John M. Flack, MD, MPH, FAHA, FACP Professor of Medicine and Physiology
The vast majority of chronic diseases are caused mostly, or at least significantly, by the way we live. Our habits over the long-term are important factors in whether we will develop chronic conditions/diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart failure, arthritis, and even many cancers. It is never too late though to start living a healthy lifestyle – even if you are older and have not ever done so. What are the most important lifestyle changes that you can make?
It is important to limit your intake of total calories. Fat has more calories per unit of weight than does protein or carbohydrate. Thus, reducing total fat intake – especially of saturated fats – is a key strategy in reducing your intake of calories. Not all fat is bad; monounsaturated (found in olive oil) and polyunsaturated fats (found in fish oils) have the same number of calories as saturated fat but, unlike saturated fat, these fats actually confer several health benefits. The health benefits relate to protection against heart diseases. The long-term excessive calorie intake relative to what we burn off with exercise is the major reason that most of us gain weight as we grow older. Weight gain is also a major factor in why we develop chronic diseases such as heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaque build-up) in brain, heart, and peripheral blood vessels. All carbohydrates have the same amount of calories per unit of weight, however, there are dramatic differences between different types of carbohydrate and their effects on blood sugar (glucose). Simple sugars like table sugar is more likely to raise the blood sugar level than complex carbohydrates found in grains/whole wheat bread. Thus, a diet that favors the intake of complex carbohydrates is healthier than diets containing lots of simple sugars.
Limiting your intake of dietary sodium is an important factor in the risk for developing hypertension. And, once you have developed hypertension, if you eat too much sodium your blood pressure will rise even higher and blood pressure medications you are taking will not lower your blood pressure as effectively compared to when you are eating a low sodium diet. High dietary salt intake has also been linked directly to an increased risk of stroke. A good target level for sodium intake is less than 2 grams (2000 milligrams) per day. Most sodium (dietary salt) is in the food before we see it because it has already been processed into many of the foods that we eat. Foods high in sodium include many fast foods, soups, pickles, processed meats (eg, bacon, bologna, hot links) and canned goods. Salt in our foods makes it taste better to many of us. If you stop using the salt shaker all together and do not cook with salt, unless you avoid high sodium foods you will still get far too much sodium on a daily basis.
If you have good kidney function, a diet high in potassium is very healthy. Foods high in potassium – green leafy vegetables, fruits – are also low in sodium. High potassium diets lower blood pressure, prevent the rise in blood pressure occurring with high dietary salt, and also appear to lower ones risk of stroke.
There are other important dietary changes to make including getting enough calcium as well as enough vitamin D as well as staying physically active that will be discussed in my talk.
Dr. Flack is an invited speaker to The McKinney Foundation’s 3rd Annual “Celebrating a Healthier Detroit” Expo, taking place at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan on Saturday, August 11, 2012 from 10am-5pm.
Dr. Flack is Chairman, Department of Medicine Wayne State University and Specialist in Chief for Internal Medicine, Detroit Medical Center