A friend (and fan) of RTC noticed that I sometimes cite studies of nutrition on my posts. Do I recommend any particular kinds of foods over others, he asked — in fact, is there a specific RTC Diet which I recommend that people follow?
Yes and no. Or maybe I should say, not quite yet. It does seem to me that certain foods are obviously better for you than others. If your breakfast consists of blueberries, an apple, a banana, and some kale sprinkled with olive oil, it will certainly have a better effect on your day, your body, and your morning meditation, than a breakfast of pork sausage, curly fries, jello, and vodka.
But the RTC approach — science, synthesis, and simplification — applies here as it does elsewhere. We need to study and see if there is an objective basis for judging whether what you are eating is good for you. We need to be alert to the fact that very different diets have good elements that could perhaps be helpfully combined. And we need to make it simple, because simple is do-able. Costly complicated difficult-to-prepare gourmet food that is hard to find and never available in restaurants is the sort of food that isn’t likely to be eaten.
Are there diets whose health benefits are backed by a wealth of studies? There certainly are. I personally have a leaning towards the Mediterranean Diet. Inspired by traditional dietary practices in Southern Italy, Spain and Greece, this diet include frequent consumption of olive oil, legumes (beans), unrefined cereals, vegetables and fruit. Fish is also a frequent element of meals, and there is moderate consumption of dairy products, mostly in the form of cheese and yogurt, as well as moderate indulgence in wine. Meat and meat products are not as prominent a part of the diet, but are not forbidden.
The key seems to be whole, natural foods, but not excluding what I think of as near-natural foods — foods like wine and yoghurt, that are directly derived from natural foods but that don’t depend on artificial ingredients or chemicals for long shelf life.
What do studies say about the Mediterranean Diet? Wikipedia’s article on the Medditerranean Diet includes a good selection:
“A meta-analysis published in BMJ in 2008 showed that following strictly the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of dying from cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as the risk of developing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. The results report 9%, 9%, and 6% reduction in overall, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality respectively. Additionally a 13% reduction in incidence of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases is to be expected provided strict adherence to the diet is observed.
“A 2010 meta-analysis published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the Mediterranean diet conferred a significant benefit with regard to the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.
“A 2011 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology analyzed the results of 50 studies (35 clinical trials, 2 prospective and 13 cross-sectional) covering about 535,000 people to examine the effect of a Mediterranean diet on metabolic syndrome. The researchers reported that a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides.”
Is the Mediterranean diet perfect? I think there are a few things about it that might be improved. The Diet does have a higher salt content than other diets, always something to consider for those with high blood pressure. Mercury pollution has reached such levels that commonly sold fish may no longer be wise to eat, at least not without careful shopping. (The Marine Conservation Society has a Greenpeace-approved Good Fish Guide downloadable for free.)
Also, many of the health benefits may come from the active, work-intensive life of the Mediterranean population as from the diet. Health benefits for sedentary Mediterraneans are nowhere near as strong. (Which alone is a lesson from the Mediterranean Diet that RTC practitioners can make use of.) Those interested in giving the Mediterranean Diet a spin may want to start with The Mediterranean Diet for Beginners: The Complete Guide – 40 Delicious Recipes, 7-Day Diet Meal Plan, and 10 Tips for Success.
Other study-supported diets that have become popular are the near-Vegan diets recommended by Doctors Joel Fuhrman and Colin Campbell.
Fuhrman’s Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Revised Edition is certainly a book everyone should read. It’s one of the best explained books on nutrition popularly available; his approach is to focus on foods high in nutritional content, which — calorie-for-calorie — are leafy greens, crucifiers vegetables, berries, legumes, nuts and seeds. One of the many virtues of Fuhrman’s essentially fruit-and-vegetable vision is that the foods he recommends are not only exceptionally high in nutritional value but low in calorie: an entire head of romaine may be less than a hundred calories, whereas a spoonful of corn oil may be more than three hundred. Think you might find three heads of romaine more filling than one spoon of corn oil? If you like huge salads, this is the diet for you. (Yes, there’s a cook book version for aspiring gourmets: Eat to Live Cookbook: 200 Delicious Nutrient-Rich Recipes for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, Reversing Disease, and Lifelong Health.)
Campbell’s The China Study is, of course, the most comprehensive study of nutrition ever conducted. The studies themselves were a monumental survey of diet in over 2,400 counties in China, Campbell’s research allowed him to assess the impact of diet of people exposed to numerous unique diets, and the results are perhaps the strongest case ever made against the high-fat preservative-rich fast-food Western diet, and for the vegetarian approach to healthy eating.
Yet one of the most surprising things about Campbell’s book is that he neither makes an extended case for nor insists on vegetarianism. In fact he restricts his dietary recommendations to one sentence: “The recommendations coming from the published literature are so simple that I can state them one sentence: eat a whole foods, plant-based diet, while minimizing the consumption of refined foods, added salt and added fats.” Period.
Nor is Campbell in the least puritanical about it. He writes, “My advice is to try to eliminate all animal-based products from your diet, but not to obsess over it. If a tasty vegetable soup has a chicken stock base… don’t worry about it.” (Loose as Dr Campbell’s advice sounds, there’s a cook book version available for those looking for a bit more in terms of guidelines: The China Study Cookbook: Over 120 Whole Food, Plant-Based Recipes!)
Campbell does recommend cutting meat out entirely, but doesn’t claim that the evidence conclusively supports it, only that it conclusively supports minimizing animal products significantly. His studies appear to show that only when animal products in the diet account for more than 20% of the total calorie intake do they become a major health risk. (And of course the kind of meat matters: nitrate-laden sausages or junk food Mystery Meat undoubtedly have effects that Omega-3 rich wild salmon does not.)
What then is the RTC synthesis? A simple guideline would be to concentrate on a whole foods, plant-based diet, with an emphasis (not an insistence) on nuts and seeds for essential oils over bottled oils, an emphasis on legumes for protein over meat, and an emphasis on fish over mammal meat.
But I do think a that a diet more specific than this, focused specifically on supporting meditational practice and physical healing, can and should be crafted, and I’ll certainly post about this subject again in the future.
Till then — enjoy your meals! (And don’t obsess.)