The Pioppi diet: A hearty helping of the right fats

At 95kg (14st 13lb) for his height of 175cm (5ft 9in), Cheshire businessman Mike Sackett, 53, was clearly overweight. He had been following the NHS low-fat, high-carb Eatwell Guide but the pounds wouldn’t shift. So, in October 2016, ‘he joined the local rowing club’, explains his wife Lynda.

As a clinical research nurse, Lynda worried that Mike had symptoms of metabolic syndrome, the red alert for heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. ‘His blood pressure was a bit high, his waist was 102cm (40in), and the fat around his tummy was the hard, visceral, dangerous kind.’ Lynda knew that ‘strenuous exercise at Mike’s age and weight wasn’t clever’ but he persisted.

On the night of 12 September last year, Mike phoned Lynda from the club saying he felt nauseous after a very vigorous session. He started to walk home but after five minutes he was breathless and asked Lynda to pick him up in the car. She found him on the road having a massive heart attack. ‘I was terrified his heart would arrest [stop] so I drove him straight to hospital in Chester.’ Mike was given clot-busting drugs and transferred to Liverpool heart and chest hospital. ‘The consultant told us he would need a special cardiac stress MRI to assess the atherosclerosis and damage to his arteries.’

Staying with Mike in hospital, Lynda studied the latest research on nutrition and heart disease. ‘I knew about low-carb, high-fat diets through my previous work with diabetes and now respiratory conditions. That led me to The Pioppi Diet by cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, based on the food of a particularly healthy district in Italy. It incorporates lots of extra virgin olive oil, fibre-rich vegetables, nuts, seeds, oily fish, meat, chicken, Greek yoghurt and berries – but no starchy carbs (pasta, bread, potatoes or rice) and no sweets of any kind,’ she says.

Pioppi in southern Italy

As Lynda observes, the Pioppi diet is virtually the opposite of the NHS guidelines, which many experts believe are a key cause of obesity and the consequent rise of heart disease and diabetes. ‘Heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition that can mostly be prevented – and treated – with the right lifestyle shifts,’ says Dr Malhotra. ‘Saturated fat is not the problem; pro-inflammatory carbohydrates such as sugar are. unlike carbs, fat and cholesterol are essential for the body to function optimally.’

Mike lost 13kg (2st) in 12 weeks on the Pioppi diet. He now weighs 80kg (12st 8lb) with a waist of 86cm (34in). ‘After his eight-week MRI, we were told there was no longer a problem with his arteries. I believe the anti-inflammatory diet helped reverse the damage,’ says Lynda. She benefited too. ‘I always struggled with my weight, but now, at 51, I’m the same weight – 60 kg (9st 9lb) – as I was at 19.’ At the Royal Sussex County Hospital, recovering cardiac patients who also have type 2 diabetes report significant weight loss and improvement in risk factors since switching from the Eatwell guidelines to the Pioppi diet, according to Richard Stantiford, director of cardiac rehabilitation. ‘The changes are remarkable,’ he says.

Last month, the Sackett’s supported Dr Malhotra when he addressed the European parliament on ‘big food and big pharma: killing for profit?’, arguing the case for lifestyle medicine to improve global health and better information for the public. ‘People should know there is no convincing evidence for the NHS guidelines,’ says Lynda. ‘I have seen the huge benefits of the low-carb, high-fat approach. We’re never hungry and we feel so well. Mike has returned to rowing and does 10,000 steps daily. This way of life helps people take charge of their own health.’

Metabolic syndrome explained

MetS is a cluster of reversible risk factors, mainly caused by weight gain, that predict heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes in many people. They are:

  • A waist circumference of more than 90cm in men and 80cm in women.
  • High blood pressure, consistently 140/90mmHg or higher. –
  • Low HDl ‘good’ cholesterol.
  • High triglycerides (non-cholesterol fat in the blood).
  • Uncontrolled blood sugar levels (insulin resistance, or prediabetes) or type 2 diabetes.

The Pioppi diet by Dr Aseem Malhotra & Donal O’Neill is published by Penguin, price £8.99 

Feature by Sarah Stacey