Preventing diabetes, cancer and stroke
By David Dunaief, M.D.
What better way than a season centered around eating al fresco to kick-start you on the path to preventing chronic diseases? In the past, I have written about the dangers of processed meats in terms of causing chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These are foods commonly found at barbecues and picnic meals. Therefore, I think it is only fair to talk about healthier alternatives and the evidence-based medicine that supports their benefits.
The Mediterranean-style diet is the key to success. It is composed of thousands of beneficial nutrients that interact with each other in a synergistic way. This particular diet, as I have mentioned in previous articles, includes fish, green leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains and small amounts of olive oil. We all want to be healthier, but doesn’t healthy mean tasteless? Not necessarily.
At a memorable family barbecue, we had a bevy of choices that were absolutely succulent. These included a three-bean salad, mandarin orange salad with raspberry vinaigrette, ratatouille with eggplant and zucchini, salmon filets baked with mustard and slivered almonds, roasted corn on the cob, roasted vegetable and scallop shish kebobs and a large bowl of melons and berries. I am drooling at the memory of this buffet. Let’s look at the scientific evidence.
Fruits and vegetables may help prevent pancreatic cancer. This is very important, since by the time there are symptoms, the cancer has spread to other organs and the patient usually has less than 2.7 years to live (1). Five-year survival is only 5 percent (2). In a case control (epidemiological observational) study, cooked vegetables showed a 43 percent reduction and noncitrus fruits showed an even more impressive 59 percent reduction in risk of pancreatic cancer (3). Interestingly, cooked vegetables, not just raw ones, had a substantial effect.
Garlic plays an important role in reducing the risk of colon cancer. In the IOWA Women’s Health Study, a large prospective (forward-looking) trial involving 41,837 women, there was a 32 percent reduction in risk of colon cancer for the highest intake of garlic compared to the lowest. Vegetables also showed a statistically significant reduction in the disease as well (4). Many of my patients find that fresh garlic provides a wonderful flavor when cooking vegetables.
Diabetes studies — treatment and prevention
Fish plays an important role in reducing the risk of diabetes. In a large prospective study that followed Japanese men for five years, those in the highest quartile of intake of fish and seafood had a substanttial decrease in risk of Type 2 diabetes (5). Smaller fish, such as mackerel and sardines, had a slightly greater effect than large fish and seafood in potentially preventing the disease. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with shrimp on the “barbie” to help protect you from developing diabetes.
Nuts are beneficial in the treatment of diabetes. In a randomized clinical trial (the gold standard of studies), mixed nuts led to a substantial reduction of hemoglobin A1c, a very important biomarker for sugar levels for the past three months (6). As an added benefit, there was also a significant reduction in LDL, bad cholesterol, which reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease. The nuts used in the study were raw almonds, pistachios, pecans, peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts and macadamias. How easy is it to grab a small handful of unsalted raw nuts, about 2 ounces, on a daily basis to help treat diabetes?
Olive oil appears to have a substantial effect in preventing strokes. The Three City study showed that olive oil may have a protective effect against stroke. There was a 41 percent reduction in stroke events in those who used olive oil (7). Study participants, who were followed for a mean of 5.2 years, did not have a history of stroke at the start of the trial. Though these are promising results, I would caution use no more than one tablespoon of olive oil per day, since there are 120 calories in a tablespoon.
It is not difficult to substitute the valuable Mediterranean-style diet for processed meats or at least add them to the selection. This plant-based diet offers a tremendous number of protective elements in the prevention of many chronic diseases. So this Independence Day and beyond, plan to have on hand some mouth-watering healthy choices.
» A staple of the Mediterranean pantry, beans are a healthy, versatile and super affordable ingredient. Rich in antioxidants, fiber, B vitamins and iron, they are a hearty great alternative to high-fat proteins. Serve guests the following three-bean salad as a side dish at your next summer barbecue or picnic.
YIELD: Makes 10 servings
1 15-ounce can of black beans
1 15-ounce can of red kidney beans
1 15-oounce can of cannellini beans
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
½ red onion, finely chopped
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or to taste
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small bunch cilantro, basil or parsley, chopped
¼ cup dill pickle, diced
¼ cup celery, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Wash and drain the beans. Transfer to large bowl. Add remaining ingredients, toss well and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.
(1) Nature. 2010;467:1114-1117. (2) Epidemiol Prev Anno 2007;31(Suppl 1). (3) Cancer Causes Control. 2010;21:493-500. (4) Am J Epidemiol. 1994 Jan 1;139(1):1-15. (5) Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Sep;94(3):884-891. (6) Diabetes Care. 2011 Aug;34(8):1706-1711. (7) Neurology. 2011 Aug 2;77(5):418-425.
Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management.