In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the use of dietary interventions to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.
Research has shown that certain nutrients and dietary patterns can improve symptoms, reduce inflammation, and even reverse the progression of some chronic conditions.
In this article, we will explore the healing power of nutrition and how you can use diet as a tool to manage chronic conditions and improve your overall health as a senior.
Understanding Chronic Conditions: Which Can Be Managed Through Diet?
Chronic diseases are long-term diseases that are not contagious and largely preventable. They include diseases such as
- cardiovascular diseases,
- cancer, osteoporosis,
- and dental diseases.
These conditions present a growing burden for society, affecting nearly sixty percent of adults in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer are the primary reasons for death and incapacity in the United States.
According to the World Health Organization, the shift towards consuming diets high in fat and energy, as well as leading a sedentary lifestyle, was first observed in industrial regions and, more recently, in developing countries. The development of chronic diseases can be attributed to several factors, such as
- an unhealthy diet,
- lack of physical activity,
- tobacco use,
- and alcohol consumption.
Additionally, genetics and economic status may also contribute to the development of these diseases.
Since chronic diseases can largely be prevented, a global approach is necessary to address diet, physical activity, and overall health. Adopting a low-fat and low-sugar diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases which can be very helpful particularly to the aging population who have heightened vulnerability to chronic illnesses.
The Importance Of Diet In Managing Chronic Conditions
Being diagnosed with a chronic disease can be a daunting experience, but it’s worth noting that there are strategies to manage or even reverse the condition’s effects in some cases. Proper nutrition can significantly impact our overall health, and food can be considered the best form of “medicine.”
Eating habits play a crucial role in managing chronic conditions, and even in some instances, it can help reverse the effects of these diseases. Here’s how;
- For example, almost one in five people suffering from high blood pressure in the US can manage their condition solely through lifestyle modifications, including changes to their diet. This highlights the crucial role that nutrition plays in managing common chronic conditions, and in some cases, avoiding the need for medication.
- Unhealthy diets, lack of physical activity, and smoking are the primary risk factors for chronic diseases, which indicates that maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help prevent and control chronic diseases.
- Reducing risk factors throughout life, including an unhealthy diet, can significantly impact the management of chronic diseases. For example, eliminating certain risk factors can avoid 80% of cases of coronary heart disease, 90% of cases of type 2 diabetes, and about one-third of cancers.
- A diet that includes at least 20-30 different types of food is ideal for optimal health, with an emphasis on increasing the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fish and adjusting the types of fats and oils and the number of sugars and starch.
Despite current dietary guidelines, many people are unaware of or do not follow them, resulting in a small percentage of the population consuming the recommended levels of different foods. To increase awareness, national governments should produce simple and practical guidelines.
Dietary Defense: The Dietary Recommendations To Prevent Chronic Diseases
Since the role of nutrition and diet in preventing or possibly managing diet-related chronic diseases have already been well-established, you are probably wondering how?
To answer that lingering question in your mind, the national and regional bodies establishing dietary recommendations for the prevention of diet-related chronic diseases created the following population nutrient intake goals.
Recommended Population Nutrient Intake Goals
(as a share of total energy intake)
|Dietary Factor||Recommendations (WHO/FAO)|
|Saturated fatty acids||<10%|
|Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs)||6–10%|
|Trans fatty acids||<1%|
|Sodium chloride||<300 mg per day|
|Fruits and vegetables||<5 g per day (<2 g per day)|
1. Total fat
The recommendations for total fat are formulated to include countries where the usual fat intake is typically above 30% as well as those where the usual intake may be very low, for example, less than 15%. Total fat energy of at least 20% is consistent with good health.
Highly active groups with diets rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits, and wholegrain cereals may sustain a total fat intake of up to 35% without the risk of unhealthy weight gain.
For countries where the usual fat intake is between 15% and 20% of energy, there is no direct evidence for men that raising fat intake to 20% will be beneficial. For women of reproductive age, at least 20% has been recommended by the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Fats and Oils in Human Nutrition.
2. Free sugars
It is recognized that higher intakes of free sugars threaten the nutrient quality of diets by providing significant energy without specific nutrients. The Consultation considered that restriction of free sugars was also likely to contribute to reducing the risk of unhealthy weight gain, noting that:
Free sugars contribute to the overall energy density of diets.
Free sugars promote a positive energy balance. Acute and short-term studies in human volunteers have demonstrated increased total energy intake when the energy density of the diet is increased, whether by free sugars or fat.
Diets that are limited in free sugars have been shown to reduce total energy intake and induce weight loss.
Drinks that are rich in free sugars increase overall energy intake by reducing appetite control. There is thus less of a compensatory reduction of food intake after the consumption of high-sugar drinks than when additional foods of equivalent energy content are provided .
A randomized trial showed that when soft drinks rich in free sugars are consumed, there is a higher energy intake and a progressive increase in body weight compared to energy-free drinks that are artificially sweetened.
3. Non-starch polysaccharides (NSP)
Wholegrain cereals, fruits, and vegetables are the preferred sources of non-starch polysaccharides (NSP). The best definition of dietary fiber remains to be established, given the potential health benefits of resistant starch. The recommended intake of fruits and vegetables and consumption of wholegrain foods is likely to provide >20 g per day of NSP (>25 g per day of total dietary fiber).
4. Fruits and vegetables
The benefit of fruits and vegetables cannot be ascribed to a single or mix of nutrients and bioactive substances. Therefore, this food category was included rather than the nutrients themselves. The category of tubers (i.e. potatoes, cassava) should not be included in fruits and vegetables.
What Type Of Dietary Pattern Should You Follow?
Although you may now know the nutritional goals you need to prevent chronic diseases, it can still be hard to plan a meal that could help you attain the above recommendations or to determine what type would be applicable on your condition if you have any.
So here are some common dietary pattern recommendations from experts and doctors for people with chronic health conditions.
Plant Based Diet
Plant-based eating is becoming more popular due to documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, Earthlings, PlantPure Nation and Food, Inc.
Research shows that people who eat mostly plant-based diets have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and overall mortality.
The American College of Lifestyle Medicine recommends a plant-based diet with minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds for treating, reversing and preventing chronic diseases.
Moving to a 100 percent plant-based diet for one to three months can change taste preferences and cravings. While imitation meat products can help transition from meat, they may contain added salt, sugar and oil, and do not replace whole plant-based foods.
The DASH diet is a recognized way of treating hypertension, heart disease, and kidney disease, and can even slow the progression of heart and kidney disease.
However, it’s important to consult with a doctor and a dietitian before starting the diet if you have chronic kidney disease as there may be restrictions to consider. People on dialysis should not use the DASH diet either, as they have special dietary needs that must be addressed by a registered dietitian.
The diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, and nuts, while being low in salt, sodium, added sugars, sweets, fat, and red meats.
In conclusion, it is clear that nutrition plays a significant role in managing chronic conditions. By making dietary changes, individuals can improve their overall health and reduce the risk of complications associated with chronic diseases.
While it may seem overwhelming to make significant changes to one’s diet, small steps can make a big difference.
Consulting with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional can also provide valuable guidance and support in managing chronic conditions through diet. With the healing power of nutrition, individuals can take control of their health and improve their quality of life.
To learn more about senior nutrition, you may also visit our Senior Diet and Nutrition 101: A Senior’s Guide To Nutritious Life.