As pioneering people, we Americans have always maintained an abiding love for the simple, straightforward and practical.
Our national obsession with supplements — or, in far too many cases, supplement overuse — speaks volumes. Many Americans assume that they can be used in lieu of more onerous lifestyle practices, such as eating less and exercising regularly — in other words, as a panacea.
As New York Times writer Jane Brody observes, far too many Americans assume that taking certain supplements can "protect their hearts, prevent cancer, improve memory, strengthen their bones, build their muscles, even enable them to burn extra calories without moving."
While it's true that a growing number of medical professionals are convinced that more Americans than ever will live past 100, the majority of these centenarians will not get there by relying solely on supplements, according to one expert.
"You can't assume you'll live to be 100 by sitting in front of the television all day and then taking a supplement," says Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and fitness specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.
"If you expect to live a long, healthy life, you can't ignore all the basic things in terms of eating well and exercising," Keith says.
A place to start is healthy eating. Brody and other writers and experts often identify the Mediterranean diet as synonymous with healthy eating, but Keith says this approach could take several forms.
"The Mediterranean diet has certainly been shown to be healthy, but the fact is that you can follow several different variations of that diet to stay healthy," Keith says.
Whatever variation you choose, the emphasis should be on a plant-based diet, one that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains and as few processed foods as possible.
"These foods also should be high in fiber and rich in antioxidants," Keith says, stressing that meat consumption should be limited to small portions, unless the choice is fish.
"You don't have to be vegetarian, but you need to be eating a predominantly plant-based diet," he says.
How should supplements be viewed within such a dietary regimen?
"It's not that all supplements are bad, it's just that they aren't panaceas," Keith says.
Supplements should be viewed instead more as an insurance policy to fill in nutritional gaps that may not be covered by dietary sources of nutrients, he says.
In recent years, science has also turned up another advantage associated with eating fruits and vegetables: they provide a wealth of phytochemicals, antioxidant compounds that safeguard against cancer and other chronic diseases. All of these compounds are not available in supplements.
While scientists are still trying to gain a complete picture of phytochemicals, they are more confident than ever of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.
"We have enough knowledge to know that this type of diet is good for longevity and good for health," Keith says.
"Our biggest challenge now is getting more people to eat that way."
Exercise is another critical component.
"Humans are made to move," Keith says. "The way we developed in terms of our body shape and cardiovascular system requires us to do a lot of moving."
"And you're not going to live to an old age, possibly even 100, if you don't move as much as possible."
Scientists have identified roughly 30 minutes a day of brisk walking as one of the most effective activities for staying healthy.
Exercise may contribute to your body's ability to cope with the effect of aging and, equally important, it helps help you avoid many of the chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type2 diabetes and cancer, that typically work to shorten lives.
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