Eating our way to health and happiness

Dieting can be a minefield. Approaches spruiked one week are followed by contradictory advice the next. Go paleo or eat wholegrains? A glass of red a day or abstinence? Quit sugar or cut fat? At La Trobe University, Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos demystifies 'healthy eating', while working to reduce incidences of diabetes, heart disease and dementia.

A Mediterranean menu – the Australian way

Professor Itsiopoulos is the Director of a multi-university collaborative research program called Food for Life, which focuses on using food in disease prevention and health management across all life stages.

Food for Life researches the potential benefits of translating the traditional Mediterranean diet into a model for multicultural Australians. A traditional Mediterranean diet is plant-based and high in omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats, such as virgin olive oil, nuts and fish.

Professor Itsiopoulos hopes the Australian-Mediterranean diet model can assist in the prevention chronic disease and the emerging epidemic: dementia.

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fats thought to improve mood, protect against cancer and promote cardiovascular health. Our bodies are able to produce certain nutrients, but not omega-3s, so it’s essential we include them in our diet. Seafood, walnuts, chia seeds, leafy greens and flaxseed are all good sources of omega-3s.

‘The idea is not to encourage everyone to eat like southern Mediterranean people,’ says Professor Itsiopoulos, ‘but to get people to incorporate key elements of the diet into what we call the “Ausmed” diet – the Australian Mediterranean diet. We’re also investigating ways to adapt the traditional Indian and Asian diet to include these key principles.’

She hopes the diet model can assist in the prevention and management of chronic disease, including abdominal visceral obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and heart disease, and what Professor Itsiopoulos calls ‘the new emerging epidemic: dementia’.

‘One of the key trials we’ve done before,’ she says, ‘and are now doing on a larger scale, is reversing fatty liver – by doing that, we can prevent someone from developing diabetes.’

At the moment, she says, the Australian population ‘doesn’t have a diet model to manage this condition’. Most people just think of the catch-all term ‘low-fat diet’ when they think about healthy eating, but for Professor Itsiopoulos, there is one answer: ‘we believe the Mediterranean diet is the way to go’.

Food for thought

‘A BMI of over 30, which is not uncommon or even particularly overweight, increases tenfold your risk of developing type 2 diabetes,’ Professor Itsiopoulos says. ‘And when you have type 2 diabetes, the metabolic change in your body impacts your brain, leaving you at a high risk of dementia.’

However, eating the Mediterranean way could improve lives, and even save them, by putting a stop to type 2 diabetes and associated cognitive decline.

A five-year Spanish study of 7,000 high-risk obese or overweight participants backs up her research. The study measured people who may have had high blood pressure but not type 2 diabetes, producing some very interesting results. According to Professor Itsiopoulos, ‘those on the Mediterranean diet showed a 50 per cent reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and a 30 per cent reduction in cardiovascular deaths and morbidity’.

As well, Food for Life will publish the results of a trial that looks at the Mediterranean diet’s impact on reversing depression. The study, undertaken in collaboration with Deakin University and the University of Melbourne, takes a holistic view of the body and its causal effects, is a world first. ‘Usually research in this area focuses on the physical health of the body, rather than on the brain in terms of cognitive function and mood,’ she says.

Next steps

Phase Two of Professor Itsiopoulos’s research is to find a way to enrich the foods we eat regularly (like chicken, eggs and lamb) with omega-3s. Working at La Trobe helps with that.

‘La Trobe’s world-class facility for agricultural biosciences research and development is an extra bonus that nobody else has,’ she says. ‘The ability to tap into primary industry and impact the food supply is very exciting.’

Another major focus for the Food for Life collective is finding a way to educate the public with consistent, evidence-based dietary advice. All those mixed messages we receive on a daily basis has left people understandably confused about what constitutes a healthy diet. The weight-loss industry promises a magic bullet— quick and easy weight loss—but that’s not what this research is about.

Professor Itsiopolous’ approach is sustainable and long term. It improves metabolic health, achieving weight loss as a side-effect, not the focus.

‘Our approach is sustainable and long term,’ Professor Itsiopoulos says. ‘We improve metabolic health, and achieve weight loss as a side-effect, not as the primary focus.’

The keyword is ‘sustainable’, and not just in the sense of long-lasting benefits to our health and wellbeing. As the Mediterranean diet is primarily plant based, it’s cost effective and affordable for many Australians.

It also promotes the hearty consumption of good fats, which satisfy hunger. And that means you won’t end up diving head first into the biscuit tin in a ravenous craze.

Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos is Head of the School of Allied Health, La Trobe University. She is the author of The Mediterranean Diet and The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.

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