Posts Tagged ‘mediterranean diet’

What We Can Learn from the Greek-Island Diet—and What We Already Know

Friday, October 26th, 2012

In this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an extremely evocative article on life on the Greek island of Ikaria, pop. 10,000, whose “jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea.” The focus is on the unusual longevity and good health of the people who live there. The author, National Geographic writer Dan Buettner, specializes in reporting on what he calls “blue zones”—pockets where populations manage to avoid succumbing to debilitating modern health scourges like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Buettner assembled a team of academic researchers to look hard at the island’s demographics. They concluded that Ikarians are “reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do.” The situation for men is even more extreme: Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health.” Buettner continues:

But more than that, Ikarians were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia. Almost half of Americans 85 and older show signs of Alzheimer’s. (The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that dementia cost Americans some $200 billion in 2012.) On Ikaria, however, people have been managing to stay sharp to the end.

Genetics can’t explain the phenomenon, Buettner argues. On the next island over, he writes, people “with the same genetic background eat yogurt, drink wine, breathe the same air, fish from the same sea as their neighbors on Ikaria,” but “live no longer than average Greeks.” So, the obvious question here is, what are the Ikarians doing differently? The typical American impulse would be to identify some wonder substance driving the Ikarians’ good health, concentrate it (if not synthesize it in a lab first), stick it in a pill, market it heavily—and then find out the wonder substance is all but worthless. We’ve learned that isolating nutrients, stripping away the context of their presence in whole foods, is not a recipe for health, as Michael Pollan showed in his In Defense of Food. Consuming beta carotene in the context of a carrot is good for you; gulping down a beta carotene pill, it turns out, not so much.
Happily, Buettner doesn’t pursue the reductionist path. In his article, he goes looking not for a “silver bullet” for keeping mortality and ill health at bay, but rather, as he puts it, the “silver buckshot.” And Americans won’t find all the lessons he comes up with dour and Puritanistic—not by any stretch. Some are downright hedonistic: the Ikarians down two to 3.5 glasses of wine each day—including, apparently, the occasional glass with breakfast. Coffee is indulged at the rate of two to three cups daily. And the afternoon nap, apparently, is observed near-universally. “People stay up late here,” a local doctor tells Buettner. “We wake up late and always take naps. I don’t even open my office until 11 a.m. because no one comes before then.”

Other lessons will seem austere to many Americans. Per capita US meat consumption averages to a little more than half a pound a day. Ikarians, by contrast, eat meat on average just five times per month. And Ikarians eat about a quarter as much sugar as Americans do, and very little processed food (although that is beginning to change.) The overall diet is classic Mediterranean. Buettner describes a typical couple’s daily food routine :

[A] breakfast of goat’s milk, wine, sage tea or coffee, honey and bread. Lunch was almost always beans (lentils, garbanzos), potatoes, greens (fennel, dandelion or a spinachlike green called horta) and whatever seasonal vegetables their garden produced; dinner was bread and goat’s milk. At Christmas and Easter, they would slaughter the family pig and enjoy small portions of larded pork for the next several months.

So they’re eating a low-meat, relatively seafood-rich, nutrient-dense diet with plenty of greens and (he emphasizes elsewhere) olive oil. Buettner also mentions a warm beverage they drink which he translates as “mountain tea,” “made from dried herbs endemic to the island,” a rotating, seasonal list that includes wild marjoram, sage, mint, and dandelion leaves. Buetnner had samples of the greens tested in a lab, and they proved to be “rich sources of polyphenols” with “strong antioxidant properties.”

Well, the dietary habits we can mimic and approximate; other aspects of the Ikarian miracle are more elusive:

If you pay careful attention to the way Ikarians have lived their lives, it appears that a dozen subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work. It’s easy to get enough rest if no one else wakes up early and the village goes dead during afternoon naptime. It helps that the cheapest, most accessible foods are also the most healthful — and that your ancestors have spent centuries developing ways to make them taste good. It’s hard to get through the day in Ikaria without walking up 20 hills. You’re not likely to ever feel the existential pain of not belonging or even the simple stress of arriving late. Your community makes sure you’ll always have something to eat, but peer pressure will get you to contribute something too. You’re going to grow a garden, because that’s what your parents did, and that’s what your neighbors are doing. You’re less likely to be a victim of crime because everyone at once is a busybody and feels as if he’s being watched. At day’s end, you’ll share a cup of the seasonal herbal tea with your neighbor because that’s what he’s serving. Several glasses of wine may follow the tea, but you’ll drink them in the company of good friends. On Sunday, you’ll attend church, and you’ll fast on Orthodox feast days. Even if you’re antisocial, you’ll never be entirely alone. Your neighbors will cajole you out of your house for the village festival to eat your portion of goat meat.

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Buettner smartly contrasts those ways with our own:

Every one of these factors can be tied to longevity. That’s what the $70 billion diet industry and $20 billion health-club industry do in their efforts to persuade us that if we eat the right food or do the right workout, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and live longer. But these strategies rarely work. Not because they’re wrong-minded: it’s a good idea for people to do any of these healthful activities. The problem is, it’s difficult to change individual behaviors when community behaviors stay the same. In the United States, you can’t go to a movie, walk through the airport or buy cough medicine without being routed through a gantlet of candy bars, salty snacks and sugar-sweetened beverages. The processed-food industry spends more than $4 billion a year tempting us to eat. How do you combat that? Discipline is a good thing, but discipline is a muscle that fatigues. Sooner or later, most people cave in to relentless temptation.

Alas, those temptations are not lost on young Ikarians. “American food culture, among other forces, is beginning to take root in Ikaria,” Buettner reports. “Potato chips and sweetened soda are making their way into stores, and sodas are crowing out mountain tea as the beverage of choice for the island’s youth.” As the old customs fade, “the gap between Ikarian life spans and those of the rest of the world seems to be gradually disappearing,” Buettner writes.

Interestingly enough, here in the United States, where we sacrificed nearly all traditional foodways for the promise of convenience foods in the post-World War II era, trends are working in the opposite direction, at least to an extent. “For people to adopt a healthful lifestyle, I have become convinced, they need to live in an ecosystem, so to speak, that makes it possible,” Buettner writes. “As soon as you take culture, belonging, purpose or religion out of the picture, the foundation for long healthy lives collapses.”

Buettner doesn’t mention it, but here in the land of fast food, the very ecosystems he alludes to are being recreated in farmers markets, CSAs, and in urban-youth programs like Oakland’s People’s Grocery and in public spaces like Detroit’s community gardens. People aren’t just buying, selling, and/or growing food in these spaces; they’re also bonding over food, forming new communities around it. The healthy-ecosystem aspects of local-food projects, I think, are too often undervalued by policymakers and pundits. These mini-ecosytems are, of course, small pockets within a vast food landscape based on cheap sweeteners and fats and pricy marketing campaigns. But they’re a start. From motherjones.

Weight-Loss Leaders Back Bloomberg Soda Plan

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

The names read like a who’s who of diet tycoons. There was David Burwick, the president of Weight Watchers North America; Dana Fiser, the chief executive of the weight-loss program Jenny Craig; Dr. Arthur Agatston, the inventor of the South Beach Diet; Dr. Howard Shapiro, the founder of Picture Perfect Weight Loss; Dr. Pierre Dukan, the creator of the protein-based Dukan Diet that has taken France by storm; and Bob Greene, the founder of the Best Life diet regimen, who is best known for being Oprah Winfrey’s personal trainer.

Like movie stars lining up to endorse the next big celebrity workout, the weight-loss specialists have all thrown their support behind Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to limit sales of big sugary drinks.

Announced a little more than a week before the New York City Board of Health is to vote on the restriction, the endorsements are the latest sally in the mayor’s public relations offensive on behalf of the proposal, which has reignited a national debate over obesity and drawn criticism from soft-drink industry officials who say the ban would deprive consumers of free choice.

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On Tuesday morning, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mr. Bloomberg at a news conference at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, there was Mr. Burwick, declaring, “There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about obesity but very little action.”

There was also Rachelle Conley, a Queens mother of three, who told the assembled audience how she had lost 91 pounds after joining Weight Watchers, exercising at Flushing Meadows and cutting down on sugary drinks. (Before she began dieting, Ms. Conley drank six fruit-flavored juice drinks and several cups of coffee with 25 packets of sugar each and every day — all told, about 78 Weight Watchers points, she said.)

And in an accompanying news release, the mayor’s office presented upbeat statements from five other weight-loss industry moguls — one after another, like glowing blurbs on a best seller.

“Our portion sizes are becoming ridiculous, bordering on vulgar, and the mayor is stepping up and telling it like it is,” said Dr. Shapiro, who founded Picture Perfect Weight Loss.

Many of the endorsers were careful to frame the proposal not as a restriction on choices but as a way to nudge New Yorkers toward controlling their portion sizes — a tenet of many weight-loss programs. Mr. Bloomberg seemed to be trying to reclaim the concept of “choice,” which has become a catchphrase of the soda proposal’s opponents, like New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a group sponsored by the soda industry.

“It’s simply giving you the information about how to make your life better,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “The choice is up to you.”

But the opponents were not convinced.

“New Yorkers should have every option available to them, and they should be able to make the choice that they want,” said Eliot Hoff, the spokesman for the industry group. “And this regulation definitely limits that, despite what the mayor is saying.” From nytimes.

Mediterranean-ish diet tied to better heart health

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Once again, eating a diet based on fish, legumes, vegetables and moderate amounts of alcohol is linked to lower chances of dying from a heart attack, stroke or other vascular “events,” according to a new study of New York City residents.

The mostly Hispanic and black study participants did not necessarily eat traditional foods from Mediterranean countries, but the closer their diets were to the spirit of Mediterranean eating — with plenty of fish, healthy fats like olive oil, whole grains and vegetables — the lower their risk of death from vascular problems including heart attacks.

“While it’s not the Mediterranean diet, it is comparing a healthier diet to a less healthy diet, and there was some improvement,” said Teresa Fung, a professor at Simmons College in Boston who was not involved in the study.

For nine years, Dr. Clinton Wright at the University of Miami and his colleagues followed more than 2,500 residents of northern Manhattan, a neighborhood with about 63 percent Hispanic residents, 20 percent African Americans and 15 percent whites.

Information about the health benefits of a so-called Mediterranean diet in the black and Hispanic populations in the U.S. is lacking, Wright’s group notes in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Because both groups are burdened by high rates of heart disease, the team set out to study how much of a difference diet might make.

A little more than half of the study participants were Hispanic, while the other half was split roughly between non-Hispanic blacks and whites. All were over 40 years old when the study began.

At the outset, researchers asked participants about their health history, and ranked their eating habits along a nine-point scale: the higher the number, the closer the person’s diet was to the Mediterranean ideal, with lots of fish, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and vegetable oils and very little meat or animal fats.

The group then tracked how many people later experienced a stroke, heart attack or death related to a vascular problem like pulmonary embolism and aneurysm.

More than 300 people in the study died from a vascular issue.

Each point higher that a person scored on the nine-point Mediterranean diet scale reduced the risk of vascular death by nine percent.

The study did not find that the diet had any effect on the risk of having a stroke, however. Among the 171 people who suffered a stroke, those at the high end of the diet scale were just as likely to have had one as those at the low end of the scale.

The researchers did detect slight protection from heart attack among those whose diets ranked in the top-four on the Mediterranean scale, but the finding could have been due to chance.

The results back up previous research that also reported benefits to heart health from eating a Mediterranean diet (see Reuters Health stories from March 7, 2011 and January 27, 2010).

The current study does not prove that diet is responsible for the benefits the researchers saw.

But the Mediterranean diet is rich in elements like fiber and omega-three fatty acids, which could influence heart health, Wright said.

The evidence isn’t conclusive, he added, but overall, the Mediterranean diet appears to be good for people’s heart health.

“There’s very little evidence to suggest that it’s harmful compared to some other diets that we consider harmful, such as diets rich in red meat,” Wright said. “So it seems like there isn’t much harm in it and there’s increasing evidence that it’s beneficial.” From healthnews.