Vail health feature: Diet is just as important as exercise to a man’s health
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part series on men’s health.
You can’t exercise away a bad diet.
“You literally are what you eat,” said Dr. Dennis Lipton, an internist at the Vail Valley Medical Center. “Your body takes your food and turns it into the muscles, bones, blood vessels and every other cell that your body is composed of. You would not want to build a house with low-quality materials, and you should feel the same way about your body.”
A man only gets one body, and he has to live in it his whole life. Exercise is important, but fueling up with the right food is also paramount.
“Heart disease is not something that suddenly happens when a man reaches his 60s,” Lipton said. “It’s the result of the daily habits and food choices compounded over years and decades. It’s never too early to start making the right choices.”
You are what you eat
Obesity is the most obvious external sign of poor diet and lack of exercise. Here in Eagle County, we have one of the lowest rates of obesity in the country, so the detrimental effects of poor diet and lack of exercise are not always outwardly obvious, Lipton said.
“Poor diet directly affects athletic and cognitive performance, as well as immune function,” he said. “It’s especially important for men who are physically active to fuel properly, to give the body what it needs to recover.”
Most men do not consume nearly enough fiber in their diets, he added. Fiber is found in whole, unprocessed plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and legumes. There is no fiber in processed food like white bread, chips, desserts and oil or in animal products such as meat, cheese and eggs.
“These are the foods that comprise the majority of calories for many men,” Lipton said. “It’s best to get fiber from food and not from fiber pills or drinks. Colorful vegetables and fruits are the best source because they also contain phytonutrients and antioxidants that are vital to health.”
The biggest killers in the United States are heart disease and cancer, and even though we may be thinner and more fit than most of America here in Eagle County, Lipton said our cardiologists and oncologists are still entirely too busy.
“A man can look and feel healthy and fit and still have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes,” he said.
Numerous studies have shown that you can reduce your risk of heart disease by 75 percent to 85 percent with daily habits that include not smoking, doing at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily, managing stress, getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, limiting alcohol to one or two servings daily and maintaining a healthy diet, Lipton said.
“Diet is the one where most people fail,” he said. “In fact, the U.S. Burden of Disease Study shows that our diet is the biggest culprit in death and disease — even bigger than smoking, at this point.”
According to the American Health Association, Lipton said, for a person who eats 2,000 calories per day, a heart-healthy diet should include about 5 cups of vegetables and fruits per day. For men who are active and eat 2,500 to 3,000 calories per day, it goes up to 6 or 7 cups.
“Only 2 (percent) to 3 percent of Americans are actually doing this, and I would consider this a minimum for excellent health,” Lipton said. “Personally, I aim for a 100 percent whole-food, plant-based diet because I’ve come to believe that it is the healthiest and most protective diet against chronic disease.”
In contrast, for the average American man, less than 10 percent of calories are from plant-based whole food (vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains). As that percentage increases from 10 percent up to 40 percent, 60 percent or 80 percent, Lipton said health improves and the burden of chronic disease goes down.
Exercise is also vital to the equation of achieving and maintaining optimal health.
“Our bodies are made to move and work,” Lipton said. “If you think back to how humans lived a few thousand years ago, there was no electricity or refrigerators. Physical activity was unavoidable, and calories were scarce. You had to move to get anything to eat, and you never knew when your next meal would be. That’s how we humans have lived for the majority of time we’ve been on earth.
“Now, we have the exact opposite situation. Calories are everywhere, and physical activity is hard to come by. You have to go out of your way to get exercise, but it’s worth it.
Regular exercise on most days — as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise, like walking —improves immune function, improves symptoms of depression and anxiety, improves gastrointestinal function and reduces constipation, strengthens the heart and circulatory system, helps maintain strong muscles and improves bone density, Lipton said.
“These are only a few of the benefits,” he said. “Inactivity has actually been shown to be a risk factor for many kinds of cancers. If exercise could be bottled and sold in a pill, it would be considered a priceless miracle cure!”
Lots of men are very disciplined, and they make great decisions when it comes to taking care of their home, their family, their car and their finances, Lipton said. Unfortunately they often don’t use that discipline to make the right choices when it comes to food, alcohol and exercise.
“I’ve seen many men’s lives and families destroyed by health crises like heart attack and cancer,” he said. “Most men, as they go through their 40s, 50s and 60s, just don’t think it can happen to them.”
Lipton said his biggest concern is that men will be blindsided by a health crisis that doesn’t have to happen. Paying attention to your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol and getting regular, age-appropriate cancer screenings and vaccines can go a long way toward protecting future health.
“As a physician, I can and often do prescribe appropriate medications that treat cholesterol and blood pressure and reduce risk of heart disease and stroke,” he said. “However, my favorite prescription is diet and lifestyle change — it works!”