You may be concerned about putting on a few extra pounds during the holidays. After all, not only can overindulging in Bûche de Noël and George Washington’s eggnog affect your waistline, but it can also impact your health.
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence showing that being overweight or obese can shorten your lifespan. Case in point: A meta-analysis published in 2017 found that excess weight contributes to 4 million deaths per year worldwide.1
But, as I’ve written before, a few extra pounds isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, when it comes to good health, the quality of your diet can be more important than the quantity of your diet.
And now, a new study shows that a healthy, Mediterranean-style diet can actually counter the ill effects of excess weight on your lifespan.
So, let’s take a closer look at the findings of that study from Sweden. And from there, I’ll take you on a short tour around the world to illustrate the real benefits of a healthy diet—and what really counts (and doesn’t count) as being truly healthy.
From Sweden: The benefits of following a Mediterranean diet
The new study involved nearly 80,000 Swedish men and women with an average age of 61.2 Researchers followed this group for 21 years, analyzing how their diets affected their health and longevity.
During the study period, 38 percent of the participants died. (That’s not surprising, considering most were in their 80s when the study ended.)
What was surprising is that the people who were obese—but who ate a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, meat, olive oil, and whole grains—were no more likely to die than normal-weight people who also followed a Mediterranean diet. And this includes deaths from cardiovascular disease, the world’s No. 1 killer.
Even more amazingly, overweight people who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet had up to a 10 percent lower risk of death from any cause compared to people of normal weight.
And people of normal weight who didn’t eat a Mediterranean-style diet had up to a 75 percent higher mortality rate compared with normal-weight people who had a high adherence to a Medi diet pattern.
In other words, the benefits of a healthy Mediterranean diet completely outweighed, so to speak, any ill effects of a high body mass index (BMI) for total mortality.
Of course, the problem is that not everybody follows a healthy Medi diet—not even Mediterraneans…
From Greece: The perils of an unbalanced diet
One of the main reasons the Mediterranean diet is so healthy is because it’s balanced. Remember, this diet is full of fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, grass-fed and -finished meat, wild-caught fish and seafood, full-fat dairy (like milk, butter, yogurt, and cheeses), eggs, olives and olive oil, and alcohol in moderation.
Or, as the Greeks say: pantophagus—eating all kinds of foods.
And, as such, it contains a variety of ingredients that provide the building blocks of life—protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and many other nutrients.
As I’ve written before, the definition of an unhealthy, unbalanced diet is one that eliminates entire categories of foods and nutrients. And one of the most common examples of this is vegetarian diets.
A new study from Greece is a stark reminder of the dangers of this type of unbalanced diet. (The irony is not lost on me here—that even in Greece, the historic ancient center of the Mediterranean, there are people who reject their sensible, traditional, healthy diet that surrounds them, and instead succumb to contemporary, politically correct nonsense like vegetarian diets.)
For 10 years, a team of researchers at Harokopio University in Athens assessed the diets of nearly 150 obese men and women.3
The researchers sorted the participants into two groups: vegetarians and non-vegetarians. The vegetarian group was then divided into two categories: those who ate more healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and olive oil; or those who ate more unhealthy foods like juice, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, and sugary desserts.
All of the participants had normal blood pressure, blood sugar, and fat levels, and didn’t have heart disease at the start of the study. But by the end of the study, nearly half of the participants had developed high blood pressure and high blood sugar, and were at increased risk of heart disease.
These findings were stronger in women than in men. Perhaps because prior studies show that women typically tend to eat more plant-based foods than men.
The main takeaway from this study is that vegetarian diets are indiscriminately considered “healthy,” even when they include foods loaded with refined carbs and sugar. But this study highlights the poor quality of many plant-based foods and diets (including plant-based fake “meats” that are highly processed and loaded with unhealthy ingredients).
One reason why so-called “healthy” vegetarians eat such an unhealthy diet may be because avoiding meat makes more room for highly processed carbohydrates and sugars—which are the real culprits behind poor health.
So even if you want to reduce meat consumption—for personal or health reasons—it’s key to eat eggs, fish, nuts, and seeds to lower blood pressure and manage blood sugar, blood fats, and insulin.
Because when you eliminate whole categories of food (like meat) from your diet, you end up with a difficult metabolic balancing act. One that can seriously affect your health, as illustrated by this study.
Of course, if people in Greece can fall prey to fake, unbalanced diets, we all need to put up our guard. Which leads me to the final chapter in our worldwide saga of unhealthy diets…
From Australia: An extreme consequence of an extreme diet
Australia is home to a large Mediterranean population. In fact, I found that the best restaurants in Australia were Greek, Italian, and Spanish—including Capitan Torres Spanish Restaurant on Darling Harbour in Sydney (named after Luis Váez de Torres, a 16th– and 17th-century explorer who reportedly was the first European to navigate the waters that separate Australia from New Guinea…now called the Torres Strait).
The largest Greek community in the world, outside of Greece itself, is in Melbourne, Australia. But it seems the Mediterranean diet has tragically eluded plenty of its residents.
Case in point: In March 2018, a 19-month-old girl suffered a seizure and was rushed to a Melbourne hospital.4 She had bruising, skin discoloration, rashes, and open wounds (signs of vitamin deficiency). She didn’t have any teeth and weighed only 11 pounds.
The toddler was diagnosed with cerebral palsy brought on by malnutrition. Doctors commented that the child’s condition was similar to newborns who experience famine in third-world countries.
But this little girl’s malnutrition wasn’t the result of starvation. Instead, it was due to one of the most extreme, unbalanced diets—veganism.
The parents, who are strict vegans, were arrested for failing to provide for their child. They told the court they couldn’t find an “appropriate” vegan baby formula, so the father made his own from dates, fruits, and vegetables. When the baby graduated to solid food, she was fed a diet of oats, potatoes, rice, tofu, bread, peanut butter, and rice milk. She occasionally snacked on fruit and raisins.
The parents were sentenced to 18 months of work release. They also received a scolding from the judge. “It is the responsibility of every parent to ensure the diet they chose to provide to their children…is one that is balanced and contains sufficient essential nutrients and vitamins for optimum growth and development,” the judge said.
The moral of this terrible tale is that—yet again—the dangers of an unbalanced diet are not just child’s play…in fact, they are definitely not for children at all.
To go back to the point I made earlier, this is an extreme example of what happens when someone eats a poor diet—and cuts out whole categories of foods, like meat and full-fat dairy. It sounds like the parents fed their child the right quantity of food, but far from the right quality of food.
So, to bring things back full circle, I’ll leave you with this piece of advice: This holiday season (and every other time of the year), don’t obsess about the potential of putting on a few extra pounds.
Instead, simply try to refrain from overindulging too frequently—and focus on eating a nutritious, balanced, Mediterranean-style diet that will keep you healthy for years to come.
1“Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 Years.” N Engl J Med. 2017 Jul 6;377(1):13-27.
2“Combined associations of body mass index and adherence to a Mediterranean-like diet with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality: A cohort study.” PLOS Medicine, 2020; 17 (9): e100333.
3“Healthful and unhealthful plant-based dietary patterns and their role on 10-year transition to metabolically unhealthy status in obese participants of the ATTICA prospective (2002-2012) study.” European Society of Cardiology, September 2020.