Everyone knows that junk food is bad for you. And we all know that eating more fruits, veggies and whole grains is good for you. But there are many basic facts about food choices that affect how we feel and how well we live that everyone should know, but that few do.
Broadly speaking, our health culture is plagued by myths, falsehoods and ignorance about the respective roles of genetics, food, exercise and drugs.
These gaps in our knowledge help explain why just about everyone is unhealthy in one way or another, why so many people take frequent pain relief and other drugs and why people can't bring themselves to eat right or exercise.
So let's clear this up. Here are 10 surprising things you need to know about the relationship between genetics, food, exercise and drugs.
1. Most common aches and pains are caused by diet.
Sluggishness, fogginess, headaches, upset stomachs, indigestion and general lethargy after eating heavy, processed and fat laden meals is common, and even considered "normal." Constipation, sleeplessness, irritability, fatigue -- all these symptoms and more are commonly relieved by over-the-counter products. But they're all eliminated by eating healthy foods instead of fatty, greasy, meaty foods, empty-calorie foods and junk foods.
2. Most genetic diseases are affected by diet.
Some people are genetically predisposed to some cancers, heart disease or diabetes. But it's usually bad diet that "triggers" the genetic predisposition to kick in and realize the disease itself. The most obvious example is the genetic predisposition to alcoholism. You can't be an alcoholic if you don't drink alcohol, no matter what your genes are up to. Similarly, you're very unlikely to get heart disease or cancer if you eat a healthy diet and avoid fatty or carcinogenic foods. Gluten intolerance, which is associated with Celiac disease, causes our immune system to react abnormally to gluten found in wheat and other grains. This is considered a genetic disease, but carriers can protect against it by eating a healthy diet and leading an active lifestyle.
3. Most contagious diseases are affected by diet.
Recovery from any disease or bodily damage results from the body repairing itself. Surgery, drugs and other interventions can merely assist the body's recovery or reduce symptoms, but only the body can actually heal itself. This healing system -- in fact a large number of interconnected systems -- is called the immune system. Its capacity to heal is affected directly by diet and lifestyle. So even contagious afflictions like the common cold are made better or worse, longer or shorter by food choices.
4. Food quality affects allergies.
Allergies result from a very wide range of factors. It's likely that allergies arise from the quality of foods we eat combined with other factors including poor nutrition and lifestyle habits and the timing with which people are introduced to some foods. (For example, the diet of a mother during pregnancy can affect later allergies in the baby.) As the quality of foods has increasingly declined over the past 50 years, sensitivities and allergies have augmented. Food intolerances and allergies can be triggered by lack of healthy and varied foods, lack of sleep, pollution, over-the-counter and prescription drugs -- even state of mind, stress and lack of exercise.
5. Prescription drugs can't make you healthy.
In many circumstances, some prescription drugs can save your life, or can make bad health manageable or tolerable. Some drugs can compensate for something lacking in your genetic makeup. But the overwhelming majority of drugs are prescribed to counter pain and discomfort or prevent sickness and death, which often results from poor diet or lack of exercise. And far too often the drugs taken to treat a condition exacerbate the problem once the drugs are stopped, or they cause imbalances or problems elsewhere, making the side effects of drug treatments worse than the illness itself. In battling health conditions, prevention is best. But once a condition develops, getting to the root of it often begins and ends with food and lifestyle choices.
6. Diet-related illnesses take unpredictable amounts of time to develop.
Over time, the cumulative effects of a poor diet can manifest as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer to name a few. Most chronic illnesses are caused or triggered by poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle. But what you really need to know is that these diseases are almost always progressing long before any symptoms occur. For example, young children who eat a lot of fast foods are likely to already have advancing cardiovascular disease including atherosclerosis. They already have the disease, even without the symptoms.
7. Good diet alone cannot make you healthy.
Many benefits of healthy foods occur in the body only in conjunction with exercise, sunshine and other factors. One small example: You can eat foods rich in calcium -- figs, beans, broccoli and collard greens -- but your body can't use that calcium unless Vitamin D is also present. Vitamin D is manufactured as a response to exposure to sunlight. Plenty of exercise is also vital in order to enjoy the full health benefits of a healthy diet.
8. One problem with junk food is that it displaces nutritional foods.
Good health requires that every calorie consumed has nutritional benefit. Many are aware that the contents of junk food -- things like trans fats, white sugar, artificial color, preservatives and others -- cause direct harm to the body. But those empty calories also "displace" nutritional calories. Every 1,000 "empty" calories eaten means that 1,000 calories worth of nutritional food is not eaten. Taken to an extreme, junk food gives you poison and malnutrition at the same time. And many of the ill health effects of junk food results from nutritional deficiencies, which leads to a weak immune system and, in turn, disease.
9. "Natural" does not mean "healthy."
Many food companies like to use the word "natural" to sell their products. It's a perfectly vague term, and in general tells you nothing about how healthy something is. For example, sulfites, which occur naturally during the fermentation of wine -- and which are used also as food preservatives in dried fruits, juices, dairy products and many other foods -- can be deadly to people with Asthma. Natural, but potentially deadly.
10. Even fresh fruits and vegetables can be "junk food"
We tend to think categorically about foods (meat vs. vegetables) rather than qualitatively (conventional vs. organic). Most people don't realize that industrial agriculture has radically transformed the quality of produce. The corn and tomatoes and wheat used in conventional food products bears little nutritional resemblance to the same foods eaten by your parents and grandparents. Food scientists are constantly pushing the boundaries of how foods are grown, using genetically modified seeds and industrial fertilizers and pesticides in order to maximize yield -- always at the expense of food quality. That's why it's vital to buy organic produce, and preferably from your local farmer's market.
In order to foster optimum health, it's essential to eat a variety of healthy foods including fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, raw nuts and seeds and variety of beans. Avoid alcohol. If you do drink, try to drink only red wine and never more than one glass per week. Get plenty of rest and exercise daily. And eat foods as close as possible to their natural state: whole, raw, naturally grown and free of pesticides. Given the chance, the body cannot only do its job at keeping disease at bay, but can even undo or reverse ailments caused by diet and lifestyle related illnesses. It’s never too late to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle -- but the sooner you do it the better!