June 20, 2011

What Diet do Doctors and Scientists Recommend for Healthy Aging?

Drum roll, please!

Answer: a plant-based menu like the Mediterranean Diet. It seems you find as much written about the positive impact of this diet on health as you do about the advantages of exercise on healthy aging!

Here are some facts about the benefits of such a diet, and a few tips on how to bring these benefits directly to your table:

Every spring, the Harvard Medical School's Department of Continuing Education, the Osher Institute at Harvard Medical School, and the Culinary Institute of America convene for a four-day conference they call "Healthy Kitchens, Health Lives." Most of the information below comes directly from this year's recommendations.

Research shows that people who eat a plant-based diet -- mainly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes -- live longer and enjoy better health that those whose diets consist mainly of animal-based foods.

Many cultures built their cuisines around plant foods out of necessity, since animal protein was both expensive and scarce. Mediterranean, Latin-American, and Asian cuisines are based on pairing healthy plant foods with lean protein (fish, chicken) and mono-unsaturated fat (olive oils, nuts).

The Health Benefits

Studies show that these diets provide health benefits. The Mediterranean diet, for example, has been found to result in:

  • longer life expectancy
  • reduced heart disease
  • relief from rheumatoid arthritis
  • lower incidence of Parkinson's disease
  • lower rates of Alzheimer's disease and dementia
A largely plant-based diet may also include protein from fish, skinless poultry, nuts, legumes, and small amounts of lean meats. Purely vegetarian diets exclude fish and meat entirely, and add protein from grains, beans, and nuts.

My Compromise, for What It's Worth
I'm trying to be mostly vegetarian, but I frequently have sardines or herring at lunch. I look for labels showing less than two or three grams of fat per serving, with saturated fat at zero, or darned close to it. I use the same rule-of-thumb for packaged food. Most canned or frozen vegetables list zero grams of fat.

At times, particularly when dining out, I'll eat lean red meat. I avoid processed or cured meats like ham, hot dogs, and corned beef. I use soy milk or nonfat milk.

What's helped a lot recently is switching to smaller plates for my home meals.

Tips from the Harvard/Culinary Institute Conference
Here are three tips to get creative with plant-based meals:
  1. Follow the motto "if it grows together, it goes together." For example, they recommend the Spanish sauce "romesco" over grilled vegetables.
  2. Match a bold olive oil, such as a Tuscan varietal, with other bold flavors, like rosemary and pine nuts.
  3. Compliment a milder olive oil, such as a French varietal, with subtly flavored foods.
Buy Locally
Locally grown foods may be fresher and have higher nutrient content. Since they spend less time being shipped and handled, these foods may look and taste better.

Spice It Up
As I wrote last week, recent research has called into question the role salt might play in high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. While this debate continues, spices, herbs, and aromatics can readily and healthfully be substituted for salt in flavoring foods. 

Here are four recommendations to maximize the quality and flavor of your spices:
  1. Buy them in small quantities and in their whole form to ensure freshness.
  2. Store them in a cool, dry place.
  3. Grind them right before use.
  4. Toast them in a hot skillet or stir-fry them in oil over medium-high heat (both for just 10-20 seconds).
Say Yes to Whole Grains, No to Refined Grains
Whole grains -- like whole-wheat bread or pasta -- and brown rice are far better nutritionally than refined grains, such as white bread or white rice. Whole grains make you feel full longer and they are less likely than refined grains to be stored as fat.

Regular consumption of whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diet-related depression (usually associated with very low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins Diet).

Here are five suggestions in the report to incorporate whole grains in your diet:
  1. Use whole-grain bread or pasta, and brown or wild rice.
  2. Try grains from around the world such as teff, spelt, farro, kamut, and amaranth.
  3. Blend whole grains with colorful vegetables, spices, and olive oil.
  4. Eat whole-grain cold or hot cereals, adding fruit, low-fat milk or nuts. (Fibre One with soy milk, raspberries and blueberries is my usual choice for breakfast, and on some days it's followed with hot oatmeal, soy milk and strawberries for lunch.)
  5. Season whole grains with sweet spices like nutmeg, allspice, cardamom, and masala spice.
Go a Little Nuts
In a large trial of men and women, eating nuts five times a week or more lowered diabetes risk by 27%. In another large study, women who ate nuts almost daily lowered their risk of heart disease by 32%.

However, since a one-ounce portion of nuts can pack 160 calories or more, use moderation to avoid weight gain. 

Two tasty suggestions from the conference report: toasted pine nuts sprinkled over whole-grain pasta or almonds on cereal. 

1 comment:

Paula said...

I just wish people would take action on their health and nutrition needs sooner in their life, maybe they could avoid many of the not natural afflictions that  can come with aging.