Recently I sat down with healthcare writer, Christine Ippolito, and answered some questions about my philosophy on Food As Medicine. Depending on what you eat — and what you don’t — you can pro-actively lower your risk for disease and maximize your chance for a long, healthy life.
Christine Ippolito interviews Gerard Mullin MD
Ippolito: Why are omega-3 fats recommended as part of a healthy diet?
Mullin: Omega-3 fats are a beneficial and essential form of fat that your body needs but can’t make on it’s own. Although your body needs two forms of omega fatty acids — omega-3 and omega-6, it is the omega-3s that get high marks from researchers. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory, which help protect our bodies from certain illnesses such as coronary artery disease .
Omega-3s help prevent coronary artery disease by lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, which are fats in the blood. The buildup of fatty substances in the blood can form blockages which can cause a heart attack.
Good sources of omega-3s are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, walnuts, flaxseed, and fish oil supplements.
Ippolito: What are the diseases associated with a low fiber diet? What diseases can be a direct result of an unhealthy diet?
Mullin: There are several diseases or medical conditions that can have a direct link to unhealthy diets, especially those low in fiber. They are:
- Coronary artery disease
- Digestive diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, colon cancer
- Neurological disorders
Many of these diseases and conditions are on the rise because of all the processed foods we eat. Many baked items, especially, have the fiber processed out, so they are not as healthy for our bodies as whole grain or high-fiber alternatives. Eating foods as close to their natural state is always healthier than eating their processed versions. Think brown rice instead of white; baked potato instead of mashed; apples instead of apple juice.
Ippolito: Why are whole grains important in our diet?
Mullin: If awards were given out for the healthiest foods, whole grains would win a gold medal every time. Compared with refined grains, they have more fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants. Whole grains are also a healthy way to control weight because they are less energy dense (provide less calories per amount of food) and help you feel full longer on fewer calories.
But the benefits don’t stop there. The fiber in certain whole grains, such as oats and barley, helps reduce your cholesterol levels and may lower your risk for heart disease. Fiber also helps reduce constipation, maintain bone and muscle health and keep your immune system healthy.
The recommended amount of fiber per day for an adult is 25 grams, yet the average American’s intake is only half of that–about 12 grams per day. Refined foods are often the culprits, making up a staggering 85 percent of the grains Americans eat. Here are some tips to work whole grains and fiber into your diet:
- Oatmeal, whole-grain waffles or whole wheat flakes are great breakfast choices.
- Check food labels for a whole grain claim or these ingredients: whole wheat, cracked wheat, whole cornmeal, whole rye, brown rice and whole-grain barley.
- Skip the white bread and white rice! Have whole wheat bread and brown rice, instead.
- Whole wheat or brown rice pasta is a delicious alternative to semolina flour pasta.
Ippolito: What are the “must-have” or superfoods for my diet?
Mullin: There is no official “superfoods” list, but there are several foods that are widely recognized as having superior health benefits.
The following are my recommendations for some specific foods to incorporate into your diet:
- Garlic. It has anti-cancer benefits; anti-microbial to fight bacteria like H. pylori, which can cause ulcers.
- Apples. The old adage is true: an apple a day CAN help keep the doctor away. They can suppress your appetite for weight control; lower cholesterol; and have anti-cancer benefits.
- Olive Oil. Good for cardiovascular health; bone loss prevention; and anti-cancer benefits.
- Walnuts. Contain omega-3 fatty acids that lower cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Cruciferous vegetables. Broccoli, cauliflower and brussel sprouts are some of the veggies that can help detoxify your liver.
- Blueberries. Contain the highest antioxidant level of all berries.
- Dark chocolate. It’s not just delicious; it’s truly good for you. It helps ward off cardiovascular disease among others.
- Tea. Green or black, they both provide antioxidants.
- Spices. Certain spices help your immune system, specifically, peppermint, fennel, ginger, cumin, and caraway.
Ippolito: Are organic fruits and vegetables worth the money?
Mullin: Organic produce generally costs more than other produce because of the methods used to grow them. To be labeled “USDA Organic”, produce must be grown without conventional pesticides and fertilizers. They also can’t contain hormones or antibiotics.
It’s really up to you to decide if it’s “worth the money”, but you should know that pesticide-, hormone-free foods are healthier for your body and may be worth it to you. Since most people — especially those with families — can’t afford to eat entirely organic, there are some fruits and vegetables that you may want to consider buying organic, because they tend to absorb more pesticides than others. They are:
Buying fruit and vegetables from local organic farms is preferable. They are fresher and tend to be less expensive than organic produce from the supermarket. Remember to always wash your produce before eating, even if it’s organic.
Ippolito: What is the glycemic index? How does the glycemic index affect weight loss?
Mullin: The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of the ability of carbohydrates to increase blood glucose levels, which can lead to weight gain and diabetes. Foods with a low GI cause blood levels to increase more slowly, thus avoiding spikes in glucose which are unhealthy and contribute to weight gain.
Foods with a high GI are usually refined (like white bread and white rice) or contain high fructose corn syrup. Although some say “sugar is sugar”, that’s really not the case with high fructose corn syrup — it can lead to fat accumulation in the liver and other areas.
Proteins and whole grains, which are rich in fiber, digest more slowly — leaving you fuller longer and keeping glucose levels stable. This promotes weight loss and helps keep diabetes at bay. A diet rich in whole grains and low in refined carbs is important whether or not weight loss is your goal.
Ippolito: Is high fructose corn syrup worse than other types of sweeteners?
Mullin: This topic is somewhat controversial, but current research suggests that high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) causes certain fat cells to multiply faster than other types of sweeteners. It is known to cause fatty liver, as well. So, in that way, it is “worse” than other sweeteners.
However, too much sugar of any kind will lead to weight gain and increase your risk for developing other conditions such as diabetes. Because HFCS is inexpensive, it is widely used in a variety of foods including soft drinks, baked goods, and processed foods.
Americans — including children — are bombarded with products containing HFCS, contributing to an obesity epidemic. It is wise to limit those products and substitute other foods such as unsweetened low-fat dairy, fresh fruit and nuts.
Ippolito: Can foods cure or prevent disease?
Mullin: There’s no one magic formula or written guarantee, but, yes, food can definitely cure or prevent a host of diseases.
We know that foods full of trans fats and refined sugars can cause health problems like diabetes and heart disease. There is proven evidence to support the link between eating those types of unhealthy foods and developing certain diseases. Conversely, eating a diet rich in whole grains, lean proteins, omega-3 fatty acids from sources like salmon, and low fat dairy can do wonders to preserve or regain good health.
These and other good-for-you foods can help “repair” the body by regulating DNA; providing antioxidants to fight cancer; protecting against certain bacteria; controlling the flora in our digestive systems; positively directing the way we make hormones; and managing our metabolism. Depending on what you eat–and what you don’t — you can proactively lower your risk for disease and maximize your chance for a long, healthy life.
To your good health.
Dr. Gerry Mullin