The Diet Your Doctor Should Be Telling You About
Yet another major study was published this week confirming the overwhelming benefits of a Mediterranean diet.
As a physician, I’m ashamed of how little we talk about these kinds of findings with our patients—and how little we talk about nutrition in general—despite the overwhelming amount of data that diet significantly impacts how well we feel, how long we live, and even how happy we are.
The Latest Findings
A HUGE study published earlier this week shows that post-menopausal women who eat a Mediterranean diet have a SIGNIFICANTLY decreased risk of certain types of aggressive breast cancer. In fact, the women eating a Mediterranean diet reduced their risk by a full 40%.
The Netherlands Cohort study was published in the International Journal of Cancer this past Sunday. The researchers followed 62,573 women aged 55-69 beginning in 1986. They sorted these women into groups depending on how well their diets conformed to the traditional Mediterranean diet.
They found that women who ate a Mediterranean diet were 40% less likely to develop a form of breast cancer referred to as Estrogen Receptor Negative (ER-). This type of breast cancer is a particularly aggressive form of the disease that does not respond to many of the treatments we have available for the more common Estrogen Receptor Positive (ER+) disease.
The fact that women can be protected from this deadly form of breast cancer by diet alone is astounding. If we had a drug that could do this, there would be a pharmaceutical rep in my office right now trying to convince me to prescribe it.
Other Benefits of A Mediterranean Diet
Search “Mediterranean diet” on PubMed and you get hundreds of studies proving that a Mediterranean diet protects you from a multitude of diseases and helps you lose weight too!
Research has already proven that a Mediterranean diet:
- decreases the risk of heart disease
- lower rates of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease
- prevents or helps reverse diabetes
- decreases the risk of stroke
- helps you lose weight
- reduces stress, anxiety, and depression
- helps you live longer
What is A Mediterranean Diet?
A Mediterranean diet emphasizes a lifestyle filled with physical activity and plant-based food. This includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fresh herbs. The diet also consists of plenty of good olive oil, fish, and red wine in moderation. It includes very little sugar and very little red meat.
You’ll notice that a Mediterranean diet is full of most everything I told you about in this post on how to prevent cancer with food. The biggest difference is that people eating a Mediterranean diet eat a lot of olive oil and consume more fruits and vegetables than the minimum recommendation of five servings per day. In fact, they eat almost twice that—about nine servings per day.
Why Is A Mediterranean Diet So Good For You?
A Mediterranean diet decreases inflammation, which is a major contributor to heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as many other chronic, debilitating conditions. Inflammation even plays a role in mental health, anxiety, and depression.
Multiple studies, including this one and this one, have shown that a Mediterranean diet reduces many inflammatory markers in the blood, including serum C-reactive protein, homocysteine, IL-6 and endothelial and monocytary adhesion molecules and chemokines. Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to know what all of those are—just trust me that increased amounts of these substances are not good for you.
A Mediterranean diet is full of antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that play an important role in our health at low levels. However, when there are too many free radicals, they cause damage to our cells that can eventually lead to cancer.
It is important to note, however, that taking supplements of antioxidants can actually do more harm than good. It’s best to get your antioxidants from the food you eat.
One of the most exciting new areas of research is called nutrigenomics. This is the study of how our diets work to modulate gene expression. Individual components of the foods we eat act to signal our cells to turn on and turn off certain elements of our genetic make-up. The nutrients found in a Mediterranean diet cause a more favorable expression of our genes, while a typical Western diet tends to turn on genes that promote disease.
Why Don’t We Do Better?
With evidence like this, doctors should be screaming from the rooftops about the importance of proper nutrition. So why aren’t we writing prescriptions for a healthy diet instead of prescribing a bunch of pills?
In some ways, I get why physicians don’t talk more about diet and lifestyle with their patients. It’s much easier to prescribe a pill than it is to get someone to change their way of eating. It’s tough to teach someone about a subject as complicated as nutrition. It’s especially hard in the short amount of time a physician has with a patient in the clinic. And, honestly, a lot of patients would rather take a pill than change their lifestyle.
However, this is too important not to talk about. We as doctors have to figure out a way to communicate the importance of diet and lifestyle to our patients. We have to do a better job of educating people about the role nutrition and exercise can play in their healing. And we must consider it our duty to let patients know when eating a better diet or moving more will help make the medicine we prescribe work even better.
Until we as doctors improve at educating patients, it is up to you as the patient to make sure you educate yourself. My hope is that this blog serves to make this task a little easier.
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