I have written a lot about healthy food choices, so recent articles stressing the benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet caught my eye. Apparently, it is not easy for Americans to switch to this healthier approach, with its emphasis on fish and fresh fruits and vegetables, writes journalist and author Paul Greenberg this week in the New York Times. And the dietary habits we cling to in the U.S. not only affect our own health, he notes, they impact the nation’s approach to farming and education about diet.
The longevity of people living in Ikaria, a small Greek island and a “Blue Zone,” has been the focus of much recent dietary and social research. But as early as 1953, according to Greenberg, social scientist Leland Allbaugh correlated long-term health and well-being with a diet limited in total calories, high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, and low in red meat in his study, Crete: A Case Study of An Underdeveloped Area.
The Mediterranean Diet: what not to eat
- Limit red meat intake
Inhabitants of Crete and Ikaria like red meats, but rarely have access to any! Extensive research correlates this lack of red meat with reduced heart attacks, strokes, obesity, diabetes, and chronic diseases, including cancer. A major factor in the high consumption of red meats in the U.S. is the ready access to wonderful red meats. Red meats are also highly promoted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides subsidies and crop insurance worth $8 billion to the corn and soya farmers who provide feed for livestock. This policy could be changed to support fishing, aquaculture, and the farming of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.
- Avoid toxic chemicals
In remote places, such as Crete or Ikaria, the inhabitants avoid toxic chemicals in food and food packaging because they consume fresh local produce almost exclusively. Elsewhere, we need to follow some careful steps to try and stay safe. The following measures, from a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, can help reduce unwanted toxic chemicals to which all of us—not just children—are potentially exposed."
- Prioritize fresh and frozen vegetables.
- Avoid processed meats containing nitrate/nitrite preservatives.
- Avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic packaging or containers that have phthalates perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) and/or perchlorates used as an anti-static agent. Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7.
- Use glass or stainless-steel containers whenever possible.
- Avoid canned foods and beverages because of bisphenols (endocrine-disrupting chemicals) in can linings.
- Wash hands before handling food and drinks, and wash unpeeled fruits and vegetables.
What’s best about the Mediterranean Diet?
- Replacing red meat with seafood is the top priority
As a source of protein, fish oils, and omega-3 fatty acids, there is little doubt about the health benefits of seafood. Paul Greenberg has focused on four fish: salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna (see his book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food). The big concern here is the sustainability of wild-caught fish populations, which are under threat. An alternative is “aquaculture.” Although there can be problems with aquaculture, it is considerably safer and has fewer negative environmental and health consequences than land-animal production. In addition, there is a strong potential to really expand aquaculture to include kelp (seaweed). The creation and cultivation of kelp “farms” off the Connecticut shore illustrate the potential environmental and health benefits of this alternative crop. Ocean carbon dioxide is “captured” by the kelp, which helps de-acidify the water.
A recent article in Time magazine points to seven healthy foods on the Mediterranean Diet list: mackerel, pears, pomegranate seeds, spinach, bell peppers, buckwheat, and black tea.
- Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables (and nuts)
Again, there is little doubt about the many health benefits of fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Two additional articles in Time describe how “veggie” burgers have become much more varied and accessible, and recommend “healthy oils,” such as those found in avocados and olive oils.
It is worth the extra effort to transition to the Mediterranean-Diet model. As with everything, moderation is important. Paul Greenberg ate fish for a full year, for example. He did well, but ended up with a high mercury level, which he has since reduced with a more balanced approach.
As is true across the board for myeloma patients, personal knowledge is power. One must stay alert to the latest nutritional research and investigate the pros and cons of potential choices. It would be great to see broader nutrition education available.
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.