A study published in recently reported that bad diets now kill more people in the world than smoking.
However, this tend isn’t simply because of the unhealthy foods people are eating. It’s also because of the critical foods people should have in their diets that they’re not eating.
The study found that 11 million deaths per year across almost 200 countries could be attributable to dietary risk factors with almost more than half of those deaths attributed to lower intake of certain healthy foods.
While about 3 million deaths around the world were attributed to too much sodium, another 3 million are likely the cause of not eating enough whole grains.
Moreover, the study attributed about 2 million deaths to lack of fruit intake.
“In the past, the emphasis in the public realm, but also among health professionals, has largely been what to eliminate from our diet and the focus has been on the harmful dietary factors. However, the new science of nutrition points out that many foods that are health promoting can actually be more important or as important to include in a diet,” Dr. William Li, president and medical director of The Angiogenesis Foundation and author of, “Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself,” told Healthline.
Li explained that this doesn’t mean super foods exist, but that it’s more about how the body responds to food rather than the food itself.
“Health, which is what we’re aiming for with diet, is not just the absence of disease, but is the result of our body’s natural defense systems that are hardwired into us [and] functioning to protect our health from the time we’re born until our very last breath,” he said.
In his book, he discusses the following five core health defense systems and how each system is activated by certain foods.
- Angiogenesis, which is how the body grows blood vessels. Blood vessels bring oxygen and nutrients to every cell in the body.
- Regenerative system, which involves stem cells that are naturally present in our bodies.
- Microbiome, which is the healthy bacteria that lives inside our body and communicates with our immune system to help us heal faster.
- DNA, which can protect our body from the environment, such as damaging ultraviolet radiation or secondhand smoke.
- Immune system, which can fight infection and even cancer.
“It is absolutely vital for us to consume foods that help support our health defense systems,” Li said. “Consuming those foods allow us to overcome the potential damage from eating unhealthy foods.”
Colleen D. Webb, registered dietitian nutritionist and OMG! Nutrition advisory board member, agrees with the Lancet study that most people don’t eat enough whole or minimally processed fruits.
She also suggests adding more vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds to your diet.
“These plant foods contain necessary vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other disease-fighting chemicals we cannot get from highly processed foods or animal products,” Webb told Healthline. “Studies repeatedly show how people who eat more fruits, vegetables, and other plants live longer and better lives.”
Plums are one of the more than 200 foods Li recommends in his book.
Plums are considered a stone fruit, meaning they have flesh or pulp that encloses a stone. Apricots, peaches, mangoes, and cherries are other stone fruits.
“We know that many stone fruits have [the] ability to… activate all five of those health defense systems,” said Li.
Other healthful foods in Li’s book include the following.
Tree nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, and pistachios, contain a large number of polyphenols as well as omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with a decreased risk of many cancers.
If you eat animal protein, Webb says cold-water fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
“Omega-3 fats are essential because our bodies can’t make them so we must get them from food or supplements,” said Webb. “Omega-3 fats help fight inflammation, stabilize mood, and support a healthy nervous system, among other benefits.”
Nuts also contain a lot of dietary fiber, which feeds our gut bacteria.
“What our gut bacteria does to the fiber is that the bacteria actually digest the fiber that we don’t digest,” Li said. “So we chew and swallow the nut. Then our bodies absorb a lot of components of the nutritious parts of the nuts, and leave the fiber to the bacteria. The bacteria actually digest the fiber, and little pieces of the fiber that the bacteria munch on float away. Those fragments are anti-inflammatory.”
Cinnamon contains cinnamic acid.
Li explained this is important because, “Part of food’s complexity is that they contain natural chemicals called bioactives. When we consume food [with bioactives, it] actually interacts with our human cells and also our gut bacteria.”
Li said cinnamic acid is a natural chemical that is a bioactive that has anti-angiogenic effects. This means it can actually can help prune away undesirable blood vessels that might grow things like cancer.
This type of tea contains a bioactive called EGCG, which is in a family of natural compounds called catechin.
“Jasmine tea is green tea that is enhanced in terms of its flavor with jasmine flowers. So while we sometimes think of them as different teas from a tea connoisseur’s perspective, in reality jasmine tea is green tea with the scent of jasmine flowers,” Li said. “In fact, even black tea can mobilize your stem cells.”
Red wine and beer
The alcohol in wine and beer does not have any health benefits.
However, the process of making red wine extracts bioactives from the skin of red grapes, and keeps it in the wine.
“[The bioactives] have been shown to be remarkable for cardiovascular health, and in small quantities for being able to even prevent cancer,” Li said.
Beer is made from barley and hops. The process of making beer involves extracting a natural bioactive chemical xanthohumol from the hops.
Xanthohumol can cut off the blood supply feeding cancers and also help to mobilize stem cells that can help rebuild and regenerate the body.
“Mother Nature’s incredibly clever and efficient,” said Li. “Oftentimes these natural bioactive chemicals in foods have multiple job descriptions and they can activate multiple health defenses at the same time.”
Nevertheless, while drinking small amounts of red wine or beer have been linked to various health benefits, the effects of alcohol can vary greatly from person to person.
Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction have been linked to severe negative effects on both physical and mental health.
If you enjoy alcohol and don’t binge, there is no compelling reason to avoid it. Just keep in mind that your cancer risk may increase — regardless of how much you are drinking.
Sourdough bread is made with bacteria called Lactobacillus reuteri, which creates the tangy flavor of the bread. Lactobacillus is bacteria found in the gut.
“Lactobacillus helps boost our immune system, helps to a accelerate our body’s ability to heal a wound, and also communicates with our brain to release the social hormone oxytocin,” said Li.
Although, baking the bread can kill the bacteria, Li says research has shown that remnants of the bacteria are sufficient enough to provide benefits.
Webb adds that gut health should be priority.
“Your gut digests your food and absorbs its life-supporting nutrients. Also, your gut houses much of your immune system and gut microbiome. These two work together to support a strong gut barrier, which protects you from harmful environmental factors, such as toxins and bacteria. When this barrier breaks down, we get sick,” she said.
And while you add healthy foods to your diet, Webb warns that it’s possible to overeat healthy foods, too.
“Be mindful of portion sizes. Stop eating before you’re full. Chew your food well and eat slowly to optimize digestion,” she said.
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.