The typical American diet is a diet of convenience. Don’t have enough time to cook? No problem – take the drive-thru at a fast food restaurant, and your meal is ready in 3 minutes. It may be convenient, quick, easy, and even cheap, but this is an unsustainable diet for people wanting to lead a healthy lifestyle and fight the obesity and diabetes epidemics that are taking over our society, specifically in the South where we live.
One of the issues with the typical American diet is the amount of saturated fat we consume. This fat, derived from vegetables and animals, contains omega 6 fatty acids. Saturated fat raises the cholesterol in your blood, directly leading to plaque buildup in your arteries, and eventually leading to a stroke, heart attack, or blockage of an artery in your legs. In order to decrease the chance for cardiovascular disease, we need to reduce our intake of the bad omega-6 fatty acids, and increase our intake of good omega-3 fatty acids, like the ones found in fish.
Another issue with the typical American diet is the amount of processed foods we consume – chicken nuggets, American cheese (not really cheese at all), bread, cereal, sodas, salty snacks, Little Debbie Snacks, etc. Nearly two thirds of the typical American diet contains processed foods. If you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you risk getting too much sodium, added sugars and unhealthy fats. Highly processed foods contribute almost 60% of calories and 90% of added sugars in the American diet.
Last big issue with the American diet is the amount of sugar hiding in your foods – we have a diabetes epidemic in this country – consumption of carbohydrates (the compound that makes up starches) is entirely too high – these are found in breads, potatoes, and soda beverages. Consumption of excessive amount of sugar contributes to obesity, and eventually to diabetes.
We recommend that all of our patients follow the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle than just a diet. The lifestyle promotes physical activity and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish, and oils rich in omega-3 to compliment an active way of life. Since this started in rural communities dotting the Mediterranean coasts, the citizens of those communities largely ate what they farmed, and worked the earth themselves. Therefore, a diet rich in carbohydrates and moderate consumption of wine was fine and healthy, since they were physically active every day.
The Mediterranean Diet is a pattern of eating certain foods. This pattern emphasizes a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, nuts, and seeds. This diet includes olive oil as an important source of fat along with dairy products, frequent consumption of fish, poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts (eggs consumed up to 4 times weekly) and, most importantly, very little red meat. In addition, wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts, but nondrinkers are not advised to begin drinking. The Mediterranean diet has no preservatives – everything is freshly picked, plucked, and cooked. Red meat should be consumed no more than once a week. Fish and chicken can be consumed six to seven times a week.
The Lyon Heart Study was one of the first studies that looked at the Mediterranean Diet, in a scientific way. They compared this diet to a “traditional western diet” similar to the American Heart Association step 1 diet. 600 participants studied for 46 months. The study was ended early by the safety board, because of the overwhelming benefit of the Mediterranean diet. In their words, it was “unethical to allow patients to continue on the traditional western diet” given the nearly four-fold higher event rate in the western diet group.
Here is how you can adopt this diet and live longer! Replace your vegetable oil with olive oil and use it sparingly. Grill, broil or bake your foods instead of frying it. Use beans as a source of protein. Reduce your beef and pork intake, and substitute it with chicken and fish. Limit your bread and potato intake. Replace your sodas and sweet tea with water. It is cheaper, healthier, and widely available. Eat at least four servings of fruits and vegetables every day. Avoid butter - instead, try using plant based spreads like “Smart Balance” or “Benechol” that actually lower your cholesterol. Cut down on desserts and sweets. Consume red meat no more than once a week. Have no more than one dessert a week, and let it be a treat, not a regular thing. Following this diet will result in lower cholesterol, weight loss, and lower risk of cardiovascular disease for you and your loved ones.
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