Foods That Can Save Your Life
Dennis Brzozowski grew up eating an overindulgent American diet. His family owned grocery stores, and a typical meal was his grandmother’s home-cooked (in lard) pork chops, topped off with pie for dessert. That unhealthy lifestyle led to coronary heart disease, and he suffered the first of four heart attacks in 2000.
“Blood thinners, cholesterol meds—you name it, I was on it,” says Brzozowski, now a Marco Island resident in his mid-50s. “I was eating what cardiologists told me was a healthy diet. I stayed away from fried foods, but they couldn’t find out the reason I kept clogging up. In 2006, I had a massive heart attack.”
By 2008, Brzozowski had a total of 19 stents inserted to deal with the recurrent clogging of his arteries. That’s when Dr. Richard Saitta, an internal medicine specialist on Marco, convinced him to try the healthy foods eaten by those who live around the Mediterranean Sea, widely known as the Mediterranean diet. Saitta, who grew up in France and wrote the book Eating Your Way to Health ... Mediterranean Style, says modern chronic diseases are preventable. That simple change to Brzozowski’s diet quickly put him on the road to recovery.
“The Mediterranean diet is not a diet. It’s a lifestyle,” Saitta says. “It’s been studied intensively in medical reviews.” Those studies show that inhabitants of islands in the Mediterranean live longer without the cardiovascular diseases and cancers common to modern Americans.
Audrey McKernan, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at NCH Healthcare System’s Briggs Health Pavilion, agrees that the Mediterranean meal plan is the best. “It’s high in fish, fiber, fruits, vegetables, monounsaturated fats and whole grains,” she says. “You’re getting all the antioxidants.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
1 Olive Oil
A diet high in monounsaturated fat, found in olive oil, as well as in canola oil, nuts and avocados, helps keep the good cholesterol up and brings the bad cholesterol down, McKernan says.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, as well as depression, lupus, asthma and others, can be found in sardines, mackerel, tuna and salmon. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish three times per week. McKernan says Atlantic salmon is better than farm-raised salmon, which has added hormones. To reduce the amount of mercury you consume, choose chunk light tuna instead of solid white tuna.
3 Fresh Vegetables and Fruits
McKernan says green, leafy vegetables are highest in omega-3. Beneficial vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes (detoxify the liver) and cooked tomatoes (prevent prostate cancer). Other foods rich in omega-3: tofu, walnuts, pine nuts, almonds, flaxseed and soy (although soy is not recommended for women with breast cancer).
Saitta and McKernan agree it’s better to eat the actual fruit than to drink fruit juices in order to get more fiber and less sugar. McKernan said the hot trend is juice of the acai berry and pomegranate, but she says blueberries—wild, not cultured—are high in antioxidants, too. “You want to get food that’s local, in season,” McKernan says. “Get them right away and eat them right away. They have their highest nutrition right after they’re picked.” She also recommends buying fruits and vegetables in a wide variety of colors.
4 Whole Grain Pasta
Saitta says it’s best to cook whole grain pasta al dente and eat it with high-fiber vegetables and beans to delay carbohydrate absorption. “It’s not just decreasing carbs but choosing better carbs,” says McKernan, who recommends avoiding all whites—flour, rice and bread—especially for those suffering from diabetes or heart disease. Instead, choose whole wheat pasta, whole grain breads and brown rice. Sweet potato versus white potato? Again, avoid whites. McKernan says the sweet potato has more fiber and more nutrients.
“Fifty percent of your fiber per day should be from whole grains,” she says. “Water-soluble fibers push cholesterol out of the arteries.” McKernan says all beans are high in soluble fiber, antioxidants and protein. “I recommend three cups of beans a week,” she says. “But don’t do baked beans. They’re loaded down with molasses, corn syrup and sugar.”
5 Goat and Sheep Cheese
Saitta says when it comes to dairy, cheese made from the milk of goats and sheep is natural and easily digestible. With no cow’s milk protein, it doesn’t create lactose-intolerance problems. McKernan recommends low-fat dairy and says to avoid processed cheeses such as American and Velveeta. She doesn’t recommend “light” yogurts because they are loaded with the sweetener aspartame. Instead, she prefers Greek yogurts, such as the brands Chobani and Oikos, because they have the most live active cultures to promote healthy colon bacteria to boost the immune system. They also have more protein, fewer carbs and no added sweeteners. She also recommends eggs as a great source of B vitamins, protein and iron. The yolk even contains lutein, which reduces the risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.
6 Herbs and Spices
Garlic works as an antibiotic when raw and as an antioxidant when cooked. Oregano, thyme and rosemary all help digestion and can be used in place of salt to flavor a meal.
What’s missing from the Mediterranean diet list? Meat. Saitta says ideally, you can eat very lean meat just once a month—but in America, more typically once a week. “A lot of people turn to chicken, but it’s still big animal protein to digest,” he says. However, McKernan usually recommends eating lean red meat twice a week—fillet, tenderloin or lean sirloin—for its iron benefits.
Brzozowski follows the Mediterranean diet quite strictly. He opts for high-fiber oatmeal or bran cereal in the morning, organic frozen meals created by Saitta for lunch, and a salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing for dinner, supplemented with fruits and vegetables. However, a variety of Mediterranean diet recipe books are also available for those who prefer to cook their own meals.
“It’s like anything else,” Brzozowski says. “To change your way of eating does take some patience. It’s like quitting cigarettes. You have to kick the mental habit of wanting steak, pork chops, things you ate all your life. But like any craving, you get over it. It took me three or four weeks to get used to eating a different way. But look at what it did to my blood work, my energy levels, even my symptoms of being dizzy.”
Brzozowski has lost nearly 40 pounds in about eight months. He says the Mediterranean diet has raised his good cholesterol, lowered his bad cholesterol, boosted his energy and allowed him to stop taking most of his medications. “I just went in for another exam, and [my arteries are] completely clear,” he says. “When I made the commitment, that’s when things changed for me. ... Are things in life reversible? Yes.”
You don’t have to be in as dire a situation as Brzozowski’s to begin making food choices that could change your future—and even save your life. McKernan says heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and some cancers are all brought on by obesity. “The huge thing is,” she says, “that diet and exercise help prevent a lot of it."
The nutrition professionals’ web site www.rd411.com warns against treating any particular food as a “magic bullet.” Instead, it says, foods provide many more health benefits when eaten in combination as part of a well-balanced diet. But some items, called functional foods, do provide specific health benefits beyond basic nutrition.
Green tea may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers.
Grapes/wine, apples, dark chocolate, cocoa and tea may reduce the risk of certain cancers, particularly breast.
Cranberries help prevent and treat urinary tract infections, may promote gastrointestinal and oral health, prevent kidney stones, lower bad and raise good cholesterol, aid stroke recovery and help prevent cancer.
Onions, bananas, garlic, honey, leeks, artichokes, whole grains, yogurt and other cultured milk products may improve function of the gut and immune system, increase absorption of calcium and magnesium, reduce risk of colorectal cancers and decrease blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.
Cherries promote heart health, reduce the risk of cancer and may promote sleep.
Strawberries make new cells and prevent anemia and neural tube defects in developing fetuses.
Blueberries neutralize free radical damage to reduce the risk of cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, heart disease, cancer, urinary tract infections, short-term memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, osteoporosis and more.
Raspberries neutralize free radicals and provide antioxidant benefits.
Acai and pomegranate juices have high vitamin concentrations and antioxidant properties.
Carrots may reduce the risk of stroke for men with symptoms of heart disease.
Chili peppers may prevent strokes, lower cholesterol and protect DNA against carcinogens.
Spinach may reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke, block free radicals and help prevent osteoporosis.
Mushrooms stimulate the immune system (shitake, enoki, zhuling and reishi have anti-cancer and antiviral effects).
Papaya, pineapple and kiwi combat autoimmune diseases, allergies and cancer.
Mangoes aid the immune system.
Sources: NCH registered dietitian Audrey McKernan, www.rd411.com and Executive Health’s Good Health Report.