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In his new book, The Simple Mediterranean Diet: Easy Steps to Change Your Diet…And Change Your Life, cardiologist Dr. Ariel Soffer recommends both the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, fish, wine, olive oil, and lean meat. Its well-documented disease-reduction benefits derive from polyphenols such as hydroxytyrosol found in olive oil, omega-3s from fish, resveratrol from red wine, beta-sitosterols from plant foods, and other constituents.
As a cardiologist, Dr. Soffer is all too familiar with the ravages of the typical American diet, and his book includes practical tips and recipes. He recently gave us this exclusive interview.
LE: Can you briefly outline the overall Mediterranean lifestyle?
AS: The Mediterranean lifestyle I’m proposing seeks to add balance to your life by keeping work and stressful activities in perspective. And the diet is based on a wide array of wholesome, “whole” foods that are packed with nutrients and antioxidants. There are literally hundreds of high-quality, peer-reviewed studies showing that following the simple principles I describe in this book can benefit every area of your life. You’ll lose weight, lower your disease risk, live longer, and be happier. Perhaps even better, you won’t feel like you’re suffering or denying yourself.
LE: And for those who find it challenging to make all their meals Mediterranean, you recommend SimpleMD—what exactly is SimpleMD?
AS: This program takes the best of the Mediterranean Diet and makes it easy to follow by providing ready-to-eat SimpleMD protein bars made with authentic extra virgin olive oil and real red wine.
LE: What led you to your focus on the Mediterranean diet?
AS: There really was one moment that pushed me over the edge. There were already plenty of data showing that the Mediterranean Diet was good for your heart and arteries. But (in 2015) a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at the rate of invasive breast cancer among women. And guess what? The study authors, led by Dr. Estefania Toledo, found that a diet high in extra virgin olive oil actually reduced the risk of breast cancer.
LE: What was the deeper significance of this?
AS: This was the first randomized trial of any type showing that a particular diet could reduce the risk of breast cancer—and it all came down to extra virgin olive oil for the “primary prevention of breast cancer.” This is deeply exciting, because it shows that the Mediterranean Diet isn’t a one-trick diet. It’s not only good for heart disease. It is about glowing good health in every area of life.
LE: Your book stresses two essential elements of the Mediterranean diet. Extra virgin olive oil and red wine. Can you explain the effects of each on the body? First, olive oil.
AS: Put simply, it’s an incredibly healthy fat that you should be consuming every day. Extra virgin olive oil is loaded with healthy monounsaturated fats and powerful polyphenols. It has been shown to protect the inner lining of coronary arteries and help lower blood pressure in women with high blood pressure. A review of all the published benefits of extra virgin olive oil found that it helped reduce inflammation in the coronary arteries, may help lower total cholesterol, reduced the formation of blood clots, and provided additional evidence that it supported healthy arteries. Extra virgin olive oil has been shown to help prevent stroke in the elderly. In lab studies, extra virgin olive oil has been shown to slow tumor growth in colon cancer. Consumption of olive oil appears to support healthy brain function and might even protect against depression. It is unique among cooking oils for its ability to support a healthy heart, brain, vascular system, and in newer research is even suggested to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.
LE: What can people do to ensure that their extra virgin olive oil is authentic?
AS: One way is to buy directly from the producer and have it shipped to your home. However, this can be expensive—you might find yourself paying as much for extra virgin olive oil as you would for a fine perfume or cologne! A better option is to buy one of the up-and-coming California extra virgin olive oils. California is making a name for itself by producing authentic, high quality, and superior-tasting extra virgin olive oils you can trust. These extra virgin olive oils have the benefit of being much fresher, because they aren’t stored and shipped overseas, so they are less likely to be rancid, oxidized, or fake.
LE: And what about the effects on the body of the other essential component of the Mediterranean diet—red wine?
AS: Perhaps not surprisingly, what makes red wine so powerful begins with the grapes. Wine grapes are full of powerful polyphenols. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, polyphenols are best known for preventing diseases like heart disease and cancer. They are commonly found in medicinal plants and are known to take an active role in enzyme activity and cell health. Polyphenols can be found in green tea, coffee, herbs and spices, fruits, vegetables, and red grapes.
LE: And the chief polyphenol in red wine is resveratrol, correct?
AS: Resveratrol has even attracted attention from life extension researchers, who believe that it may be able to extend cell life and someday be used to prolong human life. It helps protect the heart against ischemic heart disease by protecting the coronary arteries from damage caused by inflammation and oxidation. Resveratrol, along with other plant chemicals, is known to target and disrupt the creation of cancer cells. Exciting new research is showing that resveratrol can be an important part of a multifaceted approach to treating and slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s. Resveratrol has been shown to modify certain brain chemicals that are closely linked to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, which are all closely related to increased risk of heart disease as well as a constellation of other health issues. Through its ability to support healthy brain function and regular neurochemicals, resveratrol can help prevent depression and bipolar disorder, and in some smaller studies, has been shown to reduce the risk of autism.
LE: You also point to the benefits of non-wine alcohol.
AS: According to Harvard Medical School, alcohol in any form is known to help protect the heart, and moderate drinkers have lower rates of heart attack, strokes, blood clots, and overall death from heart disease. In fact, the overall risk reduction ranges between 25% and 40%. That’s a pretty significant benefit. Moderate drinking has been shown to increase levels of “good” (HDL) cholesterol, improve your body’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin (which helps control blood sugar), reduce your blood’s tendency to clot (which helps prevent the formation of clots that cause heart attack and stroke), and reduce the risk of diabetes.
LE: How much wine and extra virgin olive oil should we consume each day?
AS: Enjoy one glass a day of red wine for women and one to two for men. A traditional Mediterranean-style diet calls for eating about eight to ten olives or ingesting three to four tablespoons of olive oil every day. The Food and Drug Administration recommends about two tablespoons daily. The PREDIMED study, the largest and most definitive scientific study on the benefits of olive oil, used four tablespoons a day as its benchmark. I recommend four tablespoons. Fortunately, extra virgin olive oil is so delicious that it’s not hard to get those few tablespoons every day. You can use olive oil in salad dressings or in any of the recipes in the back of the book.
LE: The second lowest level of the SimpleMD Food Pyramid you provide clearly illustrates the foods to be used as a base for every meal—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, herbs, and spices—but many readers may be surprised to find exercise constituting the lowest level.
AS: But before you think, “Oh great, another doctor telling me I need to spend more time in the gym,” think about the actual types of exercise that long-lived people in the Mediterranean basin get. They walk a lot. They play outdoor sports. They dance. All of this counts as healthy physical activity, and ideally, you should be getting 30-60 minutes every day of light-to-moderate physical activity.
LE: Your SimpleMD protein bars—which contain red wine and extra virgin olive oil along with other nutrients—are critical to your 30-day weight-loss program, correct?
AS: In our practice, we often recommend that patients who need to lose a substantial amount of weight start with a month-long diet “boot camp” of eating 4-5 bars a day, plus one meal consisting of a leafy green salad with extra virgin olive oil and a lean protein. We’ve found it’s relatively easy for people to follow, and it results in a period of faster weight loss while their metabolism resets. Please note: this is not a long-term solution. I would recommend only following this type of eating plan for 30 days or less, and then making the transition into a more sustainable, long-term diet with three meals and two smaller snacks.
LE: How do stress management and sleep figure into the Mediterranean lifestyle?
AS: The actual number of hours of sleep an adult needs varies, but if you’re consistently getting less than 6 hours of sleep a night, that’s not good. We know that stress causes inflammation, that stress is closely linked to the risk of heart disease and other serious medical conditions, that people who are under stress are more likely to be obese, and that overall mortality is negatively affected by stress. Unfortunately, finding a way to de-stress can be dauntingly difficult in today’s complicated world of 24/7 work. Hopefully, some of the measures I suggested will help, especially the exercise.
LE: You emphasize incorporating the Mediterranean lifestyle into daily life in simple ways.
AS: So many “diet” books mean well, but when we get down to the details, they are recommending a lifestyle that is nearly impossible in today’s America. You’d need to carve out five extra hours in every day for all of the exercise and food-prep time to follow the complicated plan. I believe the Mediterranean-focused lifestyle I’ve laid out in these pages is the path to a healthy balance, one that combines excellent and healthy food with good nutrition, adequate exercise and sleep, and relaxation. This program is all about living well and living long while following the scientifically validated principles of the Mediterranean Diet.
LE: And you include recipes for healthy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners
AS: You don’t have to enjoy cooking to get the full benefit of the Mediterranean Diet—whether it’s through our SimpleMD protein bars, a meal delivery service like Fresh Diet, or finding Mediterranean-friendly restaurants, there are plenty of convenient and easy ways to find great Mediterranean food. But if you do happen to enjoy cooking, you’re in luck! I’ve collected just a small sample of recipes from various sources that both satisfy the requirements of the Mediterranean Diet and are delicious as well. Once you get acquainted with these, feel free to experiment with these ingredients. And remember, try to incorporate authentic extra virgin olive oil into your meals wherever possible. The health benefits are profound.