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5 major health risks and how to stop them in their tracks

July 8, 2020
5 major health risks and how to stop them in their tracks - Amy Goodson

In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many people are understandably concerned about their health and are looking for ways to decrease the likelihood that they will get sick in the future. Fortunately, there are several easy steps we can all take to improve our health right now and protect ourselves from illness down the road.

Amy Goodson, a registered dietician, addressed this subject at the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience with a presentation entitled “Preexisting Conditions: Health and Immunity in a Post-COVID-19 World.” In this presentation, Amy outlined five major preexisting medical conditions that can increase everyone’s risk of disease. However, she also included easy ways to decrease your likelihood of getting sick.

“There are so many things that you can start doing today to lower your risk for any type of disease,” she said.

5 big illnesses to keep an eye on

The five primary diseases and issues that increase everyone’s risk of disease are:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Lack of exercise

“All of these things together can really put a person in that vulnerable population or at a greater risk to suffer when it comes to other diseases and health concerns,” said Amy.

Despite how overwhelming it may feel to try to take on these significant issues, Amy assured that there are reasonable and straightforward ways to gradually move toward better health.

“A lot of times, people hear, ‘Oh, you should lower your risk for heart disease or for diabetes,’ and they don't know how to do that,” she acknowledged. “We're going to dial in on some easy, practical tips and help you set an action plan so that you can move forward into the next healthy step for you.”

1. Obesity

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2016, around 650 million people were categorized as obese. Being obese can impact other aspects of human health as well, elevating a person’s risk for heart disease, stroke, insulin resistance and even some kinds of cancers.

So, how can we combat a condition that is so widespread? According to Amy, the upside is that, for most people, obesity is preventable, and weight is something that can be controlled by taking three simple but crucial steps: “Eat healthier, eat less and move more.”

Some of Amy’s recommendations for eating a healthier diet include consuming more nutrient-dense foods, eating a carbohydrate and a protein at every meal and snack and following the “80/20 rule” — that is, sticking to the health guidelines 80% of the time and splurging on higher-calorie foods or sweets 20% of the time. After all, man cannot live on vegetables alone, and even registered dieticians like Amy do not recommend trying to.

“We want you to be on an eating plan that you can really maintain throughout the rest of your life,” she said.

2. Heart disease

The WHO estimates that 17.9 million people die every year from cardiovascular disease, accounting for 31% of all deaths worldwide.

While some people have a higher risk of heart disease based on their family history, there are simple ways we can all keep our hearts healthy. One of the most important things to do, according to Amy, is to “know your numbers” — that is, your cholesterol, your triglycerides and other important measurements you can learn by visiting the doctor’s office. 

“Many people think they're healthy, and they haven't been to the doctor in years, so it's very important that you go see your physician,” said Amy.

Some other ways to improve your heart health are increasing your fiber intake, consuming more “good” unsaturated fats — like those found in olive oil, avocados and nuts — and eating less “bad” trans fats, which are often found in processed and fried foods.

3. Hypertension

In 2015, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women around the world reportedly had hypertension, or high blood pressure — and even more alarmingly, less than 1 in 5 of those people had the problem under control, which explains why hypertension is one of the leading causes of premature death.

Much of the advice for mitigating the risk of obesity and heart disease also rings true for decreasing blood pressure or managing hypertension, including moving more and eating healthier foods, especially those with less sodium. As Amy reinforced, it all comes back to taking the small steps that have a big impact.

“What we want to do today is focus on or change what we can control,” she said.

Some of those changes include taking 10,000 steps every day and reducing your sodium intake, which many doctors recommend keeping under 2,300 milligrams per day.

4. Type 2 diabetes

“There are millions (of people in the world) — more than the whole population of the United States — (who) have diabetes, so this is something that concerns me,” Amy said.  

A person is diagnosed with diabetes when their blood sugar levels are too high. Type 2 diabetes results from the body’s resistance to insulin, a hormone that helps transform sugar into energy. This differs from type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in childhood and is the result of the body not being able to make insulin at all.

Hundreds of millions of people have an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is associated with a host of other health problems, including damaged nerves, worsening eyesight, foot sores and kidney failure.

Much like with the other major health risks, the key to avoiding or managing type 2 diabetes is eating more healthy foods. Amy explained the importance of “shaping a healthy plate,” which should include a carbohydrate (e.g., whole grains), a protein (such as lean meats) and a fat (like avocados) at every meal, along with plenty of vegetables.

5. Lack of exercise

“We know that, globally, 1 in 4 adults do not get enough exercise,” said Amy. “We need everyone across the world to get moving more.”

Along with the obvious benefits of exercise, such as developing muscle mass and managing weight, insufficient physical activity is a key risk factor for developing non-communicable diseases, like cancer and diabetes. However, as many people know, starting an exercise routine often feels like a hurdle as tall as Mount Everest.

“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it,” said Amy, “(but) there's a lot of practical ways that you can begin to include activity in your day on a regular basis.”  

To reduce the risk of chronic disease, Amy recommended that adults exercise at a moderate intensity level for at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. That doesn’t necessarily mean exercising for 30 minutes in one go; it could mean taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away from an entrance and doing sit-ups during commercial breaks while watching TV.

For those who need more motivation to get moving, Amy pointed out that exercise has health benefits that go beyond the physical: it has been scientifically proven to elevate a person’s mood. 

“We live in a world that's stressful, and exercise is a healthy way to really relieve some of that stress and anxiety that many of us experience,” Amy said.

Taking the first step

So, what can you start doing now to decrease your risk for these illnesses and their negative side effects? For Amy, it’s all about starting small.

“I'm a big believer that small changes, made consistently, can add up to big results,” she said.  

Develop a personal action plan that will mesh with your life. Some of your first steps might include:

  • Setting one or two small goals and working to make those a habit over the next month
  • Going to the doctor
  • Aiming to get three planned days of exercise a week

Amy also recommended finding an “accountability partner” or someone who can help motivate you to stay on track as you begin the journey to better health.

“It's hard to choose the best (food) options and exercise, but oftentimes, if you have someone to do it with you, it makes it a little bit easier,” she said.

Just like with COVID-19, protecting yourself from these five major health risks can seem daunting — but starting small can lead to significant changes in the long run.

“I just want to encourage you to take a step -- whatever that step is, and it's going to be different for everybody,” she said. “It doesn't have to be a big step. But small steps really can create healthy habits so that, in the future, you're not in that vulnerable population.”

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