At least 2.7 million people around the world die each year as a result of not getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diets, according to the World Health Organization. Eating a healthy diet instead of an unhealthy diet can help you get all the essential nutrients you need and limit your risk for a number of health conditions.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Diets
Healthy diets are made up mainly of nutrient-rich foods, such as legumes, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean protein and nuts and seeds. Unhealthy diets are high in fat, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars. These diets often contain a lot of processed or fast foods that are high in calories but don't contain many nutrients. People following a healthy diet watch their portion sizes so they maintain a healthy weight, since both the quantity and the quality of the food you eat is important for a healthy diet.
If you eat healthy, you are more likely to get enough of the nutrients, like fiber, calcium, vitamin D and potassium, which many Americans don't consume in sufficient amounts. Whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts provide fiber; low-fat diary products and green leafy vegetables provide calcium; fruits and vegetables like bananas, apricots, strawberries, avocado and cucumber are good sources of potassium; and fish, eggs and fortified milk and orange juice contain vitamin D.
Up to 40 percent of cancers may be due, in part, to following an unhealthy diet, according to BreastCancer.org. Unhealthy diets also increase your risk for Type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 2.6 million deaths each year are due to obesity-related illnesses.
Planning your meals ahead of time and allowing yourself a small portion of a less-than-healthy treat once in a while can help you stick to a healthy diet. Following a healthy diet isn't the only thing that matters -- you also need to make healthy lifestyle changes to minimize your disease risk. Exercise regularly, stop smoking and drink only in moderation, if at all.
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Whole foods provide a variety of benefits, most notably substantially better nutrition, when compared to junk foods. A common misconception is that healthy food is more expensive than junk food; however, research shows that healthy foods can actually be cheaper options than junk foods. The single disadvantage of health foods is their lack of convenience when compared to fast foods and prepackaged junk foods in grocery stores.
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A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help reduce your risk of a variety of diseases, including heart attack and stroke. ChooseMyPlate.gov also notes that eating produce regularly can protect against certain cancers and decrease the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. In addition, most vegetables are low-calorie foods that contain high levels of many vitamins and minerals and fiber, all of which can improve overall health. Junk foods are often the exact opposite of healthy foods -- they are high in calories and low in nutrients.
Junk foods not only lack nutrients, but they often contain ingredients that can damage your health. Trans fats are often used in many fast food restaurants and in many prepackaged foods such as cookies, margarine, cakes and crackers. These man-made fats raise bad cholesterol while simultaneously lowering good cholesterol. According to the American Heart Association, eating trans fats can increase your chances of developing heart disease and stroke. Because healthy foods are often left in their whole unprocessed form, they very rarely contain any of the processed ingredients that have damaging health effects.
A paper published in 2010 in "Society of Teachers of Family Medicine" studied the costs of a diet based on fast foods versus a whole-foods based diet. The study found that the average daily cost for healthy food was $7.48, while unhealthy fast foods came in at $15.30 per day. By shopping at grocery stores and choosing whole foods, including dairy, lean meats, fruits, vegetables and grains, total monthly food costs were less than half of a diet composed of fast foods.
While eating out is usually more expensive than buying healthy foods, another type of junk food is actually cheaper -- processed and packaged grocery store foods. Barry Popkin, nutritionist and economist at the University of North Carolina, explained on NPR radio that the reason you end up paying more for fruits or vegetables than for a product like macaroni and cheese, is because the food industry prioritizes processed and packaged foods and therefore produces them more efficiently, which brings costs down for consumers. In addition, the transport of fresh foods is more expensive than packaged foods, which use preservatives that allow them to to travel without refrigeration or urgency.
Junk foods sold at grocery stores are often in their ready-to-eat state, while fast foods can be purchased on the go for families or individuals with little time to spare on cooking or preparing foods. In addition, according to a 2001 paper published in the "Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics," fast food chains have found ways to make their products more accessible. According to the authors, increases in fast food restaurants directly increases the amount of fast food consumed. As fast food companies continue to increase the availability of their products, fast food consumption is expected to steadily rise.
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