of fruits and vegetables you eat each day. Can you increase one or both of those numbers by an additional cup each day? Incorporate them into a family favorite or build a snack around a produce item.

How many times per week do you forgo meat in a meal? Start a new routine by introducing “Meatless Mondays.” Try batch prepping your veggies ahead of time so they are easy to include with meals. Buy fruits and veggies you enjoy eating raw so that they require minimal time to include in a packed lunch or snack. Try a new recipe with a plant-based protein. Use fresh herbs and spices while they are in-season to flavor your food.

Eating more whole, plant-based foods does not happen overnight for most, but every step toward including more plants helps your body stay healthy, strong and resilient to anything life or genetics throw your way.

More resources for the plant-curious

Earlier this year, Sarah Mohrman, RDN, LD, MA, dietitian, program coordinator, PPG – Cardiology, developed a week-by-week plan for transitioning to a healthier diet in a series called “Ten weeks to plant-powered eating.” You can follow her recommendations in the links below:

Week 1 – Add to your diet

Week 2 – Eliminate the obstacles

Week 3 – Build a better breakfast

Week 4 – Lighten up your lunch

Week 5 – Better dinner plans

Week 6 – Ditch the dairy

Week 7 – Tap into caulipower

Week 8 – Take on tempeh and tofu

Week 9 – Dining out

Week 10  - Encouragement

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