Doctor’s Tip: What about the Mediterranean diet?
The subject of this column two weeks ago was the evidence that supports a plant-based, unprocessed food diet with no salt, sugar or added oil as being the healthiest. Last week’s column was about how best to transition to this diet. But what about the Mediterranean diet, which is touted by several experts as being the diet we should be eating?
The S.A.D. (standard American diet) contributes to most of the chronic diseases we suffer and die from: obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dementia, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, and many types of cancer. Dr. Fuhrman, author of several books including “Eat to Live,” jokingly says that the S.A.D. was designed by ISIS (in reality it was designed by the food industry to hook people on salt, sugar, fat and refined foods and thereby increase their profits).
There are many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea — from Spain, Greece and southern Italy to Lebanon and Morocco — and therefore many Mediterranean diets. As we export the S.A.D., the diets in Mediterranean countries are becoming less healthy. However, the term “Mediterranean Diet” usually refers to diets that have the following characteristics:
• High in fruits, vegetables, bread and cereals, potatoes, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas), nuts and seeds
• Olive and canola oil
• Low to moderate amounts of dairy products, poultry, and fish, with minimal red meat (beef, pork and lamb)
• One to four eggs a week
• Wine consumed in low to moderate amounts
There have been studies that show that the Mediterranean diet can modestly reduce the risk of strokes and possibly heart attacks, diabetes, cancer and dementia. However, some of these studies were not good studies, and the results were debatable. In his new book “UnDo It!, How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases,” Dr. Dean Ornish — the first person to show that heart disease can be reversed with a plant-based, unprocessed food diet with no salt, sugar or added oil — concludes that “a Mediterranean diet is better than what most people are consuming, but doesn’t go far enough to reverse heart disease.”
Dr. Ornish founded the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, where he and his colleagues have shown that lifestyle modification (diet, exercise, stress reduction) can turn genes on and off — so you’re not necessarily a victim of your genes. They have proven that lifestyle changes can reverse heart disease, diabetes, early prostate cancer, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, arthritis, and telomere shortening (i.e. cell aging). In 2007 Dr. Ornish published “The Spectrum,” a book that explains a spectrum of diets that people could eat, depending on their situation. If, for example, a person has heart disease or diabetes or obesity — or a family history of these maladies or other ones like cancer or Alzheimer’s — they should go all the way towards the plant-based, whole food, oil/sugar/salt-free end of the spectrum. If they are in perfect health and everyone in their family lived into their 90s with good quality of life, maybe a “moderation diet” like the Mediterranean diet would be fine.
In “Undo,” though, Dr. Ornish encourages everyone to go all the way, because then they will feel better due primarily to a plant-based diet being anti-inflammatory. And he points out that feeling better is a better long-term motivator than fear. He says, “When you make really big changes in your diet and lifestyle, you are likely to feel so much better (usually within days) that it reframes the reason for making these changes from fear of dying (which is not sustainable) to joy in living (which is).”
Why, then, don’t all health experts recommend a plant-based diet instead of the less healthy Mediterranean diet? This goes back to the paternalism that frequently occurs in the medical field. The experts on the panels that make these decisions feel that most patients won’t stick to a plant-based diet (which of course they won’t if their doctors have this attitude), so instead they recommend a “moderation diet” like the Mediterranean. This is wrong in the opinion of many of us — the public needs to be told the truth, and then let them make up their own minds.
Retired physician Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is author of new book “Enjoy Optimal Health, 98 Health Tips From a Family Doctor,” available on Amazon and in local bookstores. Profits go towards an endowment to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to add prevention and nutrition to the curriculum. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, diabetes reversal, nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his column, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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