Whole Food Healing for Aging is an informational resource for older adults experiencing, or working to prevent, chronic health issues. Its specific focus is the gradual incorporation of whole foods to improve our quality of life. Consequently, it’s important to define that link between chronic diseases and diet. Here’s where I begin to do just that. In addition, upcoming posts will detail specific links between chronic diseases and diet.

Diet—Yours, Mine, or Ours?

First of all, it’s important to learn to consider “diet” in a broader sense than you might be used to doing.

The word diet is commonly used to refer to a particularly limited assortment of choices of things you might eat in order to, say, shed a few pounds. Just a few specific examples are:

hands holding a "low fat zone" sign in the sky

  • Low-fat diet
  • Low-carbohydrate diet
  • Paleo diet
  • Vegetarian diet


In a broader sense, and the one to be used in most cases on this site, “diet” refers simply to the food and drink one takes in from day to day. So, it’s about your whole nutrition intake pattern.

Especially relevant is that the scientific study of dietary patterns—as opposed to particular nutrients or foods—forms the scientific research basis for the field of nutritional epidemiology. Furthermore, these scientists research overall eating patterns in populations as they relate to risks for chronic diseases.1Hu, F. B. (2002). Dietary pattern analysis: a new direction in nutritional epidemiology. Curr Opin Lipidol, 13(1), 3-9.

Our Major Killers

Chronic Health Issues Don’t Just Disable; They Kill Us

The results of the latest multi-decade study available identify diet as the leading cause of death in the USA.2U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators (Mokdad, A. H., Ballestros, K., Echko, M., Glenn, S., Olsen, H. E., et al.) (2018). The State of US Health, 1990-2016: Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Among US States. Journal of the American Medical Association, 319(14), 1444-1472. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.0158 Dietary risk is the third major risk factor for disability in this country, as well (notably, just behind high body mass index, or BMI, which also relates to diet!). What we eat, then, is linked both to our disability and to our cause of death. According to the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), “chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, account for most deaths in the United States.”3Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2017). Focus on prevention during healthy aging month. MNT Provider, 16(5), 1-2. Indeed, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows in its latest statistical breakdown4CDC/National Center for Health Statistics/Office of Analysis and Epidemiology. (2017, 07/18/2017). Health, United States, 2016 – Individual charts and tables: Spreadsheet, PDF, and PowerPoint. Retrieved October 27, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/contents2016.htm#019 that 60% of all deaths are from chronic conditions with known links to diet (see list below).

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports similar findings throughout the world.5World Health Organization. (2013). WHO | 10 Facts on noncommunicable diseases. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/noncommunicable_diseases/en/ This is not just a local problem—it’s a global crisis.

Americans Face Higher Risks of Chronic Diseases as We Age

Not only can these conditions disable and cause premature death, the older we get the greater the risk we face of encountering them. In 2012, 63% of Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 to 74, 78% of those aged 75 to 84, and 83% of those aged 85 or older had multiple chronic conditions, according to the CDC. The question that looms large before us, then, is what can be done to prevent these conditions or to minimize their impact once we’ve developed one (or more) of them. [HINT: It has something to do with what we eat!]

Dietary Links to Chronic Health Issues

Scientific evidence provides the link between what we eat and the chronic conditions we develop. I already presented the conclusion of the report identifying diet as a top cause of death and risk factor for disability diet. In addition, a research article includes poor diet among the leading causes of poor health, particularly obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and diet-related cancers.6Rehm, C. D., Peñalvo, J. L., Afshin, A., & Mozaffarian, D. (2016). Dietary intake among US adults, 1999-2012. Journal of the American Medical Association, 315(23), 2542-2553. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.7491 So, these ideas aren’t isolated, and the entire field of nutritional epidemiology is dedicated to studying these links.

Specific Chronic Diseases and Diet Links

Chronic diseases linked to diet include: heart disease and stroke; obesity; cancer; osteoporosis; and diabetes.

This infographic is from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Visit eatright.org for more information on healthful eating or to find a registered dietitian nutritionist.

  1. Heart disease and stroke
  2. Obesity
  3. Cancer
  4. Osteoporosis
  5. Diabetes

(Click on the AND graphic to read it more clearly)

But there are even more than the top five shown on the graphic. Research evidence7Fardet, A., & Boirie, Y. (2013). Associations between diet-related diseases and impaired physiological mechanisms: a holistic approach based on meta-analyses to identify targets for preventive nutrition. Nutr Rev, 71(10), 643-656. doi:10.1111/nure.12052,8Slawson, D. L., Fitzgerald, N., & Morgan, K. T. (2013). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: the role of nutrition in health promotion and chronic disease prevention. J Acad Nutr Diet, 113(7), 972-979. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2013.05.005 also supports a link between other chronic diseases and diet, including:

  • cognitive decline (Alzheimer’s and other dementias)
  • sarcopenia (loss of lean muscle tissue)
  • liver and kidney disease
  • digestive tract disorders

Furthermore, newer research continues to accumulate in support of these links between chronic diseases and diet and will be featured in upcoming posts.

Taking it Personally?

Please Do

In conclusion, it’s a bit staggering, isn’t it? Nutrition professionals have been telling us for decades that healthy diet, physical activity, and reduced alcohol and tobacco intake are all crucial both for preventing—and for minimizingthe detrimental effects of these chronic diseases.

In general, the majority of us have failed to heed their message. Therefore, we just can’t seem (or don’t want) to make the personal connection between our own diets/lifestyle choices and the state of our own health. Indeed, it took me several years of suffering before I really began to “get it.”

Stay tuned to Whole Food Healing for Aging for scientific evidence-based information about how to take steps that lead toward higher quality aging.


Last updated on 11/05/17

Dr. Paul

Dr. Paul Boyer specialized in science research & education throughout his career. He more recently developed a passion for nutrition as one way of coping with the invisible chronic health issue commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). He is a Senior Nutrition Specialist and belongs to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.


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