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MEDITERRANEAN DIET BULKS UP ON PLANTS, SKIMPS ON MEAT

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Update: Last week I began a discussion about the Mediterranean diet from an article in the November issue of Consumer Reports' On Health magazine. The story mentioned that this diet is fairly high in fat, but there was very little of the two types of fat that raise blood cholesterol levels: saturated fat, found mostly in animal foods; and trans fat, the hydrogenated kind used in margarine and many packaged foods. In addition, these people ate a large quantity of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and nuts.

I mentioned how the Mediterranean diet lowered the risk for heart disease, but it is also associated with a decrease in cancer rates. One theory for the development of cancer is that oxidation in the cells causes a harmful byproduct called "free radicals." Free radicals may damage the DNA that controls cell growth, turning normal cells into cancer. A diet rich in antioxidants may help reduced the risk of cancer by neutralizing free radicals.Other chemicals in plants may protect against cancer as well. For example, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower, supply sulforaphane, which stimulates human cells to manufacture a cancer-fighting enzyme. In addition, vegetables and grains supply insoluble fiber, which helps reduce the risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Some studies have shown a relationship between total fat intake and cancer. However, there is little evidence implicating mono-un-sat-u-rated fats. The low cancer rates in Greece actually suggest that eating a moderate amount of fat is not cancer related, if the fats are mainly mono-un-sat-u-rated. The low meat intake recommended by this diet may also be a factor, since people who eat only small amounts of meat tend to have lower cancer rates.

So, what are the eating guidelines from the Mediterranean diet?

First, eat more plant foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean evidence suggests that seven or more servings per day would be ideal.

Second, minimize the consumption of meat, particularly red meat. Eating fish about twice a week may be beneficial.

Third, a moderate intake of vegetable oils, particularly those rich in monounsaturated fat (canola, olive, peanut oil), appears to be safe, and possibly even beneficial. You must use the oils to replace, not supplement, animal fat and trans fat. If you're having trouble controlling your weight, limit your intake of all fats, including vegetable oil.

In past columns, I have discussed the USDA food pyramid, which listed foods on a pyramid based on their relative importance to the diet. In this pyramid, bread, cereal, rice and pasta form the base; fruits and vegetables the next level up; meat, milk, beans, eggs and nuts the third level; and fats, oils and sweets are on top.

The Mediterranean diet pyramid is similar in many respects: the base of the pyramid is bread, rice, pasta, other grains and potatoes. The next level includes fruits, vegetables, beans and other legumes, and nuts. However, the third level is olive oil; the fourth, cheese and yogurt; then fish, poultry, sweets and red meat at the very top.

The Mediterranean pyramid improves the USDA pyramid by recommending more beans and nuts, and less meat, and favors fish and poultry over red meat. It shows no butter or margarine, both high in undesirable fats, and allows people who aren't overweight to flavor their meals with moderate amounts of olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fats, apparently the safest kind.