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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Get the skinny on the Mediterranean diet

    Tom Price

    A Den burger, prepared on the second floor of the Park Student Union on Tuesday, Nov. 24. This Standard American Diet staple is entirely unlike those of the Mediterranean Diet, which has many health benefits, such as lowering the risk of certain diseases and aiding in weight loss.

    Going on a diet nowadays just seems to scream, “lose weight.” It is not surprising though, considering the U.S. ranks as one of the most overweight and obese nations in the world, according to Ramon Martinez of the World Health Organization.

    The obesity epidemic is no news to Americans, and any alternative to what is known as the Standard American Diet, or SAD, might as well be an effort to lose weight. More importantly, losing weight can be critical to reducing one’s risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. It may be worthwhile, however, to consider how our diet contributes to other leading causes of death, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

    The Mediterranean Diet, for example, has shown to reduce the risk of such diseases and could help users lose weight in the process. In 2013, UNESCO listed the Mediterranean Diet as one of the most effective diets for preventing chronic diseases including cancers, cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disorders.

    “It’s not about losing weight as much as it is about preventing chronic diseases,” Dr. Donato Romagnolo, UA professor of Nutritional Sciences and the director of the UA Mediterranean Health and Diet study abroad program, said. “It’s even surprisingly high in fats.”

    What makes the Mediterranean Diet different from the SAD? The best answer comes from thinking of the food pyramid we learned as kids. Keep it, but switch grains with fruits and veggies, and cut out the pork and beef. Unlike the SAD, the Mediterranean diet is heavily based on plants, incorporated with whole grains and fish. Sugars and saturated fats, primarily those from animals, are limited.

    “The Mediterranean Diet has been linked to lower rates of heart disease than in the U.S.,” said Brooke Campbell, a nutritional sciences senior. “This is mostly due to the differences in the type of fat consumed.”

    The SAD, unlike the Mediterranean Diet, is rich in red meat, processed meat and other animal fats coming from margarine, cheese and cream. These food groups offer mostly saturated and trans fats, but almost no healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. As a result, frequently consuming these animal fats can reduce levels of good cholesterol and increase levels of bad cholesterol, putting consumers at risk for high blood pressure and threatening their heart health with other risks for cardiovascular diseases.

    As of late October, the World Health Organization published a report stating that processed meat consumption is a cause of cancer, primarily bowel cancer. While the increased risk it poses is low, scientists argue high temperature cooking and chemical processing of meat are increasing the risk of cancer because they are producing carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, agents.

    The cooking and processing of meats in the SAD are factors that express how the DNA is regulated in cells. Different regions of DNA are called genes and each gene codes for different cellular machines called proteins. Interactions with different compounds, like those in cooked meats, can the alter the expression of genes. It has not been concluded if other dietary components of the SAD produce the same effect.

    According to Romagnolo, gene expression is key in determining an individual’s chance of developing cancer in the future. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, such as in the Mediterranean Diet, has shown positive effects in not only delaying cancers but also reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease and increasing longevity. The bigger picture, however, is not only the science behind the food but how it blends into the culture around us.

    “Students in my abroad program learn about conviviality and how food is a way of life,” Romagnolo said.

    Follow Pearl Lam on Twitter.

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