Their View: Healthy diet among key components of lifestyle medicine

With July being National Culinary Arts Month, now seems like an opportune time to highlight the many benefits of a healthy diet – which just so happens to be among the central tenets of The Wright Center for Community Health’s Lifestyle Medicine program.

For those unfamiliar with the term, lifestyle medicine addresses the long-term lifestyle choices that give rise to chronic conditions like hypertension, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and multiple types of cancer. When implemented, lifestyle medicine can prevent, treat and even reverse these serious, but preventable conditions.

Along with increasing physical activity, reducing stress and enhancing sleep, adjusting our nutritional habits is a cornerstone pillar of lifestyle medicine. By doing that, we can greatly improve our overall health.

One good place to start is by addressing our gastrointestinal (GI) health, since research shows that a healthy gut is associated with an overall increase in health and reduction in chronic disease.

For instance, let’s take probiotics, which are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the normal microflora in the body. One function of probiotics is to keep us healthy by supporting our immune function and controlling inflammation. They can also help our body digest food, keep bad bacteria from getting out of control, create vitamins, help support the cells that line our gut to prevent bad bacteria from entering our bloodstream, and break down and absorb medications.

Starting your day off with a cup of low-fat, low-sugar yogurt is a great way to consume active bacterial cultures to improve your gut health. Add a prebiotic (nondigestible foods that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines), such as a crushed high-fiber cereal instead of granola to your yogurt. And don’t forget that berries – blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries – not only add sweetness, but are loaded with antioxidants.

Since our hearts are always beating and never get a day, an hour or even a minute or second off, we also need to be focused on optimal heart nutrition. One way to do that is by increasing our consumption of Omega 3 fatty acids, especially ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which have been shown to reduce serum triglyceride levels, non-HDL cholesterol levels, platelet activation and inflammation markers.

While our body can convert ALA into DHA and EPA, the rate of conversion is low, so we should also consume foods high in EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are found in fish such as salmon and shrimp, as well as seaweed and algae, for those looking for vegan-friendly sources. Just a handful of walnuts for an afternoon snack can increase your ALA intake. Meanwhile, adding flax and chia seeds to salads is a great way to get some additional grams of ALA, while seaweed chips are full of EPA and DHA.

While Omega 3 fatty acids have a protective effect on our heart, many foods have the opposite effect and often lead to heart disease or failure. For instance, excessive sodium can lead to hypertension, placing significant strain on the heart. And diets high in animal products increase saturated fat and cholesterol intake, as well as enhance inflammation markers that can lead to chronic disease.

With that in mind, reducing sodium and animal-based foods should be a high priority. In their place, choose plant-based meals a few times a week. Want options? Try vegetable stir fry recipes, which are nutritious, colorful and full of anti-inflammation compounds and prebiotics. Want a little more protein? Add some tofu, which also is a great probiotic.

I hope these tips give you an idea that a healthy diet doesn’t have to be a boring diet. Eating better will allow you to live better, and that’s a fact. Need more information about lifestyle medicine? You can make an appointment with a primary care provider at one of our nine regional community practices in Lackawanna, Luzerne and Wayne counties by going to TheWrightCenter.org or calling 570-230-0019.

Walter Wanas, RDN, LDN, a registered and licensed dietitian-nutritionist, is director of lifestyle modification and preventive medicine for The Wright Center for Community Health’s Lifestyle Medicine Program.