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March 7, 2000

Soy, salmon enrich 'Optimum' diet

By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY


If best-selling author and alternative-medicine man Andrew Weil could have his way, the USA would have a fast-food restaurant chain called Planet Burger serving healthful fare.

It would dish out salmon burgers, tuna burgers and soy burgers on whole-grain buns, oven-roasted potatoes, coleslaw, green salads and pasta salad. The chain would help people in the USA begin eating the best diet in the world instead of the worst, he says.

A Harvard-trained doctor, Weil has made a name for himself spoon-feeding people nutrition and other lifestyle advice. He has written several best-selling books, including Spontaneous Healing and 8 Weeks to Optimum Health . .

His latest, Eating Well for Optimum Health (Alfred A. Knopf, $25), is out today. He also has a one-hour PBS special, based on the book, airing this month (check local listings). Weil pores over the latest nutrition research for his books, newsletter and Web site (


His critics say he makes some of his recommendations based on science thatís evolving. His advice sometimes differs from that of the nutrition and medical establishments, especially his strong advocacy of soy, his views on fat and some of his advice about food and cancer prevention.

Weil, who is a clinical professor of medicine and director of the Program in Innovative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson, says too many Americans are eating poorly - greasy fast food and heavily processed foods. "The stuff served in fast-food restaurants like McDonaldís, Taco Bell and Wendyís is pretty close to the worst diet in the world."

His complaints: The food is too high in saturated and polyunsaturated fats. The oil for frying has been used and reused. The breads are highly refined. Itís also deficient in the protective substances that can be found in fruits and vegetables.

For one of the best diets in the world, Weil leans toward the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables, coarse breads, olive oil, fish and cheese. "It incorporates all the elements of good nutrition."

He says the beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it doesnít require elaborate preparation. "You can make a big Greek salad, grilled fish with some vegetables, pasta and marinara sauce."

He believes that Americans would have better diets if they got away from the idea that meat should be the centerpiece of a meal and if they used more fish like salmon, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids (an essential type of fat that needs to be eaten because the body canít produce it). Weil believes that omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease and cancer.

Heís also enthusiastic about soy. "The evidence that whole-soy foods in the diet are extremely beneficial is very compelling. The oil is heart-protective. The phytoestrogens are extremely protective against breast and prostate cancer."

Weilís breakdown of fat intake is different from that of the American Heart Association, which recommends that no more than 30% of calories come from fat: 8% to 10% from saturated fat, up to 10% from polyunsaturated fat and up to 15% from monounsaturated fat. He suggests the diet should be 5% saturated fat, 5% polyunsaturated fat and 20% monounsaturated fat.

He recommends cutting back on polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as corn, safflower, sunflower and sesame. "They have been oversold. They lower both good and bad cholesterol, promote inflammation and possibly cancer. I personally think these oils are not healthy to eat except in small quantities."

Not everyone agrees with Weilís advice.

"Heís got a lot of strong statements that havenít quite been proven," says Robert Eckel, chairman of the nutrition committee for the American Heart Association and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. "There is insufficient information to back his statement about polyunsaturated fats."

Chris Rosenbloom, an associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, is leery of Weilís blanket soy advice. "I donít think we have all the information on soy yet."

Thereís a concern about whether soy is safe for women who have had estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer, says Colleen Doyle, director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society. About omega-3 fatty acids, Doyle says: "We recommend that people include foods like fish in their diets, but we think the omega-3 fatty acids are neutral in terms of cancer. We donít think they increase your risk, but we donít think they are protective."

Tim Byers, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says itís good that people like Weil think about nutrition and science in a way that makes us "discover and rethink our diets," but "there are dangers to taking a little science and extrapolating it out to make recommendations. Weíve had a real sobering history in science of good ideas that didnít turn out right."

Weil counters: "I recommend whole-soy foods even to women with estrogen-positive breast cancer. I do not recommend supplements of soy derivatives or functional foods spiked with isoflavones. Evidence here is contradictory, but I feel the benefits of soy outweigh the risks."

Weil says his advice sometimes differs from others because he considers more sources of informa 8 tion than most conventional doctors do, which "puts me a bit ahead of the curve of developing medical knowledge. Iím rarely surprised by research findings - can usually anticipate them and so point patients and readers in the direction that information will move."

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