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Health for life: Healthy foods

Eating certain foods could reduce your risk of many diseases and may help you live longer. Here’s a closer look at the foods you’ll want to add to your diet.

  1. What is healthy eating?
  2. What are healthy foods?
  3. What is a healthy diet?
  4. How can healthy foods help prevent diseases?
  5. What are some healthy foods that can help lower blood pressure?
  6. What are some healthy foods that can help lower cholesterol?
  7. What healthy foods help build up bones?
  8. What healthy foods help lower the risk of dementia?
  9. What healthy foods help lower the risk of cancer?
  10. What foods should I limit in a healthy diet?

Here’s a rather humbling stat: 6 in 10 Americans live with at least 1 chronic disease, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But while that may sound scary, there’s some good news: You may be able to reduce your risk of these conditions if you have a healthy diet. People who focus on healthy eating may live longer and may be less likely to develop health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

In other words, healthy eating that benefits your longevity starts in the kitchen. But it can be tough to figure out how to eat healthier. Read on for some tips.

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What is healthy eating?

When it comes to healthy eating, the answer often lies in a plant-based diet, says Brittany Placencia. She’s a nutritionist and the founder of Simple Plate Nutrition in Lorton, Virginia.

“This doesn’t mean that you have to go all-out vegetarian,” says Placencia. “But if you eat more plants than animal products, you will be on your way to a healthier, balanced diet for a healthier life long-term.”

It also means that your diet will naturally also end up lower in added sugars, sodium, saturated fats, trans fat and cholesterol.

What are healthy foods?

Not sure where to start on your healthy eating journey? The CDC recommends that you focus on including the following in your diet:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
  • Healthy sources of protein, such as seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), nuts and seeds

What is a healthy diet?

Need an example of a healthy diet that follows the pattern above? One that’s tasty, and easy to stick to, is the Mediterranean diet. It’s relatively easy to follow too, if you do the following:

  • Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and nuts.
  • Use extra-virgin olive oil instead of butter or other oils.
  • Limit red meat, sweets, added sugars, dairy, salt and highly processed foods.

How can healthy foods help prevent diseases?

According to the CDC, adults who eat healthy foods live longer and have a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. Healthy eating can also help people with these conditions better manage them. Additionally, it can help them avoid potential complications.

For example, the Mediterranean style of eating has been shown to have many health benefits. These include:

  • Decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. A 2023 review published in The BMJ found that people at high risk of heart disease who follow a Mediterranean diet may lower their risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • Lower risk of weight gain. Research shows that people who stick to a Mediterranean diet may be less likely to become overweight or obese.
  • Lower risk of dementia. Those who follow a Mediterranean diet may have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (Dementia is an umbrella term that includes diseases like Alzheimer’s with symptoms including loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities.)
  • Lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Following a Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

What are some healthy foods that can help lower blood pressure?

Groups like the National Institute of Health and the American Heart Association recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan. This plan focuses on eating:

  • Fruits, veggies and whole grains
  • Fat-free and low-fat dairy

And limiting foods that are:

  • High in added sugar
  • High in saturated fat, such as full-fat dairy, fatty meats and coconut oil

In addition, consider adding berries to your diet. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries all have resveratrol. This is a type of antioxidant that helps to relax blood vessels, says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of Atria New York City and clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. 

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What are some healthy foods that can help lower cholesterol?

Think fiber-rich foods — and lots of them. These foods may prevent cholesterol from entering the bloodstream, lowering your risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. You’ll want to aim for anywhere between 22 to 34 grams a day.

Another bonus: Since it’s doesn’t break down and absorb fiber, it’s less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. This helps keep your blood sugar, or glucose, levels low.

Some good fiber-rich options include:

  • Avocado toast topped with chickpeas
  • A bowl of oatmeal topped with nuts and berries
  • Whole grains, such as whole-grain bread (instead of white bread), brown rice or quinoa (in place of white rice) and whole-wheat pasta (instead of regular pasta)
  • Salads with leafy greens and vegetables
  • Beans, which can be added to salads or soups
  • Nuts, such as almonds or pistachios, which make good snacks

What healthy foods help build up bones?

You want to find foods that provide both calcium and vitamin D. These work together to help build healthy bones. Good options include:

  • Fortified milk or orange juice
  • Canned salmon or sardines. Look for types with the bones still in, as they have the most calcium.
  • Leafy greens such as spinach, collard greens or bok choy
  • Prunes. A recent study found that women who ate 100 grams of prunes a day (about 10 prunes a day) for a year increased their bone mineral density. This is a sign of good bone health.

What healthy foods help lower the risk of dementia?

A certain way of eating known as the MIND diet has been shown to help slow brain aging. It may also lessen the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The MIND diet is a blend of 2 eating styles mentioned earlier: the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. It’s delicious and easy to follow, says Gary Small, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Dr. Small is also the author of The Memory Bible.

Here are some of the top foods you’ll find recommended as part of the MIND diet:

  • Berries. Berries such as strawberries are rich in antioxidants, powerful plant-based substances known for their anti-inflammatory effects. Keep in mind that frozen berries may be just as good as fresh — and sometimes may be even better, says Dr. Small. “The usual assumption that fresh is better than frozen doesn’t necessarily hold true when it comes to the antioxidant capacity of foods,” he says. “Studies of strawberries and blueberries show that the antioxidant properties of the frozen versions can be just as powerful or even greater than the fresh varieties.”
  • Nuts and seeds. Walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Flaxseed and chia seeds are too. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. These fatty acids are important components of every cell in your body. Your body cannot make essential fatty acids, which is why you have to get them from foods. Nuts such as walnuts, pistachios and almonds are also healthy replacements for processed chips and cookies. “These snacks are high in refined carbohydrates, which are bad for brain health because they have high levels of fat and sugar,” Dr. Small explains.
  • Olive oil. Instead of cooking with butter or margarine, you may want to use olive oil. “While saturated fats are bad for your brain and accelerate aging, some fats, like the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil, help,” says Dr. Small.

What healthy foods help reduce the risk of cancer?

Your best bet is to follow a plant-based diet, stresses Placencia. “Plants contain antioxidants that fight inflammation in your body that causes cancer,” she explains.

Some good plant-based foods to include in your diet are:

  • Broccoli. It’s rich in a compound called sulforaphane, which appears to be protective against several types of cancer, including prostate, breast, bladder and colorectal.
  • Beans. “They’re rich in antioxidants, which help fight damage to cells. This may reduce your risk of cancer,” says Placencia. You may want to toss beans into your soups, salads or tacos. Or you may want to snack on them. For example, you may want to try roasting chickpeas, which make good snacks, she suggests.

What foods should I limit in a healthy diet?

To stay as healthy as possible, there are certain foods you may not want to eat as much of. These include foods with a lot of:

  • Saturated fat. It’s found in fatty meats, high-fat dairy, butter, creamy salad dressings and mayonnaise. It’s also found in processed foods such as pizza.
  • Salt. You can help avoid it by limiting processed foods. If you do, look for foods that are labeled “low sodium” or “no salt added.”
  • Alcohol. It may raise your blood pressure, as well as increase your risk of liver disease, heart disease, depression and anxiety. And if you drink alcohol in excess, research shows that it increases your risk of 7 types of cancer, including breast cancer. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends less than 1 drink a day for women and less than 2 drinks a day for men.

If all this healthy eating advice sounds overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to make major changes overnight. Start small with simple changes, such as adding 1 plant-based food to your plate once a week. As you feel more comfortable, you may be able to make more changes. And as you do, healthier eating will become a natural part of your habits and lifestyle.

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This advertisement contains information compiled by UnitedHealthcare and/or its affiliates. UnitedHealthcare does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.


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