By Megy Karydes
Linda Quirk was busy chopping up six pounds of mushrooms for a soup she was preparing for Souper Saturday—an annual gathering where she and about a dozen friends spend the day catching up on life and swapping soups in the process.
“I love fresh vegetables,” says the 59-year-old Skokie resident, who was excited to prepare several soups for the occasion. Her love of fungi, other vegetables and fruits has another benefit: It’s significently helped her health.
Quirk suffered from various heart and other ailments for more than a dozen years. She’d been seeing Philip Krause, MD, a cardiologist at NorthShore University HealthSystem, for almost 14 years, who was trying to help her manage her high cholesterol. Two years ago was the tipping point: She was dealing with cancer, had a stroke and was on cholesterol medication that wasn’t working. Krause suggested they take a closer look at her diet.
Together they decided to give the Mediterranean diet a shot. According to the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the Mediterranean diet focuses on a high consumption of monounsaturated fatty acids, primarily from olives and olive oils; daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals and low-fat dairy products; weekly consumption of fish, poultry, tree nuts and legumes; a relatively low consumption of red meat; and a moderate daily consumption of alcohol, normally with meals.
The diet did wonders for Quirk. She credits it with giving her a new lease on life.
There are several reasons that the Mediterranean diet works for many of Krause’s patients. Not only is the food healthier, it also aids in weight loss since the body isn’t consuming so much fat.
Just as important as what you eat, says Krause, is how much. “Portion control isn’t talked about enough,” he says. Decisions like not accepting the bread basket at a restaurant or substituting healthier choices when making meals at home, such as vegetables higher in vitamins or olive oil rather than butter, are better for your short- and long-term health. “Don’t eat to the point that you’re full,” recommends Krause. “Eat not to be hungry.”
Krause’s patients’ results aren’t unique. A report recently released by the Harvard School of Public Health and Cambridge Health Alliance studied 780 male Midwestern firefighters and found that those who followed a Mediterranean-style diet had a 35 percent decreased risk of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a condition with risk factors that include a large waistline, high triglyceride level, a low HDL cholesterol level (AKA, good cholesterol), high blood pressure and high blood sugar.
Other obvious vices need to be cut as well: cigarettes and red meat. “Just today, I had a patient on my cardiac cath table who is a smoker,” says Krause. “Some people need to hear it more than once.” He’s not an advocate of going cold turkey, preferring the tapering method instead. “Take out one cigarette a week,” he recommends. This approach works for about 30–40 percent of his patients.
Oddly enough, though, both Quirk and Krause point to a different reason that Quirk has become healthier: a strong doctor and patient relationship.
“Some people are afraid to talk to their doctors; they put them on a pedestal or feel their doctor’s job is to fix them,” says Quirk. “I want my doctor to work with me. I don’t expect him to cure me, but I do want a doctor who will help me by answering my questions.”
When discussing the Mediterranean diet as an option with Krause, the fact that it included so many things Quirk already loved, like fresh fruits, vegetables and fish, was attractive because she doesn’t feel that it’s restrictive. “I don’t consider it a diet,” she says. “It’s a lifestyle. I still get to enjoy great flavors and eat great meals, but I don’t have the daily aches and pains that I used to.”
Krause agrees that having patients who are knowledgeable and willing to be active participants in their health plays a key role in their outcomes. For those interested in learning more about a Mediterranean diet and whether it might be an option to discuss with their cardiologist, Krause recommends visiting the CardioSource section on the American College of Cardiology website, and those with diabetes should visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics site.
“Am I tall, blonde and kempt? No,” Quirk says with a laugh. “But am I in a better place now than I was before I made the change, and am I healthier? Yes, I am.”