It’s not exactly a secret that most Americans struggle to follow a healthy diet. Research suggests that about 42 percent of consumed carbohydrates come from foods with low nutritional value. The good news is this number is lower than 20 years ago, but the bad news is that it’s still very far from ideal.
Healthy eating is challenging in a fast-paced world with cheap fast food and unhealthy snacks everywhere. Sticking to a balanced diet requires patience and dedication. It will not always be easy, but the benefits are worth the hassle.
There are hundreds of benefits that come from shifting towards healthy eating habits. For the sake of time, let’s deep dive into the five most beneficial.
1. Supports Healthy Weight Loss
Let’s start this list with the most obvious benefit of eating healthy: shedding some extra pounds. According to recent studies, the vast majority of Americans are carrying extra weight. Roughly 31 percent of Americans are overweight, with an additional 42 percent considered obese.
The obesity epidemic isn’t a uniquely American issue, either. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about one billion people worldwide are obese: 650 million adults, 340 million teens, and 39 million children.
There are a lot of influencing factors involved that can help to explain these numbers.
First, technology's evolution has dramatically changed humanity's everyday lives in many ways. A lot of the physical demands required in the past (farming, hunting, building, etc.) have been replaced by complex machinery. Screens have also largely replaced the hobbies and pastimes previously centered around physical activities.
Technology has certainly played a role in the rise of obesity, but it’s not the single most important factor. Most weight issues can be traced back to changes in the average diet. As processed foods and soft drinks became more common, the average weight of people around the world increased.
These foods are largely void of nutrients and instead feature large concentrations of added sugars as well as unhealthy trans fats and refined carbohydrates. Consuming large concentrations of sugar, fat, and carbs will significantly increase your calories. Whatever isn’t used to power your body will be stored as fat throughout your body and can contribute to weight gain.
Losing weight is all about burning more calories than you consume. Processed food and soft drinks are loaded with calories. Replacing them with healthy foods like whole grains (think brown rice and oats), legumes, lean meats, healthy fats, and more veggies can dramatically decrease your daily caloric intake while nourishing you in a way junk food just can’t.
One of the benefits of healthy eating is that you may be able to start burning some of the fat build-ups stored throughout your body. Adding in some physical exercise can help to speed up the process, but eating healthy is an excellent first step towards weight loss.
2. Promotes Brain Health
The brain is the command center of the body. Whatever impacts the body will also affect the brain, and there are many things that you can do that support positive brain health.
Consistent high-quality sleep, stimulating your brain, and routine physical exercise are just some activities that can benefit your brain. However, the most effective of them all might be improving your diet.
We’ve already talked about how processed sugary foods and soft drinks can be bad for your body. Well, they’re not great for your brain, either. The excessive sugar, fat, and salt in these foods can severely disrupt how your brain operates.
For example, issues with memory and concentration are often attributed to a poor diet. The brain relies on a complex system of hormones and neurotransmitters to function properly. Eating processed foods disrupts the balance of this system and can seriously impact brain function.
That’s not even mentioning the oxidative stress it can cause for your brain. Foods with excessive amounts of sugar, fat, and salt can increase the number of free radicals in your blood.
These free radicals contribute to oxidative stress, damaging brain cells and neural pathways. It should come as no surprise that oxidative stress is one of the major precursors for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
It’s easiest to think of the brain as a supercomputer that runs on glucose, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants — the more of these that you eat, the more potential power for your brain.
In fact, eating candy or potato chips and washing them down with soda can actually have the opposite effect and limit your brain function. You can replace those snacks with healthier ones to help boost your brain power instead of draining it.
3. Helps Manage Diabetes
The CDC estimates that around 37.3 million Americans have diabetes (a little under 11 percent of the population).
Only about five to 10 percent of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes, which is largely genetic and is something that you’re born with.
The remaining people have type 2 diabetes, which often slowly develops over time and can be caused by a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle.
Glucose is the primary fuel source for your body and brain. Commonly known as blood sugar, the glucose in your blood comes from the food you eat. Glucose is a perfect example of the saying, “too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”
You need to maintain a healthy supply of glucose to function properly, but too much can be harmful to your health.
The problem is that diets high in added sugars, processed carbohydrates, cholesterol, and saturated fat can cause your glucose levels to spike dramatically. These elevated levels are often too much for a normal supply of insulin to handle, insulin being the hormone created by the pancreas to help regulate blood glucose levels.
The surplus of insulin in your blood can eventually result in a tolerance being built, meaning the same amount of insulin may not have the same effects on your blood glucose levels as it did in the past. The inability to self-regulate glucose levels is the textbook definition of type 2 diabetes. Oftentimes, additional medication must be administered regularly to keep blood glucose levels in check.
The good news is that eating healthy is one of the best ways to manage type 2 diabetes. Eating healthy, losing weight, and regularly exercising have been shown to put type 2 diabetes into remission. Even if you don’t have diabetes, eating healthy is one of the most effective ways to avoid the diagnosis in the first place.
4. Supports Heart Health
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with around 700,000 individuals lost to it yearly. It’s not just an American problem either, as roughly 16 percent of all deaths worldwide result from heart disease.
If the brain is the body's command center, then the heart is the engine. Command centers aren’t very useful when the engine quits working.
Diabetes is a major one as it primarily affects the cardiovascular system.
Smoking and living a sedentary lifestyle are also contributing factors. Smoking can cause your arteries to shrink, and a lack of exercise can weaken the heart muscles.
While these factors can increase your risk of heart disease, the two most common causes are high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a type of waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver. You can find cholesterol in pretty much every cell of your body because it’s essential for the building of cell walls, the creation of tissues, the production of hormones, and a variety of other tasks.
You need cholesterol for your body to function properly, but too much of it can cause many health problems.
Excessive amounts of cholesterol in your blood can cause plaque to build up. These fatty deposits are usually a combination of cholesterol, calcium, fibrin, and cellular waste products.
When the plaque hardens, it can cause the arteries to narrow. Blood can’t flow as easily through these arteries as it once did. The heart will have to pump even harder to maintain its optimal level of blood flow. The result is typically high blood pressure, which can further damage your arteries, strain your heart, and decrease the flow of oxygen throughout your body.
Reducing saturated fat intake is one of the easiest ways to lower your cholesterol levels. Remember that your liver naturally produces cholesterol. It's more than capable of meeting your cholesterol requirements and doesn't need you to get any more from your food.
Full-fat dairy products (such as milk and cheese), animal fats (such as lard), and processed fatty meats (such as sausage and bacon) are foods with particularly high concentrations of compounds that can raise your cholesterol levels.
5. Reduces Cancer Risk
Cancer is just behind heart disease in leading causes of death. Roughly 1,670 people will die from cancer every day in the United States.
Unfortunately, some cancers are genetic and unpreventable. However, several cancers are preventable as they’re primarily caused by obesity, smoking, drinking alcohol, or getting too much ultraviolet radiation.
You can probably guess by now which types of foods are linked to cancer — processed meat, sugary drinks, refined carbohydrates, and excessive salt can all contribute. Cutting back on these foods is one way to lower your cancer risk, but it’s only the beginning.
As mentioned earlier, the free radicals in these foods can cause oxidative stress in the brain. With that, they can also increase your risk of developing cancer. Unchecked, free radicals can damage or destroy the DNA, proteins, and cell membranes within your body's cells.
Fortunately, there are tons of foods that include the antioxidants needed to help fight back against the free radicals in your body and limit the damage they cause.
Experience All the Benefits of a Healthy Diet
The five health benefits listed above only scratch the surface of what good nutrition can provide. You can also experience improved mood, elevated energy levels, lower stress, higher sleep quality, a more effective immunity system, and better overall health for your bones, teeth, stomach, and skin. The list really could go on for a very long time.
You probably already know where you should start with your diet. Vegetables, fruits, lean protein, fish, nuts, and beans are all excellent for your general health.
That said, if you need a little help, check out all of our food-centric wellness articles here, or consider the below articles your starting points. Good luck!