As we gear up for Thursday night’s Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner, with my friend, Julianna Saitta, I want to answer a question I frequently get asked about the Mediterranean Diet. We have a lot of ground to cover today, so if you’re just joining us, it might help to take a few minutes to read here, here, and here to get a little background on the topics we are going to cover.
I want to tell you a little story.
Sam (not his real name) was getting ready to celebrate his 50th birthday when I met him.
He came in because of low back pain, but it was pretty clear his back was the least his worries. His 43-inch waist on his 5’11” frame was an obvious explanation for his low back pain, but it told me so much more.
When a man’s waistline exceeds 40 inches (35 inches for a woman), it’s a clear indicator of diabetes or pre-diabetes, and usually a precursor to heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and as many as 35 other major diseases. Sam was in trouble and didn’t even know it.
Can Your Life Kill You?
As I asked him about his overall health, I was shocked at what he shared – his eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, and overwhelming stress were a recipe for a major coronary event. He knew his health was on shaky ground but didn’t want to go to see traditional doctors because he was afraid of they would say.
Sam was a heart attack waiting to happen.
He had tried dieting but said he didn’t have the willpower to keep it up. His favorite foods were fried, sweet, or carbonated, and he was always hungry. He ate to combat stress, ate to relax at home, and snacked through the night.
How do you get someone like that on a healthy program?
Changing Mindsets Gradually
I was afraid it would take a full-blown heart attack to change his thinking, but I also knew he likely would not survive a heart attack. His body was already in shock. I needed to help him change his thinking, and it wouldn’t be easy.
That’s where the Mediterranean Diet came in handy.
The Mediterranean Diet has been called “the perfect way to eat” by some well-known nutritionists and doctors. While I don’t agree with that assessment exactly, it is excellent, and with a little modification, it can change people’s lives.
I suppose I could have played hardball with Sam and pushed him into a “cold-turkey” overhaul of his diet, but I knew he’d fall off the wagon pretty quickly. So we took a more gradual approach, hoping that his heart would continue doing his job until we could get his weight down.
Where Do You Start?
There were so many ways we could go with Sam. Any solution that helped to reduce his body fat could be considered a win. At the same time, any such strategy would be met with resistance. So I decided to start by curbing his snacking, especially his late-night snacking.
To do that, I had to get some fat into his diet.
Wait! What?! Did I really just say that?
You bet I did.
One of Sam’s problems was that he was addicted to ghrelin. That’s not a word you see every day, so let me explain what we are talking about here.
Ghrelin v. Leptin: The Battle Begins
Ghrelin and leptin are the hormones that control appetite: ghrelin tells your body you are hungry, and leptin tells your body you are full. Ghrelin operates in 3- to 5-hour cycles, which explains why you feel hungry about four hours after a meal. When those two hormones are operating in balance, you’re good. When they get out of balance, you feel voraciously hungry all the time, even after a big meal.
To make matters worse, our Standard American Diet is loaded with food enhancers, like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) that disrupt these hormones. That’s why “you can’t eat just one,” as the old potato chip commercial boasted. Most packaged snacks and restaurant foods are loaded with MSG as a flavor enhancer. It’s a neurotoxin that overexcites your brain cells to a wild frenzy until they just about explode. Then they die.
To manage the cravings for late-night snacks, we had to find a food that would keep him satisfied longer.
The Mediterranean Diet food pyramid is set up in a way that keeps you feeling satisfied longer while eating smaller portions. It’s weighted toward vegetables, fruits, heavy grains, and healthy fats, and light on meat and dairy, with almost no sugars. Normally, I take out the grains entirely unless I know a patient can digest them properly, and even then I emphasize sprouted grain bread instead of traditional sandwich bread and pasta.
For Sam, I felt like I needed to make some early concessions to keep him on the wagon.
The Transitional Meal Plan
I encouraged him to cook his evening meals with olive oil or bake with coconut oil. Healthy omega-3 fats boost leptin, so you feel satisfied longer. He likes trout, wild salmon, and grass-fed beef, so that was an easy omega-3 win. I made him stick to portions the size of a credit card, which was a hard sell, but it was better than going “cold turkey.”
For snacks, I told him he could have a handful of walnuts or macadamia nuts, or chips with guacamole made from fresh avocados instead of cheese. The avocados are an excellent source of good fat that would keep his hunger hormones in balance longer. Over time, we weaned him off the chips, but you have to start somewhere.
I gave him a list of high-protein foods that he could enjoy for supper, as long as he didn’t have white bread or pasta with them. Proteins take longer to digest, so they keep the leptin levels high longer.
Sam had never been a big salad eater, and when he did, it was the house salad with iceberg lettuce, completely saturated in French dressing. I made a deal with him. One night out of every four, he needed to have only a large salad with romaine lettuce and kale, and no croutons or dressing, but he could have as many fresh-cut vegetables on it as he wanted (including avocado), plus a light dressing of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and fresh-squeezed lemon juice. He later confessed to me that this dressing recipe turned him to salads for life. Whatever works, man.
In exchange, he could have no fried foods, vegetable oil, or corn oil. Just olive oil to cook with. He was willing to make that trade. His wife was more than happy to keep him accountable.
Lifestyle Management Is Key
Now, just to set the stage for the next part, I want to remind you what we saw a couple of weeks ago – the Mediterranean Diet is not an eating plan; it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of living that promotes life. Part of that lifestyle is sleep.
Now, Sam’s job was stressful, I’ll give him that. But we found out over time that much of his stress was self-inflicted. He didn’t sleep well at night, and he blamed the pressures of his job. In reality, the opposite was true. His work was stressful because he wasn’t sleeping at night.
How To Ruin Your Sleep
He wasn’t sleeping at night because of lifestyle choices he made every day:
- He was drinking 2 or 3 soft drinks a day, including one with supper. The sugar from those drinks was more than all the rest of the sugar he consumed the rest of the day. I couldn’t convince him to stop, so I let him have one for lunch and report back to me how he felt after that. Naturally, he complained that around 3:00 every afternoon, he struggled to stay awake, and desperately craved another soft drink. I told him to man up.
- He was working at his computer until after 10:00 p.m., eating sugary snacks and drinking coffee to keep himself amped up. The flickering blue light of his computer was over-stimulating his optic nerves, causing his brain to release “awake” neurotransmitters through his system, so he laid awake for hours waiting for his brain to process the caffeine, the neurotransmitters, and the sugars.
- He also needed to learn about delegation. We all do.
I encouraged him to eat around 6 or 7 and go to bed between 9 and 10, before his ghrelin levels began to rise and he got “snacky.” No snacks after 8:00 p.m., no alcohol after 6:00 p.m., no coffee after 4:00 p.m., and no soft drinks after lunch.
His wife agreed to close his laptop and shut off his phone at 8:00 p.m., no matter what he was doing, so his brain could unwind for bed. “Emergencies” could wait until morning.
Weaning Him Off Sugar
Later, I got him to try going a whole week without a soft drink. He was shocked to discover that he had more energy without the soft drinks than he had had with three soft drinks a day. The reason was obvious, he enjoyed the burst of sugar energy and couldn’t understand that the same sugar that ramped him up brought him crashing down three hours later.
The ultimate goal was to get the sugars out of his system. His over-reliance on sugar had left him insulin-resistant, so his body couldn’t generate enough insulin to manage the incoming sugars, and leptin-resistant, so his body never knew when to stop eating.
By substituting healthy fats from the Mediterranean Diet that balanced his hunger hormones and left him feeling satisfied longer, he didn’t experience the overwhelming cravings that kept him snacking throughout the day.
Weaning Him Off Grains
The next step was to wean him off grains. There were two reasons for this:
- One was that his body was converting all of the grains he was consuming into sugars that overwhelmed his pancreas’ ability to produce enough insulin, so we needed to reduce the sugar intake.
- The other was that he had developed an allergy to grains that was scrambling his brain every day at work, and he didn’t even know it. Part of his inability to focus at work was that his brain was having the equivalent to an allergic reaction to gluten. That’s a precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease.
It took him awhile to get over the cravings, but as we kept his ghrelin in balance, he found it easier. He loved pasta, but it was leaving him sleepy and groggy at work, and unresponsive to his kids in the evening. He knew something had to change. After a few weeks of earning his trust, I convinced him to make the sacrifice, and it might be the most important transformation of the whole process.
That’s when we started to really see him lose weight. It wasn’t obvious at first, but after a few weeks, he began to notice that he felt better, had more energy, and his pants were starting to hang on him.
Over time, we worked on a lunch menu so he wouldn’t feel pressure to eat restaurant food every day. I encouraged him to skip breakfast and eat a hearty lunch so that he was engaging in intermittent fasting while front-loading his calorie intake.
The more results he got, the more interested he became in making healthier choices.
Then, the real transformation began.
Getting His Life Back
You see, he had been having chronic joint pain for so long that he didn’t even notice it anymore. He just thought that having a hard time getting out of bed was part of getting older.
As we removed the gluten, the MSG, the fructose sweeteners, the preservatives, the genetically-modified corn and wheat products, and the carbonated beverages from his diet, he discovered that it didn’t hurt every time he got out of his chair anymore. He could grip a skillet in the kitchen without wincing. He could even type faster.
Soon, he rediscovered his love of golf, which had been a struggle for him for years. Playing golf led to more fresh air and sunshine, as well as fun times with his golfing buddies. That’s also part of the Mediterranean Diet.
Getting His Whole Life Back
As the weight melted off of him, his arteries opened up. His blood pressure dropped, he stopped struggling for breath. His trips to the restroom became…well…less awful as well.
He rediscovered a love for food, too. Not the salty, sugary, starchy and fried restaurant food he had craved for so long, but the fresh snap of crisp vegetables, clean water, and savory spices. He found so much more pleasure in a large, colorful salad with a few ounces of shredded chicken on top.
He rediscovered living.
So, the answer to the question about weight loss is, “Yes, the Mediterranean Diet, done appropriately for your body chemistry, is an effective way to lose weight and manage your body mass index over time.” But it is so much more than that. Wouldn’t you agree?
What About You?
I’d like to invite you to rediscover living… or maybe just find a new love for fresh food. This Thursday night, I am so pleased to introduce you to my friend, Juliana Grazioso Saitta.
Her bio reads like this:
“Born and raised in the town of Vittoria, Sicily, Juliana recalls fond memories of growing up in a place where a variety of cultures and cuisine left its mark on the people and its land. She and her family often visited their small country home with a deep water well, one bedroom, and a kitchen with a wood burning stove. Fertile soil with lush vegetable gardens, fruit trees, olive trees, and vineyards surrounded the country home and provided her family with an abundance of fresh fruits, olive oil, and green vegetables, forming the basis of her love of Mediterranean food and its lifestyle.
“She and her family immigrated to the United States in 1955 carrying with them the traditions of preparing fresh foods made into delicious, healthy meals. She earned her teaching degree and taught French and Italian culture and language to her students for many years. Raised on the Mediterranean Diet, Juliana continues to fulfill her passion of teaching and cooking while passing her knowledge of food, recipes, and entertaining stories through her cooking classes. Think twice before throwing away that apricot pit, radish leaves or those fresh parsley stems as Juliana will show you how to make delicious, healthy meals with unique ingredients you never knew could be used!
“Juliana invites you to share in her love and joy for cooking, as she fills the room with laughter and the scent of freshly sautéed garlic and onions in extra virgin olive. Buon Appetito!”
Go to my Facebook page now and RSVP before all the seats are taken. You don’t want to miss this one. And take a minute to share this post on your favorite social media channels. You might be surprised at who is looking for a healthy restart to their life.
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas