11 Ways to Lower Your Risk of Chronic Disease Through Healthy Living

The New Year is upon us, offering a fresh opportunity to make resolutions for better health. To feel your best this year—with renewed vigor, a healthy weight and optimal mental and physical function—resolve to make positive changes in your diet. And don’t underestimate the power of diet and healthy lifestyle habits in fighting your risk of devastating diseases.

According to David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., Director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, “You can lower your risk of chronic disease by 80 percent through healthy living.” Katz, who spoke at the Food for Your Whole Life Symposium in New York on June 4 2012, reported that research over the past 20 years indicates that forks (diet), along with feet (physical activity) and fingers (that do or don’t hold cigarettes) are the master levers of medical destiny—good use of forks, feet and fingers can help eliminate chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

So, what are the top, science-based nutrition habits you should foster in the coming year to protect your health? Our nutrition experts weigh in on the most promising.

Choose healthy carbs

Target unrefined carbs, such as unsweetened fruits, and vegetables and limit refined carbs, such as refined grains and flours. “Carbohydrates make up 50 percent of the calories in our diets. It’s pretty clear that refined carbohydrates add very little nutrients and empty calories, which can contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Which source of carbohydrates we choose can make a tremendous impact,” said Walter Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., Nutrition Chair at Harvard School of Public Health, at the Food for Your Whole Life Symposium. Instead of breads, bagels, crackers, and cookies made with white flour and sugar, fill your plate with unsweetened fruits like berries, apples and bananas; and lots of vegetables like greens, tomatoes and broccoli.

Put legumes on the menu every week

Enjoy legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils, as a replacement for meat at least one day a week and as a side dish at least three times a week, suggests Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D., L.D.N., dietitian and author of “The Essential Guide to Healthy Healing Foods. Legumes are a near “perfect food”; a one-half cup serving provides at least 20% DV (Percent Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories per day) for fiber, folate and manganese; 10% DV for protein, potassium, iron, magnesium and copper; and 6-8% DV for selenium and zinc. These nutritious yet economical gems have been linked to lower blood cholesterol levels, body weight, and risk of heart disease, hypertension and some types of cancers.

Eat smaller portions

If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s simply to eat less food. Our portions—in restaurants, supermarkets, and at home—have increased dramatically over the past few decades, directly feeding into the obesity epidemic and its health fallout. Eliza Zied, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., dietitian and writer, reports that learning to eat smaller portions will allow you to eat a wider variety of foods without feeling deprived. “Really savor your food when you eat. Pay attention to it, don’t be distracted,” she stresses. In order to get in touch with portion sizes, measure out one-half cup of rice, or mashed potatoes and consider that a three-ounce serving of meat or chicken should be the size of a deck of cards.

Eat fish at least twice a week in place of red meat

Dietary patterns that include more fish are linked with lower rates of diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes, while those high in red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb—especially processed meats like ham, hot dogs and bacon—are linked with higher rates of these diseases. “Choose cold-water, fatty fish like salmon, halibut, tuna or sardines, at least twice a week for a total of 12 ounces per week,” suggests Retelny.

Include a fruit or vegetable every time you eat

This rule even applies to breakfast and snacks, according to Bethany Thayer, M.S., R.D., Director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This increases the likelihood that you’ll get the fruits and vegetables you need during the day. It also helps provide bulk and nutrients to help keep you full and well-fueled,” she adds. For extra credit, double up on those vegetables at lunch and dinner—have a soup or salad and a serving of cooked vegetables.

Eat a healthy food, before you indulge

Before you’re tempted by a treat, whether it’s cookies or chips, turn to something healthy, such as nuts or fruit, like a banana, apple or cherries, suggests Zied. “Having something healthful before you indulge in a treat may fill you up and satisfy you, which can help you meet your quota for fruit or get the healthy fats from nuts, and it may actually help you have less of the food you’re craving.”

Drink eight glasses of water every day

Not only will you hydrate your body with life-giving fluids necessary for maintaining all of your body functions, you’ll stay away from sugary beverages, including sodas and sports drinks, which have been linked with obesity. “Keep a water bottle handy and track how much you consume,” suggests Jessica Crandall, R.D., C.D.E, dietitian at Sodexo Wellness and Nutrition and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Add nuts and seeds to your daily diet plan

Munch on a handful (about 1 ½ ounces) of nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, pecans or peanuts or add seeds (about two tablespoons), such as flaxseed, chia, hemp, sesame or sunflower seeds to your diet every day, suggests Retelny. Nuts and seeds provide heart healthy fats, fiber and a host of vitamins and minerals. As an added bonus some—walnuts, flaxseed, chia and hemp—are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, linked with heart health benefits.

Meet your fiber goal every day

Fiber is ripe with health opportunity; it’s been linked with lower risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes and obesity. Yet only 5 percent of Americans meet their fiber goal: 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams for men.

Stop eating at least 2 hours before going to bed

“Food provides calories and calories provide energy. You can’t expect to get a good night’s rest if you’ve just loaded your body up with energy. Give your body time to digest the food before bed. You’ll be amazed at how much better you sleep. And when you are well rested, you’re much better able to keep your exercise and nutrition resolutions,” says Crandall.

Move this Year!

How much you move is just as important as what you eat. Adults should aim for:

At least 150 minutes per a week of moderate-intensity, such as biking or walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity, such as running or aerobics, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic activity.

Perform activity in episodes of at least 10 minutes, spread throughout the week.

For additional benefits, increase aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes a week of moderate intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous intensity physical activity.

Do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.

– Sharon Palmer R.D.

As a registered dietitian with 16 years of health care experience, she focuses on writing features covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews, and entertainment. Over 750 of Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications. Her recent book The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today can be ordered here.

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