First Do No Harm

The Mediterranean Diet

After I sent out a newsletter, a reader quickly wrote me, giving me a spanking. She chastised me for using the Mayo Clinic’s version of the Mediterranean Diet (which, if you’ll remember, I did not agree with) and sent me a link to a site that talks about the “real” Mediterranean Diet.

Truly, medicine is trying to co-opt nutrition. Medicine produces “dieticians,” whereas I’ve always leaned toward the “nutritionists.” Medicine knows about this distinction, and so one night (in the middle of the night) some controlling organization (please, I’m not about to go thru my voluminous notes to find out which one) changed the rulings and now allow all dieticians to call themselves nutritionists.

Dieticians still recommend margarine (trans fats) over butter.  The VA still serves margarine to its patients, many of whom have heart disease. This is tantamount to murder, as far as I’m concerned.

I took a look at the site I was sent. The man who wrote the site is very impassioned. His complaints about medicine’s view of the Mediterranean Diet were my complaints. However, he did make some claims that I would have to disagree with, which he did not source except to say he’s travelled extensively through the area.

I too am well travelled, but personal experience does not a study make. And first, I should clear up a few things right away.

The Mediterranean Diet is based upon the diet of Cretan men from the 1960s. There are, however, slight variations that include nuts (in season) and pasta. Having said this, now we can look at this web page:

He claims that the “Mediterranean Peoples Ate Lots of Saturated Animal Fats.”

If you do travel extensively, and I mean “very extensively,” you’ll learn that for the poor in almost all countries their main food source is a grain, or to be even more precise, a starch. In the orient, it’s rice, in Mexico, it’s corn, in Ireland, it was the potato, in Italy, pasta, and in Greece it would have been bread (or paximadi which is old bread re-heated). Another thing you’ll notice is that the poorer the people the hotter (spicier) the food, because their only spice in life is in their food (as one fellow traveler explained it to me).

Greek foods are not especially hot. Let us conclude that they weren’t “dirt” poor. The poor in Greece lived mainly on bread and cheeses. Meat, as with most poor people, was a luxury. Most would have eaten meat on holidays and celebrations. The rest of the year, two, three, if lucky, four times a month at best.

Butter was eaten by the affluent, as well as by those farmers who made it. The poor could not afford butter and olive oil was much cheaper as it was, and is, abundant. When people eat meat, they eat saturated fats. So, here he is correct. The average Greek would have survived off of mostly bread and dairy products from their goats and sheep. When dairy products weren’t available, animal fats were.

The Mayo Clinic version I sent out said their diet was low in salt. Actually, as I pointed out, it was low in “processed” salt. The Greeks ate a lot of salt, feta cheese being their biggest selling cheese swims in salt brine. Salt was also used for preserving fish and meat.

The main claim I tend to disagree with is his adamancy that they could not have possibly eaten eight servings of fruits and vegetables.

Actually, I only partially disagree. Let’s face it, before the inventions of canning and refrigeration, one ate fruits and vegetable only when they were in season. When they were in season, they were eaten abundantly, and as we'll see below; and, it should be noted, for much of Greece (and the Island of Crete), the growing season is very long.

From Elena Paravantes’ site Olive Tomato (Greek food, tradition, and more…), we get the following:

Vegetables
The majority of traditional meals are vegetable stews/casseroles that are called lathera (or ladera), which translates to “with oil” from the Greek word for oil lathi (ladi). Vegetables such as green beans, eggplant, okra, and peas are prepared with tomato, onion, garlic, and various herbs and spices, consumed as a main dish together with feta cheese and bread. Salads are always seasonal. In the summer a simple tomato-cucumber salad that may also include onions and green peppers and in the winter cabbage with carrot or seasonal horta, wild greens, boiled and consumed with olive oil, lemon, feta cheese, and bread.

Legumes
Legumes are also a popular dish traditionally consumed at least twice a week. Beans such as lentils or broad beans are prepared with tomato, onion, and olive oil, and also accompanied with cheese and bread. [http://www.olivetomato.com/food-in-greece/our-greece/#ixzz2fTXhuxT6]

Let’s take a look at some of his claims:

Mediterranean Peoples Ate Red Meat Whenever They Could Get It, Eating As Much of It As They Could

Meat is perhaps the food most prized by the peoples of the Mediterranean. Meat was often difficult to get, as the flocks of sheep and goats were needed mainly for their milk, and the people were often poor. Nevertheless, pigs were widely raised, and made into a multitude of sausages, which were eaten throughout the year. http://www.tendergrassfedmeat.com/2010/10/05/call-it-medical-not-mediterranean/

Mediterranean Peoples Did Not Eat Nine or More Servings of Fresh Produce a Day

As discussed above, the variety of available fruits and vegetables was limited, and seasonal. The supply of food was often limited, and it is doubtful that most people ate nine servings of anything a day.

The Origin of the Mainstream “Mediterranean Diet “Was Based on What the People Ate During a Wartime Food Shortage

The first doctor to write of the “Mediterranean diet” was stationed in poor coastal areas of Italy, in 1945, during the last days of World War II. Food—especially the most valuable foods such as meat and butter—were in very short supply, and the hungry people ate whatever they could get. If they ate their bread dry, it was because they could not find fat to put on it, because of the food shortage. To portray what they ate during this wartime food shortage as their traditional diet was a mistake.

Now we can discuss these points, some of which Elena Paravantes disagrees with.

The Mediterranean Diet is only 60 years old. Prior to that, refrigeration was limited. She has no idea where the idea came from that the Mediterranean Diet was based on wartime food shortages; this is absurd. She has documented that the Mediterranean Diet was first described by Harvard researchers working with World Health Organization in the 1990’s. Again, it is based upon the diet of Cretan men from the 1960s. [See References Below]

As if Greece had not suffered enough during World War II, a civil war started thereafter between the royalists and communists. [Greek History]

The war and the civil war contributed to their great poverty that spread throughout Greece.

The average Greek citizen was poor. The statement: “Mediterranean Peoples Ate Red Meat Whenever They Could Get It, Eating As Much of It As They Could” is almost redundant. Poor people ate whenever they could, whatever they could, and ate as much as they could.

But poor people did not have as much access to meat as the affluent did. Elena also pointed that there were 180 days of fasting from most animal meats for religious reasons. She added, “Greece has plenty of fruits and vegetables in all seasons.”

Greece has the same latitude as southern Ohio with a temperate climate due to the Mediterranean ocean. Except for the mountainous region, the temperatures hardly ever drop below freezing. The growing season is 8 to 12 months[1], depending on location. So vegetables and fruits were available most of the year, and olives were harvested (and turned to olive oil during the winter months). Elena told me: “Yes Greeks consumed about a pound of vegetables a day (they still do actually); most bread at that time (50's-60's) was whole grain, white bread was a luxury, and the Cretans had whole grain barley.”

One misconception about this diet is that it is comes specifically from Greece. Crete is not all of Greece. And there are variations of this diet that bring in other food traditions from countries around the Mediterranean Sea. Southern Italy is another source. So, pasta is thrown into the equation, along with lots of tomatoes and garlic.

The poor are, by definition, hungry. They will eat whatever they have when they have it. So when fruit and vegetables were abundant, they “ate as much as they could.”

Wine & Resveratrol

Grapes were harvested in the fall, pressed by hand (or feet, actually), and fermented. Fermenting is actually one method of preservation.

Now I’m sure some of you know about the French Paradox, how they ate things thick with cream and lots of saturated fats but never got heart disease.

Well, that is no paradox. If you eat things thick with cream and lots of saturated fats, you won’t necessarily get heart disease. These things do not cause heart disease. Not by themselves.

Cholesterol laden fats are not dangerous; but oxidized cholesterol is. For example, an egg is the healthiest food you can put in your body (a free range, organic egg), but frying up the yolk (in an omelet or scrambled eggs) damages the fats and you end up consuming oxidized cholesterol.

So, doctors who knew nothing about nutrition came up with the term French Paradox, pointing to the phytochemicals in wine that prevented heart disease.

They were wrong about the fats, but right about the wine. Wine contains resveratrol and quercetin[2] which work together in synergy to protect your arteries, cool inflammation, and reverse aging.

Personally, an even better paradox is the Italian Paradox (a term just coined right here). There are communities researchers discovered of Italians who are very much overweight yet live well into their late eighties and nineties free of heart disease and cancer. Researchers pointed to red wine, but that was not not enough to explain their longevity, and so continuing research now points to the amount of tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil they consumed; garlic cutting inflammation and the lycopene (made more absorbable by olive oil) in tomatoes protecting their throats, stomachs, and intestines.

Foundation of the Mediterranean Diet

What makes the Mediterranean Diet unique and healthy is this: the ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, followed by the phytochemicals in their non-processed fruits and vegetables.

This is the diet in a nut shell.

But we cannot stop here, for as Elena points out, her last trip to Greece was an eye opener because the people had dropped the traditional foods, had taken up processed crap, and had started growing fat and lazy.

You see, the Mediterranean Diet isn’t so much what they ate as what they did not eat.

Got that?

What the Mediterranean Diet Is NOT

Whole grains and process grains: sure they ate bread, but they did not eat chips and certainly did not eat corn. Corn is something consumed mainly in the Americas. When I lived in the Middle East, I never saw corn. The French feed corn to their pigs. Corn is very high in omega-6 fatty acids.

They did not eat trans fats. Trans fats are, historically, pretty recent and an invention of an industrial society.

They did not eat fake, man made sweeteners.

The meat they did eat was raised on their farms and were grass fed (although, I’m not sure what they fed their pigs). They did not eat factory farmed meats, poultry, pork, or eggs.

There You Have It

We have no agenda at this site. Just the plain, simple truth. Or as Goethe said, “The simplicity of truth is annoying to man.”

The Mediterranean Diet, as described here, is heart healthy and anti-inflammatory. It consists of foods with one ingredient. Meals are prepared, not purchased. Wine is consumed, but since we have refrigeration today, you can get the same benefits of wine drinking grape juice (or making grape jelly).

Two Really Neat Facts About the Mediterranean Diet:

1. People who have been put on it for heart health reasons, also lost weight.

2. It is responsible for the destruction of our Food Pyramid (but that’s a whole nother story).

References

1. Winter months are also the rainy months in Greece. The average daytime high ranges from 58 degrees in December to 56 degrees in February, according to Weather.com. The average nighttime lows range from 46 degrees in November to 44 degrees in February. It can also get cold enough to snow in Athens on occasion. January is usually the coolest month on average. http://traveltips.usatoday.com/average-temperature-athens-greece-14725.html 

2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1760706/ 

In order to fact check exactly where the original Mediterranean Diet was described, I performed a search on the web and came up with the following sources:

http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/050112p30.shtml

http://www.diet.com/g/mediterranean-diet

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mediterranean_diet

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16512956 - by the Harvard prof who first described the diet.

Further Reading

Live Longer with the Greek Lifestyle: Eat Plants and Drink Wine

The 5 Biggest Misconceptions About the Mediterranean Diet

 

 



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