Scan a list of so-called “superfoods” and you’re bound to find blueberries, fish and leafy greens on it. These specific foods have been linked to improved memory, heart health and, in the case of leafy greens, denser bones. The problem, though, is that we don’t eat foods, or consume nutrients, in isolation. The foods, nutrients and phytochemicals in a varied diet are thought to work synergistically to offer health benefits.
In recent years, nutrition research has shifted to examining “dietary patterns” to capture the complexity of diet. A dietary pattern is defined as the quality, quantity, variety and combinations of foods eaten on a regular basis.
One of the best-known dietary patterns is the well-studied Mediterranean diet. Adherence to this way of eating has been associated with protection against many chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Here are four dietary patterns that can keep you healthy, plus the foods that are in them.
Protects Against: Hypertension
Hypertension (e.g., high blood pressure) is a leading preventable risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke, and affects almost one in four Canadians. Blood pressure consistently at or above 140/90 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) indicates hypertension, but if you have diabetes, 130/80 mmHg is considered high.
DASH stands for the name of a randomized controlled trial called “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension”. This landmark study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, demonstrated the diet’s potent blood pressure-lowering effect in people with mild hypertension. Participants achieved a reduction in blood pressure similar to that obtained by drug treatment. Since this first study, the DASH diet has been found to lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, heart failure and type 2 diabetes.
What’s in it? The hallmark foods of the DASH diet are fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, beans and lentils and nuts, foods that deliver calcium, magnesium and potassium—minerals important for regulating blood pressure. It’s a pattern of eating that’s low in sodium and saturated fats and emphasizes whole grains.
Protects Against: High Blood Cholesterol
Eating less saturated fat, found in meat and dairy products, can help lower elevated LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream, a risk factor for heart disease. But if your daily diet also includes a combination of cholesterol-lowering foods such oats, nuts, soy and plant sterols, you’ll lower your cholesterol even further.
This food combination—known as the Portfolio diet—has been well studied by Dr. David Jenkins, director of the Risk Factor Modification Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. The Portfolio diet has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol by 28% and decrease markers of inflammation in the body.
What’s in it? The Portfolio diet is a plant-based way of eating. It includes fibre-rich foods like oats, oat bran, barley, psyllium, okra and eggplant. Daily foods also include nuts (28 grams worth), as well as soy foods like edamame, tofu, soy nuts and soy milk. Plant sterols, phytochemicals that prevent cholesterol from being absorbed into the bloodstream, are also part of this diet.
Protects Against: Depression
Many studies have linked a healthy diet pattern to a lower risk of depression in adults, children and adolescents. The anti-inflammatory properties of nutrients and phytochemicals in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and oily fish are thought to influence concentrations of brain chemicals that regulate emotions and cognition.
Not only can an anti-inflammatory diet guard against depression, research has shown it can also help treat it. The SMILES trial, published in 2017, found that participants who were coached by dietitians to follow a Mediterranean-style diet (an anti-inflammatory diet pattern) had significant improvements in depressive symptoms compared to participants who received only social support.
What’s in it? The Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils and nuts eaten daily. Dairy products—cheese and yogurt—are also part of the daily diet. Red meat is consumed no more than a few times per month. Poultry and fish are the protein foods of choice and are consumed at least twice per week. The diet also allows up to seven eggs per week, including those used in cooking and baking.
The principal fat is olive oil; butter and margarine are seldom used. Herbs and spices, rich in anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, are used to flavour foods rather than salt.
The MIND Diet
Protects Against: Cognitive Decline
Combine the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, add in a handful of foods known to support brain function, and you end up with the MIND diet. (MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.)
Research has shown that following this dietary pattern, even modestly, slows the rate of cognitive decline and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet is currently being tested in a randomized controlled trial—the gold standard of scientific evidence—for these benefits.
What’s in it? This eating pattern includes 10 “brain-healthy food groups” including green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, nuts, beans and lentils, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil and wine. These foods deliver a wide range of brain-protective nutrients and phytochemicals.
The plan also advises to limit five “brain-unhealthy” food groups—red meat, butter and stick margarine, cheese, pastries and sweets, and fried or fast food.
During your Annual Health Assessment, a Medcan dietitian can provide an up-close look at a dietary pattern that best suits your health goals. Learn more about our nutrition programs, or book an appointment by getting in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416.862.1553. Follow Leslie Beck on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD.