The greatest health challenge currently faced by Canadians is the ever growing burden of chronic disease. The management and prevention of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer has become essential for the welfare of our society. Prevention is becoming crucial since medical care alone is inadequate when it comes to addressing chronic disease.
The latest statistics show that over a third of Canadians suffer from at least one chronic health condition. The rates are much higher if only looking at adults – 3 out of 5 Canadians older than 20 have a chronic disease. Unless things change, more than 70% of us will die from the four most common chronic diseases – heart disease, diabetes, cancer and respiratory diseases. Health care costs associated with these health problems amount to 67% of all health care spending in Canada. And the burden is growing… chronic disease rates are currently increasing at 14% per year.
Yet, we clearly understand the underlying risk factors and drivers that lead to chronic disease. From behavioural risk factors to physiological markers, we know who is at risk for the development of chronic disease –and currently four out of five Canadian adults are at risk.
And yet solutions exist. The benefits of prevention for instance are clear. Up to 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes as well as more than one-third of cancers could be prevented by eliminating simple risk factors such as smoking, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol.
Evaluating your lifestyle and making appropriate changes is therefore key.
And this is where Naturopathic medicine can be immensely beneficial.
Naturopathic medicine combines modern scientific knowledge with traditional and natural forms of medicine. Naturopathic doctors typically focus on lifestyle change but other therapies used include botanical medicine, dietary supplementation and clinical nutrition. Other, more advanced techniques are also used in the treatment and management of specific conditions.
Naturopathic doctors are experts when it comes to evaluating and addressing behavioural and metabolic risk factors. Having a naturopathic doctor evaluate your lifestyle should be an easy decision. Having a professional assess your diet, physical activity level, sleep patterns, stress management skills, as well as your medical history and family history may very well make the difference between being healthy and suffering from a chronic health problem in years to come.
In the meantime, here are some concrete steps you can take to maintain or improve your health and to reduce your risk of developing a chronic health problem:
Eat whole foods
More and more of our diet is composed of refined foods. More than anything, we lack vegetables. Less than a third of men and about half of women are getting more than five servings per day. Yet the recommendations are for adults to have 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
The amount of refined food in our diet has also caused a tremendous rise in the amount of added sugar we eat. One in five calories we consume comes from sugar. Overall, more than a third of the sugar we eat comes from junk food. In teenage boys, almost half of the sugar consumed comes from unhealthy food. More sugar in the diet translates to an increase risk of becoming obese and a higher incidence of diabetes. Since rising obesity rates are driving the chronic disease epidemic, weight management is key for chronic disease prevention.
Refined foods are also high in sodium which increase the risk of developing high blood pressure and kidney problems.
You should focus on eating more vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Reduce your consumption of fast food, refined food, added sugar and sweets.
If you are looking for more specific guidelines, follow the Mediterranean diet. It is typically both palatable and easy to follow and has the most research supporting its role in supporting health.
More than anything else, regular cardiovascular exercise promotes health. It is the key factor in the maintenance of a healthy weight and will also significantly decrease the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The key here is to find a type of exercise you enjoy, to exercise when you have the most energy and to try to build a support system around your exercise routine (exercise with friends, join a team, adopt a dog). You also need to schedule a time to exercise and prioritize that time.
Chose to be active throughout your life – walk or ride your bicycle when you can, chose the stairs, garden, adopt active hobbies and be active during your time off.
Watch your weight
Obesity is associated with premature mortality as well as a number of health conditions.
Losing weight is much more difficult than preventing weight gain. Weigh yourself frequently and adjust your activity level and portion sizes accordingly.
If you need extra help try to increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Fiber promotes feelings of fullness and will reduce your caloric intake.
Manage your stress
High stress levels lead to poor dietary choices. Research shows that when we are experiencing high levels of stress we end up looking for foods that are high in energy, namely fat and sugar. Stress also often leads to a breakdown in our usual routine and finding time to exercise can become more difficult as a consequence.
Stress management is complex and the help of a professional such as a psychologist can be tremendously valuable.
Effective stress management strategies can include having a positive attitude, keeping an objective view, soliciting social support, dealing effectively with mistakes and developing self-discipline.
Dr. Ludovic Brunel graduated with a degree in Human Nutrition from McGill University in Montreal and pursued his studies in Naturopathic Medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.