The truth about the Mediterranean diet

Diets come and go. Some are better than others. Some are downright dangerous. One such diet, still highly popular, and the basis for several others, is the Mediterranean diet, which draws upon French research (Lyon Diet Heart Study) centered in Cretan eating habits in the 1950s. Cretans were virtually free of heart attacks and obesity rare, despite more than 40% of their diet deriving from fat, or mostly olive oil. Otherwise, they consumed mostly fruits, veggies, beans and fish. They also worked very hard in the fields. Unfortunately, Americans got hung-up on the olive oil rather than the preponderancy of vegetables, concluding the oil was good for you.

French scientists experimented with the Cretan diet. Those on the Mediterranean diet suffered 50 to 70% fewer cardiac incidents. Now that’s pretty impressive, enough certainly to foster enthusiasm for the diet.

Today’s Mediterranean Diet, however, has little resemblance to the Cretan diet that formed the basis of the Lyon study. For many of us, it conjures up images of pasta and Italian bread, staples not friendly to your colon. There is more meat and poultry.

As for the experimental group in the study, four years after it began, 25% on the diet had died or experienced a cardiac event. As often happens, media coverage can be as shallow as it is volatile. So much for the success of the Mediterranean diet. The truth is that olive oil is one of the most calorically dense and fattening foods you can consume. On a pound for pounds basis, it’s worse than butter (3200 calories) vs olive oil (4,020). Moreover, 14 percent of olive oil is saturated fat. Since it can lead to weight increase, it can also increase LDL (the bad kind of cholesterol).

There is evidence that monounsaturated fat, found in olive oil, gives some protection from strokes. Nevertheless, because of its caloric density, only thin people should consume it, if at all. (See D. D. Blankenhorn, et al. ”The Influence of diet on the Appearance of New Lesions in Human Coronary Arteries.” Journal of the American Medical Association, Mar. 23, 1990.)

The brilliant Cornell epidemiologist who wrote the landmark, China Study, while acknowledging that the Mediterranean diets were virtually the same, commented, “I would say the absence of oil in the rural Chinese diet is the reason for their superior success“ (qtd. In Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, p. 84).

The upshot in all of this? If you want to eat healthy, minimize disease, control weight, and foster longevity, then a a plant-based diet is your best bet.

Oh, about the Cretans, they now eat like most of us and, like most of us, now suffer similar rates of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancer.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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