April 2009 issue
When I was a young assistant professor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I often woke in the night with heartburn. I mentioned it to a few colleagues, who were surprised to hear I didn’t take an antacid every night—as they did—to prevent acid buildup in the stomach. At the time, an advertising campaign for a new fast food restaurant showed a thick, crusty slice of pizza dripping with grilled cheese and topped with slabs of sausage, salami and ham, with the unbelievable slogan, “The only thing that doesn’t come with it is the antacid.”
One of the most glaring defects of our health system is doctors’ tendency to treat physical symptoms—in this case, heartburn—by prescribing drugs rather than recognizing that our symptoms reflect our unhealthy lifestyles. A good physician will give patients regular check-ups; measuring blood pressure, glucose, insulin, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as weight and waistline. Any significant increase in either is a clear indication of deterioration in the patient’s general health. If any one of these tests shows an abnormal result, the doctor will, as a rule, prescribe the appropriate medicines: something to lower blood pressure, tablets to control hyperglycemia, reduce cholesterol or combat inflammation.
As a result of the implacable logic that decrees a pill for every symptom, most of the elderly take a handful of pills every day.
A few years ago in Italy, a group of researchers from Naples University gave a powerful demonstration of an alternative. They chose 180 patients with typical Western lifestyle disorders: weight problems, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, joint pain, excessive insulin and blood sugar levels. Half the patients followed a so-called healthy diet, low in cholesterol; the other half ate a typical Mediterranean diet: olive and rapeseed oils; chicken or fish five times a week (without much red meat); lentils, chick peas, rice and whole grain cereals several times a week; vegetables or salad with every lunch and supper; at least one piece of fruit a day; and herbs (garlic, onions, chives, rosemary, thyme, basil, mint) as a regular element of dishes.
Two years later, the results were spectacular: Patients following the Mediterranean diet showed improvement in every aspect of their health—without taking any medicine: lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and triglycerides, blood sugar levels close to normal, inflammation under control—even an average weight loss of eight pounds per person, compared with two pounds in the other group. No known drug could have delivered such a dramatic improvement in all these areas at once. But this unpatented miracle diet is the subject of little research and is rarely taught in medical school.
Since I started to follow this diet, I haven’t needed a single antacid.
David Servan-Schreiber is a French psychiatry professor and the author of Healing without Freud or Prozac
The Club Med method