Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rethinking the Mediterranean Diet

About twenty years ago an American (I believe someone at the Mayo Clinic) coined the expression "The Mediterranean Diet." It was a catch-all term for a way of life shared by millions of rural people living in southern Europe and around the Mediterranean sea. Before long the 'diet' was reduced to these over-simplified dietary guidelines:
  • high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds
  • olive oil as an important monounsaturated fat source
  • dairy products, fish, and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • little red meat is eaten
  • eggs are consumed zero to four times a week
  • wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts
Since then I have seen dozens of books, magazine articles, and countless TV interviews advocating the virtues of similar innovative health regimes; all of them riding the coattails of a centuries-old way of living. Then I look around, at others and myself, and realize that the Mediterranean Diet is really a myth.

Many of you are aware that Lori and I spent several months last year living in Italy. In September and October of 2008 we woke every morning to look out across the Adriatic ocean from our apartment perched high on a cliff in the historical center of Peschici. Every night we dined on local foods; fish, fresh vegetables, fruits, and simple wines. We could not help but observe how carefully the townsfolk selected their foods at the daily market. If the sea had been too rough for the fishermen to sail the night before, there simply was no fresh catch the next morning. Our butcher always trimmed a cut of meat before weighing it. There was no pretention about the quality of the wine. It was all very young, and very good. We prepared every meal at home; a diet of fish, and vegetables (especially greens and beans), but also rich in pork, lamb, aged cheeses, pasta, and lots of bread. I could (and probably will) write an ode someday on the joys of Puglian bread.

Then we moved to Umbria and found the same passion for eating locally crafted products; albeit very different choices prepared in very different ways. Friends in Tuscany (only a short drive away) shared similar recipes that demonstrated the variations in their local cooking. Before we returned to the US, Lori and I had tasted many different Italian cuisines; from the Ligurian coast, to the mountain valleys above Lake Garda, to the plains of Emilia-Romagna. They were all different... but in some way linked to the idea of eating well. Foods were prepared in ways that let the real flavors shine through; a simple saute, braised meat, and judicious seasoning. Olive oil is a treasure.

I ate a lot in Italy, and lost weight.

Then, last month we travelled to Greece. Lori was teaching a painting workshop on the island of Santorini (Thera) which left me with plenty of free time to explore the Aegean food and drink. To my surprise, the food was very different from that of Italy. The following are general observations and surely do not represent every case. In Greece the food is cooked much longer. Meats are roasted and vegetables fried. Herbs and spices such as oregano or cinnaman are found in almost every dish. Greeks use olive oil to deep-fry squid. Greek bread... forgettable. The servings were huge; enough for two (or more) people.

I ate a lot in Greece, and gained five pounds.

There were similarities such as the use of the grill to cook fish, and an affinity for tomatoes and pasta, but overall Greek cuisine lacked the satisfaction that we found in Italian cooking. To write more about the food would take too long and obscure the real point of this blog which is...

There is no one definition for the "Mediterranean" diet. Looking at a map I count at least sixteen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Diets vary. In fact, because the people of the Mediterranean eat 'locally,' the cuisines between regions within each country are often very different. There is no such thing as "Italian" food, and I suspect the same is true of Greek, French, and Turkish cooking. Statistics about Mediterranean populations like reduced incidence of heart disease and longer lives can not be reasonably based on diet alone. Lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and extended social support systems also play a part.

To give our food choices meaningless labels may help sell books, but it does a disservice to those of us who truly value the importance of preparing good food and eating well. In a much more general way, the ease with which Americans contain their behaviors (dietary or otherwise) by adopting a particular label prevents many from looking deeply into their own lives. Such catagorization may satisfy a puerile need to belong, to be doing what is right, but labels (such as "The Mediterranean Diet") can be rife with ambiguity, allowing a person to live (eat) without direction or purpose.

Let us all think before we champion a fashionable trend. Perhaps we can stem the tide of fad foods and diets. As for me, I hope to eat and drink with purpose. All things in moderation... especially moderation.

1 comment:

  1. hmmm, interesting....I was just thinking that while I was in Italy, I also lost weight while consuming MUCH more food and wine than I typically do at home. I walked quite a lot but also drove. I think I walked much more in Greece and carried more gear. I didn't lose any weight but I did not gain it either. Admittedly, I didn't eat as much there as I did in Italy (wine consumption we won't discuss) and I was in Italy longer. I thought the Greek servings were ridiculously large and wondered if it was typical for Greeks or were they pandering to tourists.