Your Health

Healthy eating choices can help prevent chronic disease

Photo of a health professional choosing an apple over a donut.
Photo of Coralee Hill. CORALEE HILL
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority
Published Friday, March 16, 2018

Do you or someone you know have a chronic health condition or disease?

Chances are that you do. It is estimated that just over one in every two Canadians over the age of 20 lives with a chronic health condition or disease.
If the magnitude of that statistic isn’t enough for you, the Public Health Agency of Canada reports chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and lung disease are the leading causes of death and disability in Canada. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While risk factors vary with age and gender, many studies have shown lifestyle factors, including what we eat, have major impacts on preventing illness and lowering the risk of developing a chronic disease in the first place.

Over the years, many different eating patterns have been recommended for health benefits and prevention of chronic diseases. Have you ever heard of the Mediterranean diet, DASH diet (for blood pressure) or the MIND diet (for brain health)? These three eating plans may have different names, but the foods they recommend are mostly the same. That’s because the vast majority of foods featured in these plans are rich in nutrients and other protective properties.

For example nutrients like insoluble fibre and omega-3 fatty acids help improve cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure while antioxidants protect the body’s cells from inflammatory responses. As a result, these foods and patterns of eating have the power to build the foundation of good health and help prevent or slow the development of chronic disease.

You may have noticed these plans do not include the kinds of highly processed, ready-to-eat foods (cookies, deli-meat, frozen dinners, pop) that are often high in salt, added sugar, calories, saturated and trans fat and lacking in vitamins, minerals. When consumed in excess, these foods can increase the risk factors for developing a chronic condition.

Want to build your own personalized chronic disease prevention diet? Here’s a look at the basic ingredients and elements to consider.

  • Make vegetables the base of every meal, even breakfast. No matter how you eat them, fresh, thawed, steamed, boiled, roasted or from a can, eat a variety and fill half your plate. Vegetables and fruit also can be part of desserts and snacks every day.
  • Choose poultry, eggs, fish (especially oily fish such as salmon, trout and sardines), and plant-based protein sources more often than red meat in your meals. Dried pulses, like beans, chickpeas and lentils, or those from a can, can be tasty alternatives to meat in sauces, stews and soups or any meatless meal.
  • Fill up with fibre. Make the majority of your grains wholegrains like whole wheat, oats, barley and millet. Nuts and seeds can add fibre and texture to any dish, as a topping for cereal, yogurt, or salad, or a great snack at any time of day.
  • Mix in milk and dairy products. Include some low-fat milk beverages and dairy products like plain yogurt and cheese, including cottage cheese and ricotta.
  • Unsaturate your fats. Make olive or canola oil your main fat for daily cooking, salad dressings, marinades, and even as alternatives to butter in baking.
  • Include herbs and spices. Add these flavourings to side dishes, soups, salad dressings or any family favourite recipe. Whether you choose dried or fresh, the choice is up to you. You can also experiment with types and amounts to suit your taste buds.
  • Savour and enjoy! Plan your time to make food and eating not only important but enjoyable. Whenever possible, eat in the company of family or friends.

Food and its many components have the potential to nourish, improve health, prevent disease and keep us well for longer. If you need help planning your personalized chronic disease prevention diet, consider working with a registered dietitian.

Dietitians have the knowledge and compassion to help people with a healthy eating pattern that suits their individual needs as well as advocate for an overall supportive nutrition environment for everyone. You can speak with a registered dietitian by calling Dial-a-Dietitian toll free at 1-877-830-2892 or 204-788-8248 in Winnipeg. Or find a registered dietitian in your community or in private practice at the College of Dietitians of Manitoba website: www.manitobadietitians.ca.

Coralee Hill is a registered dietitian with Manitoba's Dial-a-Dietitian program.

This column was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, March 16, 2018.

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