The power of fingers, feet and forks
For the past 25 years, we’ve known that improvements in our lifestyle create around an 80 percent lower probability rate of developing many major chronic diseases (Journal of the American Medical Association, Nov. 10, 1993 and March 10, 2004, Archives of Internal Medicine, Aug. 10, 2009). Eighty is a pretty high number, which can help to provide the motivation necessary to make difficult lifestyle changes, most of which require the acquisition of new skills and the exertion of a considerable amount of will.
Chronic diseases that have strong lifestyle connections, such as heart disease, COPD, type II diabetes, and some types of cancer are by definition ones that don’t come and go. “Chronic” means they come and stay, resulting in years of costly management and decreased quality of life when symptoms are flaring.
Dr. David Katz, an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight control, and the prevention of chronic disease, has coined a phrase that sums up what aspects of our lifestyle contribute to chronic disease prevention. He asks, “What are you doing with your fingers, your feet, and your fork?” In other words, do you smoke (your fingers), do you get regular physical activity (your feet), and do you eat well (your fork)? He says these behaviors mostly, but not completely, control his last question, “Do you manage your weight?”
His statement that our behaviors only partially control our weight recognizes the fact that there are important genetic influences that help determine body shape and size which we do not fully control. This is important information, as it can quiet a self-critical voice, aiding in successful and sustainable health behavior changes.
He states, “You don’t have to be perfect in your actions; rather, the goal is to focus on making steady progress toward improving your diet and becoming more physically active. You may or may not reach your ideal weight by making these changes, but you will certainly move toward it, and more important, you will improve your health, which is actually the ultimate aim.”
While stopping smoking is fairly straightforward, discovering what constitutes healthy diet and exercise can lead to a confusing mix of advice. The truth is, there are consistent principles that can be applied in many different ways.
When it comes to physical activity, accumulating 150 minutes per week of any moderate physical activity you like and completing eight different strength training exercises at least twice a week is enough to be protective against chronic disease. When weight loss is desired, 250-300 minutes per week of moderate activity is more effective. If you do vigorous physical activity, the recommended number of minutes per week gets cut in half. With intense interval training, the number can go even lower.
With eating well, experts agree on moving toward a basic eating pattern that is the equivalent of half a plate filled with salad and other non-starchy vegetables, a quarter filled with some type of starch (a whole grain half the time) or starchy vegetable, and the last quarter containing a lean protein source, with fruit as an excellent choice for dessert. Variations include skipping the vegetables at breakfast or not, having meat or not as a protein source, and adding low-fat dairy or not as a calcium source. Healthy snacks are added as needed.
Consistent movement toward the good use of our fingers, feet, and forks is consistent movement away from chronic disease.
Debbie Coblentz is a registered dietitian. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.