Did you know that more than 133 million Americans suffer from one or more forms of chronic illness (such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension) and has one of the highest rates of chronic disease in the world? Have you ever wondered why that is?
It has been well documented that obesity (also a chronic condition in itself) is a primary driver of chronic illness, and close to 40% of the US population suffers from obesity. It is also well documented that nutrition plays a central role in the development of obesity. So if nutrition is a key root cause of chronic disease, what can we deduce about the eating behavior in the United States? Our first thought is, it can use a lot of improvement.
American eating habits are often referred to as the “Western diet.” The Western diet is generally classified by foods that contain high calorie levels, but little nutrition. This translates into processed food and beverages with excessive sugar, saturated fats, and sodium, 40% of which is not prepared at home. With the Western diet, it can be said you are both stuffed and starved – stuffed full of calories, but starved for the wholesome nutrition a body needs to thrive.
So where are the lowest levels of chronic disease in the world? For that we can turn to places like Japan and countries in the Mediterranean region. Much of their positive health outcomes can be attributed to the nutrient-rich foods and cultural eating behavior designed for healthy metabolism and weight management.
Let’s take a look at some research that shows how participants fared when following the Western diet compared to those who followed a more Asian or Mediterranean regimen.
Weight Gain and Obesity
In a study published in Plos One, participants followingthe traditional Asian diet were able to improve insulin sensitivity, lower inflammation and lose body fat. Those eating under the Western diet worsened insulin resistance and increased body fat.
A 14-year study recently published in Cancer Prevention Research found thatmen who ate mostly a Western diet had 2.5 times risk of prostate cancer than those who ate mostly a prudent diet with higher consumption of vegetables, fruits, fish, legumes, and whole grains, which is characteristic of the Mediterranean way of eating.
Heart Disease and Diabetes
Fried foods found in the Western diet can increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes. In a nine-year study by the University of Minnesota, researchers found that eating fried foods regularly boosted the risk of metabolic syndrome by 25 percent compared to those eating the smallest amounts. Metabolic syndrome increased the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
With 70 percent of Americans either overweight or obese, it’s obvious that we need to improve our eating habits. A recent survey from the National Institutes of Health found that 87 percent of Americans don’t eat enough fruit and 91 percent of us skip veggies. Eating more weight-control foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber (staples of the Asian and Mediterranean diets) will have a gentler effect on blood sugar and insulin, and help keep the hunger cravings away. A 20-year study from Harvard University found that people who increased whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in their diets gained less than a pound every four years!
We need to adopt some of common foods of the Asian and Mediterranean diets to get healthier as a nation. Here’s an overview of what these diets consist of:
This popular European diet is high in plant-based foods and healthy fats, including olive oil, tree nuts, peanuts, legumes, white meat, red wine, fresh fruit, and vegetables. It discourages foods high in fat and sodium, including fried foods, commercial bakery goods, red meat, and soda.
The Mediterranean diet features many foods that are high in fat, leaving many people to believe this may lead to weight gain. But the fats in the Mediterranean diet are known as “good fats” offering heart-healthy omega-3. In a study published in Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders, researchers found that the diet does not cause weight gain and may be a useful to in weight loss.
Traditional Asian Diet
A traditional Asian diet contains rice, noodles, breads, millet, corn, and other whole grains, fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetable oils. Again, just like in the Mediterranean diet, there is high consumption of omega-3 fats, which work to increase feelings of fullness while minimizing weight gain when portion control guidelines are followed.
The United States is a great leader in many ways, but chronic disease is not an area we should strive to be number one. Let’s take a note from our international friends so we can find renewed strength through achieving and maintaining a collective healthy weight.