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Is This the Diet To End All Diets?

Eat like a Mediterranean: it’s healthy, tasty and painless.

The only thing that has surprised me about the latest study on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet is the media frenzy surrounding it.

“Mediterranean Diet: The New Gold Standard?” asked Forbes.com, predicting that the study “will undoubtedly have a major effect in the field of nutrition and will influence lots of people to adopt some form of a Mediterranean diet.”

“It sounds like a happy hour dream,” swooned the LA Times: “Now, scientists say, you can have your wine and eat the nuts that go with it, and be healthier in the bargain.”

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Meanwhile, the Associated Press jubilated: “Pour on the olive oil!”

Apparently these people have never heard of the Mediterranean diet.

And yet, this way of eating – which evolved around the Mediterranean basin – has been around for thousands of years. Of course, it was never conceived as a health regimen but describes a lifestyle that comprises healthy food, physical activity, conviviality and a relaxed outlook on life. (Diaita is ancient Greek for “way of living”.)

In the latest study, researchers studied a group of 7,500 Spaniards who had risk factors for heart disease including smoking, high cholesterol, excess weight, high blood pressure and diabetes. They were instructed to follow either a Mediterranean diet that emphasized nuts, a Mediterranean diet that focused on olive oil, or a lower-fat diet (though in the end it wasn’t all that low-fat, as you can read here) and were tracked for nearly five years.

The olive oil group consumed about 34 ounces of olive oil a week, while those in the nuts group ate about one ounce of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds a day. Both Mediterranean diet groups con-sumed vegetables, fruits, fish, drank wine with meals and occasionally ate white meat while avoiding red meat.

Both Mediterranean-diet groups had a 30% greater reduction in heart disease risks compared to the lower-fat group. Particularly, the olive-oil group had a 33% reduction in stroke risk, while the nuts group had a 46% lower stroke risk. Pretty impressive.

The many benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Promoters of the Mediterranean Diet – myself included – have known for years that this way of eating can protect us from a wide variety of ailments, not just cardiovascular.

The Mediterranean diet is probably the best-researched diet in the world: When you type “Mediterranean diet” into the search field of PubMed, a database of medical science articles, it throws up 2697 results.

In the last 12 months alone, the Mediterranean diet has been found to reduce the risk of hip fractures, improve asthma and obesity in children, and improve mood.

Other research has shown it to boost bone health and cognitive function, improve the chances of conception in couples undergoing treatments for in-vitro fertilization and boost overall quality of life.

It has further been found to reduce the risk of diabetes and overall mortality, to calm inflammation, to ease sleep apnea and to reduce the risk of the birth defect spina bifida.

Breast cancer risk is thought to be reduced by eating a Mediterranean diet and scientists estimate that up to 25% of colorectal cancers, 15% of breast cancers and 10% of cancers of the prostate, pancreas and endometrium could be prevented if people did nothing more than adopt a Mediterranean diet. (Cancer protection is significantly greater if they also don't smoke and get regular physical activity, as this study shows.)

OK, enough with the lists, we all get it: the Mediterranean Diet is very healthy.

But while the scientific community has known this for many years – the American epidemiologist Ancel Keys, who coined the term of the "Mediterranean Diet," began researching the Mediterranean diet in the early 1950s – apparently this knowledge hadn't entered the mainstream. Until this week, that is.

What’s more, it’s free from suffering! 

The only way I can explain the sudden flurry of excitement over the Spanish study is that it makes healthy eating sound fun -- a radical concept! A particular appeal may be that the study highlights the benefits of eating fat -- a macro-nutrient that for the longest time has been used as a synonym for "guilty pleasure" and irrational death-wish.

The fact that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing, and actually encourages the pursuit of pleasure on a plate is sending a frisson of excitement down our collective spines. (If you have time, read this lovely piece by Mark Bittman.)

For after many years of trying – and failing – to get healthy by eating low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, raw or macrobiotic diets (regimens characterized by a variety of deprivations that frequently lead to frustration and the eventual abandonment of the diet), many people yearn for a way of eating that’s not only healthy, but tasty too. And affordable. And easy to prepare. And simple to follow.

The Mediterranean diet pushes all these buttons, which is why I recommend it to all my clients: it’s easy to adopt and maintain long-term, not as a temporary “diet,” but as a life-long habit.

“Usually doctors tell you not to do pleasant things,” the Washington Post quoted Miguel Angel Martinez-Gonzalez, a physician at the University of Navarre who headed the study as saying. “But this is very tasty and easy to follow. You do not need to suffer for the Mediterranean diet.”

When you eat a Mediterranean diet you ingest lots of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, nuts, legumes, whole grains, seeds, herbs and spices. Red meat and dairy are allowed but play a minor role, while fish, white meat, eggs and fermented dairy products like fresh cheese, yogurt and kefir make regular appearances. "Real" Mediterraneans -- the French, Itlians, Greeks and others -- also eat animal foods most Americans shudder to contemplate, such as rabbit, goat, snails and offal, but these aren't essential to the success of the diet. 

Red wine in moderation is also a component of the traditional Mediterranean diet and an excellent tool for conviviality and is thought to offer cardiovascular protection (though I don’t advise it as a cancer-prevention tool as the alcohol in it is associated with an increased risk of certian cancers, notably of the breast).

In addition to the health virtues of these nutrient-dense foods, the benefits of the traditional Mediterranean diet may lie at least as much in what isn’t eaten: fast food and packaged meals, refined carbohydrates and sugary snacks, the meat, milk and eggs from industrially reared animals, cheap seed oils containing inflammation-fueling substances and gallons of sugary soda.

Moreover, as I described in my previous post, Mediterranean food traditions not only involve healthy foods; they also include more positive, pleasure-seeking attitudes to food, making meals not just an occasion to “refuel” but also to relax, enjoy one’s food in the company of fellow-diners.

“So where’s the snag?” you may ask.

I’ll be honest with you: the Mediterranean diet offers no quick-fix solution. It doesn’t come in the form of pills, powders or packaged meals (nor in large servings of pasta or pizza which, despite their Mediterranean origins, are not an integral part of the traditional Mediterranean diet). To obtain the full benefit of this way of eating, you need to get in the habit of buying fresh (rather than pre-cooked, packaged or canned) ingredients, prepare these yourself and take the time to enjoy them.

For many of us crazy-busy people, this is a tall order: after all, 20% of American meals are eaten in cars, and many more at desks, bus stops and in front of the TV. Fewer and fewer people cook at home, and less than 10% of American household spending goes into food.

Nonetheless, with a few adjustments in attitude and habits (less time spent watching TV and surfing the net, more trips to farmers’ markets, tweaking our budgets to increase food spending, investing in a few pots and pans, attending a cooking class or two) the Mediterranean diet can offer a delicious, cost-effective and holistic solution to many modern health problems.

Besides, no one is saying that you have to become a Mediterranean overnight! Take it one step at a time: the most sustainable change happens in small, manageable steps, not in gigantic leaps.

This week, for instance, I suggest you start by eating at least one meal a day sitting at a table. Next week make it two – and keep your phone switched off.

Then proceed to adding healthier foods – perhaps a salad with home-made olive-oil-and-garlic dressing – to your standard diet.

Next, replace boxed breakfast cereals with creamy Greek yogurt, fresh berries and a few walnuts, or home-made olive-oil-and-nut granola (see recipe in Zest for Life www.zestforlifediet.com).

Now cook your own tomato sauce from scratch (so much tastier, and lower in sugar and salt, than the stuff in jars) using olive oil, onions and garlic and fresh herbs like basil, oregano, thyme and bay leaf. Make a big batch and freeze some so you can enjoy your own “convenience food” another day.

And when you’re ready, buy a filet of fresh fish, drizzle it with lemon juice and olive oil and broil it for 10 minutes. Enjoy it with above-mentioned salad and tomato sauce and before you know it, you’re eating like a Mediterranean!

Copyright Conner Middelmann-Whitney. Conner is a nutrition coach, health writer and cooking instructor based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of Zest for Life: The Mediterranean Anti-Cancer Diet which is due to be published next month in Germany under the title "Appetit auf Leben!". Conner's recipes are anchored in the traditional Mediterranean diet but adapted to modern lifestyles, making this way of eating accessible even to those who have little cooking experience or time. For more information about Conner's coaching services, visit her website: www.nutrelan.com.

Conner Middelmann Whitney is a nutritionist, journalist, chef, and former cancer patient.

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