First, Do No Harm: Eat Less

I've only been in Greece 4 days, yet already I'm feeling bold enough to take a famous ancient Greek's words ("First, Do No Harm" Hippocrates, ca. 460 BC – ca. 370 BC) and morph them into my own.

"Eating less is the #1 thing Americans can do to improve their health,"

said Dr. Philippe Legrand, Chairman of France's Committee for Fatty Acid Dietary Recommendations, when I asked him to share one key takeaway I could bring back to Americans from the conference.

For a scientist who has dedicated his life to studying fats, I was prepared for him to launch into a nuanced discussion of fat composition in the diet. (Truth be told, I was also hoping he'd give me the green light to slather some butter onto my bread occasionally, which I noticed him doing at breakfast).

Why the recommendation to eat less? Chronic diseases, Legrand said, are strongly correlated with total energy (meaning how many total calories are consumed) and not really with the percent of total fats in the diet. "Only once energy is in balance, and excess is solved, then is fat composition of importance", he said.

I later strolled up to Dr. Ole Faergeman, former Chairman of the Danish Heart Association and a leading cardiologist in Europe. I repeated Legrand's statement and asked

"Is the primary concern if we can propose an 'order of priority' when it comes to America's national health crisis, simply consuming fewer calories?"

"He's absolutely right," Faergeman smiled.

First, eat less.

If you are wondering where to begin when it comes to your own list of diet or lifestyle challenges to tackle, many different lines of science presented at this conference seem to point to this simple but resounding statement: first, eat less.

While you can't control your genes, you can control how powerfully they exert themselves. The problem with excess eating (regardless of whether it's overconsumption of carbohydrates, fat, or protein) is that, aside from obesity, it also plays a role in turning up the volume of gene expression. On the flip-side, when you eat less, you begin to "down-regulate" the expression of certain genes.

Eating less reaps many more benefits that simply whittling your waistline. Dr. Despina Kominou reported that calorie restriction in humans has been shown to improve blood pressure, glucose, reduce inflammatory mediators, reduced oxidative stress, and even resolve metabolic syndrome in people.

"We have obese children who are aging faster because of the metabolic changes taking place", Kominou said.

So start simply, but start powerfully. Eat less. Here are some of my favorite easy tips for eating less naturally and with minimal effort:

  • Serve food on smaller plates (so you naturally reduce portions)
  • Eliminate liquid calories completely – drink water, coffee, or tea instead of soda and juice, and watch any calories you add.
  • Chew sugarless gum while preparing meals so you don't "sample" a few hundred extra calories.
  • Be sure your meals and snacks include some heart healthy fats and some protein to boost satiety and keep you fuller longer.
  • Keep a food journal so you can see EXACTLY what you're eating. (Research suggests that simply keeping a food log results in weight loss).  You can download a FREE food log on my website.

Marion Nestle has written often and powerfully about challenges in the American food system to create policies that truly promote the message of "eat less". The food industry doesn't like it. Lobbyists don't like it. So instead, things get watered down into a much softer encouragements to actually eat more: "Enjoy more fruits and vegetables", "Eat foods that are rich in fiber or calcium", or  "Choose lean cuts of meat" are three such examples. As long as the message is to eat more, everybody wins.  Everybody, that is, except you.

It's day three of the "Healthy Agriculture, Healthy Nutrition, Healthy People" conference (sponsored by Stonyfield) here in Greece, and when it comes to sifting through the science, and teasing out the best recommendations, here was perhaps the perfect summary of the day:

"A healthy appropriate (meaning right calorie) traditional Greek Style Diet, stress reduction and regular exercise may prove to be the most effective formula for health and longevity," said Athenian researcher Konstantinos Pavlou.

Sounds like something Hippocrates himself would have said.

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