Most chronic diseases, including common killers such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers can potentially be prevented, modified and even reversed with a focus on nutrients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The truth is that many Americans are malnourished. How could that be, when so many are overweight or obese? We are not a developing country, where access to healthy food is more challenging. Still, malnourishment is common at all levels of socioeconomic class.
I regularly test patients’ carotenoid levels. Carotenoids are nutrients that are incredibly important for tissue and organ health.
Because the standard American diet is very low in nutrients, checking a patient for moderate malnutrition is appropriate. A high nutrient intake approach can rectify the situation and increase, among others, carotenoid levels.
Why is a high nutrient intake important?
A high nutrient intake is an approach that focuses on micronutrients, which literally means small nutrients, including antioxidants and plant nutrients.
Micronutrients are bioactive compounds found mostly in foods and some supplements. These interact with each other in synergistic ways, meaning the sum is greater than the parts.
In a 2017 study that included 73,700 men and women who were participants in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, participants’ diets were rated over a 12-year period using three established dietary scores: the Alternate Healthy Eating Index–2010 score, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet score.
A 20 percent increase in diet scores (indicating an improved quality of diet) was significantly associated with a reduction in total mortality of 8 to 17 percent, depending on whether two or three scoring methods were used.
Participants who maintained a high-quality diet over a 12-year period reduced their risk of death by 9 to 14 percent compared to participants with consistently low diet scores.
By contrast, worsening diet quality over 12 years was associated with an increase in mortality of 6 to 12 percent. Not surprisingly, longer periods of healthy eating had a greater effect than shorter periods.
This study reinforces the findings of the Greek EPIC trial, a large forward-looking cohort study, where the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly – the better the compliance, the greater the effect.
The most powerful dietary components were the fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, legumes and moderate alcohol intake. Low consumption of meat also contributed to the beneficial effects. Dairy and cereals had a neutral or minimal effect.
Quality of life is also important, though. Let’s look at just one study that examines the impact of diet on a disease that may reduce our quality of life as we age.
In a case-control (compare those with and without disease) study, high intake of antioxidants from food was associated with a significant decrease in the risk of early Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), even when participants had a genetic predisposition for the disease.
AMD is the leading cause of blindness in those 55 years or older. Of 2,167 people enrolled in the study with several different genetic variations that made them high risk for AMD, those with a highest nutrient intake, including B-carotene, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, EPA and DHA-substances found in fish, had an inverse relationship with risk of early AMD.
Nutrients, thus, may play a role in modifying gene expression.
Though many Americans are malnourished, nutrients are effective and readily available. Hopefully, with a focus on a high nutrient intake, we can re-ignite the pace of increased life expectancy and, on an individual level, improve our quality of life.