More Evidence for the Mediterranean Diet

An all-inclusive offer: scrumptious and salubrious

Posted May 09, 2016

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Source: Red Tail Productions, LLC

The word is out; “What is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger.”

If you didn’t climb on board the first time, Club Med is back in the news and it’s time to sign up.

A new study confirms what is old and made again new; The Mediterranean Diet is not only a delicious approach to healthful and wholesome food, but it yields tangible results.

Red Tail Productions, LLC
Source: Red Tail Productions, LLC

New information details how the Mediterranean diet keeps us healthier longer; allowing us to age gracefully as we stand to face the setting sun. That is in contradistinction to our modern Western diet that affords us that view from a sick bed. The NU-AGE project, funded by the EU, developed a personally tailored, Mediterranean style diet for volunteers to assess if it could slow down the aging process. The project was conducted in five European countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK and involved 1,142 participants.

In an initial report on just a few of the many parameters examined, those consuming a Mediterranean-style diet had significantly decreased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP). This marker of generalized inflammation tends to be elevated in elderly populations as well as being associated with the development of such inflammatory conditions as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many other disabilities and diseases linked with our modern society and its consumptive patterns. This study also observed that the rate of bone loss in people with osteoporosis was reduced.

A Mediterranean approach has highlighted the deficiencies and delusions of the anachronistic quantitative, or caloric, approach towards food and health. Quite simply, focusing on the quality of the ingredients through conformity to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a lower obesity risk. This is completely independent of total caloric intake. It doesn’t matter how much you eat; it matters what you eat.

The Mediterranean diet has been one of the most rigorously assessed cuisines in terms of health benefits. In addition to less obesity, it is associated with less risk of developing diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, hypercholesterolemia (or elevated levels of “bad” cholesterol), and certain types of cancers to name but a few. In certain individuals it is been shown to not only mitigate the complications associated with such pathologies, but to reverse conditions like diabetes entirely.

But what is the Mediterranean diet, exactly?

Does the never ending pasta bowl from Olive Garden count? What about Papa John’s Italian meat lover two-for-one pizza deal? He promises quality ingredients and has no less a spokesperson than Peyton Manning. Speaking of which, what exactly are the health benefits of that chicken Parm (cue the music...)?

What we generally consider the modern Mediterranean diet was first described by Ancel Benjamin Keys, he of the infamous cholesterol hypothesis, during his observations of post-World War II Europe. While the morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease skyrocketed during the 1950s and 60s in the United States, the same could not be said to occur throughout the Mediterranean. Today that area represents twenty-five distinct countries; many of them like France, Spain, Italy, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey contain multiple regions with vastly different provincial adaptions. It is in much the same way that local foods and favorites can vary dramatically within the United States; from classical Southern porcine barbeque fare to Pacific Northwest salmon to the comfort foods of the American heartland to the simple, succulent New England lobster roll.

A majority of the observations that Keys collected that would eventually become the working definition of the Mediterranean diet were acquired in Greece, and particularly on the Isle of Crete. Crete is the largest island of the many that comprise Greece, along with its lands on the continent and peninsula. As such, the history, culture and cuisine has many unique features.

What Keys never appreciated was that because of the devastation suffered by Crete during World War II, the postwar diet was far from reflective of the norm. Additionally, he collected much of his data during Lent which vastly affected the culinary choices of the many Greek Orthodox Christians that make up the majority of Crete’s populace. The result, at best, is the public’s poor picture of a skewed perception.  

Red Tail Productions, LLC
Source: Red Tail Productions, LLC

The current Mediterranean dietary approach is as remarkable for what it is not, as well as what it is comprised upon. There is a distinctive dearth of the many adverse dietary factors like fast food, junk food, sugar-sweetened beverages, refined grain products, partially hydrogenated or trans-fat foods that are so ubiquitous in the modern Western diet. This wholesome, authentic approach to quality foods is what binds together the cuisine of the region irrespective of the regional flavorings and indifferent to the caloric considerations. It is the “how” they go about choosing ingredients; not a specific “what”.

The standard as used by the PREDIMED research group identifies the “Mediterranean dietary pattern …[as] based on whole or minimally processed foods and incorporates most of the protective factors (fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, dietary fiber, fish, vegetable protein and vegetable fat from olive oil).”[i] It is usually assessed by a fourteen-point system that yields a low, medium and high adherence to such dietary principles.

Other studies sometimes look at limiting dairy, although a traditional Mediterranean diet is often rich in yogurts and cheeses -fermented dairy products- as opposed to butters or raw dairy. Moderate alcohol consumption is a cornerstone of the cuisine and a constant, no matter other regional variations. While fish are prominent proteins in some areas of the Mediterranean, they are less so in other regions further removed from the sea. Here, locally available poultry and meat predominate. Recent studies indicate that meat and poultry raised and produced in such a manner is nutritionally distinct and superior compared to industrially, mass produced offerings commonplace to the modern Western diet.

Lower obesity-especially abdominal or belly fat; without caring a kilocalorie. Less metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, heart attack, stroke, autoimmune disease, arthritis and cancer. All this and fresh, wholesome and most importantly delicious cuisine. Talk about an all-inclusive deal!

And speaking of inclusive; one area of intensive investigation and perhaps a key to the success of the Mediterranean diet involves its interaction with our gut microbiome. Constructing fresh, sumptuous sustenance with appropriate harmony and balance is the hallmark of the Mediterranean approach. Such a food feeds our inner wee beasties, reduces our stress by quite literally (and figuratively) reducing our levels of inflammation. In contrast, current fast food hawkers advertise the “angriest” hamburger yet. Our 24/7/365 always on the go completely wired modern life can be angry enough; our food shouldn’t be.

[i] (Martínez-González, et al., 2012)

References:

Anand, S. S., Hawkes, C., . de Souza, R. J., Mente, A., Dehghan, M., Nugent, R., . . . Popkin, B. M. ( 2015). Food Consumption and its Impact on Cardiovascular Disease: Importance of Solutions Focused on the Globalized Food System. . Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 66 (14): 1590 DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2015.07.050 .

European Food Information Council. (2016, April). EU project NU-AGE: New guidelines for a healthier aging in Europe. Retrieved from EUFIC.org: http://www.eufic.org/article/en/page/FTARCHIVE/artid/eu_project_nu-age/

Fenster, M. S. (2014). The Fallacy of The Calorie: Why the Modern Western Diet is Killing Us and How to Stop It. New York, NY: Koehler Books.

Fenster, M. S. (2014, May). The Mediterranean to Modern Western Diet: What in Hades Happened? Lessons From the Mediterranean Presentation. Crete, Greece: Field to Plate Series.

Martínez-González, M. A., Garcia-Arellano, A., Toledo, E., Salas-Salvado, J., Buil-Cosiales, P., Corella, D., . . . Investi, P. S. (2012). A 14-Item Mediterranean Diet Assessment Tool and Obesity Indexes among High-Risk Subjects: The PREDIMED Trial. PLOS One, http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0043134.

Morrisa, M. C., Tangney, C. C., Wanga, Y., Sacks, F. M., Bennettd, D. A., & Aggarwald, N. T. (2015). MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer's and Dementia, 1007-1014 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009.

Średnicka-Tober, D., Barański, M., Seal, C., Sanderson, R., Benbrook, C., Steinshamn, H., . . . Leifert, C. (2016). Composition differences between organic and conventional meat: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition , 115:994–1011.