Chronic disease has become widespread in the United States during the past several decades, and it shows in our national healthcare spending—nearly 86 percent of healthcare dollars goes to treating chronic disease like heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Many people feel doomed
by their genealogy because these diseases are present in one or more of their family members. But we now know that our lifestyle dictates which chronic disease we will get much more than our family heritage does. So let’s play a game and measure your healthy lifestyle.
How many of these five statements can you answer yes to?
- I am within 5 pounds of my ideal body weight.
- I have 2 or fewer alcoholic beverages per day.
- I do not use tobacco.
- I exercise 30 minutes most days of the week.
- I eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
How did you do? Could you answer “yes” to all 5? If you could, you are in the vast minority of Americans—surveys indicate that only 8 percent can honestly answer “yes” to all of these statements.
These are the behaviors that drive the pandemic of chronic disease—smoking, drinking, being overweight and sedentary, and consuming a poor diet. The sad news is that the majority of Americans aren’t engaging in well-rounded health behaviors, but the good news is that it can change. Today. Right now. If you drink too much or use tobacco products, that is the place to start—and it’s really important to get professional
help in these areas.
If you don’t smoke or drink, then it’s time to tackle what’s on your plate and how much you move. Studies suggest that the people who live the longest, healthiest lives engage in regular exercise as a part of their day, consume few animal products like meat, fish, cheese, butter, and eggs, and fill their plates with whole,
unprocessed, unrefined plant matter—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Before focusing on what needs to be cut back in your life, try focusing on what you need more of—here are my top 5 tips for feeling healthier immediately, and preventing chronic disease in the long run:
Eat more legumes.
Everyone, no matter how young or old, sick or healthy, needs to eat more legumes. Beans, peas, lentils, and other pulses are packed with vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and phytonutrients to prevent chronic
disease. I encourage all of my patients to start thinking of legumes as their main source of protein, as it’s the leanest protein of all, and therefore ideal for anyone trying to lose weight or reverse a chronic condition. Because beans contain so much fiber relative to their amount of calories, it is virtually impossible to overeat legumes— the fiber fills you up long before you gain weight from them. The variety of legumes is vast—chickpeas, navy beans, black-eyed peas, black beans, yellow and green split peas, and a rainbow of colored lentils. Start with one and then branch out.
Consume a bare minimum 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
You may have already blurted out, “I had a banana today!” But it helps to know what a serving is—for vegetables, a serving is 1 cup if raw, ½ cup if cooked. For fruit, a serving is about ½ cup. And remember, this is 5 servings total, not 5 of each.
Your banana was a good start, but you’re not done for the day yet. Fruits and especially vegetables contain
large amounts of fiber to keep your intestines healthy, as well as antioxidants to combat inflammation and
other damage done by free radicals. Once 5 becomes a habit, try 7 servings, and then 9 or 10. The more, the
Eat a small handful of nuts or seeds every day.
Peanuts, macadamias, cashews, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds—all pack a powerful punch of nutrients. They are a great source of protein as well as numerous plant compounds that combat disease. Studies have shown nuts and seeds protect against heart disease. Many people think that nuts ought to be off limits due to their high fat content, but the key here is moderation. A small handful—about ¼ cup— is just the right amount, providing healthy fats, but not so much that they will promote weight gain. Raw unsalted nuts are the best, but even roasted and salted are better than no nuts at all.
Walk for 30 minutes per day.
Everyone knows that exercise is good for them, but not many people know just how good. In one study, daily exercise was more effective than stents in treating heart disease. Exercise is one simple intervention
that treats a whole host of maladies—everything from high blood pressure and diabetes to depression and
insomnia—and all from just brisk walking. Walk fast enough that you can’t sing but could still hold a
conversation. Forget running marathons and slogging it out on a treadmill, all that’s necessary is walking.
Unless you want to run that marathon—in that case go for it—but the scientific evidence doesn’t show much
more benefit from jogging compared to walking.
Greens. Every. Single. Day.
Along with legumes, leafy green vegetables are some of the most nutrient-packed foods available. You may be surprised to learn that they even contain a fair amount of protein. Romaine lettuce, red leaf lettuce, arugula, and spinach are good options if you want to eat your greens raw—but don’t think that this means you have to eat a salad every day. Try cooking your greens lightly by steaming and sautéing. Tougher greens, such as kale, chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens, and collard greens can be more palatable and easier to chew when cooked. Try adding them to any soup, stew, or stir fry. Shoot for at least 1 cup raw
or ½ cup cooked per day, and yes, this can count toward your daily minimum of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables.
These five tips will go a long way toward lowering your risk of getting a chronic disease. Are you feeling ready to tackle some of these health behaviors, but are not sure how to start or how to keep your motivation up? Here are some suggestions for helping to make new habits stick.
Get an accountability partner.
When it’s just up to us to exercise or eat healthfully, it’s easy to slack off. Having a partner who is also invested in their health can help you keep it up when schedules get hectic, or when your willpower dips. This can be especially helpful if you are trying to incorporate a daily walk into your life. Try walking with a coworker during lunch, or your partner in the evening.
Set tangible rewards.
This is one of the most crucial steps in making a new habit last. Try setting short-term as well as long-term rewards. The trick here is that the reward needs to be contingent on the behavior. This means that if you’re rewarding your leafy green eating with buying a book, you DON’T buy the book unless you eat the greens. Think about hobbies you like, or fun activities that don’t cost anything for short-term rewards— spending an afternoon at the park, taking a luxurious bath, or trying out a new type of tea. Short-term rewards
don’t have to be monumental for them to make an impact. For longer term rewards, consider taking a weekend getaway or saving up for some new clothes.
Start small and build on success.
Try improving just one habit first, and once you gain traction, add in another behavior you want to work
on. This tends to be a more realistic and productive way to change, rather than overhauling your whole lifestyle at once. Remember that what you do in your daily life—how you eat and move— predicts whether you will get a chronic disease or not. You have the power to keep yourself healthy! There is immense hope here—you need not submit to a future filled with doctors’ appointments, drugs, and procedures. You can rewrite your health destiny, one bite and one step at a time. All you have to do is make the first move,
start the experiment, and see what unfolds. I can’t tell you how many patients have reversed their chronic
disease by improving their lifestyle. What keeps them motivated to eat well and move consistently is how energetic they feel, the beautiful changes in their complexion, and the improvement in their self-confidence. These are just natural byproducts and worthwhile side effects of living an optimal lifestyle.
Lindsey Mcilvena, MD, MPH, is a double-board-certified doctor devoted to helping her patients reverse and prevent chronic disease using whole foods and plant-based nutritional medicine. drmcilvena.com.