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A Better Way To Think About Dieting

“I want to lose 20 pounds.”

“I want to firm up my tummy and backside.”

“Gotta lose these love handles, doc.”

I hear it all the time. People want to lose weight. Whether their goal is to live a healthier life or just to feel better about their appearance, weight loss has become a gigantic billion-dollar market in the U.S.

There’s nothing wrong with that; I think most Americans could stand to lose a few pounds. The Standard American Diet is high in salt, sugar, emulsifiers, preservatives, and other fattening additives, and it shows all over our bodies. We’re getting soft.

What A Diet Is Not

The problem is not the goal or the motive…it’s the method.

Most people who go on a “diet” change something about their food intake for a few weeks, and when they get a good result, they change it back. It’s almost like giving up something for Lent: “I’ll stop eating this food until I lose the weight, and then I’ll eat it again.”

That’s so crazy!

If removing the item makes things better, why would you ever put it back? It’s because we get addicted to the way a food makes us feel, even if we know it’s killing us. Flavor additives in American food are no different from cocaine or nicotine – they’re just as addictive. If you’re going to take something out of your diet for health reasons or for appearance reasons, then keep it out and continue enjoying the benefit for the rest of your life.

Temporarily removing items from your eating habits is not a diet, even though marketing has sold us this idea for 60 years or more. A diet is a lifestyle – it’s the sum total of what you eat on an ongoing basis. People know this, but they continue talking about “dieting” in terms of making a temporary change (and usually a painful sacrifice at that).

Just so we keep our terminology clear, when I talk about a diet I’m talking about your normal day-to-day eating habits. Who you are…from a food point-of-view.

With this in mind, I’ve been recommending The Mediterranean Diet to most of my patients as a guideline for years.

Back To The Fundamentals

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ve probably observed that I tend to look backward in history to find keys to good health, rather than forward. My practice in Naples is called “Fundamental Health Solutions” for a reason. I believe that good health can be found in going back to the way our bodies were designed to operate – the fundamentals if you will.

Although world history is dotted with plagues, famines, and poor health, the normal lifespan for humans used to be longer than it is now. Moses and other Hebrew patriarchs (not counting the ones in Genesis who lived to be over 900 years old) were documented to have lived to be 120 years old. For most Asian cultures, living past 100 was the norm for much of their history. There are still several areas around the world (The Blue Zones) where amazing longevity is so common that researchers have been studying their lifestyles for clues that they can bring to the rest of the world.

What can we learn from those ancient cultures that we are not experiencing in our modern society?

They lived outdoors for the most part, only going inside to sleep and protect themselves from predators. They got more sunlight and fresh air than we get. They rose with the sun and went to bed when it went down. Their air was not toxic with chemicals, their water was clean, their food was natural. This is a bit of a generalization – obviously, there plagues, famines, volcanos, and wars that killed many people, but my point is that it wasn’t their lifestyle that killed them; it was external factors.

After World War II, American military doctors were intrigued by the relative good health of certain groups of soldiers, when compared with others. What they found was, regardless of the hardships and deprivations they encountered during the war, soldiers from Italy and Southeastern Europe experienced better cardiovascular health and overall vitality than American and other allied forces, and it was largely because of the foods they ate.

This is where I want to go today. The Mediterranean Diet hasn’t changed much since the days of Abraham, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great. In cultures all around the Mediterranean Sea, the food is largely the same: lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, and fish. It’s no accident that one of the Blue Zones where researchers have found the most clues on healthy eating is right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: Sardinia, Italy.

Since it seems to be working so well for them, let’s see what we can learn and incorporate into our own lifestyle.

The Mediterranean Diet

My friends at oldways.com have done extensive research on the Mediterranean Diet. Here is a partial list of the documented benefits of this way of eating:

Lengthen your life 

Improve Brain Function

Defend you from chronic diseases

Fight certain cancers

Lower your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and elevated “bad” cholesterol levels

Protect you from diabetes

Aid your weight loss and management efforts

Keep away depression

Safeguard you from Alzheimer’s disease

Ward off Parkinson’s disease

Improve rheumatoid arthritis

Improve eye health

Reduce risk of dental disease

Help you breathe better

Lead to healthier babies

Lead to improved fertility

Why does this diet produce all these benefits?

What makes this diet so different from our Standard American Diet?

Different, And Yet, Not So Different

If you look at their food pyramid, it’s not totally different from ours:

Med_pyramid_flyer

(oldways.com) – click to enlarge

I want to focus down on a couple of specific items. I’m going to hit these fast, so follow the links to my other articles for more details.

Balancing Meat

I think the biggest difference is in what foods they emphasize, and which ones they limit. You’ll notice that meat is a tiny spot at the top of the pyramid, compared with the huge allotment of fruits, vegetables, and grains. What’s more, meat is lumped in with sweets in that tiny spot. Meat has some value, mostly the amino acid chains found in meat protein that our bodies need and vegetables just don’t possess. On the other hand, our culture emphasizes meat to an unhealthy degree. You will notice that bacon doesn’t appear on this food chain. Most Mediterranean cultures consider pork to be unclean, and they are largely right. Red meat has its place, but fish is a much better choice, especially for the fat content. Specific varieties of fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids and most people’s digestive tracks handle fish better than red meat.

Garlic and Oil

Garlic and oil play a very important role in this diet. Most American cooking oils (especially canola oil and vegetable oil) should be avoided, but olive oil – especially cold extra virgin olive oil – is realtively good for you (coconut is better). It’s the kind of fat that your body likes to burn and keeps you satisfied longer than sugar. There are hundreds of varieties of garlic, and most of them have some amazing health benefits, from digestive health to immune health (remember the link between your gut and your immune system?) and some even have been found to reduce tumors and fight cancer cells. It’s hard to overstate the benefits of garlic (unless you want to talk about using it to fight vampires – that’s overstating it).

Antioxidants

You’ll see a great amount of antioxidants like Vitamin C and D in the fruit choices. These support your immune system, help your body fight off inflammation, especially in your joints and muscle tissue, and clean and moisturize your skin. The dark leafy greens are great for your brain, your nervous system, your eyes, as well as your colon and toxin elimination systems.

Nuts, legumes, seeds, and other superfoods have a place in the Mediterranean Diet.

Gut Health

Maybe most important, as we’ve covered in the past, this diet promotes a healthy gut biome. The bacterial colonies that reside in your intestines not only digest and process your food, they also identify, isolate, and remove toxic invaders, so they are an important part of your immune system. So much of the food we eat in America destroys the gut biome (not to mention the antibiotics, cleansers, chemicals, and sugars that we ingest). By choosing a diet high in organic vegetables, fruits, and grains, we give our gut defenses a fighting chance to protect us.

Wine

It’s also worth noticing the presence of a little bit of wine. Not booze…wine. Not buckets of it…a glass before dinner. Wine has some important properties that aid digestion, and it is one of the Blue Zones Power Nine. Wine doesn’t have much of a presence in our culture, except as a mood management tool, but it does have a nutritive place in the Mediterranean Diet.

More Than Food

Finally, I want to point out that no diet will keep you healthy if you sit all day. The Mediterranean lifestyle includes movement, fresh air, and social interaction, as indicated at the bottom of their pyramid. It’s a lifestyle, and as such, it’s not something that you try on for six weeks at a time and hope for the best. It works when it involves your whole life: move right, eat right, think right, and live right. That’s why I’m so passionate about seeing people live this way: it really represents all the things that are important to me as a doctor. I’ve found that when you work on any part of your life (e.g., food choices) in isolation from the rest of your life, it doesn’t have the impact and it doesn’t stick.

So, go ahead and make a decision to lose weight, but do it the right way. If you adapt your lifestyle to healthier eating and more activity, you will naturally shed the pounds and keep them off, as opposed to the wild fluctuations most people experience when they cut off the Cokes and Doritos for a few weeks and then go running back. You will feel better, have more energy and less joint pain, and have softer hair and skin. The Mediterranean Diet is a healthy way of life; the other way is just a mind game.

Your Turn

If you’ve been doing the Mediterranean Diet and have seen some changes in your own life, please tell us about it in the comments on Facebook. Your success might just be the encouragement someone needs to make a life-saving change in their life.

“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles (and a commitment to a new lifestyle) is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas (and me)

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