Angela Vince Saunders, APD, AN
Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist
Australia’s chronic health crisis
Australians are living longer, but…..are we living healthier? Life expectancy has doubled since the 1800’s due to advances in medical and nutritional sciences and improved living and working conditions. Despite these advances, 1 in 2 Australians suffer from at least one chronic disease and may anticipate 8 years of disability during retirement years.
The chronic diseases of greatest concern are heart disease (our leading cause of death), dementia (soon to overtake heart disease), cancer and diabetes. One in 20 people self-report living with diabetes, and many more are undiagnosed. And 1 in 5 Australians report having a mental health condition…. those figures will be higher since the COVID-19 pandemic. Speaking of the pandemic, those with chronic diseases (1) are at greater risk of having worst outcomes from COVID infection.
The underlying cause of most chronic diseases is chronic inflammation (oxidative stress). Acute inflammation is important during the healing of wounds or infection, but chronic inflammation is like a slow rust in our bodies. Assaults on our body increase oxidative stress, risk of disease and accelerate ageing.
Ninety percent of all deaths are caused by harmful lifestyle choices (assaults). By changing our lifestyle (not smoking, being more physically active, making better food choices and abstaining from alcohol) we can prevent 90% of chronic diseases and premature death. That means we can significantly reduce our risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. So that really is great news!
Poor food choices that emphasize highly refined foods (2), a high intake of meat, and inadequate fruits and vegetables, causes ~70% of those deaths. But the good news is that by changing the way we eat, we can reduce our risk of chronic diseases and premature death.
By making important lifestyle changes we have more control over our health than we ever thought!
Secrets of the longest-lived communities
What we eat really does matter, and we can see why in some of the longest-lived communities where people live well into their 9th and 10th decades (without chronic disease or disability)(3). These communities eat a mostly plant-based diet. In fact, the four main ingredients (or pillars) of every long-lived population are anti-inflammatory foods such as wholegrains, green leafy vegetables, nuts and legumes (beans).
These communities are not focused on individual nutrients, nor are they worried whether their diet is high in carbs, low in fat, high in protein, or whatever the latest trend is. And they don’t spend money on highly marketed supplements. Instead, they focus on eating a variety of minimally processed whole foods. Often these are foods they have grown themselves.
By eating a variety of colourful plant foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices) these longest-lived communities eat foods in balance, the way nature intended. And with some minimal processing/cooking to make the food delicious, nutritious, palatable and convenient, they focus on traditional foods they love, and foods that love them back (keeping them well).
Better food choices
Perhaps you’ve come to Food Farmacy because you’ve heard about the benefits of eating more whole plant foods and want to learn more. Our goal is to provide you with the best foods for your wellbeing, according to the latest evidence.
Scientists have been publishing for 50+ years about the benefits of eating more plant foods, and the evidence has been building over this time. So, we can be more certain than ever about the link between plant foods, better health and longevity, and a healthier planet (bonus). It is not a fad, but a fact of science!
Why the emphasis on whole foods?
Whole plant foods contain a wide array of substances within their food matrix or structure. These include vitamins, minerals, protein, carbs, fats and fibres, all very important for good health. They also contain phytonutrients (or plant chemicals) that are unique to plant foods. There are thousands of these bioactive substances in plant foods which are critical to keeping us well. Many act as antioxidants that fight chronic inflammation.
When we refine foods, we strip away these critical substances, leaving the food devoid of the very nutrients our body needs to keep us well.
1+1 = 3
By eating whole foods, we get the benefit of 1+1=3. For example, when we eat a whole apple, the apple skin contains anti-cancer compounds (including quercetin) that interacts with vitamin C within the apple, enhancing vitamin C’s benefits. This is an additive and synergistic effect, meaning the whole is more than the sum of its parts (1+1=3). We are getting much more than we bargained for! But when we remove the skin or juice the apple (removing the fibre) we are removing much of the goodness of the apple.
Wholegrains are another example of the benefit of “whole”. Wholegrains are a package of fibre, resistant starch, oligosaccharides (fermentable carbohydrates), phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, etc. Wholegrains have at least 26+ protective bioactive compounds, including phytonutrients and antioxidants, all working together synergistically to keep us well. They reduce our risk of chronic inflammation, chronic diseases, and premature death. Refined grains (white flour, refined cereals, etc.) have lost those protective compounds in the refining process and increase our risk of inflammation and disease.
Emerging research on the gut microbiome shows plant fibres and polyphenols (phytonutrients) are essential fuel for our healthy gut bugs (microbes). Those microbes produce SCFA (4) in our gut that help fight chronic disease, strengthen our immune system, and influence brain health. This knowledge gives us additional reasons to eat more whole plant foods.
Food synergy and whole foods
The 1+1=3 effect within whole foods occurs between different whole foods as well. There is both increased antioxidant activity and increased absorption of nutrients when we eat a variety of plant foods together in a meal. For example, we absorb more beta-carotene from yellow veggies (carrots, pumpkins, etc) when we add some avocado or extra virgin olive oil. We absorb more iron when we eat iron rich legumes or wholegrains with vitamin C rich fruits or veggies. Turmeric (curcumin) is far more beneficial as an antioxidant when it is combined with black pepper (piperine).
Wholefood combinations and health
Some years ago we learned the synergistic benefits of combining whole foods and some minimally processed foods to reduce cholesterol and blood glucose. The Portfolio Diet combined nuts (almonds), soy proteins, plant sterols, fibre (oats, barley, psyllium husks) and unsaturated plant oil to effectively reduce the risk of heart disease (5) and diabetes (6).
Today’s main health concerns are chronic diseases, not nutrient deficiencies. The totality of foods we eat matters. You can’t make up for poor food choices with nutritional supplements. You can’t put the goodness of a whole apple into a supplement. The evidence is strong and irrefutable…whole food dietary patterns, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, lower the risk of chronic diseases. There is even new evidence they may help to minimise the severity of COVID-19 infection.
Optimal health and happiness
By choosing to eat a wide variety of colourful whole or minimally processed plant foods, you are choosing foods that your body will love, giving you the best chance of good health (7) so you can live well into your 9th and 10th decades.
- COVID-related cardiometabolic syndrome is seen in patients with high body fat, unstable blood sugar (or diabetes), high cholesterol and high blood pressure. These patients are more likely to experience blood clotting, poor immune function and profound inflammation (cytokine storm).
- Foods with excessive sugar, salt, saturated fats, refined carbohydrates
- The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, by Dan Buettner (2008)
- Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) such as butyrate, acetate, proprionate
- Jenkins, Chiavaroli et al. Adding MUFA to a dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods in hypercholesterolemia, CMAJ 2010
- Jenkins, Kendall et al. Type 2 diabetes and the vegetarian diet, AJCN 2003
- Marsh, Zeuschner, Saunders. Health Implications of a Vegetarian Diet—A Review. AJLM 2012