Does an apple a day actually keep the doctor away?
Diet is of primary concern to many of the patients I see in my medical practice.
Those with neurologic conditions—and their families—often want advice on nutrition.
In the case of some diseases (diabetes being the most notable), following a specific and rigorous diet can be essential to health, and even to life. People with other diseases, especially advanced neurodegenerative disease, can find eating to be difficult and maintaining weight and vitality a challenge.
A diet designed to minimize the risks of heart disease, cancer, or stroke does not need to be devoid of pleasure. And it does not necessitate adhering to certain restrictions emphasized in so many North American dieting fads. A healthy—and, in the long term, successful—diet should be a considered approach to eating. What you eat should fit seamlessly into the rest of your lifestyle, not dictate or inhibit it.
A good diet must be sustainable: not only in the eating, but in the preparation. Weight control is about more than what you see on the scale, as we can tell by comparing our North American eating patterns with those of other nations.
Since the 1950s, the Seven Countries Study has sought to explain variances in cardiovascular and other diseases among cultures by examining different lifestyles. Primary among the considerations is diet.
The core message of this study (and several others) is that people who eat a “Mediterranean diet” have lower rates of heart disease and cancer.
Initially a narrow topic, the Mediterranean diet has gotten much traction in academic journals since the 1990s. As succinctly shown by this graph, interest in the topic has multiplied—and this isn’t even counting articles in regular and mass media!
But what actually is the Mediterranean diet? People in Morocco don’t eat the same food as the people in Greece. And it’s not, as some might think, just cooking with a lot of olive oil. When tested in prospective trials, the diet has been spelled out in great detail, as shown in the below summary from a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It neatly compares the Mediterranean diet with a conventional low-fat diet:
Note, too, that the article with this chart defines the Mediterranean diet as having “a high intake of olive oil, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and cereals; a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets; and wine in moderation, consumed with meals.”
Why does this diet produce desired health benefits? It might not completely have to do with food. Other factors—such as an active lifestyle—can also contribute. The measured health benefits may be small, but they are real.
Why do I like the Mediterranean diet? 1) It’s easy to remember. 2) It’s easy to stick to. 3) It’s easy to compose a decent meal on short notice if your refrigerator is stocked. 4) It’s easy for adherents and non-adherents to enjoy. 5) It’s delicious!
And remember: Just as diet is about more than the food you eat today, so is a meal about more than what’s on your plate.
Dr. Patricia Kavanagh