DEAR DOCTOR K:
In some of your columns you’ve said that the “Mediterranean diet” is healthy. First, what is a Mediterranean diet? Second, what proof is there that it really is healthy? Call me “Skeptical.”
Well, “Skeptical,” prepare yourself for a fairly emphatic reply. Because when I think skepticism about something important is misguided, I tend to unload.
The Mediterranean diet is the traditional diet of people in countries near the Mediterranean Sea. The diet is rich in plant foods. These include fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds. Animal protein is consumed chiefly in the forms of fish and poultry. Olive oil is the principal fat. And wine is taken with meals.
Now let’s turn to your skepticism. The only time you’ll hear in this column that a particular type of lifestyle is healthy is when there is scientific evidence behind it — lots of it.
How do we know the Mediterranean diet is healthy? From hundreds of scientific studies involving hundreds of thousands of people whose health was followed for decades. Most of these studies were “observational”: They carefully evaluated people’s diets on a regular basis and measured their health. In fact, there are so many of these studies, involving so many people, from so many different parts of the world, that it’s hard to summarize them briefly.
But here’s my summary: People who eat a Mediterranean diet have a substantially lower risk of getting diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, colorectal cancer and prostate cancer. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also have a lower risk of dying from heart disease, dying from cancer — or dying from any cause.
Doesn’t sound too shabby, does it? And the Mediterranean diet doesn’t have any adverse side effects. But it does cost a little more than junk food.
If you’re a regular reader of this column, you’ll know that observational studies like those I just summarized are not as strong evidence as randomized trials. That’s true, but there also are a number of large randomized trials that point in the same direction as the observational studies. For example, a recently published study of more than 7,000 men and women called PREDIMED found that people eating a Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts reduced their risk of diabetes by 40 percent.
Now, if doctors had invented a pill that reduced your risk of so many major diseases, you’d want that pill. And you’d probably be willing to pay a lot for it, too.
But there already is a way for you to protect yourself against the diseases that we all want to avoid. And you don’t have to do anything beyond what you already do, anyway: eat.
Maybe I’ve come on a little strong today. But I think there’s a lot of misguided skepticism about what science has shown is a healthy lifestyle. And I want skeptics like you to know that I think your skepticism puts you at risk.