Diet & Nutrition: The Dirty Dozen

Studies show that lifestyle factors affect long term health and longevity itself. A 2009 study from Harvard University, The Preventable Causes of Death in the United States, investigated 12 risk factors, establishing that good lifestyle choices, not just good genes, are key factors influencing life expectancy. And, new research, published in the online edition of The Lancet in October 2009 shows that losing weight and exercising can delay or prevent the onset of diabetes more effectively than prescription drugs.

To live your best life, eat well, exercise and limit the dirty dozen:

cigarette.jpg1. Smoking
Cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable deaths. About 45,000 Canadians die from smoking each year. More women are now killed by lung cancer than breast cancer, states Dr. Aileen Burford-Mason, an expert advisor for Orthomolecular Health. Because cigarettes take about 20 years to kill most smokers, a dramatic rise in female smoking during the ’70s and ’80s is now reflected in the rates of women dying from smoking-related cancer.

> Get combat ready “Nicotine replacement therapies seem to really help people quit,” says Dr. Jonathan Prousky, professor of clinical nutrition at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. If you’re a stress smoker, try 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity to trigger stress-reducing hormones. Go to Health Canada’s Getting Ready to Quit website (

> Nutrition strategy Green tea, Brussels sprouts, apples, beans and onions may reduce oxidative stress, inflammation and the DNA damage caused by smoking, reports UCLA scientists. Carbohydrates raise mood-elevating hormones such as serotonin. Walnuts, almonds and cashews have magnesium, a calming nutrient.

2. A diet low in dietary omega-3 fatty acids (seafood)

The average Canadian diet is woefully low in fish, shellfish and other seafood. Studies have suggested that foods with omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat, can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease. They’re also sometimes called brain food, for reducing memory problems typical of aging and helping prevent dementia.
�> Get combat ready Take an omega-3 supplement. There’s lots of buzz around krill oil, extracted from a shrimp-like marine animal, which is very high in omega-3s and may have beneficial antioxidant phytochemicals. For vegetarians, algae are a good source of omega-3 and other nutrients.

> Nutrition strategy Salmon, sardines and herring are high in omega-3 and low in mercury.


3. A diet low in dietary poly-unsaturated fatty acids

There are two main families of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which the body needs in balanced quantities: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Replacing saturated fatty acids (the main dietary source of high cholesterol) with these polyunsaturated fatty acids reduces the risk of heart disease.

> Get combat ready Keep fat intake at 25 to 35 per cent of your daily calories. Avoid packaged baked goods (a major source of hidden SFAs) and limit the amount of meat and animal products you ingest. Replace palm and coconut oils with safflower, sunflower or soy oils.

> Nutrition strategy Anchovies, herring and sardines, a daily intake of nuts and seeds.


4. High blood sugar�

High blood sugar causes blood to become “sticky,” allowing plaque to fasten easily to artery walls and can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Two million Canadians are diagnosed with diabetes, and 90 per cent of them have Type 2,” says Sharon Zeiler of the Canadian Diabetes Association. ( Take care of your gums as periodontal disease can increase blood sugar.
> Get combat ready Trim your waistline — 40 inches or less for men, 35 inches or less for women — and you’ll reduce the risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Losing weight might also help control Type 2 diabetes without medication. Movement uses sugar for fuel, so accumulate 30 or more minutes of moderately intense physical activity daily.

> Nutrition strategy Zeiler recommends low-glycemic foods, whole grain breads and cereals, legumes and grains and five to 10 daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables. Cinnamon helps curb a sweet tooth.

5. A diet high in trans fatty acids

Trans fatty acids, or partially hydrogenated oils, are created by a process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. They’re particularly bad for your cholesterol levels because they raise LDL (bad cholesterol) and lower HDL (good cholesterol). Dr. Natasha Turner of ClearMedicine ( recommends not cutting all fats from your meals — some are good fats — as this will trigger food cravings. Pick trans-fat free products that list liquid canola and olive oil in the ingredients.

> Get combat ready Don’t eat anything labelled hydrogenated on the nutrition label. All physical exercise raises HDL levels. That’s as simple as walking your dog.

> Nutrition strategy “Add one to two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil every single day,” says Turner. “Eat more vegetables and fruit, fish and other seafood, whole grain breads and cereals, beans, lentils and nuts.”

cheese.jpg6. Excess weight, obesity
Obesity is a metabolic risk factor and gateway to many fatal diseases including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Since 1979, obesity rates have increased from 17 per cent to 30 per cent for the 45-to-55 age group. “Never allow more than three pounds to creep on,” cautions Burford-Mason.

> Get combat ready Stop eating after the dinner hour and cut out late night snacks. “I’ve found that simply not eating after 7 p.m. can help obese patients lose weight,” confirms Prousky. Commit to losing it for good: embark upon and maintain an exercise program.

> Nutrition strategy Protein, low-fat dairy, vegetables and modest amounts of good fats help lose fat and build muscle.


7. HighLDL (bad) cholesterol

Cholesterol and triglycerides are two forms of fat (lipid) that circulate in your blood. Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, builds up in arteries, reducing blood flow and increasing risk of heart attack or stroke. High-density lipoprotein, or HDL (good) cholesterol, moves LDL cholesterol to the liver for removal.

>Get combat ready “Add niacin, an important B vitamin, to your diet. It’s
the best way to naturally modify cholesterol,” says Prousky. See your doctor first and, while you’re at it, check about adding a weight routine to your fitness regime, as lifting weights lowers LDL levels five per cent and triglycerides six per cent, reports the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Weights improve strength, and research suggests building lean muscle tissue is important to shedding fat.

> Nutrition strategy Olive oil contains an ideal mix of antioxidants that can lower your LDL cholesterol but leave your HDL cholesterol untouched. Walnuts, a plant source of omega-3, lowers blood cholesterol more than fish, while fatty fish lower triglycerides,reports the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. “Choose healthier


8. Salt

Eating too much salt can raise blood pressure. People with high blood pressure are at increased risk for stroke, heart attack and heart failure. The average Canadian consumes nearly 3,100 milligrams of sodium a day, according to Statistics Canada, one-third more than the daily recommended maximum. Burford-Mason adds, “It’s not just that we’re eating too much salt but that we are deficient in magnesium, which is necessary for controlling sodium absorption by cells.”

> Get combat ready Drop packaged processed foods. Incorporate aerobic exercise into your day.

>Nutrition strategy A low sodium diet of 200 to 300 milligrams per meal (200 milligrams equals 1/8 teaspoon of table salt). Add potassium- and magnesium-rich leafy greens, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetable to your diet. Take a daily magnesium glycinate supplement of 350 milligrams for women, 420 milligrams for men.

9. Too much alcohol

Alcohol is absorbed through the stomach and small intestine, then broken down by the liver and eliminated from the body. Drinking alcohol in moderation reduces risks for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Alcohol raises HDL cholesterol, which could play some role in protecting against heart disease. Cognitive decline has been shown to be slower in those that drink alcohol. On the flip side, alcohol abuse is very damaging to all the body’s systems including your immunity. “Like any addiction, it’s a chemical imbalance,” says Turner.

> Get combat ready “Success rates increase with professional help, whether from an addiction counsellor or a 12-step program,” advises Turner. If you tend to turn to the bottle because you’re down, try getting physical instead. Exercise triggers endorphins, enhancing joy in life and counteracting depression.

> Nutrition strategy Current acceptable daily levels are one to two drinks for women, two to three drinks for men. “Healthy proteins and carbohydrate foods with supplements like Tyrosine, B vitamins, essential fatty acids and borage oil are beneficial for controlling the cravings of addictions,” adds Turner.

10. High blood pressure�

Around the mid-30s, blood pressure starts creeping up in both men and women. “Roughly 20 per cent of Canadians have this condition that hardens flexible arteries, strains the heart and can cause an aneurysm or stroke,” explains Dr. Andy Wielgosz, a cardiologist professor at the University of Ottawa and spokesperson for the Heart and Stroke Foundation (

> Get combat ready Reduce stress, a major contributor to high blood pressure, through meditation, relaxation, yoga and deep breathing. “Regular exercise is also a natural tranquilizer,” says Wielgosz.

> Nutrition strategy A Mediterranean diet including heart-healthy olive oil, low salt foods, magnesium and potassium-rich foods such as bananas and orange juice can all help reduce high blood pressure.

11. A diet low in fruits and vegetables

Most Canadians fall far short of the seven daily servings of fruits and vegetables recommended by Health Canada for adults over 50. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and powerful antioxidants to counteract age-related damage to the heart, arteries and other tissues. At this age, some people may experience changes in digestion and bowel habits. Dietary fibre from fruits and vegetables will help to reduce your risk of constipation and improve bowel habit and health.

> Get combat ready “A fruit smoothie drink delivers two to three servings of fruits immediately. And eat a salad with your lunch and dinner,” suggests Turner.

> Nutrition strategy Incorporate a wide variety of multi-coloured fruits and vegetables into your diet.

12. Inadequate physical activity
“We are designed to move all the time. It’s part of how our metabolism works and how nutrients get into our brain and bones,” explains Burford-Mason. Long-term studies have shown an active lifestyle cuts the risk of premature death by about 50 per cent. Aerobic exercise strengthens heart rate. Stretching and lengthening are important for flexibility so you won’t fall and break a hip. Weight-bearing strength exercises are good for muscles and bones.

> Get combat ready Walking briskly is the easiest, cheapest, most natural activity. Add strength training to build muscle tissue, which boosts energy and burns fat. Swimming increases flexibility.

> Nutrition strategy More sedentary lifestyles benefit from heart-healthy mono-saturated fats found in a Mediterranean diet, avocados, olives and raw nuts — but the best bet is to get moving.