Eating a healthy diet can lower a person’s risk of many diseases, including heart disease and cancer. A healthy diet can also boost immunity and help maintain a healthy weight.
Health experts from the Division of Public Health Sciences recommend focusing on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and staying away from unhealthy fats and red or processed meat.
“About three out of four heart disease cases and two out of four cancers could be avoided with overall healthy lifestyles,” says Division Chief of Public Health Sciences Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery. “And most of the steps that lower the risk of one disease also lower the risk of the other.”
These shared behaviors include avoiding tobacco and secondhand smoke, maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, eating well and getting screening tests for certain cancers and heart disease risk factors.
“Health recommendations often fall into silos of information. Breast cancer in this silo. Heart disease in that one. And colon cancer over there. This can make it easy to miss how important some basic healthy behaviors can be for preventing many key chronic diseases. Yet it’s hard to overstate the potential impact of a handful of healthy behaviors,” Colditz, the associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center, says.
Experts from the Division of Public Health Sciences share nutrition and recipe tips—including how to choose healthy fruits, vegetables and whole grains—through a monthly Feast Magazine column called In Good Taste.
Avocados contain “healthy” monounsaturated fats, which Associate Professor of Surgery Yin Cao, ScD, MPH, notes can help reduce bad cholesterol.
“They also contain niacin, which can bring down high cholesterol. With 350 milligrams of potassium per half an avocado, they can help lower blood pressure. This fruit is decidedly heart healthy,” Cao says.
Avocados also contain protein, vitamins C and E, and riboflavin.
“And half of an avocado contains up to 20 percent of your daily recommended dose of vitamin K, which helps support bone health,” says Cao. “The folate in avocados can help lower the risk of certain types of cancer.”
Figs are high in vitamin K, vitamin B6, magnesium, manganese and copper.
“Vitamin B6, in particular, contributes to healthy brain function, while vitamin K aids blood-clotting and wound-healing,” Colditz says. “One large fig contains 7 percent of your recommended daily amount of fiber, which means figs are great at regulating your digestive system and decreasing constipation.”
Colditz notes that figs are sweet, but that figs boast numerous health benefits while also being sweet.
“When you get your sugar in a fruit like a fig that also has fiber and potassium, you get multiple benefits,” Colditz, the Niess-Gain Professor of Surgery, says.
“Citrus fruits are a good source of fiber and vitamin C, and they’re relatively low in calories,” says Hank Dart, MS, a health communications expert at Siteman Cancer Center. “And research has found that they may help lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers, as well as premature mortality.”
Oranges are well-known for being full of vitamin C, but Dart encourages people to try other fresh citrus fruits, too.
“Look a little harder, and you may be able to find other citrus fruits, including large pomelos and tiny kumquats,” he says. “Each fruit has its own character, and many are available fresh year-round. So try to branch out and choose something new.”
Feast Magazine shares a simple Greek lemon chicken soup recipe to add winter citrus to a healthy diet.
Associate Professor of Surgery Adetunji Toriola, MD, PhD, emphasizes the many nutritional benefits of peppers, from vitamin C, antioxidants, vitamin B6, vitamin A and, in spicier peppers, capsaicin.
“When the peppers contain high levels of capsaicin, there is the possibility of the digestive system working a little bit better,” Toriola says.
Less spicy peppers also help slow down or prevent cell damage.
“During the process of renewal, there are opportunities for mistakes to occur, so the antioxidants help keep things in check,” Toriola says. “They help to reduce the degree of damage that occurs as a result of constant renewal.”
Onions are a healthy source of fiber.
“Nowadays there’s a huge interest in microbiomes, which are the very small organisms that live on and inside the body, like bacteria and fungi. But for microbiomes to live, they need food, and one of their main sources of food is fiber,” Yikyung Park, ScD, an associate professor of surgery whose research focuses on the role of diet, physical activity and other lifestyle factors in cancer development and survival. “Onions have inulin. It’s a type of fiber that isn’t digested in our stomach, but it goes directly to the gut and then feeds the biome. That’s also why fiber is good for maintaining body weight: It doesn’t have any calories, but fiber-rich foods make you feel fuller, so you may eat less.”
Antioxidants known as flavonoids clean up free radicals in the body, and there’s evidence they fight inflammation to help prevent chronic illnesses, like heart disease and some cancers. “Chronic inflammation is related to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Foods that fight inflammation (anti-inflammatory foods) reduce chronic inflammation,” Park says.
Recipe: French onion and mushroom frittata
Last May, in the early months of COVID-19, Dart told Feast Magazine: “It’s an understatement to say that this may not be the springtime most of us had envisioned during the cold, dark days of January. But we also understand how important these steps are, and that, in the end, it’s a temporary situation we’ll get through together.”
Dart shares advice on how to maintain a strong immune system by eating certain vegetables.
“Cruciferous vegetables are filled with fiber, vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds, including glucosinolates, which can have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions,” Dart says. “Studies suggest that cruciferous vegetables may help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. And as part of a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and other vegetables, they can also help keep weight in check and fuel a healthy immune system.”
Dart shares more on the types of cruciferous vegetables here: Stay Health-Conscious During Quarantine with Cruciferous Vegetables.
Unrefine Your Diet with Whole Grains
“Decades of research have long shown the health benefits of eating whole grains over refined grains, like white bread and white rice,” says Dart, who works in prevention and control for Siteman Cancer Center. “Whole grains are rich in fiber and other important nutrients, and have been found to lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers and even premature death.”
In this Feast Magazine column, Dart gives a guide to whole grains and discusses their many health benefits.
Whole grains have many benefits over refined grains, including a high fiber content. Toriola notes that whole grains can help lower cholesterol as well as blood sugar. Oats are a common and dynamic whole grain.
“Oats are naturally gluten free, though be sure to read the packaging to make sure they haven’t been processed in a facility where they may have become cross-contaminated,” Toriola says.
Recipe: Apple ‘n Oat Maple Scones
Incorporating whole grains into snacks is one way to reduce calories.
“Popcorn can be a tasty, healthy and fun way to add more whole gains to your day,” Dart says. “It’s relatively high in fiber, has a number of vitamins and minerals and, depending on how it’s prepared, can also be quite low in calories.”
Dart offers a list of whole grain popcorn options and ways to make them healthier, using an air popper or stovetop method.
In Good Taste
Each month, Washington University researchers and public health experts at Siteman Cancer Center share their best nutrition tips with Feast Magazine through the In Good Taste column. Explore some of their articles about healthy foods: