With an endless buzz of contradictory diet and health trends telling you that everything you are eating and everything you do will lead to an early death, it becomes difficult to know what advice to listen to. According to the powers that be absolutely everything causes cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Even foods that are deemed healthy one week, will be proven to kill you the next, and healthy again by the next year (eggs, for example). The obvious choice here, although often difficult to find through all the noise, is to lean toward the side of common sense and reasoning.
What is actually healthy for us, and what is killing us?
The leading cause of death among Americans is chronic diseases. Diseases like diabetes, Heart disease, Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Stroke. These ailments are not something that we are catching, they are symptoms of what we do to ourselves- with the exception of what is inherited, and even those numbers are not guaranteed (your genes are not necessarily your fate).
So, if these chronic diseases are just the symptoms, what is the true leading cause of death? A few things, three of which lead the pack by an enormous margin, and in the simplest terms these are: Not walking enough, eating poorly, and ingesting toxic substances. These three could be considered the true leading causes of death.
I’m sure this sounds familiar to many, but that’s because it should. We are told over and over again how to save ourselves, but then life gets hard, and no one agrees on what foods are healthy, how to eat those foods, or even what constitutes a toxin versus a food.
It’s a damned circus out there in the health and fitness world. And the main act is a mob of fit and ripped clowns trying to distract you with fear-baiting while they reach for your wallet. That’s a scarier analogy than I was going for, but I’m gonna leave it.
As I’ve stated many times, I aim to help guide my readers through things that have worked for me. As well as help explain some of the science and truths behind things that are often over-complicated by misinformation and misrepresentation. But I’ll never tell you what you should do, or should not do. You do you, and find your balance. I only hope that I can be of some assistance in guiding you to a better way if living.
Now let’s walk through those three bad habits, and the steps to correct them. We will be sure to stick to the path of common sense, reasoning, and evidence backed information along the way. Time to cut through some bullsh*t and get to the bottom of what actually works, and what is just a bunch of clickbait noise.
1) An Active Lifestyle
The first thing I mentioned was that people are not walking enough. This might seem a little over simplified, but it is mentioned first because it is a big one (seriously, it’s huge), and also one of the easiest for most people to do something about. Yet still, so many people would be astonished by the difference that just walking can make, not only for your physique and mood, but also, and primarily, for your heart.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information has a great article, available here, on walking and health. The conclusion is that walking is extremely important to our heart health, and is a simple but very effective tool for preventing numerous heart complications, including heart disease.
And yes, specifically walking, being active in other ways is useful, but nothing is as powerful as a good walk.
Beginning every morning or ending every evening with a brisk ten minute walk will make a world of difference, and also help to keep excess fat deposits down (and many of us would love to be a little thinner). Walking is of such importance that if it is difficult or not possible for you, then it would be wise to talk to your doctor(s) about alternative exercises that you could use to get some of these much needed benefits.
But walking isn’t where it ends, additional workouts and maintaining a regular fitness routine can add many benefits to your quality of life, such as aging better. Fitness is one of the only factors that we can control that has a notably significant impact on how we age. You want to age well? Get fit and stay that way.
Strength training (not to be confused with body building) has been shown to increase both life expectancy and quality of life. A literature review on the subject is available at ncbi for those interested in more information. This doesn’t mean you have to get ripped, we don’t all have the time or the conviction to be at the gym every day. However, just maintaining a strength building routine every week will help you to age better; lifting some weights, or using resistance bands, or weighted pulleys, or any other number of techniques. If you think you need assistance finding the right exercises for you, then start by talking to your doctor(s).
And remember, it is never too late to start. None of us can know how long we have, and even if you feel you have reached a point of no return, starting to live a more active and fit lifestyle could do more good for you than you might believe is possible.
2) Eating a Healthy Diet
A four letter word, I know. But I don’t use ‘Diet’ here in the way that it gets tossed around so much. Everyone is on a diet, because your diet is simply what you regularly eat, and not everyone needs to have the same diet. Fad diets (i.e. restrictive or gimmicky diets) are what most people think of when they see that word, but these ‘diets’ usually end up being worse for you than what could ever be compensated by any benefits they offer; leading to yo-yo weight fluctuations, and even to increased weight gain in the long run.
Now for our first large hurdle. Diet and food is where nobody ever agrees on what is, or is not healthy, harmful, or neutral. So, to get down to the brass tacks here, let’s just focus on what has held well over time across the board.
A simplified list of which foods that are considered healthy, or okay (not ‘healthy’, but not harmful), or that have consistently been shown to be harmful to our health.
Vegetables, vegetable oils, fish, nuts, most fruits, beans, and fermented foods such as yogurt.
Poultry, eggs, dairy, some grains, and red meats.
Processed meats, starches/sugars, man-made (industrial) trans-fats, and extreme-high sodium foods.
Building a diet around mostly healthy foods, some okay foods, and very limited (or none at all) harmful foods does seem to generate the best universal results. ‘Universal’ meaning on the average, which no one fits into, but also for which there is no true alternative, because, once again, no one fits in an average. Thus, these universal truths are what we’re left with to guide us through a healthier diet.
From here, building a healthier diet is highly dependent on what works for you. Pay attention to how you feel when you eat certain foods, avoid foods that leave you feeling low-energy and that cause gut distress. Sometimes eliminating certain foods for a few weeks before reintroducing them can help you pinpoint which foods do not treat you well.
Next up, calories, because we can’t discuss a healthy diet without talking about calories. The idea behind calories is rather simple, our bodies use a certain amount of energy each day, differing significantly from one person to the next depending on numerous factors (activity level, age, gender, size, condition, metabolic rates, etc). This number is called the TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). If you would like to see an approximation of your personal TDEE, then check out this calculator. Or if you want to know how to calculate your daily calories yourself, then check out this article.
We need to take in enough calories (food) to match our energy needs to maintain our health, but then we must have a deficit if trying to lose weight, or consume more calories than our TDEE if trying to gain weight. Counting calories can be tedious, and may not be necessary for everyone, but it would be wise to at least be conscious of how much fuel you are consuming. Even if you just try calorie counting for a week or two so that you can become familiar with how much food you should be eating, and then use that as a general guideline going forward.
One last thing I want to touch base on before moving on to the last section: Cost of eating healthy vs cost of health care. Seriously, especially here in the United States of America, the long term price difference between eating healthier or paying the literal price for not doing so is so very extreme. Yes, it can cost a little more to not eat hamburger helper or mac & cheese every night, but in the end, investing in your health pays, and it pays a lot!
3) Avoiding Toxins
This subject has been beaten to death. Everything is a toxin if you spend enough time reading health articles. It really beings to seems like literally everything will kill you. Which, to some extent, is true, because dosage determines toxicity, and everything is toxic if consumed in a high enough dose, even water. So, for most of the foods that get the ‘toxin’ label, moderation, not elimination, is the real solution.
But that is not going to be the focus of this section. By toxins, I don’t mean ‘toxic foods’, I mean toxins. Toxins are substances like cigarettes, alcohol, opiates, NSAIDs. All of those ugly things that can increase the risks associated with the leading causes of death, even at a relatively low dosage or with regular use.
Cigarettes get first mention because they do the most work at robbing us of time. Cigarettes cause or worsen every one of the leading causes of death (to reiterate just to be sure you picked up on that: every one of the leading causes of death, all of them : stroke (increases odds of having a stroke, and also increases the odds that a stroke will be fatal: double trouble) , heart disease (doubles your risk of heart attack, and damages your arteries leading to heart disease), diabetes (smokers are 30-40% more likely to develop diabetes) , Dementia/Alzheimer’s (may more than double the risk), and cancer (should really be no further explanation required here, cigarettes create cancer inside of you). If you are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, but haven’t kicked this addiction, then you are not going to have much success. On behalf of your future self, I urge you to quit smoking, right now. Get help.
Now that we have the obvious one reviewed, let’s look at alcohol, which, from time to time, can get a positive light in health articles. For alcohol, the heart risk goes hand-in-hand with the risk of stroke, although neither risk is as high as smoking (unless you’ve already had a stroke, or heart condition, then abstaining from alcohol is strongly encouraged). Drinking large amounts of alcohol increases your blood pressure leading to increased risk of stroke and heart conditions, and risk of stroke increases for about an hour after consuming even just one alcoholic beverage. On the flip side, there is some evidence that light regular drinking can provide some protection from these very same maladies.
Alcohol abuse can contribute directly, and indirectly to diabetes. Although light drinking doesn’t have the same effect, just be careful of the heavy caloric load that most alcoholic beverages contain; just two beers is a complete meal for many people. The relationship between alcohol and cancer follows the same path- excessive alcohol consumption significantly increases the risk of cancer. The real trick to enjoying alcohol in your diet is to keep it to a minimum- enjoy it, but don’t abuse it.
Opioids, a current hot topic right now: these class of drugs, which include heroin, have become readily available with a prescription, and are a very risky drug to use. While they have not been shown to directly contribute to an increased risk of stroke, they do contribute to conditions that can increase that risk, and have been shown to increase the risk a cardiovascular disease, especially in women. However, possibly the biggest downfall of opiates (other than the ridiculous ease with which they kill by overdose) is that they might lead to cancer growth; a big issue, considering they are often prescribed to treat cancer pain. In conclusion, opiates are a difficult subject, they provide pain relief that is not easily achieved with other drugs, but the high risks of use cannot be ignored. Just be careful people, all opioids are highly addictive.
The last toxins I’ll discuss seem fairly harmless, but are worth a mention because of how widespread their use is. That’s the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include drugs like ibuprofen, naproxen, celecoxib, and diclofenac Sodium. These seemingly harmless often over-the-counter drugs significantly increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. Aspirin is also an NSAID but hasn’t been shown to share this correlation with heart attack and stroke. For diabetics, there’s a warning on many NSAIDs about not taking if diabetic, as these can have adverse effects if you are already diabetic. On the other side of the debate for NSAIDs is that some have been shown to reduce cancer metastasis, and have also shown a correlation with some reduced cancer occurrences. The take away, if you are going to use these drugs, follow the instructions, and don’t use them too regularly.
The same repeated chant we hear but never grasp: be active, eat healthy, and don’t do drugs. It seems so simple to achieve, especially when we’re kids. But then all the misinformation and over-complication of what should be fairly basic, common sense notions, knocks us off course.
Hopefully this article has provided some needed clarity or motivation for you to find that better path in your life.
But before I end this now-way-too-long article, I want to stress what the primary take away should be, because it gets lost so easily with these types of articles. You should be trying to find a balance that includes these goals we’ve covered here, this means always striving for that better lifestyle, but not stressing over trying to achieve perfection. Perfect health is not something that can be achieved, it is the carrot (or cake) on the end of a stick that guides you in the right direction.
The most important thing in living a lifestyle-as-medicine approach to life is to be happy. Enjoy the things that bring you pleasure; and though it seems counter-intuitive, this is often the hardest part about finding a better path in life. Just remember, our vices are not what makes us happy- why we have our vices, is what keeps us from being happy.