Food as Medicine

PartnerMD physician recommends Mediterranean or vegan diet to prevent and treat certain health conditions

Article by Mary Ellin Arch

Photography by PartnerMD & Shutterstock

Originally published in Midlothian Lifestyle

Confused by diets? Join the club.

Anyone trying to lose weight, get healthy or manage a medical condition – isn’t that everyone? – is perplexed by the ever-widening array of available diets. Keto. Atkins. Weight Watchers. SlimFast. Whole30. Juice cleanses. Intermittent fasting. Jenny Craig. Noom. Etc.

But a new concept in health is to use food as medicine. Sound surprising? It’s not.

A fellow and adviser group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation defines "food as medicine" as "a philosophy where food and nutrition aids individuals through interventions that support health and wellness" and "a reaffirmation that food and nutrition play a role in sustaining health, preventing disease, and as a therapy for those with conditions or in situations responsive to changes in their diet" (eatrightfoundation.org).

It's a familiar concept for Dr. Lindsay Sherrard of PartnerMD, a concierge family practice in Midlothian with an emphasis on wellness.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know and we have to stick with what we know,” says Dr. Sherrard. “And what we know is that plant foods help prevent and treat certain conditions.” Those conditions include:

·       Diabetes

·       Cancer

·       Hypertension

·       High cholesterol

·       Obesity

·       Cardiovascular disease (prevention and treatment)

·       Stroke (prevention)

·       Dementia (prevention)

“One diet keeps coming up,” Dr. Sherrard says. “All the major things that kill Americans can be helped by this diet.”

OK, we’re on the edge of our seats. Drumroll….

The Mediterranean Diet.

You’ve probably heard of it amid the diet din, but you don’t know much about it. Basically, it involves eating as natives of the Mediterranean do – a focus on plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds) with extra-virgin olive oil as the primary fat source. Dairy, eggs and poultry are consumed in moderation; red meat is eaten rarely.

“It’s the plant foods that help a lot of conditions,” says Dr. Sherrard. “It’s high fiber, which prevents cancer and heart disease, and a lot of the fruits, like berries, have a lower glycemic index.”

So why is the Mediterranean not at the top of the Diet Hit Parade?

“There’s not a lot of meat on it, and we love our meat,” Dr. Sherrard says. “The more meat you eat, the greater your risk of heart disease.”

The preferred animal protein on the Mediterranean is fish high in omega-3 – salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna. The USDA says Americans’ fish consumption is well below the recommendation (at least two servings a week). By contrast, Americans consume more meat than USDA recommendations.

With meat as the issue, Americans really won’t like eating vegan – but that’s the diet best for cardiovascular health, Dr. Sherrard says. “A good study shows plaque in arteries went away with a vegan diet. It worked better than medicine we have.” She cautions that anyone considering vegan should get nutritional counseling, available at PartnerMD, as vegan must be done correctly to ensure health and benefits.

So what’s a meat-lover to do?

“You need a diet you can stick with,” Dr. Sherrard says. “Focus on making new habits.”

Step 1 is eliminating sweet drinks. “We know that sugary drinks and even artificially sweetened drinks can lead to heart disease,” she says. Next, eliminate processed food, eat more fruit, and have easy access to vegetables. Dr. Sherrard recommends frozen steamable vegetables.

“Then a good goal is to cut way back on meat,” she says. “There’s an old mantra – I’m not sure who said it first, but it’s a simple formula for eating well: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

While the Mediterranean is not a weight-loss plan specifically, the focus on produce promotes healthy weight, as carrying extra pounds is known to contribute to or exacerbate many health conditions. “The best diet for you is the one that will help you keep a healthy weight,” Dr. Sherrard says.


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