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Berries For A Healthy Heart?

Bowl of Fresh Strawberries

A new study was released recently that makes a connection between the regular intake of berries, like strawberries and blueberries, and a reduced risk of heart attacks in women.

The study was big: 93,000 subjects strong. The timeline was long: the women were monitored for a period of 18 years. And the benefit was significant: heart attack risk was reduced by 32% in the women who ate the most berries on a regular basis.

One of the things I like about this study is that they looked at a younger subset of women, ages 25-42. (And yes, dammit, 42 is young.) This is the spirit of preventive health–make lifestyle changes early, so you invest in your health and reap the benefit down the road.

So what’s so awesome about berries? Specifically, anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are antioxidants, and they give berries their red, blue, and purple colors. Antioxidants are important in fending off inflammation, and reversing the kind of damage that’s a precursor to heart disease.

I’m not exactly surprised at the finding that berries are healthy for you, but it is nice to have more scientific evidence for the benefit of this “superfood”.

Also, it’s nice to have more ammo in conversations with my husband, so he doesn’t freak out quite so much when I spend $6 for a teeny-tiny container of raspberries.

What the heck is with the exorbitant price of fruit, these days, anyway? Now that’s something I’d like to understand.

The Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle

An anti-inflammatory lifestyle has become something of an obsession for me. It was thrust upon me, really, after a health incident that caused me to take a very hard look at my own lifestyle. Chronic inflammation is at the root of many of our disease processes, as we’re only just beginning to understand.

I blogged about an anti-inflammatory diet a while ago, but besides modifying your eating habits…are there other things you should be doing?

You bet.

1. Deal With Stress

I’ll admit, I can get a little evangelical about stress management (and the next topic, below) but relentless stress can be a big source of chronic inflammation. Trouble is, stress is a hugely overwhelming topic. How do you even begin to deal? Here’s some help.

2. Get More/Better Sleep

We need sleep to restore, rejuvenate, and recover from all the various insults our systems face all day long. And, yes, that includes inflammatory insults. We’re all busy, for sure, and sleep often comes far down on the priority list. Here’s how to get more sleep. (If you’re facing the special challenges of getting enough sleep because you’re a mom, read this.)

3. Consider Supplements

I do, generally speaking, promote healthy nutrition first and foremost. But I also think there’s a role for certain supplements. Of course there are always new, fancy supplements being touted as part of a preventive, anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Here are the ones I think, currently, have the most evidence in favor of them: omega-3, vitamin D, multivitamins, calcium, magnesium, and possibly selenium (the subject of a future post). But this is all subject to change, as research rolls out.

4. Exercise

Every time I turn around I see more studies published demonstrated more health benefits to exercise. And sometimes I think: Do we really need more research to prove what we already know? That notwithstanding, you really are making a big mistake by not figuring out a way to get more exercise into your life. It’s an important part of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. But–easier said than done, right? Rest assured, every little bit helps. A little exercise, in any form, is better than none. (But if you’re going to choose just one, with anti-inflammation as your goal…I’d choose yoga.)

When This Doctor Became A Patient

It was exactly a year ago when everything changed for me. On May 10, 2011 I logged on to check my bloodwork results. I scrolled down, and stared at the screen. And the floor dropped out from under me.

I had a positive result. Which, in the medical world, is a very big negative. I had a positive ANA. Which is a screening test for lupus.

But let’s back up a little. It all started a few weeks prior, with a little aching in my right elbow. I didn’t think much of it. Too much time on my laptop, maybe. And then, a few days later, I started to feel a little soreness in my right knee. Then my left knee.

Things were not trending in the right direction.

More joints became involved, until I could ignore it no longer. I had distinct pain, and stiffness, in both elbows and wrists, both ankles, knees, and hips. Then, a little redness about my elbows and ankles. And definite, visible swelling.

It was time to see my doctor. I booked an appointment for three days’ time. And during those three days, my symptoms became even worse. I was trying not to freak out. Trying very hard, but not particularly succeeding.

The problem, of course, with having a career in medicine is the knowledge. All the scary possibilities reared up in my imagination. Rheumatoid arthritis. MS. Lupus. Various other connective tissue disorders…

When I finally saw her, my doctor shared my concern. Which was both relieving and worrisome at the same time. I wasn’t imagining it. Also? I wasn’t imagining it.

So we did some tests. X-rays and bloodwork. The x-rays came back normal. Good. The initial bloodwork results came trickling in. Thyroid somewhat off, thyroid antibodies elevated. Low iron. Low vitamin D. It was strange to see my own bloodwork coming back abnormal, I’d always been generally healthy. But none of that stuff was alarming. None of it was stuff I couldn’t deal with.

A few days later I got the result I most definitely could not deal with.

That positive ANA.

I remember staring at the screen. My husband and my dad were making lunch and chatting in the kitchen. My dad was visiting to help us out because I was, at that point, entirely unable to do anything for myself or my children.

I started to cry. The crying got worse, and louder, as that result began to sink in. Me? Lupus? Suddenly, everything I knew about life had changed. My whole life would now be measured in two segments, before lupus, and with lupus. Nothing would ever be the same.

Again, I was simultaneously thankful for, and cursing, my knowledge base. I’d seen people with lupus, watched them deteriorate before my eyes. Lupus was a nasty disease, I knew that. It was a forever diagnosis, but unpredictably waxing and waning. It could affect every aspect of life and function. Cause end-organ damage at a whim. Force the use of potent medication that caused side effects almost as bad as the disease.

It was a terrifying moment.

But shortly after that initial terror, a few things crystallized for me. Life was going to take on a new shape. First, I was not going to do shit I did not want to do anymore. Also? I was going to do shit I did want to do.

Over the subsequent weeks, I saw two rheumatologists and an endocrinologist. There were few answers forthcoming. But one thing they hesitantly agreed on? This was not, in fact, lupus. They weren’t impressed at my antibody numbers. Said my results weren’t specific enough.

A huge relief. For the time being. Because then I entered a different world…the world in which I embraced the unknown.

I had more x-rays taken. Much more bloodwork. My doctor (bless her) called me regularly to check on me. For a while, things continued to worsen for me, physically. My joints became enormous, swollen and painful. Sleeping was very difficult. And the red welt-like lumps grew over my ankles, legs, and elbows. Erythema Nodosum, I thought, looking at the welts and nodding. I went to see my doctor. Erythema Nodosum, she said, on sight, also nodding. Not a diagnosis, per se, just a symptom that was all part of my nonspecific inflammatory flare.

I developed an annoying cough. A dry, irritating cough that seemed to correlate with worsening joint pain. I lived on anti-inflammatories. And, like the bad patient that all good doctors are, I resisted taking the prescribed prednisone. It was a line I was not ready to cross.

My mother wanted answers. “If we could just get a diagnosis, find out what it is…then we’ll know how to treat it.”

I nodded, but I knew the naiveté of this statement. Autoimmune diseases are multitude. There are endless categories and labels, and lots of ‘not otherwise specified’ tags on the ends of otherwise specified names. I knew that many people go years without a firm diagnosis. “I was misdiagnosed for a long time,” they say, clenching their teeth at the conspiracy.

But I know that “misdiagnosis” is really only a relevant term when you’re talking about stuff that’s black and white. And that medicine, the human body, is the exact opposite of black and white. Stuff evolves. Stuff changes. Stuff becomes more obvious, and then we’re in a position to pin down a diagnosis. There are no perfect tests, rarely any textbook cases. Often, the only time we know for sure what happened in someone’s body is when we cut it open at autopsy. And even then, there’s a whole lot of deductive work that goes on. This is all especially true when it comes to autoimmune disease, which shapeshifts to its heart’s desire.

So I prepared for a long period of not exactly “knowing”. But, just because I didn’t have an exact name for the maelstrom that had taken over my body, didn’t mean there was nothing I could do.

I knew that my immune system was freaking out. I knew that my body was going on inflammatory overdrive. And I knew I could do something about that.

So I started taking care of myself, I mean really taking care of myself. I knew about the physical stuff I could do. I needed to get more sleep. I needed to start eating more veggies, more fruit, more whole grains, more superfoods. I started taking vitamin D, and omega-3. And selenium. Incidentally, I suddenly understood the desperate patient’s plight oh-so-well, in a way I’d never experienced before. The urge to take supplements. The urge to do something—anything—to grasp on and hope that I’d discovered the thing that would make me better. I was grappling for the reins of control. Just as I’d seen so many patients do, sitting across from me, sitting in the cheap examination room chair while I sat in the comfy, expensive desk chair. And now I was in that cheap chair.

I couldn’t exercise. I was getting passed by the octogenarians who live in my neighborhood as we walked the snail’s race to the village. I’m not kidding. Literally, I was lapped by seniors with walkers. But I started doing yoga. I could barely do any of the poses at first, could barely move, really, but I still managed to spend a couple of minutes doing deep breathing, meditating, and very gentle stretches.

Significantly, I started exploring the less tangible aspects of health. Mostly, stress. I had been under a lot of stress. New baby, living through major house renovations, putting tons of pressure on myself to work and be a great mom and wife…plus my own writing aspirations. It was too much.

I started reading a lot about stress, which led me to reading about happiness. And that has revolutionized my life.

And then…as the weeks went by, things peaked and began, ever so gradually, to improve. About three months after things started, I was mostly back to normal. Physically, anyway. Psychologically, I would never be the same. In a good way.

I don’t know what improved things for me. Was it the omega-3? Was it the yoga? Or was it just the natural course of things; would I have gotten better on my own?

The rheumatologists, at last, agreed on a diagnosis. Most likely, I’d been battling a thing called Lofgren’s Syndrome. A rare form of a rare disease called sarcoidosis. Which is classified as an idiopathic autoimmune disorder. Idiopathic, here, meaning: no identifiable cause. Read: we have no freaking idea why it happens.

In me, maybe stress triggered it. Maybe not. You know what? It doesn’t matter. I knew I was too stressed. And whether the stress caused it, contributed to it, or was merely an innocent bystander…I knew I had to do something about it.

I wrote a bucket list. I’ve got a very specific stress management plan now. I figured out some priorities. Happiness has become a cornerstone goal for me.

One year later, is everything exactly as I want it? Nope. I’ve been symptom free since everything settled in the summer. Am I stress free? Not exactly. Am I blissfully happy? Ummm, not quite. But you know what? It’s pretty damn close. Do I have a perfect lifestyle?

Well…it’s getting there. And that’s okay, because it’s a work in progress. A healthy lifestyle isn’t something you just turn on overnight. You work at it. I’m working at it.

A big milestone for me? I started running. At first I wasn’t sure this was a good idea. My husband was nervous for me, didn’t want me to do anything that would stress my joints, for fear of things coming back. But…so far, so awesome.

And I embrace the uncertainty every day. Because although the rheumatologists believe Lofgren’s syndrome to be the most likely diagnosis, there’s still a chance it could have been—could be—something else. Something that could come back. Like lupus. See, I read their consultation letters. There was lots of room for reassessment should my symptoms recur.

To be honest, it’s hard not to freak out every time I get a little twang in a joint, now and then. But, in a way, it’s a good thing. It certainly keeps me from taking my health for granted. Those little twangs serve as momentary reminders.

Health can be snatched away, even one evening while you’re sitting there on Twitter and your elbow starts to ache a little. Taking your health for granted is a mistake we all make. But I’m working on correcting that, and enjoying my good health every day.

Just the other day I jogged swiftly past a pair of seniors ambling along with their walkers. And my heart soared. Of course, I know I’ll be just like them one day.

But not yet. Not just yet.

You Say Tomato…

People bat around the word superfood pretty blithely these days, which is easy, because there’s no real definition. Scientists tend to use the term “functional food” (meaning: food which provides a clinically proven and documented health benefit) but it’s not quite as sexy, is it?

Anyway, I like the term superfood, but I try to reserve it for only the best cases. And today I’m going to talk about one such case. The gorgeous food known as: the tomato.

Tomatoes are packed full of antioxidants. Carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamin C, vitamin E…basically, tomatoes are off the chart when it comes to phytochemicals. In particular, though, it’s lycopene that gets the most attention. Lycopene is the compound that happens to give tomatoes their luscious red color, and it confers all sorts of health benefits. It’s also unusual in one property: it becomes even more bioavailable after cooking and processing. So you can benefit from tomato consumption even if you’re having tomato sauce or tomato paste.

The tomato has been shown to be anticancer. This is primarily due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of the nutrients in tomatoes. The evidence is strongest for prostate cancer–much research shows that regular tomato consumption can reduce a man’s risk of prostate cancer. But there are also studies showing that tomatoes can help prevent pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, and certain types of lung cancer, too.

Tomatoes are also good for your heart: they have been shown to improve cholesterol profile. They have anti-platelet activity. And it’s probably no coincidence that the tomato features heavily in the Mediterranean diet, well-known to be a heart-healthy way to go (and delish, besides).

Interestingly, there’s also some early research to indicate that tomatoes are good for our bones, specifically due to carotenoids and lycopene. Recent studies have shown that these antioxidants may be beneficial for bone density, and that poor intake correlates to low bone density and increased risk of fracture. (For more about bone health, read this.)

Another thing that’s great about tomatoes? They are just so damn easy to incorporate into your diet. Throw some fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and sea salt onto toasted baguette…world’s best bruschetta.

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10 Tips to Prevent Cancer

It’s like Voldemort. It strikes such fear into people’s hearts, some of us are afraid to even speak the word, for fear of invoking the name…but let’s just say it: Cancer.

Everybody is afraid of cancer.

It’s the elephant in the room for many, many of my patient visits. Occasionally people will vocalize their fear, but often it’s lurking there, unsaid. 

One of the scary things about cancer is the feeling that it could strike us down, randomly, like winning some horrible lottery. And that makes us feel like we’re out of control. 

Fact is, there are lots of things we can do to stay healthy. To counteract feelings of helplessness, here are my top tips on how to prevent cancer:

1.Eat a Mediterranean diet.

This diet, rich in fruit & veggies, fish, whole grains, nuts and olive oil has been repeatedly linked with lower rates of cancer. The Mediterranean diet is my personal fave, and it’s not just about cancer prevention…there are other health reasons to adopt this way of eating (and lifestyle), like heart disease prevention. And then there’s the pleasure factor, something the Mediterranean diet has in spades. 

2.Quit smoking.

Do I really need to go into detail on why this one is a good idea? Of course, easier said than done, I know. Quitting smoking is huge-ola. But help is out there. See your friendly doctor as a starting point! If you’re in BC, check out QuitNow. Or check out Health Canada’s advice. Also, the American Cancer Society has some ideas.

3.Wear sunblock.

Preventing skin cancer is definitely within your control. Wear the highest SPF you can get your hands on. Also? Sport a hat, slide on those sunglasses. Another benefit of sunblock: wrinkle prevention. Leathery skin is so 1986. A caveat: if, like me, you wear sunblock like a religion…think about your vitamin D level–you could be deficient (which is easily fixed, though–see below).  

4.Drink green tea.

Green tea is chock full of antioxidants. Those are the compounds that fight free radicals and reduce inflammation–underlying mechanisms that cause cancer. Early research on green tea is showing some promise in terms of cancer prevention, but some study results have been mixed. Still, green tea is safe, and if you find a blend you like, it’s a pleasurable ritual. Plus there are other health benefits to tea. While the scientists are busy sorting out the full story, I say enjoy a cup or two of green tea a day.

5.Eat superfoods.

If you’ve adopted a Mediterranean diet, you’ll already be getting many of these superfoods shown to reduce cancer risk, but as extra weapons in your arsenal, try adding these yummies to your diet: blueberries, broccoli, beans, apples, garlic, grapes, tomatoes, and…wait for it: dark chocolate. Oh yes, people, I said chocolate.

6.Aim for a healthy weight.

There is a clear connection between excess body fat and cancer risk. Why? Fat cells don’t just sit there, merely thwarting your desire to squeeze into last year’s jeans. They produce estrogen. And estrogen promotes cell growth. They also secrete various chemicals and proteins that trigger inflammation and insulin resistance. Which also encourages cell growth. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to prevent cancer. But…easier said than done. Need assistance? Start with portion control. Belly fat your issue? Here’s help in that department.

7.Take an Aspirin and call me in the morning.

A fascinating thing was discovered recently–a daily aspirin seems to reduce the risk of some big-time cancers: colon, lung, prostate, and more. And in this study, it reduced them by a lot. Why might this be? Aspirin is a potent anti-inflammatory, and it may also cause DNA-damaged cells to die. But aspirin is not for everyone–it can cause stomach lining irritation and bleeding. If you’re considering this route, talk to your doctor first. 

8.Exercise.

Beyond keeping our weight under control, physical activity itself helps prevent cancer. It regulates hormone levels, boosts our immune systems, helps the digestive tract function smoothly…and we call that winning. Of course, shoe-horning exercise in to our busy lives is no small challenge. Here’s how to do it.

9.Take Vitamin D.

Studies have recently shown a higher cancer risk when vitamin D levels are low. Many of us are walking around deficient in vitamin D with no idea (ahem, count me as one of those). Consider a blood test to check your level, consider a little more sunshine in your life (but not too much!), consider supplements.

10.Get regular checkups & screening.

Paps, mammograms, colonoscopies…we’ve got all kinds of tools now to help us detect cancer early. Recommendations for screening will vary based on age and individual risk factors, so see your doc about this.

There you go, you’re on your way to a healthier future. Nothing to fear. Now…say it with me: Voldemort.

Mad About Nuts

When I was younger I used to avoid nuts because of their high fat content. You too?

Fortunately, we now know about the blissful thing called “healthy fat“. There’s no doubt, nuts do contain a lot of fat, but most of it is the monounsaturated kind (same stuff that’s in olive oil). And that sort of fat is good for your cholesterol profile, and protects against heart disease. But the good news about nuts doesn’t stop there. Nuts are also a great source of protein, and contains tons of beneficial nutrients, like magnesium, vitamin E, and flavonoids. Research has shown many health benefits to consuming nuts, like reducing your risk of developing blood clots and improving the lining of your arteries. All this definitely places nuts in the “superfood” category.

But are some nuts better than others? Here’s a field guide.

Almonds seem to get a lot of press. And for good reason. They are a rich source of vitamin E (an antioxidant), magnesium, flavonoids, and calcium.

Walnuts (my current fave) are chock full of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid. And omega-3 is a very good thing. I have walnuts with greek yogurt, just about every day. Also, walnuts have almost twice the antioxidant levels of other nuts.

Peanuts (which, technically, aren’t nuts but legumes…if you’re into that sort of Cliff Calvin/Cheers type trivia…) are a rich source of folic acid, which is super-important for pregnant (or trying!) women for preventing birth defects. Peanuts also contain resveratrol–yes, that’s the selfsame antioxidant found in red grapes and red wine.

Cashews have got lots of oleic acid (monounsaturated fat), calcium, and copper which is beneficial for red blood cell formation.

Pistachios are high in phytosterols and heart-lovin’ monounsaturated fats. Pistachios are also a great source of potassium, vitamin B6, and calcium.

Chestnuts are one of the lower-calorie, lower-fat nuts. They’re also rich in potassium, folate, and vitamin C (the only nuts with C). Roasted chestnuts are one of my favorite winter treats, and in Italy they soak chestnuts in wine before roasting. Yes please.

Bottom line: because each type of nut carries its own nutrient cocktail, and no shortage of health benefits, I think that leaves us free to choose the ones we like best. After all, this is food, people, and it’s about taste! Also, I’m a believer in variety.

Mixed nuts, then?

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Can Flossing Save Your Life?

Are you a regular flosser? Yeah, me neither. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I sit in my dentist’s chair and listen to the hygienist’s heartfelt lecture on flossing…when it comes time to make good on my sworn promises…I dunno. I’m a good brusher–great brusher, in fact–but just so damn lazy when it comes to flossing.

Well, I recently read something that might help give me a kick in the pants, in the flossing department.

Did you know that flossing, and dental/gum hygiene in general, can play a role in preventing heart disease? Surprised?

I know it seems random, but here’s the story.

It turns out there are several studies that show an association between gum disease and heart disease. One theory: inflammation in the gums sets off a biochemical cascade that promotes inflammation throughout the body. And chronic, unchecked inflammation is one of those things we’re starting to recognize as a major factor in heart disease. (Check my little primer on how we can measure your level of inflammation, and heart disease risk).

It’s also hypothesized that bacteria from your mouth (I hate to tell you, but the human mouth is a cesspool of microorganisms–gross but true) may enter your bloodstream and contribute to further inflammation and clogging of the arteries.

Here’s a post from RealAge on the benefits of flossing. And another one from The Independent, in the UK.

Here’s another thought, though. Gum disease and poor dental hygiene may simply be a marker for general health…which means if you’ve got healthy gums you probably take care of yourself in other ways. In other words, this whole flossing thing is not so much something you do to prevent heart disease, per se, it’s just a sign that your heart is already reasonably healthy.

Regardless, I’m going to make flossing a new resolution. Again. Promise.

research source

What is CRP?

Is CRP a test you should be getting done? Chances are, you’ve never even heard of it. (If you have: bonus points to you!) CRP stands for C-Reactive Protein, and it’s a marker for inflammation. But we also use it as a screening test for heart disease risk. 

At this point you might be asking: what does inflammation have to do with heart disease, exactly?

A lot, as we’re starting to learn.

How inflammation contributes to heart disease

Chronic inflammation is at the root of many diseases. When inflammation gets into otherwise healthy tissues it can inflict long-term damage, and it poses a particular problem for the heart. Inflammation triggers a series of processes and chemical reactions that encourages plaque buildup in the arteries–narrowing those vessels and making blood clots more likely. This is the root of coronary artery disease. The American Heart Association says that people with high CRP are twice as likely to have cardiac arrest than people with low CRP. Which makes it a very important risk factor. But, CRP is a relatively new test, and not exactly standard practice–yet.

The kicker is that CRP is a non-specific marker of inflammation, meaning, it doesn’t tell us where the inflammation is within your body. So this is not a diagnostic test. Not like a pregnancy test, where you get a yes or a no. It gives us an idea about the degree of inflammation you’ve got going on.

Should You Get Your CRP Tested?

Is this test for everyone? No. If you already have known cardiac disease, or have other major risk factors anyway, the result of a CRP test is probably not going to significantly change your treatment. You should already be working on your modifiable risk factors (like quitting smoking and eating healthfully). A CRP test doesn’t replace other ways of monitoring heart disease risk, like checking blood pressure and cholesterol. But if you have intermediate risk, it could be a very useful screening test. Essentially, it comes down to individual factors, and a conversation with your family physician.

How to Lower Your CRP

If you get the test, and have an elevated CRP, what should you do to lower it?

  • Start by adopting an anti-inflammatory diet. The Mediterranean diet is my favorite variation.
  • Take Omega-3 supplements. Many studies have demonstrated the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 fatty acids, including a reduction in CRP.
  • Take Vitamin C. A study at UC Berkeley found that patients with elevated CRP who supplemented with 1000 mg of Vitamin C daily lowered their CRP by an average of 25%. 
  • Include more fiber in your diet. A 2006 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people with a fiber-rich diet were less likely (by 63%) to have an elevated CRP than people with poor fiber intake.
  • My personal fave: eat a little dark chocolate. A 2008 study in Italy showed an association between moderate dark chocolate intake and significantly lower levels of CRP.

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Get Healthy With Olive Oil, Tomatoes, and Wine

I’ll admit it: I’m a little obsessed with Europe. In the past I’ve written about the French Paradox , and there’s a big part of me that would like to be reborn in this life as a French woman (and not only because spa treatments are considered part of the French healthcare system). Also, I could very easily live the rest of my life in London, drinking tea and taking weekend trips to Paris and Tuscany.

But lately I’ve been researching and reading about the Mediterranean diet, and I’m growing convinced that it’s the way to go. Not as a short-term weight loss plan, per se (although it does appear to help with that), but more as a long-term way of life. And that’s because the evidence is overwhelming that it can lead to a longer, healthier life.

And who doesn’t want that?

The research in favor of the Mediterranean diet is huge-ola. Much of it surrounds the impressive benefit to our hearts. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Medicine this month analyzed the results of several studies that pitted the Mediterranean diet and low-fat diets head-to-head. They found that the Mediterranean diet was more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet, and brought greater improvements to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to protect against the “big C”: many studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to reduce cancer risk.

The British Medical Journal published a big study a couple of years ago, concluding that the Mediterranean diet is associated with “a significant improvement in health status”, specifically: a reduction in overall mortality (9%), mortality from cardiovascular diseases (9%), cancer (6%), and incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (13%).

Convinced yet?

So what, exactly, do you eat if you’re trying to go Mediterranean?

  • real food, for starters
  • an emphasis on plant-based food: vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes
  • limited red meat, but plenty of poultry and fish
  • olive oil (pretty much replacing all your other fats, like butter)
  • nuts
  • fresh, seasonal food
  • wine in moderation
  • no eliminated food groups (except twinkies)

There’s much more detail out there, of course, if you’re interested. A wonderful resource for all things Mediterranean diet is Oldways. This is an organization on a mission to raise awareness about the health benefits (and joy) of this ancient way of eating.

When my husband and I were in Italy a few years ago, we made bruschetta in our little kitchen pretty much every day: fresh bread, fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil and salt…and if there’s a better taste combination out there, I’d like to find it. Sometimes, the simpler the food, the better.

Besides all the research, I am personally convinced that eating a Mediterranean diet is an effective way to adopt a healthy lifestyle for one other important reason: it is pure pleasure. And, therefore, something you’d be not only willing to do long-term, but happy to do. 

Sure, there may be other ways you could improve your health and live longer. I happen to not believe there is one perfect diet for everyone. Some people may be able to stick to Dr. Esseltsyn’s ultra-low-fat/vegan diet , as an example. In fact, I have little doubt that if you really could stick to this kind of nutrition plan, your heart would be healthier. But for most of us, it would involve just too much sacrifice. And if you’ve been reading this blog for anything longer than five minutes, you’ll know that I’m all about enjoying life, enjoying food, and indulging whenever possible .

The mediterranean diet fits this bill perfectly.

Vitamin Chocolate? Why Chocolate Is Good For You

In recent years, you might have heard rumors about chocolate being good for your health. And you promptly dismissed said rumors as being way too good to be true. But this week a study was published that is seriously validating the idea of chocolate as health food.

According to the folks at the British Medical Journal, chocolate is good for your heart. Really good, that is. Like, reduce-your-heart-disease-risk-by-37%-kind-of-good.

The meta-analysis published this week analyzed 53 studies on chocolate and cardiometabolic disease (meaning: heart disease and stroke, plus diabetes and metabolic syndrome). This was quickly trimmed down to seven studies, as the lower-quality or non-relevant research was weeded out.

But in those seven studies, the researchers found  that “high chocolate consumption” was associated with about a third decrease in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders—37% in the case of any cardiovascular disease and 29% in the case of stroke prevention.

Now, just a little sidebar: the “high chocolate consumption” they’re referring to is up to two pieces per week. Although they don’t specify how large those pieces were. So take that with a grain of salt.

But here’s some good news for milk chocolate lovers: this time, the studies did not differentiate between dark and milk chocolate, just chocolate consumption in general. In the past, dark chocolate has always received the press; this time, not so much.

So what makes chocolate so beneficial? The researchers speculate that the high content of polyphenols in cocoa is at the root of it all. Previous studies have shown other health-boosting effects of chocolate: it appears to lower blood pressure, cut inflammation, reduce cholesterol, and inhibit clotting. All effects that will improve a person’s cardiovascular health.

Now if this news isn’t Wicked Healthy, I don’t know what is.

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Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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