Could Eating Healthy Cut Your Risk of These Conditions?

The condition most affected by a good diet may surprise you

Could Eating Healthy Cut Your Risk of These Conditions?

By now it’s no secret how big a role food plays in how you feel. We’re not talking about how great (or guilty) you are after eating that slice of pizza. What you choose to eat has massive consequences to your health and the chronic conditions you may (or may not) develop.  

As part of its State of American Well-Being series, Gallup-Sharecare released its 2016 Community Rankings for Healthy Eating. Researchers asked Americans a few simple questions: Did you eat healthy all day the previous day? Has a healthcare provider ever told you that you have one of these conditions? Do you currently have or are you being treated for any of these conditions?

Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, depression and stress: Gallup-Sharecare sought to determine how eating well affects these conditions. The answers proved enlightening.

Food and mental health
Surprisingly, obesity didn’t have the biggest split between healthy and unhealthy eaters. That ranking went to stress—49.6 percent of people who did not eat well the previous day indicated they experienced stress, but only 36 percent of those who did eat well indicated they experienced stress. That’s a difference of 13.5 percentage points.

The percentage of people who did not eat healthy who were also stressed was far higher than the other conditions, including obesity. Depression, too, had fairly stark divisions between those who ate healthily and those who didn’t: 6.6 percentage points for those who have been treated for depression at some point, and 4.2 points for those currently experiencing depression.

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that food plays a major role in mental health. Food insecurity—when good food is scarce or unaffordable—is linked to poorer mental health and more stress.

Gallup-Sharecare suggests that communities improve access to healthy foods with farmer’s markets, community gardens, lower sales tax on healthy food and by encouraging healthy food retailers to set up shop. It also suggests reducing access to and marketing of unhealthy food through zoning regulations and labeling policies.

Unexpected results
It’s well known that a good diet is key to heart health. The survey, however, showed little difference in those who ate healthy and those who did not in regard to key heart health risk factors.

  • 26 percent of respondents who did not eat well the previous day had high blood pressure at some point, while 21.7 percent who ate healthy had high blood pressure at some point.
  • 16.4 percent of respondents who did not eat healthy were currently being treated for high blood pressure, versus 14.2 percent who ate healthy and had high blood pressure at the time.
  • 19.6 percent of respondents who did not eat healthy the previous day had high cholesterol at some point in their lives, while 15.9 percent who did eat well the previous day had high cholesterol at some point.
  • 9.7 percent of respondents who did not eat well the previous day currently had high blood pressure, and 8.2 percent who ate healthy the previous day had high blood pressure at the time of the survey.

Heart attacks and diabetes, two serious conditions often directly affected by a poor diet, actually had the smallest difference between people with those conditions who ate healthy the previous day and those who did not: just 0.3 percentage points for heart attacks and 0.8 points for diabetes.

Helpful hints on eating well
Many of the communities at the top of the Gallup-Sharecare 2016 Community Rankings for Healthy Eating are taking active steps to promote healthy food. Fort Worth, Texas, for example, is working on eliminating food deserts—places a mile or more from a grocery store—by eliminating fees for cart vendors selling fruits and vegetables, changing zoning ordinances to promote farmers markets and encouraging the creation of urban farms.

But if your community hasn’t taken any steps to promote healthy eating, you can still stick to a quality diet on your own. Here are some tips from the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services:

  • Focus on a variety of nutrient-dense foods.
  • Limit calories from added sugar and saturated fat.
  • Reduce sodium intake.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables of all different colors, as well as whole grains, low-fat dairy, a variety of protein sources and heart-healthy oils.

Want more? Check out these 15 foods that nutritionists always have in their fridges.

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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