Q: I've been wondering lately what a truly healthy diet is. There seem to be so many cure-all diets. In the last year alone, I've read about the blood-type diet, where the foods you eat are based on your blood type; the Zone diet, which rigidly balances fats and carbohydrates; the Atkins Diet, focused on protein and fat; and Dean Ornish's healthy-heart diet, high in carbs, low in fats. Isn't there a happy medium?
A: The problem with most fad diets is that they offer a simple prescription for the whole population, when dietary needs are much more individual. When I prescribe a diet for a patient, I begin with a close look at the person's family history. I want to be sure to protect against any hereditary weakness.
If your father has heart disease or an uncle has diabetes, for instance, you may be susceptible to those conditions, and you can make specific dietary adjustments to protect yourself. For instance, fish oils protect against heart disease, while a diet high in fiber, along with nutrients like vitamin C and magnesium, can help ward off diabetes.
Secondly, I review your own medical history. It will indicate possible areas of immediate concern, most of which can be heavily influenced by good nutrition. If you have high triglyceride levels, for instance, you should restrict simple carbohydrates and emphasize proteins and fats. That's because triglycerides are made when you cannot process sugar properly.
In general, certain themes run through all healthy diets. Eat adequate amounts of fruits, vegetables, and grains, which contain fiber as well as antioxidants and phytochemicals that protect against a range of diseases.
Educate yourself. Each food contains specific nutrients that can target equally specific diseases. Tomatoes are good for the prostate and have been shown to cut the risk of prostate cancer by half, while squash and carrots are good for the eyes and beet greens help cleanse the liver.
Everybody needs essential fatty acids in the Omega 3 family, either from fish or flaxseed. Try to eat organic foods, especially meat and eggs, in order to lower your intake of pesticides, antibiotics, and harmful chemicals. And drink plenty of water daily to flush out your system.