“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  This was the advice of one of history’s best known physicians, Hippocrates, who lived around the 4th century B.C.  He must have had an okay idea of things as he apparently lived to around 90 years old when many were dying quite young.  At the same time, our diet isn’t the only determinant of disease and wellness.  Genetics, exercise, toxic habits, chronic stress, accidents, infections and many other factors play into it.

            A recently released study did a statistical analysis of the relationship between certain dietary habits and early death from heart disease, diabetes and stroke.  Ten particular dietary habits were connected with these bad outcomes.  A bit surprisingly, excess intake of salt had the biggest negative impact.  Here you want to be eating non-processed whole foods as much as possible, while avoiding fast foods and, unfortunately, going very carefully with any restaurant food as well.  Most of the salt is already in the food even if you don’t add any at the table.  Read labels, but almost anything in a box, bag, jar or can already has a good bit of salt in it.  Shooting for less than 2 grams (2000 mg.)of sodium per day is a good goal.

            Next in line for increasing early deaths was having too low of an intake of seeds and nuts.  Who knew squirrels were so smart? So, munch on those almonds, but don’t get the super salty variety.  High processed meat intake came in third in negative impact, so try to minimize cold cuts, hot dogs and sausages.  And since low seafood intake (with its healthy omega-3 fats) was another cause of increased early deaths, replace them with tuna or salmon a couple times a week.

            Here we come to no surprise as numbers five and six were too low an intake of vegetables and fruits.  The goal of about four servings of each per day is ambitious but pays off.  And while you’re eating all those fruits and veggies, take a pass on the sugar-sweetened drinks.  The sweet teas, Mountain Dews, full-sugar sports drinks and other sugary drinks drive us toward obesity, diabetes, and earlier death.  Of course water is best.  The non-calorie flavored drinks, though not perfect, can be consumed in moderation.  For the most part, “Don’t drink your calories” is a good motto to go by.  Strikingly, higher intake of sugar-sweetened drinks was the factor with the highest impact on early cardiovascular death in the younger (25-64 year old) population, while salt kicked in more in the 65 and older population.

            A final couple of factors that were negatives were too little intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (think olive oil, salmon, nuts and similar sources of “good fats”) and whole grains.  Excess intake of unprocessed red meat had only a very minimal negative impact – whew!

            None of us is going to eat perfectly, but some attention toward accentuating the good stuff and passing on the bad stuff can help a lot.  This study showed that almost half of early death from stroke, heart disease and diabetes could be attributed to one or more of these dietary habits.  And with a little attention, you really can find a lot of foods that you actually like and are still good for you.  Don’t believe the line, “If it tastes good, spit it out.”

            In the end we’re told in Psalm 90 to “…number our days that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”  I do believe our days are ultimately set by our Creator, but He generally works by using means in our life, and a healthy diet can be a potent one.  The idea is to enjoy a healthy diet, not to obsess or stress over it.  Dig in!

Andrew Smith, MD is board-certified in Family Medicine and practices at 1503 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville.  Contact him at 982-0835