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Diet Healthy With The Healthiest Diet on the Planet

Diet Healthy For a Longer Life

English: tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil, extra virgin olive oil, salt, black pepper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a lot easier to find another fad diet than it is to diet healthy. As noted in my last post about the ways that obesity ages you faster (“5 Ways Obesity Ages You Fast“), there’s no disputing the direct and causal link between obesity and disease.

There’s also no disputing the direct and causal link between diet and disease. A nutritious diet helps you stave off disease and maintain optimal health in many synergistic ways – strengthening your immune system, optimizing your cellular function, and maintaining smooth and healthy blood vessels, to name a few (see “Nutrition & Diet Are Your Best Medicine” for more about how to diet healthy).

But Which Diet is Best to Diet Healthy?

There’s the low-carb, Atkins-style approach, a low-fat diet, vegetarian and vegan diets, and the new kid on the block (based on a much older kid) – the paleo (for paleolithic, or stone age) diet. These all have their merits – and one may work better for any of us individually than another. There is, after all, no one-size-fits-all way to diet healthy that’s optimal for everyone, no matter what advocates for each of these diets may claim.

But one thing is universally applicable to all of us. And that’s that the anti-nutrient typical western diet of packaged foods loaded with sodium, sugars, and trans fats – along with preservatives, colorings and other non-nutrients – is no way to diet healthy. It not only fails to promote good health, it actually promotes disease.

It does the opposite of what good nutrition does. Instead of nurturing your body with healthful nutrients that support and enhance your bodily functions, it compromises and impairs healthy bodily functions by increasing blood sugar and blood pressure levels, redistributing fat to the belly – where it’s most dangerous (see “Belly Fat – The Enemy Within“) – and promoting inflammation that compromises your body’s immune defenses.

The standard American diet – exported globally now thanks to the profitability of its government-subsidized ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup – is inherently an anti-nutrient diet. And we’ve got the record epidemics of chronic diseases to prove it.

But what do we replace it with? Is it Atkins or Paleo, or do you really have to “go vegan” to maximize your chances – and those of your family – for a long and healthy life?

Let’s consider the evidence about the best way to diet healthy and ignore, for the moment at least, the marketing pitches for today’s favored dietary approaches.

Nutrition First

A study reported this week in The New England Journal of Medicine reported the results of a randomly-controlled trial comparing a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional extra virgin olive oil or nuts with a control group advised to eat a low-fat diet. Other studies have compared a Mediterranean diet to low-carb diets, among others.

This latest study showed significantly lower rates of heart attacks and strokes in the two modified Mediterranean diets compared to the control group. The difference for stroke was the most substantial, with those on the Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts having almost a 50% lower rate of strokes.

And while this study failed to show a mortality difference, this may be due to its relatively short (4.8 year) duration. Other studies have shown substantial benefits from a Mediterranean diet in both quality (as in fewer strokes) and quantity (longevity) of life.

In fact, no other diet has the breadth and depth of evidence to support its claim to being the healthiest diet on the planet (my term, I should note).

Prescription-Strength Health Benefits

There’s no single “Mediterranean Diet”, but rather a variety of Mediterranean-area diets that share some basic nutrients in common. These include fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes and extra virgin olive oil, with modest consumption of fish, poultry, dairy and wine. Meat, processed meats, and sweets are kept to a minimum.

There’s substantial evidence of benefit from these ingredients on not just biomarkers like blood sugar and blood pressure – the two most important risk factors for aging Americans – but on actual outcomes like mortality and reduced Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

A European study of older adults found “realistically achievable changes in diet” to a more Mediterranean diet rich in plant foods and unsaturated fats was “associated with a reduction of total mortality by 11% or 14%”, concluding the “Mediterranean diet is beneficial to health across populations”.

Several studies have evaluated the effects of a Mediterranean diet on U.S. populations, all finding substantial reductions in mortality in older adult populations from cancer, cardiovascular disease (CVD), Alzheimer’s, and all-cause mortality by up to 73% (see table below).

Clearly, a Mediterranean diet provides you with “prescription-strength” health benefits. And it does so without toxic side-effects – and with broader systemic health benefits – than more narrowly-targeted medications (see Our Healthcare Sucks for more on the downsides of over-dependence on medications).

No other diet, popular or otherwise, can lay claim to such broad and evidence-backed health benefits. This means there’s no better way for most of us to diet healthy.

Want MORE Evidence?

Perhaps you’re the doubting type – or so wed to another diet that you’re prepared to dispute this evidence. If so, the following table provides yet more evidence of the salubrious effects of a Mediterranean diet – and no other diet can match it.

These three studies show 20-39% reduced mortality and 3 – 4 years of added longevity with a Mediterranean diet (those with the lowest adherence to a Mediterranean diet are the “Reference” group for comparison with the other 2 groups with increasing adherence to more components of a Mediterranean diet).

These dramatic results across men and women of all races over 4.4-to-5 year follow-up periods suggest a Mediterranean diet translates exceedingly well to the U.S. – and to women and men of all ethnicities and ages.

Not only is no other diet able to match this level of evidence, there’s no medication or combination of medications that comes close to matching these kinds of life-prolonging/life-enhancing benefits across such a broad range of diseases.

But Which Diet is Better for Healthy Weight Loss?

All this emphasis on health benefit is all well-and-good, but what if your primary concern is weight loss?

Maybe you don’t currently have any major health concerns and just want to know which diet is most likely to help you lose weight. You might think there’d be a trade-off between health benefits and weight loss, but you’d be wrong. Here’s why.

If rapid weight loss were the sole objective, there are legitimate arguments favoring an Atkins-type ultra-low carbohydrate diet.

But rapid weight loss is not the sole objective; healthy weight loss is the goal, and healthy weight loss is gradual and sustainable, not rapid.

Rapid weight loss can prove counter-productive by causing more muscle loss than gradual weight loss.

One study found low-carbohydrate and Mediterranean diets were both better for weight loss than a low-fat diet.  While the low-carbohydrate diet caused more weight loss after one year, more weight was regained in the second year – making them equally effective after two years.

Losing more weight and regaining it – “yo-yo” dieting – is not better for body organs or fat-to-muscle ratio than more gradual and consistent weight loss achieved with a Mediterranean-type diet.

That’s because the weight you lose is a combination of fat, bone and muscle, while the weight you regain is mostly fat. This means you end up with a worse fat-to-muscle body composition that leaves you more vulnerable to disease.

Slow-and-steady weight loss is the best way to diet healthy. It’s a formula for permanent health benefit – and for keeping off whatever weight you manage to lose.

The key benefit of a Mediterranean diet is that you gain its health benefits whether you lose weight or not.

That makes you a winner even if you never lose a pound of excess weight – making it maybe the only “no lose” way to diet healthy.

And it’s much easier to maintain than more demanding diets that require you to forego foods you may relish – and some your body needs. A Mediterranean diet is the ultimate in balanced diets, which explains the greater adherence seen in trials comparing it with other diets.

Easy to follow, unmatched health benefits, and pretty darn tasty as well.

So what are you waiting for?

John Lynch: John Lynch was founder and CEO of Medical Diagnostics, Inc. - twice named to Business Week's "Best Small Companies" in America. He's since founded MedSmart Members to publish consumer health education publications.
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