Q: If I only want to change one thing about my diet to improve my health as a woman, what should it be?
A: If you want to make the biggest impact on your health as a woman, you first need to know the biggest threat to a woman’s health. According to the Center for Disease Control, the top three causes of death for women in the United States are heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases. Nutrition isn’t going to have a huge impact on chronic respiratory diseases, but it can make an immense difference with cancer and heart disease.
Heart disease and cancer are huge public health issues and the span and scope of both diseases is rather broad, however there is one hormone that has been linked to both—and it can be controlled with your diet. I’m talking about insulin.
Insulin is a hormone released from your pancreas in response to increases in blood sugar levels. Insulin’s job it to get sugar out of the blood and into fat or muscle cells. If you constantly have high blood sugar levels, your muscles can become numb to insulin, resulting in insulin resistance. Chronic high levels of insulin, sugar, and insulin resistance pose a major problem to your health (i.e. impact your risk of heart disease and cancer). Here's how:
Low Good (HDL) Cholesterol
While women tend to have higher levels of HDL (the good) cholesterol compared to men, insulin resistance is linked to low HDL. HDL is protective against heart disease so the more the better.
Triglycerides are a measure of the level of fat in your bloodstream, but what might surprise you is that the amount of fat in your diet has little to do with your triglyceride levels. Instead, the amount of sugar in your diet (and bloodstream) has a major impact on your triglyceride levels. How? Your liver takes the sugar in your bloodstream, turns it into fat, and then dumps it back into your blood. Controlling the sugar and total amount of carbohydrates in your diet can significantly impact your triglyceride levels.
Breast Cancer Growth
Researchers estimate that 60 percent of breast cancer tumors are hormone dependent (insulin is one of these hormones). Insulin plays a role in the production of a group of compounds that directly impact tumor cell growth. Additionally, insulin works in concert with estrogen to regulate key growth factors that are essential for promoting tumor cell growth.
It is amazing to think that these major diseases are all impacted by insulin and sugar. The good news is that you can control both of them very easily: Stop eating sugar! I’m not talking about the sugar that you allow yourself to indulge in once or twice a week. I’m talking about all of the other sugar and simple carbohydrates that sneak into your daily diet:
- Added sugar in beverages: Frappuccinos, lattes, sweetened teas, soda, etc.
- Most breakfast cereals: Check the ingredients list, you’ll be mortified at all the sugar in “healthy” cereals.
- Refined grain products: Rice cakes, white bread, refined and processed baked goods, etc.
- Energy and granola bars: While some are good for you, a majority of them are packed with sugar by one name or another (i.e. high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, corn sugar, brown rice syrup, glucose, etc).
The problem is that our brains get addicted to sugar (they really do). So making the break from eating sugary foods and foods with fast acting carbs can be difficult—but it has to be done.
So if you want to make one diet change to improve your health as a woman, steer clear of the sweet stuff!