Diet and Disease: How Your Diet Can Predispose You to Illness

If I were to say “obesity,” it might make you think of other words such as unhealthy, or disease. While it’s true that a lot of people correlate obesity with unhealthiness, you may not know the extent of the diseases that can come along with it. Even without being obese, ones diet could still increase the risk of various diseases.

Before delving into diseases, it’s important to define the word obesity and to distinguish it from the word overweight. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), overweight refers to having an excess amount of body weight, but this weight may come from muscles, bone, fat, and water. Obesity refers to having an excess amount of body fat. A Body Mass Index (BMI) is used to estimate whether or not a person is obese or overweight.

The NIDDK talks about how being overweight or obese comes with different health risks such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoarthritis, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and even certain types of cancer, such as breast, colon, endometrial and kidney. While cancer will be discussed separately later, it’s important to know how exactly one becomes obese or overweight. In 2010, according to data from Ogden & Carroll, 2010; Flegal et al., 2012, about 75% of adults in the United States were considered either overweight, obese, or extremely obese. That percentage should be startling, but how exactly does something like this happen? Although there are a variety of cheap fast food restaurants all over the place, it’s not like 75% of adults eat McDonald’s everyday of their lives.

The NIH states that obesity and being overweight are caused by an energy imbalance. Energy, in this sense, refers to the amount of calories that are consumed. When we eat food our bodies are utilizing calories as energy and we need a certain amount of calories in order to remain healthy. We each have a certain healthy weight range that’s dependent on a lot of things, such as height and lifestyle. Our bodies maintain a constant weight if the amount of calories consumed equals the amount of calories that the body uses up. If we take in less calories than our bodies can burn, we can lose weight, but we can gain weight if we take in more calories than our bodies can burn on a daily basis. After some time, the energy balance shifts and if we’re taking in too many calories, this can lead to weight gain and eventually even obesity.

As I mentioned earlier, obesity increases the risk of getting various types of cancer. Cancer is caused by many different factors, and although it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of certain cancers, it is thought that someone’s lifestyle and dietary choices may increase the risk of getting certain cancers. By now it’s common knowledge that smoking cigarettes increases the risk of getting lung cancer. Perhaps less commonly known is that drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can lead to liver, colon, and rectal cancers. What may be most surprising, however, is that eating excessive amounts of beef and pork can increase the risk of cancer as well.

Humans and other animals produce and use sugars every day in order to maintain the body. One such sugar that the human body uses is N-acetylneuraminic acid, or Neu5Ac for short. Cows and pigs make a very structurally similar sugar called N-glycolylneuraminic acid, or Neu5Gc. When we consume beef and pork, our cells can mistake Neu5Gc for Neu5Ac and use it instead. This promotes inflammation and cancer progression. It’s not just beef and pork that have Neu5Gc though, as it’s also found in caviar, bison, goat’s milk cheese and more. You may want to think twice about having that caviar at your next yacht party, huh?

So does this mean that you have to stop eating beef and pork, or better yet, cut out meat and cheese completely and become a vegan? Of course not. Although some foods provide a higher nutritional value than others, and some can be rather detrimental to your health, there’s a keyword that has to be taken into account with everything you do and that word is moderation. You shouldn’t be eating greasy cheeseburgers every day, but you don’t have to vow to never eat one ever again either.

Your lifestyle choices affect your health as well, and it’s no surprise that exercising can have a positive impact on one’s physical well-being. You probably know that exercising can help you lose weight or gain muscle depending on the type of workouts you do, but exercising can also impact your mental health too! Vigorous amounts of aerobic exercise can cause your body to release a type of peptide hormone called an endorphin. Endorphins act as the body’s natural painkillers but they can also promote a sense of euphoria!

Exercising has also been shown to relieve tension, depression, anxiety, and other negative feelings. In addition to this, regular exercise can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, improve your blood circulation, and increases your stamina. In addition to all of these benefits, it’s possible that exercise may even have a role in keeping the brain healthy and functioning properly. A study done at the University of British Columbia showed that committing to regular aerobic exercise, as opposed to muscle toning and balance exercise, can increase the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that deals with verbal memory and learning.

So while you may not need to make drastic changes to your life, you should consider a healthier diet that avoids excessive amounts of red meat, and a more active lifestyle that includes aerobic exercise. The benefits are plentiful and after all, who wouldn’t want to live a happier, healthier life?

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