“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive.
What you eat is critical to your health because food is like a medicine you ingest daily. An unhealthy diet is one of the leading causes of death globally, while the Mediterranean Diet is one of the most rigorously tested healthy diets for wellbeing.
But what if you don’t like the rigors of the Mediterranean Diet? Are there alternatives?
Recent data support the advantages of four other healthy dietary indexes, including:
- The Healthy Eating Index that contains 13 components reflecting the key recommendations in the2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans
- Alternate Mediterranean Diet with low carbohydrates that includes a list of the best Mediterranean diets
- Healthful Plant-based Diet Index focusing on a healthy plant-based diet, physical activity, stress management, and community support
- Alternate Healthy Eating Index oriented toward reducing the risk of chronic disease
Each of these diet plans emphasizes various components of a healthy diet and shares several staples such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. How beneficial are they?
Analyzing a group of 120,000 individuals with up to 36 years of follow up, researchers found that greater adherence to one of these four healthy eating patterns was consistently associated with a lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality. The importance of this finding is that it offers consumers flexibility in choosing different diet plans with each providing benefits of reduced mortality. Multiple healthy eating patterns can be adapted to individual food traditions and preferences.
But the ingredients of proper nutrition encompass more than just the food. Timing, mental health, and other factors play an important role.
For example, a recent report stressed timing; that it’s best to consume most of your calories early in the day, such as eating a large breakfast, an average-sized lunch, and a light dinner — exactly opposite to my eating regimen, since I’m not hungry in the morning and eat my main meal at night. They claim that our sleep-wake cycle — circadian rhythm — is programmed to digest and metabolize food earlier in the day, becoming less efficient later. Individuals who abided by that schedule lost more weight and had improved blood sugar, cholesterol, and insulin levels than those who ate late. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit overweight.
Can eating the right foods at the right time transform who you are — make you younger, for example — providing not a Fountain of Youth but maybe a Buffet of Youth? Startling experiments at Harvard in mice suggest that might be possible, that aging is a reversible process that can be driven in either direction at will. The scientists claim our bodies contain a backup youthful copy that might be triggered to regenerate on demand.
Think of our bodies as computers with our DNA as the hardware, which is controlled by proteins called the epigenome — the software — that sit on or near the genes and regulate them. This software becomes corrupted with age — like the file you can’t open on your computer because it’s corrupted — but can be rebooted and reset to restore proper gene functioning that reignites youth.
What could initiate that reset? Let food be your medicine. The scientists suggest diet could play a role, focusing on plants for food as noted above, combined with a healthy lifestyle such as sufficient sleep, exercise, a good social life, and not sweating the small aggravations that drive you crazy on a daily basis, but are meaningless a year later.
Ponce de Leon searched the coast of Florida in 1513 for the Fountain of Youth. Perhaps it was lost in plain sight, located in his kitchen, and served by his chef: the Buffet of Youth.
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