On Nutrition: The Mediterranean Diet

Happy Sunday. I say that tongue-in-cheek, as I’ve been chained to my computer all weekend (midterms…what can you do?). Below I’m posting my original version of my On Nutrition column in today’s Seattle Times (not available online yet). I won’t always post my original, but I had to cut more than usual from it to get it to fit its allotted space.

For dietary wisdom, should we look to the Mediterranean?  

I’m not one to state that there is a single “right” diet for everyone. There are a number of ways to eat nutritiously and well, and what’s right for one person may not be spot on for the next person. That said, healthful diets tend to have certain things in common, such as lots of vegetables and fruits and minimal “empty calories” like sugar and highly processed foods. 

One standout example is the Mediterranean diet. Is it the optimal way to eat? Maybe. Is it an optimal way to eat? Absolutely. This isn’t exactly breaking news, considering that the Mediterranean way of eating was “discovered” in the 1950s. What is news is the growing body of scientific evidence that this diet has the potential to prevent a number of the chronic diseases—diabetes, heart disease, cancer—that can lessen the quality, and perhaps the quantity, of our lives.  

So, what exactly is the Mediterranean diet? In its classic form, it’s an approximation of the traditional dietary patterns of people who live in areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea. In particular, the olive-growing areas of Crete, Greece and southern Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960.

In more practical, modern terms, it’s a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Fish is more common than poultry and much more common than red meat. Virgin olive oil is the primary source of fat, and moderate consumption of red wine during meals is common. It includes a serving or two a day of dairy foods (often yogurt), and olives and nuts are enjoyed several times a week. Eggs and sweets make an appearance a few times a week. 

There has been a lot of research into why this way of eating tends to be associated with lower rates of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Earlier efforts focused on trying to isolate which parts of the diet were responsible for these positive effects. Was it the olive oil? The red wine? The relative lack of red meat? The abundant fruits and vegetables? As it turns out, the diet as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A number of studies in the United States, Mediterranean countries and other parts of the world have found that people whose diets more closely match a Mediterranean-style diet have lower rates of chronic disease than people whose diets don’t match very closely. The reason? Synergy.  

This isn’t too surprising, given that we don’t eat nutrients. We eat foods, which are combined into meals that in turn are combined into a complete pattern of eating that’s as unique as we are. It’s this overall pattern that contributes to, or detracts from, our health. That’s because the nutrients in our food are rarely soloists—they interact with each other. It’s not about the olive oil. It’s not about the red wine. It’s about the whole dietary package.  

Let’s consider what the various voices in this dietary chorus bring to the stage. The plentiful fruits and vegetables and moderate amounts of nuts deliver a load of phytochemicals, antioxidant vitamins, fiber and other important nutrients. (Phytochemicals are substances found in plants that, while not considered essential to the human diet in the way that many vitamins and minerals are, have been shown to have many beneficial health effects.) The virgin olive oil (a vital part of this diet) has the healthful qualities of the olive itself, plus small amounts of vitamin E and significant amounts of phytochemicals that also act as antioxidants. And then there is the red wine, which provides even more antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory actions that may benefit heart health.  

The Mediterranean diet is not a low-fat way of eating. But it’s the addition of heart healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts and fish that may make this diet more tastier and easier to stick with than low-fat diets that feature plain steamed vegetables. Sautéing vegetables in olive oil and dressing salads in real vinaigrette makes vegetables more delicious and flavorful, encouraging us to eat more of them. And it’s good to eat your veggies! 

Tomorrow, I’ll post the link to the online version, and talk some more about current research on the Mediterranean diet.