Maybe you’ve heard the news. It seems like everyone is talking about it. A recent study demonstrated the beneficial effects of the Mediterranean diet in those people who are at the greatest risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The media has responded with headlines like, “The healthiest diet on earth!” and “Fat is good after all!”
These headlines oversimplify what these studies really found, but the benefit of a Mediterranean-style diet, featuring vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and added fat from olive oil and nuts, did reduce the incidence of heart disease and stroke by as much as 30% in study participants. Some studies of statin therapy (a commonly prescribed cholesterol-lowering medication) showed equal efficacy, meaning a dietary shift can potentially be just as effective as drug therapy. This is exciting! I also believe it is an opportunity to take to heart the notion that the food we consume really does effect health.
However, the reality is that, as a culture, we are less “Mediterranean” in our eating style, and more “meat and potatoes” (and sugar and processed foods). I was on a flight recently, and I noticed how many people on the plane were obese. It was like seeing a cross-section of America, and as a cardiologist, I didn’t like what I saw. People were huffing and puffing as they dragged their carry-ons down the aisle, straining to put their bags in the overhead compartment, struggling to wedge themselves into their seats. Look around at any mall, food court, or “buffet-style” restaurant and you’ll see something similar. Obesity is an epidemic.
However, I recognize that the reality of a dietary shift is more complicated than simply “eating more fruits and vegetables.” In the airport, most of the food choices I saw were starchy carbohydrates, sugary sweets, or pre-processed eggs and cured meat. When I thought I found a healthy salad, actually labeled as a“Mediterranean salad,” it was a few limp vegetables over iceberg lettuce, drowned in a sugary dressing. I would hardly call it nutritious, let alone “Mediterranean.” On the plane, the snack boxes available were cheese and crackers, other kinds of crackers, chocolate chip cookies, candies, and dried fruits. Every single item contained sugar. The most popular one had salami, cheese, and an array of crackers. There was a healthy-ish option, and lo and behold, it appeared to be in the Mediterranean style. A ray of hope on the plane! This choice contained hummus, olives, almonds, and multi-grain crackers. However, I didn’t see anyone order it.
As a person who is usually food-prepared, this was one of my first forays into the truth of the choices we have out there. As much as I can encourage my patients to eat healthy, and to make healthy food choices, this culture of ours doesn’t make it easy. On the other hand, the market gives the people what they want, so if we want healthy choices, it’s up to us. We need to demand that we want healthy options. If we can’t rely on what’s out there to keep us healthy, we have to simply and deliberately work for it.
When my son was a toddler, I would never leave the house without baggies of cut up fruit, whole grain cereal, sliced vegetables, and a bottle of water. Now, I am acutely aware that I shouldn’t leave the house without those same things for myself.
Don’t let your choices be guided by an industry catering to America’s appetite for grease and sugar. Instead, let’s change America’s appetite. It starts with you. Demand goodness. Demand nutrition. Demand truly Mediterranean options, and never settle for less. Your heart depends on it.