Does Diet Deter Disability?

Medical Author: Melissa Stoppler, M.D.
Medical Editor: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D.

Eating enough dairy products, fruits, and vegetables may help you avoid disability as you get older, according to researchers.

Doctors evaluated over 9,400 people age 45-64 who were enrolled in an atherosclerosis risk study. The participants were African Americans and Whites. They filled out a survey of their eating patterns at the beginning of the study, noting their average daily intake of dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.

Nine years later, the doctors asked them again about their diet and any disabilities they may have developed. Specifically, the researchers looked at the ability of the participants to carry out tasks essential for daily living such as cooking and financial management as well as their ability to perform physical tasks like walking and climbing stairs.

The study disclosed that people who reported that they had consumed the most dairy products, fruits, and vegetables were least likely to report having developed a disability or limitation in physical functioning over the 9-year period. The association between high levels of dairy, fruit, and vegetable consumption and decreased risk of disability was particularly striking in African American women.

Among the older people who reported the highest consumption of dairy products, fruit, and vegetables, their average daily consumption consisted of 2 servings of dairy products, and 3 servings each of fruits and vegetables. In contrast, those reporting lower intakes ate about a half serving or less of dairy products, and one serving or less of fruits and of vegetables daily.

The new dietary guidelines released by the US government this year (2005) recommend the consumption of 3 cups a day of fat-free or low-fat milk,or equivalent milk products, and eating 2 cups of fruit and 2 and ½ cups of vegetables each day (for a 2,000 calorie diet). Note that a standard "serving" is a ½ cup so that the new government recommendations of 4½ cups of fruit and vegetables add up to 9 servings a day.

Dairy products are valuable sources of calcium for the maintenance of healthy teeth and bones and the prevention of osteoporosis. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can supply the recommended intake of dietary fiber (20-30 mg per day minimum for most people), which decreases the risk of developing certain kinds of cancer and cardiovascular disease. Fruits and vegetables also contain natural antioxidants that may help prevent cancer and age-related illnesses.

The new research shows an intriguing relationship between eating healthy foods and the prevention of disabilities. However, it is important to remember that these findings do not definitively prove that eating healthy foods can prevent disabilities. Further research is needed before a cause-and-effect relationship can be established. But it makes sense to believe that a good diet can deter disability

Reference: Houston DK, Stevens J, Cai J, Haines PS. Dairy, fruit, and vegetable intakes and functional limitations and disability in a biracial cohort: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study. Am J Clin Nutr 81: 515-22, February 2005..

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