Of all the things you can possibly change to get healthier, the one to start with is eating better.
Why? Because a poor diet comes in first place—beating smoking, high blood pressure, drinking, drugs, and lack of exercise—as the largest preventable cause of early death no matter where you live in the United States, according to an analysis of risk factors by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Of course, since you’re reading Men’s Fitness, you’re probably already on the path to eating healthy and living a long and prosperous life, so congrats! And if you happened to pick this up in a doctor’s office—well, you should know crappy eating is coming after you—literally.
Read on for the top dietary risk factors, in order of how bad they are for you.
Eating too little fruit
This is the worst dietary blunder, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and more research backs it up. A 12-year study from the University College London found for each additional serving of fruits you eat, you lower your risk of dying by 10 percent. Invest in the fresh stuff, though. The researchers also found eating up to seven servings of canned and frozen fruit increased the risk of dying from any cause by 17 percent, most likely because of the added sugar.
Getting too few vegetables
That same University College London study discovered eating a combination of seven or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day could decrease your chances of death from any cause by 42 percent, compared to people who consume less than one portion each day. More specfically, seven or more portions of fruits and veggies per day dropped the risk of dying from cancer by 25 percent and cardiovascular disease by 31 percent. But each additional serving of vegetables alone was linked to a 16 percent reduction in mortality.
Skimping on whole grains
Okay, so refined carbs found in processed foods can pack on the pounds, but carbs from whole grains are a dietary necessity. It’s a must if you’re logging hours in the gym or on the road training for an endurance event, because you need the glycogen and carbs for fuel. Instead of nixing carbs from your diet, choose whole grain foods; they’re filled with cholesterol-lowering fiber, which reduce your risk for heart disease and stabilize blood sugar levels.
Avoiding nuts and seeds
It’s hard to get enough quality protein in your diet—and have enough variety to keep your tastebuds and diet resolve content. The reason? You’re avoiding nutrient-dense nuts—like walnuts, almonds, cashews, and pistachios—and seeds—like hemp, chia, and flax—because nuts are high in fat and seeds are pretty pricey. But they make incredible snacks, are a great plan-based source of protein and fiber, and a 2013 study of nearly 190,000 people published in the New England Journal of Medicine found those who ate a one-ounce serving of nuts daily decreased their risk of dying from any cause, including cancer and heart disease, by 20 percent.
Not drinking enough milk
Stop reaching for low-fat milk. Whether you’re an average Joe or a muscle head, you need full-fat milk. It boasts about 9g of protein per an 8-oz glass, and that protein contains all eight essential amino acids, so your body can readily use it for muscle repair and growth. By skipping out on milk, you’re almost missing vitamins D, A, B2, and B12.
Consuming too much red meat
Studies have found men and women who eat a lot of red meat have an increased risk of cognitive decline, heart attack, stroke, and death. The reason? Saturated fat. While some red meat is okay, dedicated carnivores should opt for lean meat like chicken and fish, which have less saturated fat compared to their protein content. Plus, red meat can kill your sex drive and make you smell, so…
Getting too much processed meat
Research from Harvard Medical School that analyzed data from over 120,000 men and women found that eating an extra serving a day of processed meat increased the overall risk of death by 20 percent, the risk of death by cardiovascular disease by 21 percent, and death by cancer by 16 percent. The culprit? Just like red meat, processed meat (like hot dogs or sausage) is often loaded with saturated fat, sodium, and preservatives.
Drinking too many sugar-sweetened beverages
A soda a day can increase a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 40 percent, compared to a man who never touches the stuff, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Diet soda’s not much better. The artificial sweeteners in diet soda fool your body into thinking you’re eating real food, which still causes a spike in insulin sent to regulate your levels (since artificial sweeteners are so much sweeter than actual sugar). The insulin spike can lead to stored fat, according to a Purdue University study. Research shows soda consumption increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, makes you eat more. Remember, you can rack up a lot of sugar and calories from drinks; iced tea, energy drinks, and fruit juice are all guilty.