From nuts and berries to butter and meat, (healthy) fat is where it’s at

By Miles Hassell, M.D., medical director, Providence Integrated Medicine Program

Most of us already have the most important tools for preventing or treating heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, osteoarthritis, obesity, depression or high blood pressure. These tools are good food and daily exercise along with adequate sleep – a powerful factor that is often ignored.

“Any food commonly eaten for more than 150 years should be innocent until proven guilty, and any food created by man in the last 150 years is guilty until proven innocent.”
Miles Hassell, M.D.

The thoughtful use of each of these lifestyle choices is the strongest predictor of good health for most people and may actually help reverse disease.

For example, someone who already has heart disease can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 70 percent or more with diet alone, and 60 percent or more with exercise. That’s better than we see from our best drugs and medical procedures. We find that the combination of conventional medicine added to food and exercise seems to give even better results.

Good food is whole food

Most whole, minimally processed food is good for you. The term “whole food” describes food as close to its original form as possible, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, grains that are whole or at least partially intact (like steel cut oats or cracked wheat), beans and legumes, raw nuts and seeds, and animal products, such as eggs and fresh meat. Butter, cheese and yogurt are whole foods, and can even be made at home.

Some of the foods included in my general recommendations might be considered controversial. For example, real butter, tea and coffee, dark chocolate, aged cheese, eggs, meat and modest amounts of alcohol. However, the evidence shows that all of these appear to be healthy when eaten as a small part of a varied diet that already includes plenty of vegetables and whole fruit, beans and legumes, and whole grains.

Any food commonly eaten for more than 150 years should be innocent until proven guilty, and any food created by man in the last 150 years is guilty until proven innocent.

The Mediterranean factor

The Mediterranean-style diet is the only dietary approach that has been associated with fewer heart attacks, less cancer and diabetes, fewer strokes and less dementia in large populations studied over long periods of time, including randomized controlled trials. No other dietary approach has shown such evidence.

When compared head-to-head against low-fat diets, the Mediterranean diet is better than low-fat diets at controlling weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin levels and diabetes risk.

There is no precise definition of the Mediterranean diet. However, it is safe to say that there is a general pattern common with most Mediterranean regions, and consistent with what has been found in the published studies. Whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, protein, and good fat provide the foundation. We describe our approach as a whole food Mediterranean diet. The whole food model emphasizes minimally processed foods that have their nutrients largely intact.

What can you eat?

  • Eat lots of minimally processed or unprocessed food from plant sources: vegetables, fresh or cooked, as part of every meal; fresh fruit; beans and legumes daily; and whole grains (preferably intact).
  • Eat healthy fats like avocado, raw nuts, raw oil seeds (such as sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds), and use extra-virgin olive oil as the main kitchen oil, replacing most other oils and fats.
  • Include animal protein, with an emphasis on oil-rich fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines; moderate amounts of poultry, pork and eggs; and small amounts of red meat.
  • Eat dairy food primarily in the form of cultured products such as yogurt and kefir (a yogurt-like drink) and aged cheese.
  • Drink a small amount of wine, generally with meals.

What foods should you avoid?

  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, found in most margarines, vegetable shortening and many packaged foods
  • Refined grains, such as instant oatmeal, cold breakfast cereal, white rice, crackers and breads or pastas containing white flour (also called “enriched wheat flour”)
  • Sugar by any name, including agave nectar, corn syrup and fruit juice concentrates
  • Preserved (processed) meats, such as bacon, ham, deli meats, sausages and hot dogs
  • Commercially fried foods, which means any foods you don’t fry yourself
  • Fake or highly altered foods, such as egg and butter substitutes, nondairy creamer, and artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors