Use your food as medicine

6 food swaps for healthier living

You’ve probably heard the adage “You are what you eat” within the context of weight-loss strategies. But the food you put into your body affects so much more than the number on the scale. A 2017 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that a poor diet was associated with almost half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. The good news? Making the right dietary choices can impact your health just as much as making the wrong ones. Learn why a growing number of doctors are recommending nutrition over prescriptions.

The power of food as medicine

More than 8 million people in California – nearly one-third of the adult population (PDF, 1.7MB) – are living with one or more of the most common forms of cardiovascular disease. When it comes to diabetes, the percentage is even higher. An estimated 55% of California’s population has prediabetes or diabetes, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, according to a 2016 study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

With such a significant portion of our population dealing with these health issues, more doctors and patients are turning to a new form of treatment: food as medicine. Scientific research is overwhelmingly in favor of the power of food to help prevent and treat a variety of health conditions. According to a 2016 report from the World Heart Federation, a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, and other heart-healthy foods can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by about a third. Additionally, for most people, type 2 diabetes is preventable with the right food choices. 

California leads the nation in prescribing nutrition

California is setting an example for the entire country with a new statewide study aimed at measuring the benefits of medically tailored meals (MTMs) and using them to lower overall medical costs and hospital readmission rates. The study will include patients in Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, and San Francisco who need to follow specific nutritional guidelines to manage their medical conditions.

“We applaud our California lawmakers who had the vision and understanding that food truly does have the power to heal,” said Paul Hepfer, vice president of programs for The Health Trust, in a 2017 press release. The six California nonprofits involved in the program are Project Open Hand, Ceres Community Project, Food for Thought, Mama’s Kitchen, The Health Trust, and Project Angel Food.

6 everyday food swaps for healthier living

In an interview with Dr. Hilary K. Seligman, an associate professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, she explained, “The critical epidemics of our day – obesity and diabetes [both of which increase your risk for cardiovascular disease] – are diet-related.” The main culprits: diets high in sodium, low in heart-healthy nuts, and high in processed meats. Before you start to lament the loss of your favorite foods, look to these six easy food swaps to promote heart health and decrease your risk of type 2 diabetes. 

  1. Swap and start your day right
    A high-sodium diet is one of the most significant factors associated with cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. To cut down on sodium without completely switching up your breakfast routine, try switching to low-sodium whole-grain bread for your toast and using other spices such as garlic and cayenne pepper to flavor your food. Bonus points if you replace your hash browns with a serving of fruit.
  2. Switch up your snack game
    It may seem that the most convenient snacks are often the high-sodium, high-sugar chips and cookies you can find practically anywhere. Packing a small handful of nuts into a Ziploc bag can help you avoid unhealthy snacks between meals. High in protein and fiber, nuts are a satisfying snack that can help decrease your risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.
  3. Give in to your sweet tooth (just a little)
    Everybody gets the occasional craving for something sugary. The trick is in finding a sweet treat that isn’t full of processed ingredients or harmful levels of sugar. The solution? Rethink your craving. Strawberries and blueberries are a great snack that can satisfy your sweet tooth without making you worry about a sugar crash. According to findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition–referenced in Science Daily–blueberries help reduce heart disease risk and type 2 diabetes.

  4. Skip the steak
    Replacing a steak dinner with salmon that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids can do wonders for your heart health. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week. In addition to salmon, you can find omega-3 fatty acids in mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines, and albacore tuna, as well as non-meat options such as flaxseed, walnuts, and tofu.
  5. Opt for whole grains
    One or two times a week, consider swapping potatoes–baked, mashed, or fried–for a side of brown rice. This whole grain can reduce your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol and may even help lower blood pressure. You can also add heart-healthy whole grains to your diet by choosing a whole-grain version of your favorite brand of bread or breakfast cereal.
  6. Swap out sugary drinks
    Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, and most fruit juices, are one of the top contributors to heart disease in people under age 65, according to the 2017 study by researchers at Tufts University, the University of Cambridge, and Montefiore Medical Center. Cutting out sugary drinks can be difficult, but the benefits to your health are worth the effort. Try experimenting with low- or no-sugar drinks, such as lemon water, fruity teas, coconut water, and fruit smoothies, until you find the solution that works best for you.

While medicine, when needed, can be life-saving, making healthy dietary choices can decrease your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as lower your lifetime medical costs and increase your overall quality of life. When a few easy food swaps can have the same effect as a prescription, what do you have to lose?

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