The Real Secret of the Mediterranean Diet

Last week, I decided to multitask by watching Under the Tuscan Sun while I did my physical therapy work on my ankle.  I’d never seen it, but after stumbling across a quote from the movie that really struck a chord with me and then seeing it pop up on Netflix, it seemed serendipitous.  My conclusion: I want to visit Positano, ride a vespa, find an Italian sugar daddy, and cook a lot of Italian food.  Mostly the food part, and mostly I just want to eat it. (What else is new?)  So I’ve had Mediterranean food on the brain for the past week, which naturally made me want to write about it, because that is my life.  Eat, overshare, repeat.  It’s an art. Mediterranean diets are pretty popular these days (although the Paleo diet seems to have surpassed it in terms of frenzied hype; more on the Paleo diet HERE).  The Mediterranean diet is both easy to explain and difficult to define: You eat what people in traditional Mediterranean cultures eat.  Think Italy, Greece, and the southern/eastern regions of France and Spain.  People have been living in those regions for centuries, and we have plenty of data on what they eat today, as well as what they’ve been eating for generations past.  The tricky part is that the traditional diet varies by region.  Greeks eat differently than the Spaniards, who eat differently than the Italians, and so on.  The common factors between these regional diets forms the basis of what is now known by most as “the Mediterranean diet.” mediterranean diet The diets of those in the Mediterranean is characterized by plentiful produce, grains, legumes, nuts/seeds, red wine, and fresh fish/seafood; a moderate amount of dairy, poultry, eggs, and olive oil; and a small amount of red meat and refined sugar/sweets.  The health of the Mediterranean cultures is renowned for being much better than other westernized nations (see THIS study published in the journal of the American Association for Cancer Research; or THIS link regarding the “Blue Zone” in Ikaria, Greece), and it is typically attributed to their diet, and particularly to the abundance of produce, red wine, fish, and olive oil.  So does that theory hold up? It certainly seems so.  There are enormous health benefits associated with increased plant-food consumption, particularly colorful vegetables and fruits (HERE is a summary of one of the many, many studies that indicate just that).  As I described in my post on the Paleo diet, grains and legumes contain numerous health-protective nutrients (more on that HERE).  The resveratrol in red wine is known to be beneficial for heart health.  Additionally, studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet as a whole can reduce risk of diabetes by 1/3, protect against cancer, and improve heart disease risk.   However, it may not be the particular constituents of Mediterranean diet (fruits, vegetables, red wine, olive oil, etc.) that provides Mediterranean populations with good health, so much as it is the general quality of their diet.  Typically, food is prepared at home with fresh produce which is in season, fish is caught fresh right there in the Mediterranean Sea, and any milk/eggs or meat is from animals raised in much healthier conditions than are typical in the States.  Perhaps of equal importance is the fact that meals are usually taken with family and friends- time is set aside to not only eat but enjoy good company- and there does not seem to be the same kind of “diet culture” surrounding food and eating that we have so prevalent over here. For all its strengths, the Mediterranean diet may not be a panacea for health like we might wish it to be.   It’s certainly an incredible improvement over today’s typical Western diet, but I would not go far as to say it is the best (read more HERE). I love that it encompasses a wide range of foods so that individuals with voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions (i.e. Paleo, vegan/vegetarian, lactose intolerant, nut allergies, and the like) can apply the principles of the diet to their own eating.  The main forseeable problem would be getting caught up in the specific Mediterranean diet and losing sight of the overarching principles: fresh food, plenty of produce, quality protein, less-processed grains, (all of which are nutritional principles advocated by numerous other diets; see more comparisons HERE) and a lifestyle that emphasizes community, connection, and celebrating the food we are so blessed to have on our tables.  I think the most valuable thing about the Mediterranean diet is the complete lifestyle it represents.  The Roseto community in Pennsylvania is a perfect example of this – they are a community descended from immigrants from Roseto Valfortore (in Foggia, Italy), and they are renowned throughout the medical community for their incredible lack of cardiovascular disease in relation to the rest of the United States.  They enjoyed this freedom from heart disease morbidity in spite of a very high-cholesterol diet, heavy smoking, and a high percentage of overweight/obesity.  The only factor that the befuddled scientists and sociologists could attribute this to was the  remarkable closeness of the Roseto community, their tight social networks, and the strong inter-generational family ties. In other words, this transplanted Mediterranean community was healthy in spite of their diet rather than because of it.  It’s truly a fascinating paradox; Malcolm Gladwell writes about the Rosetans in his book, Outliers, as do Drs. Sinatra and Bowden in The Cholesterol Myth (both of which I would recommend reading!)  You can also see THIS article for a little snippet about the Rosetans’ lifestyle…and yes, it’s a HuffPost link, but the JAMA article I wanted to share requires purchase and I’m figuring most of yall would prefer something a little more free. There’s no doubt that most of us would benefit from adopting most of the principles of the Mediterranean diet.  That being said, I still think that the best approach is not to adopt a particular diet, but to do your own research, listen to your own body, and incorporate the principles that work best for your unique context (more on health-context HERE).  The most valuable lesson we can learn from the Mediterranean diet is likely not the diet itself, but the lifestyle and social habits that traditionally accompany it.  There is no doubt in my mind that everyone’s health will benefit- no exceptions- from cherishing meal times, simplifying the clutter and busyness we’re so quick to bury ourselves in, placing a higher value on community/family ties, and leaning into our (real life, not digital) social networks.   Positano And, you know, that Italian sugar daddy probably wouldn’t hurt.

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