That Johnny Appleseed Fella Knew a Thing or Two About Health

By now, we all are familiar with the principle that diet is a major component of a person’s overall health and wellness. It is said so often. But is it possible to eat your way out of a chronic health condition? According to some experts, based on the situation, maybe so.

Explains Melanie Murphy Richter, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Los Angeles in commenting for a recent report by U.S. News Health: “Many foods can be considered medicinal depending on how they are used and how often they are consumed. In fact, food is one of our most powerful medicines. After all, we eat every day, several times a day, so what we choose to consume most often will accumulate to either be a powerful elixir to support and protect our health or a silent poison that can lead to disease.”

I am a longtime believer of the benefits of healthy eating, and I have written about the subject often in this column. There is no lack of information out there about the cornucopia of healthy food options available to choose from in crafting a healthy diet. But what is it that makes certain foods better for your health than others?

Take apples for example — both figuratively and literally. They not only constitute the perfect example of a healthy food but they are also a popular one, and for a reason, says registered dietitian Amber Sommer in a recent Cleveland Clinic ode to the apple. “Eating them regularly over time can provide a big health boost,” she says.

Just think of the adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” The concept can be traced back to ancient times, but its first recorded public use is in the 1860s. An early version was “an apple a day, no doctor to pay,” says a Washington Post report. “The phrasing now commonly used was first recorded in 1922.” Researchers and doctors back then started conducting studies on the health benefits of apples, to see if the slogan could be proven. Such tests continue to this day. According to the Post, “In 2012, an Ohio State University study found that eating an apple a day helped significantly lower levels of bad cholesterol in middle-aged adults, and in 2011 a Dutch study found that eating apples and pears might help prevent strokes.”

As stated by the Cleveland Clinic, the most health benefits of apples are derived “when you eat them whole, raw, and unpeeled. Cooking and processing apples remove valuable nutrients.” While all apples are loaded with nutrients, Red Delicious apples, for example, are considered among the healthiest varieties. Its dark-red skin contains more antioxidants than other varieties, but all apple peels are rich in antioxidants, and the benefits of eating raw apples likely come from both the antioxidants and fiber (anti-inflammatory substances).

According to the Cleveland Clinic report, an apple a day might make you live longer: “Researchers discovered that participants who did this were 35% less likely to die when they followed up 15 years later.” Another study of more than 38,000 people found that “those who ate more than one apple a day were 28% less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t eat any apples.”

In addition, “Multiple studies in people with high cholesterol show that consuming a few apples a day can reduce total cholesterol levels by about 5% to 8%.” When consuming just a daily serving of 3 ounces of dried apples (no sugar added), one study’s participants reduced their total cholesterol by 13% over a six-month period.

The Cleveland Clinic report goes on to say that adding apples to your diet can reduce your risk of heart disease or cancer, “the top two leading causes of death in the United States.” “In a study of nearly 40,000 people, those who ate apples were 13% to 22% less likely to develop heart disease than those who skipped the fruit. Apples may also help prevent cancer. Research indicates that those who eat apples are less likely to get the disease … One big study of 77,000 people found that those who ate at least one apple a day had a lower risk of lung cancer.”

Consider for a moment that we are just talking apples here. There are so many fruits, vegetables and even spices that are said to help extend years to a person’s life and protect against chronic diseases.

Notes U.S. News Health, there are cruciferous vegetables like kale, spinach, chard and other dark, leafy greens known for their properties that help prevent chronic diseases. Fatty, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are also well known for promoting heart health, reducing inflammation and supporting brain function. Or spices like turmeric, which has been studied extensively for its anti-inflammatory properties and in promoting joint health and in healing the lining of our gut.

Before we get too carried away with this notion, experts also provide a cautionary note. “Prevention is a tricky word because it’s difficult to prove something prevents disease,” Dana Ellis Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center, explains to U.S. News Health. “We can demonstrate that (certain foods) lower the risk for disease.”

Says Mary Sabat, an ACE-certified personal trainer and nutritionist, food is a key part of health and well-being, but it comes with a caveat: “While diet plays a crucial role in maintaining good health, it is essential to recognize that foods are not a substitute for medical treatment. Foods can complement traditional medicine, but they should not be solely relied upon to treat severe medical conditions.”

That said, with all the benefits that come with healthy eating, why do so many Americans have unhealthy diets? Writes Anahad O’Connor and Aaron Steckelberg in a June Washington Post report, in the United States, ultra-processed foods make up a whopping 58% of the calories Americans consume. By “ultra-processed,” they are referring to foods “transformed from simple ingredients into industrial products with unusual combinations of flavors, additives and textures, many of which are not found in nature.”