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More proof that daily diet determines overall health

Published September 17. 2011 09:01AM

After a succession of studies, such as the one from 2003 in last week's column that showed a low-fat vegetarian diet lowered LDL cholesterol as effectively as a low-fat diet and daily use of a cholesterol-lowering drug, many people realized the number of drugs prescribed in the U.S. could be reduced significantly if Americans began to use food as medicine.

Food as medicine? What a concept.

In America, most don't even see food as sustenance. It's not something that's needed to keep going; it's something to make the going more pleasurable.

Which, for instance, do you think is greater: the number of construction workers who pack a lunch designed to sustain optimal performance throughout the afternoon or those who pack good-tasting treats as a reward for a physically demanding morning?

While eating should be an enjoyable endeavor, that aspect unfortunately has taken precedence in the U.S. Combine this with a heavy use of fast food, and one of the many unwanted results is an obesity rate that even 40 years ago would've been unimaginable.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tabulated in 2010, for example, found that the state of Colorado now has the lowest rate of adults considered obese: 19.8 percent. When the CDC did the same study a mere 15 years before, that rate would have placed Colorado dead last.

By 2010, 12 states had a rate that exceeded 30 percent.

And remember, obese means more than a bit overweight. It's a term that generally means someone is at least 30 percent over what would be considered the standard weight for the individual's height and build.

So maybe it's time for American adults to see supper as more than a reward for a hard day at work. Maybe it's time to start selecting meals that not only taste good but also do good.

Unless you're looking forward to developing type 2 diabetes.

In keeping with last week's theme of old research is still good research, that helpful information really has no expiration date, consider an article that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine in September of 2001. It studied questionnaires filled out by 85,000 female nurses over a 16-year period in which 3,330 developed type 2 diabetes.

In 91 percent of the diabetes cases, the researchers were able to attribute the disease to "habits and forms of behavior."

In other words, the researchers found that, 91 percent of the time, type 2 diabetes is preventable.

And how do you prevent it? The research found the more overweight the nurse was, the greater the risk, but the strongest correlation occurred once those studied became obese.

And how do you keep from becoming overweight and then obese? It starts with the idea presented earlier: see food as preventive medicine, not pure indulgence.

It's important to add, however, that exercise also reduced the odds of developing diabetes considerably. Nurses who exercised an hour a day were only half as likely to develop diabetes than those who did little weekly exercise.

Equally important to mention is that two studies published in the 2005 March edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine corroborated the 2001 NEJM study, finding that preventing diabetes through diet and exercise was not only possible for nonsmokers, but far more cost effective than prescribed medicine. In fact, in subjects destined for diabetes due to already abnormally high blood sugar levels, a program combining diet and exercise delayed onset of the disease by 11 years; the use of a typical preventative drug, metformim, delayed the disease by only three years.

Another Annals of Internal Medicine study, this one published in June of 2007, clearly established that avoiding diabetes was far more preferable than delaying the disease. By using long-term data available through the seminal Framingham Heart Study, researchers determined that a 50-year-old male with diabetes dies 7.5 years sooner than other 50-year-old males. A 50-year-old female loses 8.2 years.

Statistics like these might cause parents not only to worry about themselves but also the long-term health of their children. And for good reason.

Obesity has been established as the most significant factor in the recent rise in cases of type 2 diabetes, and obesity in children is most certainly on the rise.

In a 2008 Time article titled "How America's Children Packed on the Pounds," author Jeffrey Kluger writes "in 1971, only 4 percent of 6-to-11-year-old kids were obese; by 2004, the figure had leaped to 18.8 percent." Kluger later estimates that 32 percent of all children are overweight and that "90 percent of overweight kids already have at least one avoidable risk factor for heart disease, such as high cholesterol or hypertension."

Develop either and keep eating poorly, and you're often looking at a lifetime of disease despite a lifetime of medication.

So isn't it about time to reconsider food? To see unhealthy food as disease in disguise? And healthy food as a preventative?

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