Food is an extremely powerful tool in avoiding or combating many common health conditions – from heart disease to memory loss. Read on to learn how changing your diet can make you feel your best.
Most of us tend to think "it won't happen to me" when it comes to illness, then look at diet changes and treatments when illness does "happen". But what if simply making better food choices meant fewer health issues and visits to your GP? Diet-related diseases are on the rise, primarily because society and our busy lifestyles make it easy to swap nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables with convenience foods.
"Our research on diets is giving us increasingly powerful evidence that what you eat and drink does make a difference to your risk of developing common diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers," says Dr Alan Barclay, dietitian and researcher at the University of Sydney. Prevention is always much better than the cure, so here is the food and drink you can choose to avoid illness and disease and rejoice in optimum health.
25% of Australians claim they have a food allergy but, in reality, only 1-2% of adults are affected. However, since 1995 there has been a 12-fold increase in food allergies in Australian children and, currently, researchers can't explain why.
Common food allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, eggs, sesame seeds and soybeans and their food products.
Some food allergies can be life-threatening, while others can reduce your quality of life. It is for this reason that problem foods are removed from the diet.
Do seek medical advice if you suspect you or a family member has a food alllergy.
Don't eliminate any foods from your diet until seeing a doctor or Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).
Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is a progressive, degenerative illness that attacks brain cells, disrupting messages and damaging connections within the brain. It currently affects 500,000 Australians and is likely to increase as our population ages.
There is increasing evidence of a link between AD and nutrition. Many AD patients display deficiencies in omega-3 fats, folate and vitamin E, and evidence shows that these nutrients counteract specific aspects of the mental deterioration seen in AD. Despite this, it is too soon to tell if diet is the key to preventing AD.
Do eat fish twice a week – research has found that eating at least one serve of fish per week makes you 60% less likely to develop AD than if you rarely or never eat fish. Enjoy foods high in vitamin E such as nuts, vegetable oils, whole grains and green, leafy vegetables.
Don'teat foods high in saturated and trans fats such as deep-fried foods, fatty processed meats, butter and full cream dairy.
While there are dozens of causes of cancer, lifestyle factors, such as diet and weight, have been found to play a pivotal role in helping to prevent many types of cancer.
In 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International released a global cancer report highlighting the role diet and physical activity play in cancer risk. According to the report, many plant-based foods – such as whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables – may help lower cancer risk.
High-fat fast foods, highly refined foods and sugary beverages promote weight gain which, according to the report, increases cancer risk. High intakes of red meat, processed meats (such as salami) and alcohol have also been linked to cancer.
Do eat more plant-based foods, such as vegetables and whole grains. Only eat lean beef, lamb or chicken and limit intake to 500g of cooked meat per week.
Don't consume large amounts of processed meats or excessive amounts of alcohol.
This is an auto-immune disease triggered by gluten (a protein in wheat, rye, barley and oats) and affects about one in 100 Australians. However, four out of five people don't know they have it.
The Coeliac Society of Australia says that following a strict, life-long gluten-free diet should eliminate symptoms and can even reverse the damage done to the small intestine. Unfortunately, even eating small amounts of gluten can bring back the symptoms.
Do swap gluten-containing grains with rice, corn, quinoa and amaranth. Read food labels for hidden gluten.
Don't drink beer, malt whisky or Milo, as they contain gluten. Remember the risk of cross-contamination – those breadcrumbs in the margarine can be enough to bring on symptoms.
Cystitis (Urinary Tract Infection)
Cystitis is an inflammation of the bladder. It is most common in women, affecting about 30-50% at some point in their lives, with one in five having recurrent episodes.
Many studies have found that cranberry juice can prevent cystitis. Dr Amy Howell from the Marucci Center for Blueberry Cranberry Research at Rutgers University found that it is the proanthcyanidins found in cranberries that help prevent cystitis, as they act to prevent bacterial adhesion inside the urinary tract. Cranberry products should only be used as a preventative measure and not as a cure.
Do If you are prone to cystitis, drink at least one glass of cranberry juice daily, as research shows that 250-300ml of 27% cranberry juice can prevent cystitis. Dried cranberries and cranberry pills are also effective.
Don't be fooled by the cranberry juices in supermarkets - some contain less than 27% cranberries. Check the label to see how much of your juice is actually from cranberries.
More than 20% of people have some degree of depression, and this number is increasing. Changes in diet may provide relief for many sufferers. "Research has found evidence that mental health can be affected by nutritional deficiencies," says CSIRO researcher Natalie Gannon. "One is a link between B-group vitamins (particularly B6) and depression. A deficiency in the B vitamin folic acid, for example, causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease, leading to mood changes". And it appears it doesn't have to be a serious deficiency to depress your mood. Sugar has also been known to have a negative impact on mood, while omega-3 fats may improve it. Weight gain is also commonly associated with increased depression.
Do eat plenty of fruit, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, soybeans, nuts (walnuts are great), seeds, fish, eggs, lean red meat and whole grains. Use olive oil when cooking.
Don't fill up on sugary food and drinks, or fill up on caffeine to get you through the day. Limit alcohol.
Diabetes (type 2)
Overweight? Inactive? Answer yes and you're at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But shed just 10% of your body weight and you can decrease this risk by about 58%. That's where diet comes in - and a few easy changes can reap big rewards, says Professor Ian Hamilton-Craig, author of Unclog your Arteries. He writes about the SAFE (Sugars, Alcohol, Fats and Exercise) program – you cut down on the first three and do more of the last. "There's some very good research that shows if you do those things you can not only prevent type 2 diabetes but control it as well," he says.
Do eat low-GI carbohydrates such as whole grain bread, pasta or bananas at each meal and snack, as they will help to control your blood glucose level. Eat more plant-based foods - add lentils to your soup, seeds to your low-fat yoghurt or nuts to your stir-fry.
Don't fill up on fatty or sugary convenience foods (chocolate bars and salty snacks) and drinks (soft drinks and juices).
Every 10 minutes, an Australian dies of heart disease, but our biggest killer is largely preventable. An Interheart study found 90% of first heart attacks could be blamed on risk factors including abdominal obesity, poor diet and inactivity.
"Regular consumption of fruit and vegetables is a major factor in avoiding heart disease," says Professor Hamilton-Craig.
Do swap saturated and trans fats (fatty meats, palm oil), which increase cholesterol and your risk of heart attack, for polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, plant oils).
Don't forget to eat your two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables each day. Limit alcohol consumption.
High blood pressure
Untreated high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and kidney disease.
Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which is why the Australian arm of World Action on Salt and Health (AWASH) launched a Drop the Salt! campaign. "If Australians reduced their salt intake to recommended levels, it would prevent about one fifth of strokes and heart attacks a year," says Dr Bruce Neal, Senior Director at The George Institute.
Do aim for less than 1600mg sodium daily and buy salt-reduced or low-salt products.
Don'tcook with salt. Don't drink more than two standard glasses of alcohol if you're a male, or one standard glass if you're a female.
It's not fun and can come with a dose of heartburn, but you can avoid it. "If you eat and drink until your stomach is overloaded, you're more likely to get indigestion, particularly if what you're eating is digested slowly," says Dr Rosemary Stanton, nutritionist and food writer.
Alcohol and caffeine relax the lower oesophageal sphincter (LOS) - the muscle that regulates food going into your stomach - meaning stomach acid can flow back into the oesophagus, causing pain and irritation.
High-fat foods, spicy foods and eating too close to bedtime can also increase the chance of developing heartburn. While chilli, citrus fruits and orange juice directly irritate the lining of the oesophagus.
Do eat small, regular meals to stop your stomach getting too full, and have your last meal at least two hours before you go to bed.
Don't overdo alcohol and caffeine intake. Limit fatty and spicy foods.
About 75% of us experience disrupted sleep at some point in our lives, says Dr Clare Collins, Associate Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of NSW. "If you don't get quality sleep you're more susceptible to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes," she explains.
Tryptophan (amino acid) is a natural sedative that can be found in milk, bread, cheese and bananas, as well as meats such as turkey. A lack of tryptophan can disrupt sleep.
Consuming caffeine and alcohol too close to bedtime can also disrupt sleep. Caffeine increases alertness making it hard to fall asleep, while alcohol interrupts your sleep.
Do have a glass of milk before you go to bed and limit alcohol and caffeine intake.
Don't eat large meals at least two hours before going to bed.
Can't recall names? Forget things unless they're written down? Increasing phospholipids ('intelligent' fats) in your diet could help your memory, says Patrick Holford, author of New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind. "They enhance mental performance and protect against age-related memory loss," he says.
Do consume phospholipids found in lecithin. Eggs are the best natural source and supplements are widely available. Carbohdyrates are the brain's main fuel source so eat plenty low-GI.
Don't skip meals, especially breakfast. Research shows having a good breakfast increases both your memory and alertness.
In Australia, 60% of men and 50% of women are overweight. Of this, 21.8% of women and 19% of men are classified as obese. Being overweight increases your risk of developing organ disease and many other health-related complications. Our current obesity epidemic can be blamed on our largely sedentary lifestyles and reliance on highly processed convenience foods. We also eat far too much.
Do eat regular meals and snacks focusing on whole foods. Take time out of your week to plan meals and stock your cupboards with healthy food. Pay attention to portion sizes and avoid 'mindless eating' – every single thing you eat adds up.
Don't fall for 'lose weight fast' fads or think that 'low-fat' or 'no added sugar' means you can eat unlimited portions. Your overall kilojoule intake and exercise level determines weight, so aim for a balance of energy in and energy out.
Most of us suffer it on a regular basis. And again, diet could be contributing, says dietitian and exercise physiologist Joanne Turner. Although many people comfort-eat with high-fat foods, these inhibit serotonin in your brain (the feel-good hormone) from being released, so can have the opposite effect to what you want. Stress puts a large strain on your body and has been linked with obesity, insulin resistance and a fatty liver. "Maintaining a healthy balance of nutrients each day is of key importance," Joanne says.
Do include lean protein foods, along with low-GI carbohydrates at every meal. Pack healthy snacks.
Don'tforget to eat fruit and vegetables – they're packed with antioxidants to help fight any stress-related damage.