The idea that we can control our health destinies based on how we eat, exercise and live is an enticing one, especially in our risk-averse society. Unfortunately, an unwavering belief in the power of a healthy lifestyle can turn the pursuit of health into a sort of moral imperative, leading to everything from weight stigma to a weighty sense of personal responsibility. The reality is that a healthy lifestyle can’t eliminate all risk of sickness and disease, and an unhealthy lifestyle doesn’t necessarily doom us.
I’ve watched cancer patients grapple with guilt, thinking they caused their cancer because they didn’t eat “healthy enough.” I’ve had healthy patients in larger bodies face not just weight stigma but also false assumptions that they have diabetes or heart disease. And then there are my always-been-thin patients who are stunned when their cholesterol or blood-sugar levels climb too high, explaining, “I’ve never exercised or paid attention to what I ate — because I didn’t have to.”
How far does food as medicine go?
The relationship between nutrition and health isn’t black and white. Yes, food can be good medicine, but although nutrition — or lack of it — does play a role in whether we develop a chronic disease, it’s only one player. Most diseases arise because of the complex interactions between our genes, diet and environment.
It’s true that some health conditions respond so well to a change in diet that no medications are needed. However, other diseases are affected little by nutrition — other than the fact that nutrition supports underlying general health. Although nutrition and lifestyle can alter the course of some of the diseases we fear most — diabetes and heart disease come to mind — sometimes they aren’t enough on their own.
We saw a stunning example of that in February when celebrity fitness trainer Bob Harper suffered a major heart attack while working out in a New York City gym, despite being the picture of health. Harper has a family history of heart disease — his mother died of a heart attack — and even his high level of physical fitness, nutritious eating habits and lean body didn’t stop this shocking (to him and everyone else) event.
Playing the odds
We humans love the idea of a “magic bullet,” but we also like the certainty of a payoff for our efforts. When we make it a priority to eat nutritiously and exercise regularly, it’s often buoyed by the underlying assumption that if we do everything right, we’ll be healthy and live to a ripe old age. That makes it easy to hear about cases such as Harper’s and decide, “Well, if all those vegetables and trips to the gym might not stop me from having a heart attack, why bother?” That’s missing the big picture.
Nutrition may not be able to cure all that ails you or remove all risk of disease, but neither are your genes necessarily your destiny. Eating nutritiously and cultivating other health-promoting habits may help you improve your genetic hand. This really could prevent, or at least delay, chronic disease and help you live longer — but there are no guarantees. Just like in poker, life is a gamble. You can shift the odds in your favor, but like it or not, we’re all going to die someday.
Taking care of yourself with nourishing food, regular activity, adequate sleep and so on benefit you every day in smaller but no less meaningful ways. Even if this doesn’t add years to your life, it will probably add life to your years. Everyone benefits from eating well and being active.
More energy. Even though calories are fuel for our bodies, not all calories are created equal. Nutritious food gives you the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber your body needs to run well and feel well. Put quality gas in your tank.
Better digestion. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and pulses (beans and lentils) provides your gut microbiota with the type of food it needs to thrive. While this may help prevent a number of chronic diseases, it can also help prevent digestive distress on a daily basis.
Attractive skin. Research has found that people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have a more pleasing skin tone and texture. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may also help lessen the effects of sun exposure and age on your skin.
Stronger muscles. We lose muscle as we age unless we take steps to counteract it by eating enough protein and exercising regularly. Maintaining your muscle will make it easier to move through life gracefully.
Increased food enjoyment. When you eat food that’s both nutritious and pleasing to your taste buds, you tend to be more satisfied than when you eat low-nutrient foods.