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#WhatWeEat: How Our Diet Affects the Diseases We Get

“Research says that diet is responsible for at least 70 percent or more of the diseases we have, say experts.

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Fit
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Why is it that every time someone around us is trying to eat healthy, everyone directly jumps to – “Oh, you want to lose weight”? Yes, food is the most important aspect of maintaining a healthy weight. But why is eating healthy never attached to trying to avoid diseases? Why don’t we go – “Oh, you want to ward off cardiovascular disease”?

Recently, a Lancet study analysed how poor diet causes deaths. It found that 11 million annual deaths worldwide occur, at least in part, because of eating unhealthy food or lack of nutrients. And it estimated that poor diet causes more deaths than any other risk factor.

The study essentially reiterated what experts have been saying for so long – a balanced is diet is important for good health. So how is it that diet affects the diseases we acquire and the body we have?

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Bad Diet – A Risk Factor for Diseases

“Research says that diet is responsible for at least 70 percent or more of the diseases we have, say experts.
Poor diet causes more deaths than any other risk factor, says study.
(Photo: iStock)
Research is repeatedly saying that diet is responsible for at least 70 percent or more of the diseases we have. If diet is not proper, it disturbs the system physically and emotionally, and overall development of person deteriorates.
Dr Manjari Chandra, Consultant – Nutrition, Max Hospital 

Not just that. Studies have broken down which part of our diet, lack thereof, is causing the problem in different amounts. It’s not just what you’re eating but what you’re not eating as well. Deficiency in various nutrients can be a cause of disease.

The Lancet study estimated that globally, 3 million deaths were attributed to too much sodium, another 3 million deaths were attributed to a lack of adequate whole grains, and another 2 million deaths were attributed to a lack of adequate fruit.

Now, sample this. Another study on how dietary factors influence disease risk broke it down further (the data, however, is US-specific). It studies the relationship with 10 foods.

Its results show the highest percentage of heart disease, stroke or diabetes-related death (9.5 percent) was related to excess consumption of sodium. Not eating enough nuts and seeds (8.5 percent), seafood omega-3 fats (7.8 percent), vegetables (7.6 percent), fruits (7.5 percent), whole grains (5.9 percent), or polyunsaturated fats (2.3 percent) also increased risk of death compared with people who had an optimal intake of these foods or nutrients. Eating too much processed meat (8.2 percent), sugar-sweetened beverages (7.4 percent), and unprocessed red meat (0.4 percent) also raised the risk of these cardiometabolic-related deaths.

“Research says that diet is responsible for at least 70 percent or more of the diseases we have, say experts.
It’s not just what you’re eating but what you’re not eating as well.
(Photo: iStock)

Obesity, for example, is definitely one disease that has bad diet as the biggest risk factor, physical inactivity comes next.

But it’s not just these cardiometabolic diseases that are affected by food habits. It goes further. From hypertension and cholesterol, to cancer and hormone-triggered PCOD or thyroid to even infectious diseases, can be connected to diet, say experts.

For cancer, as mysterious as it remains, Harvard Health says that estimates suggest that more than 70 percent of a person’s lifetime risk of getting the disease results from factors that you have the power to change, of which diet is a major part. And only the rest is uncontrollable factors.

“Major cancers that Indian population sees – breast cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer – for most of these, the first three risk factors are smoking, food (like red meat and processed food) and your body weight (which is also mostly a reflection of what you eat). Correction of food habits saves you from these diseases to a large extent,” says Dr Chandra.

She further elaborates that all of us have a certain set of genes, how these genes express themselves, depends on the environment that you’re in and food is a large part of that environment.

Diet also influences our risk of acquiring infectious diseases. Dr Mansi Chaudhry, Chief Clinical Nutritionist, Fortis Hospital Shamilar Bagh, explains:

If your body is deficit of nutrients and you’re living in an environment which makes you prone to infectious diseases and seasonal infections, your chances of contracting them becomes very high because your immunity levels are low as a result.

So, while there are several environmental factors that contribute towards you falling prey to any disease, food becomes a major component of it.

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An Unhealthy Gut Behind Diseases, Physical and Mental

“Research says that diet is responsible for at least 70 percent or more of the diseases we have, say experts.
The link between the gut and mental health is progressively being studied.
(Photo: iStock)

What we eat, especially foods that contain chemical additives and ultra-processed foods, or foods that we don’t eat affects our gut environment and increases our risk of diseases. There is data to show that diets change the gut microbiome.

Research on mice has shown that switching from a fiber-and-antioxidant rich Mediterranean diet to a Western diet heavy in fat and protein can alter the microbiome’s population within a day.

Far too many studies have linked an unhealthy gut to various diseases, physical as well as mental; depression, Parkinson’s, and heart disease, to name a few.

The link between the gut and mental health is progressively being studied to understand and treat mental illnesses.

A good diet, high in complex carbohydrates like whole grains, and fibre may benefit the gut. Similarly, a wide variety of plant foods help too.

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Does Food Only Help With Prevention or Also In Treatment?

Food is considered to be a medicine. Majority of India’s population suffers from diabetes, hypertension, heart disease etc. All of which can be managed or treated through food. But that’s not to say that other factors don’t play a role in treatment.
Dr Mansi Chaudhry, Chief Clinical Nutritionist, Fortis Hospital

Dr Chandra agrees, “correcting food in your lifestyle is therapeutic, it’s treatment and management for various problems. For example, for chronic pain, food is really important to manage.”

What about more serious or advanced diseases?

“Let’s say if it’s a four stage breast cancer, or kidney failure, or Multiple Sclerosis, so there also food does play some role, but it’s not that big a part of treatment,” advises Dr Chandra.

She informs that in clinical settings, they use methods like intermittent fasting for management of diseases like cancer along with regular therapy. A physiology and a gut that is healthy can go a long way.

Another example can be hormone-related PCOD or thyroid – lifestyle changes, especially diet can be beneficial for management.

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So Is There an Ideal Diet?

Earlier this year, a Lancet study proposed a reference diet (illustration above) that will benefit us. It proposed cutting down on meats and adopting a more plat-based diet. For example, it says the amount of animal protein you eat should be almost equal to the amount of fruits you consume.

So while, there’s no one ideal diet for all demographics, it definitely benefits to refer to these guidelines.

Guidelines laid by ICMR also advise how much of what nutrient is essential in a good diet. Diet should be differently tailored for different demographics.

Some things won’t change though. Everyone needs to have proper complex carbohydrates, protein, good fats, vitamins, and minerals.

So, the next time you think about your diet, don’t just think about losing or gaining weight, think about acquiring good health to protect against diseases.

(This article is part of FIT’s #WhatWeEat campaign. Want to eat a healthy and safe diet but don’t know how? Send your queries at fit@thequint.com and we’ll get an expert to answer them.)

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