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food for thought

Freshly picked blueberries are see at Emma Lea Farms in Ladner, B.C., on July 21, 2014.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Many food and nutrition stories made headlines in 2021. TikTok’s baked feta pasta, fermented sourdough bread and air-fried well, everything, were all the rage.

Findings from many diet-related health studies also stood out. Here’s a round-up of some of those stories, along with take-home messages for your 2022 diet.

Diet shapes your gut microbiome

Eating a healthy diet has been linked to a more diverse gut microbiome, the community of microbes that live inside our intestinal tract. Having a diverse array of gut microbes is thought to help guard against chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, depression, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

In January, a landmark study published in the journal Nature Medicine uncovered strong links between diet, the gut microbiome and health. The PREDICT 1 study (Personalized Responses to Dietary Composition Trial 1) analyzed the long-term diets, microbiomes and blood samples of 1,100 participants in Britain and the United States.

The researchers found that a diet which included a mix of nutrient-dense whole and minimally processed foods, or one rich in plant foods, supported the growth of gut microbes linked to a lower risk of chronic disease.

Participants who ate a diet that contained lots of highly-processed foods, however, harboured gut microbes associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity.

Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi and kombucha, rich in gut-friendly probiotic microbes, have also been tied to better gut heath.

This year a study from the Stanford School of Medicine was the first to provide hard evidence that consuming fermented foods can improve your gut microbiome and, possibly, benefit immune health.

Eating six daily servings of fermented foods for 10 weeks led to increased gut microbial diversity and reduced levels of inflammatory blood proteins, including ones related to Type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. (Six daily servings is equivalent to one cup of yogurt or kefir, 16 ounces of kombucha, plus one half-cup of kimchi or unpasteurized sauerkraut.)

Add fermented foods to your 2022 diet. Focus on eating mostly whole and minimally processed foods; set a goal to eat fewer ultra-processed foods.

Food – and exercise – for brain health

Evidence continued to accumulate this year for the brain benefits of eating a healthy diet, especially when combined with exercise.

Published in May, the DR’s EXTRA study (Dose-Responses to Exercise Training) found that participants who ate a healthy diet and also participated moderate-intensity aerobic exercise five times a week, showed significant improvement in cognitive performance over the four-year trial.

In August, findings from a long-term study of 77,335 U.S. adults strongly suggested that eating a flavonoid-rich diet when younger protects later-life brain health. Specific flavonoids found in green pepper, celery, parsley, citrus fruit and berries showed the greatest protective effects. Flavonoids have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

More recently, researchers from Greece found that people who ate pro-inflammatory diets were three times more likely to develop dementia over the study period than participants whose diets had low inflammatory scores.

In 2022, adopt an anti-inflammatory diet that includes plenty of flavonoid-rich foods.

Dietary pattern reigns over ‘superfoods’

This year findings from many studies emphasized that simply adding so-called superfoods to your diet, such as blueberries and broccoli, isn’t enough to protect against diet-related chronic illness.

In November, the American Heart Association published a scientific statement, based on the latest evidence, emphasizing the importance of looking at your total dietary pattern rather than “good” or “bad” individual foods or nutrients.

The association’s 10 recommendations for a heart-healthy eating pattern include, among others, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods, lean meats and/or plant proteins such as pulses and nuts, while limiting processed meats, ultra-processed foods, sugary foods and drinks and alcoholic beverages.

In February, a comprehensive research review revealed that adherence to a Mediterranean or semi-vegetarian dietary pattern was tied to a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

The well-studied DASH diet, a pattern of eating that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, pulses, nuts and whole grains, was recently shown to lower blood pressure among people with hypertension resistant to medication.

The DASH eating pattern has been tied to a range of health benefits. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.

Make 2022 the year you consider your overall diet – the quality, variety and combination of foods you eat on a regular basis – rather than focusing on specific foods.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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