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Are Diet And Disease Linked?

Author
James Parker
March 24, 2022

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Diseases are a constant concern to anyone. From the annual flu to long-term chronic illnesses, diseases can range from a short-term interruption to a lifelong battle. One of the major influences on how often someone will encounter disease is diet. 

The benefits of a healthy diet are the subject of much academic study. Sources like the National Institute of Health espouse the health benefits of eating foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts, while limiting the intake of saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and sugars.

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Before diving too deep into any discussion about nutrition, it is important to recognize that diet alone is not enough to guarantee positive results. In addition to eating sufficiently healthy food in moderation, exercise is also a vital component of general health. While general nutrition can help keep individuals in general good health, an individual’s diet can also impact how they interact with airborne illness, chronic disease, and inherited disease. 

Diet and General Pathogens

Decisions about what to eat can impact how often someone falls ill to common, everyday diseases. Nutrients like vitamins C, E , A, D, and folic acid can act as antioxidants that help the body repel disease. These nutrients are commonly found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, with citrus fruits being a particularly good source of vitamin C.

In addition to serving as an excellent way to preemptively prevent disease through a strong immune system, a good diet can also help when a pathogen does invade. By maintaining the necessary levels of Vitamins C and E as well as iron and other key nutrients, the body will have the sufficient resources needed to fight off the infection sooner than if an individual only began consuming these nutrients after they got sick.

Maintaining vitamin levels by regularly consuming fruits and vegetables is essential not just for fighting off general infections, but also for preventing vitamin-specific deficiencies. Vitamin deficiencies occur when the body consumes its stores of a particular vitamin nutrient and then does not have the necessary vitamin levels to replenish itself.

An example of a relatively well-known vitamin deficiency is vitamin C deficiency, also known as scurvy. Vitamin C deficiency does not begin to manifest for several weeks and begins with feelings of exhaustion, weakness, and irritability. Once the deficiency has progressed enough to be classified as scurvy, an individual may experience bruising, gum pain, dental problems, dry hair and skin, and anemia. 

These conditions can be intense, but they are also highly preventable. By consuming a diverse diet including fruits and vegetables, vitamin deficiencies can be repelled and the body can build strong defenses against everyday pathogens.

Diet and Chronic disease

Dietary choices can do more than stave off temporary illness. Decisions in diet can both cause and prevent chronic and long-term diseases.

One of the most commonly known chronic illnesses that can be influenced by poor diet is type II diabetes. Diabetes is a disease that is characterized by a lack of ability to produce or respond to the hormone insulin. This leads to difficulty in breaking down food and elevated levels of the sugar glucose in the blood and urine. Type I diabetes makes up about 8% of all cases and occurs when the immune system attacks the pancreas, where insulin is produced. Type II diabetes makes up approximately 90% of diabetes cases and occurs when the body either cannot produce enough insulin or does not respond to its own insulin.

While both type I and type II diabetes have a genetic component to them, it is commonly acknowledged that diet can impact the likelihood of developing type II diabetes. Intake of excess sugar, particularly in sugary drinks like sodas, can lead to obesity. Obese people are at an increased risk of developing type II diabetes. By cutting back on sugar, eating a balanced diet, and exercising, people can decrease their risk of developing type II diabetes.

Unhealthy breakfast cholesterol

Another chronic disease that is influenced by diet is heart disease. Cholesterol is a nutrient found in a number of foods including:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Fried foods
  • Full-fat yogurt
  • Processed meat
  • Red meat
  • Sweets
  • Whole milk

While cholesterol is important to the production of blood cells, too much cholesterol can lead to problems. When an individual consumes too much cholesterol, their blood vessels begin to develop fat deposits. These fat deposits can lead to heart disease including stroke or cardiac arrest. By minimizing cholesterol intake, people can reduce their risk of long-term heart disease.

Diet and hereditary illnesses

Diet can also be impacted by and impact hereditary illnesses. For example, while it is important for everyone to monitor their sugar intake to prevent themselves from taking in too much sugar, people with type I diabetes actually have the opposite problem. 

Type I diabetes can lead to hypoglycemia, a condition where the body does not have enough sugar in the blood and risks “crashing.” This means that people with type I diabetes have to carefully maintain their sugar levels in order to prevent crashing. Some type I diabetics even carry around small sugary snacks in order to maintain their blood sugar if they start to feel faint.

Another hereditary disease that can impact diet is gout. Gout is a condition with a genetic component that occurs when uric acid builds up and forms sharp crystals in the joint space, often in the feet. In order to minimize the impacts of gout on the body, people who have close family members with gout should avoid certain foods including:

  • Anchovies
  • Beer
  • Grain liquors such as whiskey
  • Kidneys
  • Lamb
  • Liver
  • Lobster
  • Mussels
  • Pork
  • Sardines
  • Shrimp
  • Steak
  • Sweetbreads

By adjusting diet to avoid foods that increase risk, or to include foods that reduce impact, hereditary diseases can be staved off and sometimes avoided entirely. 

There is no single source of any disease. There is no miracle cure to prevent all diseases. There are, however, a number of small, deliberate steps that can be taken to ensure that diseases are minimized and prevented as much as possible.

Diet is a small change that can make a big impact on people’s lives alongside other preventative measures like regular checkups and exercise. Before making any major change in diet it is important to consult with a nutritionist.

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