Western Diet Versus Mediterranean Diet
by Bill Sardi
Western processed food diets produce many imbalances that promote chronic disease and premature death. This is well documented in the medical literature. At the risk of oversimplification, a list of these imbalances can be summarized in a chart (below). It is worthwhile to evaluate these major imbalances as a whole rather than individually and to compare them against the Mediterranean diet.
Re-Balancing The Western Diet
Common Depleting or Overloading Factors
Western diet unfavorably dominant in:
Western diet lacking in:
Re-Balancing/ Replenishment Sources
Corn, safflower oil
Fish oil, flaxseed oil
Alcohol, saturated fat, white bread
Bran (Phytate IP6)
Whole grains, bran, rice bran IP6
Tap water, multivitamins
Copper overload (Alzheimer's)
Zinc Opposes Copper
Zinc, Resveratrol Supplements
Nuts, green leafy veges, supplements
Bananas, apricots, potatoes, supplements
Cod liver oil
Dominant Vitamin A Stored in liver
Lack of Vitamin D stored in liver (rickets; weakened immunity)
Sunlight (poor source due to sun phobia), supplements
Blood thinners deplete vitamin K
Lack of Vitamin K2 Calcifications
Vitamin K2 Anti-calcifying agent
Green leafy veges (with oils), supplements
Alcohol (beer), diuretics, digitalis, sugar
Depleted Vitamin B1 (beri beri)
Repleted Vitamin B1
Fat-soluble B1 (benfotiamine)
Drugs (steroids, aspirin) deplete vitamin C; refined sugar negates immune stimulating properties of vitamin C
Low Vitamin C (scurvy)
Adequate Vitamin C
Activates white blood cells; produces collagen, strengthen capillaries
Supplements (foods will not significantly raise vitamin C blood levels)
Cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame
Natural non-caloric sweeteners
Xylitol, Stevia, Inositol
Hydrogenated (trans) fats
Fats that won't break down in the body
Metabolizable cooking oils with strong antioxidants
Olive oil, rice bran oil, sesame seed oil
Beer, alcohol spirits
Depletes magnesium, zinc, vitamin B1
Aged red wine, moderate intake, preferably unfiltered
Word description of western processed food diets and health care
It can be said that the western diet is characterized by overly salty processed foods, refined sugars, white (bran-less) bread, hydrogenated (un-metabolizable) fats (used to increase the shelf life of baked goods), omega-6 corn and safflower cooking oil (though essential for human life) over omega-3 fish and flaxseed oil, iron/copper-rich foods (iron-rich meats, copper in tap water, vitamin pills) which oxidizes and hardens fats in the brain and arteries leading to plaque buildup, excessive alcohol (depletes essential nutrients, increases iron overload and fatty liver), paltry amounts of vitamin C, low vitamin D levels (largely induced by sun phobia) and reliance upon man-made drugs to treat disease rather than prevent disease altogether.
With all of the medications in the armament of western medicine, there is yet no wellness pill, though a so-called polypill has been suggested for healthy populations that offers a combination of yet more drugs. In western medicine, disease is largely treated as a drug deficiency and populations are over-medicated and seemingly well-nourished while facing widespread undetected shortage of omega-3 oil, vitamins C, D, B1, B12 and magnesium and potassium.
Lifestyle, diet prevails over modern medicine
Recent evidence strongly suggests lifestyle has a stronger impact than any delivered health care. Look at the Japanese who do not read diet books nor go to the gym. They are far leaner and healthier eating a varied diet that is not rich in iron or calcium (low red meat and dairy consumption) and rich in omega-3 fish oil, fermented soy (miso, tempeh) and iodine-rich sea vegetables. If Japanese males would back away from over-consumption of alcohol and tobacco their life expectancy there would likely soar even further.
Finland used to be the selected venue for many chronic disease studies because of its high rate of cardiovascular disease. In fact it had the highest mortality rate for coronary artery disease in the world. But today, by backing away from tobacco, cutting back on alcohol and increasing plant food intake, Finland has been able to cut it cardiovascular disease mortality rate by a jaw-dropping 80%. Modern medicines and treatment played only a minor role in this health revolution.
It has recently become apparent that control of seven measures of cardiovascular health (body weight, blood pressure, tobacco use, physical activity, diet, cholesterol and blood sugar) will reduce risk for cancer by nearly 40%.
While much bragging that modern treatments for cancer have prolonged survival rates, the sad fact is, while being diagnosed earlier, patients are still succumbing to cancer on or about the same calendar day. Any advances in survival are imaginary, created by earlier detection. The cancer industry has been slow to come up with even one preventive measure.
Sugars and cancer
The prevalence of refined cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup in the western diet is of concern. There is now recognition that low carbohydrate diets would suppress or at least delay the emergence of cancer. Most malignant cells depend upon steady sugar availability for growth. Dietary sugars increase the growth of tumors.
Cancer cells prefer fructose over other forms of sugar for growth and the provision of high fructose corn syrup in so many foods and beverages is believed to promote the growth of cancer.
Yet, it should not be assumed that artificial sweeteners are healthier. Stevia, xylitol and inositol would be desirable low- calorie sweeteners over aspartame or saccharin.
Cholesterol declines but not because of medicines
A recent report published in a British public health journal notes that circulating cholesterol levels have declined in most developed countries in recent years with accompanying declines in cardiovascular disease deaths. But cholesterol-lowering drugs have had little to do with this decline even though 14% of western adult populations take statin drugs.
Even with aggressive use of cholesterol-lowering drugs, calcification of arteries progresses and goes undetected by arterial dye testing (angiograms).
It appears that circulating cholesterol levels are largely a marker for arterial disease, not a direct causative agent in arterial plaque that clogs arteries.
LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol is now recognized as a marker of arterial calcification. Calcium is the major component of arterial plaque and calcifications, not soft waxy cholesterol. Calcium is what causes arteries to stiffen like a statue with advancing age. Any alleged value of statin cholesterol-lowering drugs appears to be linked to its mild ability to raise vitamin D levels, vitamin D being a natural anti-calcifying agent.
Diabesity epidemic: no cure in sight
Western medicine has gleefully welcomed the diabesity epidemic in the US as an opportunity for more treatment rather than prevention. Yet there is still no proven drug to quell obesity.
An intriguing report recently published in the journal Physiological Behavior asserts that the western diet impairs cognition (thinking) and is linked to dysfunction in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The western diet then "contributes to the development of excessive food intake and obesity, in part, by interfering with a type of hippocampal-dependent memory inhibition that is critical in the ability of animals to refrain from responding to environmental cues associated with food, and ultimately from consuming excess food." The drug-for-every disease model does not properly address this problem, dietary changes do.
Hydrogenated (trans) fats persist in the western diet
American food producers persist in lacing baked goods and other foods with hydrogenated fats solely for improving product shelf life, not for any nutritional benefit. A 2% absolute increase in hydrogenated (trans) fats in the diet is associated with a 23% increase in risk for cardiovascular disease.
US Food and Drug Administration labeling rules allow products containing less than 0.5 grams (500 milligrams) of trans fat per serving to claim 0 grams trans fat. Many products with almost 0.5 grams trans fat, if consumed over the course of a day, may approximate or exceed the 2 gram maximum as recommended by American Heart Association, all while claiming to be trans-fat free. Total elimination of trans fats is not possible because they are naturally occurring in foods.
The Mediterranean diet
The American dietary antidote to western disease patterns has been a low-fat diet which appears to be counterproductive. The Mediterranean diet exhibits advantages over a low-fat diet. Other studies confirm this.
Adherence with a Mediterranean diet pattern (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, wine and olive oil) is associated with decreased risk for a heart attack. Modest consumption of red wine negates many of the adverse factors associated with a western diet. But the dark aged red wine consumed in Europe should not be confused with the cheap wine often sold in America.
Replace omega-3 oils
Studies conducted in the 1930s and 1970s as well as recently point to the essentiality of omega-3 oils in the human diet. The typical western processed food diet results in an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 10-to-20 to 1 versus 1-to-1 in ancestral diets. The medical literature provides compelling evidence for the lack of omega-3 oils correlating with in the onset of metabolic disease (obesity, diabetes). Yet, as the authors of a recent report lament, these facts have not been translated into dietary practice in children's school lunch programs or even hospital diets. Is modern medicine so loathe to the idea of prevention that it has to encourage dietary disease even while hospitalized?
A recent study was conducted in the animal lab at a university in The Netherlands. Mice were placed on a diet rich in cholesterol or rich in omega-3 DHA starting at 6-months of age for a period a 12 months (lab mice live about 2-3 years). Mice fed a typical western cholesterol-rich diet developed brain plaque in the hippocampus part of the brain. In contrast, the mice fed fish oil exhibited decreased amounts of amyloid brain plaque and improved blood flow to the brain. (But these experiments are a bit misleading because very high amounts of cholesterol are given to these laboratory animals beyond what could be consumed by humans and should not be translated to reduce dietary cholesterol in human populations which comprises only a small fraction (20%) of circulating cholesterol.)
Professor H. Okuyama of Nagoya City University says there is an urgent need for western medicine to change the direction of cholesterol-related medication, away from statin drugs and toward use of omega-3 fish oil.
Studies like these make one wonder where do companies like Kraft Foods that supply much of the food for school lunch programs stand in regard to provision of omega-3 oils and public health?
Dangers of sodium over potassium
Because producers of processed foods compete for taste, frozen foods, canned soups, almost all prepared foods are laced with salt at the expense of its balancing agent potassium. The American diet provides ~4000-6000 mg of sodium per day without using the salt shaker. It would be difficult for an American who eats prepared foods to reduce sodium intake. Food producers are reluctant to reduce sodium. So the best strategy is to increase potassium intake (potatoes, bananas, apricots are rich in potassium). Unfortunately, these are high carbohydrate foods.
In a human experiment, middle-aged adults placed on high sodium diets rapidly developed blood factors (fibrinogen, von Willebrand factor) that encourage blood clotting associated with adverse events such as strokes and heart attacks. When these same subjects were given potassium supplements their blood measures normalized. In processed food western diets it appears potassium supplements should be employed on a widespread basis to counter the effects of sodium-rich processed foods. This is yet another example of how Americans are being fed like lab rats by food producers to breed disease.
Where is the magnesium?
As an example of how western dietary factors combine to produce overweight human beings, researchers in France recently noted the combined high intake of fructose sugar and shortage of magnesium in the diet induces health problems in laboratory animals. Just a few days of experimental magnesium deficiency produces inflammation and a free radical storm that largely occurs in central abdominal fat cells (adipose tissue) that results in obesity and insulin problems (insulin is the pancreatic hormone that metabolizes sugars).
According to a study conducted by US Department of Agriculture researchers, just a modest shortage of magnesium leads to retention of excess calcium in post-menopausal women.
Magnesium is certainly an overlooked medicine. It regulates the flow of sodium, calcium and potassium through cell membranes, protects against overload of calcium, inhibits sodium overload into cells, controls the acid/alkaline balance in cells and controls the levels of triglycerides and helps to control the heart. Yet I have never heard of a conventional cardiologist prescribing magnesium across the board to his patients with heart disease.
About 165 milligrams of daily magnesium is required to produce metabolic balance. While green leafy vegetables and nuts are a dietary source of magnesium, it would be difficult in western countries to meet magnesium needs without dietary supplements (200-400 mg supplemental magnesium needed). Note: magnesium oxide, the most economical form available on store shelves, is poorly absorbed (only 4%) and other forms should be obtained (glycinate, gluconate, malate, citrate, others).
An absurdity of western medicine is to detect high circulating cholesterol numbers in blood tests and assume that a liver-toxic cholesterol-lowering statin drug deficiency is the problem.
These stress or dietary-related factors are not a reason to place adults on cholesterol-lowering medications. But modern medicine often treats numbers rather than patients.
Bran, not just fiber (and certainly not white bread)
It has been said that white bread is what started the whole diabesity epidemic. Whole grain diets have been proposed as a remedy but breads are often misleading as to bran content, the key ingredient in whole grains.
Young adults can reduce their circulating cholesterol levels by 14% just by adding bran to their diet, approaching what is accomplished with statin drugs. Rice bran is a particularly desirable source of bran because of its strong antioxidants (ferulic acid, oryzanol, IP6 phytate and both forms of vitamin E — tocopherols and tocotrienols). IP6 rice bran extract can also be purchased at health food stores and is beneficial for cleansing the liver, dissolving calcium or cholesterol stones and calcifications and purging the brain of toxic metals.
Is it exercise or vitamin D that promotes health?
It appears that many of the health promoting aspects of physical exercise are actually attributed to exposure to greater amounts of sunlight and elevated vitamin D levels. The mid-latitude Mediterranean area is warm and sunny and vitamin D levels tend to be higher among geographic inhabitants in that region of the world. While centenarians are known to be physically active, they obviously do not frequent the gymnasium.
Iron and the Mediterranean diet
The role of iron accumulation in aging and age-related disease explains the reason why men have higher rates of disease in middle age than younger females who control iron largely via monthly menstruation. Women also live on average about 8 years longer than men.
Forty-year-old males have double the iron load of equally-aged females and twice the risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Women who undergo early hysterectomy or enter menopause will develop the same risk for age-related disease as males.
Adherence to a Mediterranean diet by males on the island of Crete has been shown to cut iron load in males in half. Much of the ability of the Mediterranean diet to promote health and longevity is now attributed to its ability to reduce age-associated iron overload via iron-binding properties in red wine and olive oil. This is accomplished by the polyphenol content of olives and red wine grapes. Unfiltered wine (so-called Jesus wine) and olive oil would provide even more of these beneficial iron-controlling molecules.
Find and consume polyphenols in red wine and olive oil
The polyphenols (resveratrol, quercetin, catechin in wine; tyrosol, hydroxytyrosol in olives) in red wine and olive oil help produce a transient gas (nitric oxide) that promotes better circulation and reduces risk for heart attacks.
Yet many Americans will miss the benefits of a Mediterranean diet by purchasing clear rather than dark polyphenol-rich olive oil, non-aged red wine that is weak in polyphenols, and farm-raised fish that do not feed on cold-water phytoplankton which produces omega-3 oil.
It is clear the food processors and modern medicine are more interested in profits than public health. It is us vs. the food makers. The population is being bred like lab rats to overeat and then face overtreatment. In the era before statin drugs, low-fat diets and exercise regimens, Americans were lean and did not overeat. Fats in the diet produced satisfaction (satiety) and raised mood. Obese individuals are often depressed and prescribed antidepressants.
It was modern medicine that first offered the ill advice to avoid eggs which are rich in cholesterol. But subsequent studies show the majority of cholesterol is naturally produced in the liver (80%) and the diet only plays a minor role in circulating levels of cholesterol (20%). The vast majority of adults who consume eggs do not experience a rise in cholesterol. Efforts to reduce consumption of cholesterol-rich foods should be reconsidered. But dietary cholesterol guidelines remain unchanged.
It was Drs. Jeremiah Stamler and Ancel Keys who painted a false picture of heart disease emanating from fat and cholesterol beginning in the 1950s. As many experience heart attacks with low cholesterol as high cholesterol.
Dr. Ancel Keys, who made the front cover of Time magazine, cherry-picked data from just six of twenty-two available studies to make his biased claim that fats and cholesterol in the diet were causal for heart attacks and mortality. Dr. Stamler advocated margarine over butter. His popular book at the time was sponsored by makers of margarine. Cholesterol-lowering drugs followed which did not significantly reduce cholesterol or coronary artery disease mortality. But the Food & Drug Administration allowed statin drugs to continue to be prescribed. Later stronger statins were developed but have also failed to reduce death rates for cardiovascular disease.
Did modern medicine rig the American diet so doctors would have more disease to treat and drug companies would have more medicines to sell? It appears so. Dr. Keys is still revered by modern medicine today and his work recalled by annual lectures in his memory.