Mediterranean diet: It's good for you, and it's delicious

  • Article by: MARK BITTMAN , New York Times
  • Updated: March 7, 2013 - 2:13 PM

A recent study brings added weight to earlier speculation that the key ingredients of traditional Mediterranean meals offer preventive health benefits.

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FILE -- Dishes at a restaurant in Logrono, Spain, Sept. 9, 2012.

Photo: James Rajotte, Nyt - Nyt

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The “How do I eat?” discussion has become increasingly combative and confusing. Do you give up carbs, or fat, or both? Do you go vegan or paleo?

No. You eat like a Greek, or like a Greek used to eat: a piece of fish with a lentil salad, some greens with olive oil and a glass of wine. It’s not onerous. In fact, it’s delicious.

The value of this kind of diet (“diet” in the original, Latin sense of the word diaeta, a way of living) has once again been confirmed in a study from Spain involving thousands of participants and published in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine. So compelling were the results that the research was halted early because it was believed that the control group was being unfairly deprived of its benefits.

Let’s cut to the chase: The diet that seems so valuable is our old friend the “Mediterranean” diet (not that many Mediterraneans actually eat this way). It’s as straightforward as it is un-American: low in red meat, low in sugar and hyperprocessed carbs, low in junk. High in just about everything else — healthful fat (especially olive oil), vegetables, fruits, legumes and what the people who designed the diet determined to be beneficial animal products —or at least less-harmful — in this case fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.

This is real food, delicious food, mostly easy-to-make food. You can eat this way without guilt. Unless you’re committed to a diet big on junk and red meat, or you don’t like to cook, there is little downside.

Recently Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, who’s been studying the Mediterranean diet for decades, said: “We have so many types of evidence that this kind of eating works, but the weight of evidence is important, and this adds a big stone to that weight.”

Some flaws in study

As encouraging as the study is, the research was far from perfect, and it would be ridiculous to say that it represents The Answer.

For one thing, the control group was supposedly on a low-fat diet, but didn’t necessarily stick to it; in the end, it wasn’t a low-fat diet at all. And the study did not show reversal of heart disease, as was widely reported. As far as I can tell, it basically showed a decrease in the rate of some cardiovascular diseases in people at risk, when compared with those at risk who ate typically lousy diets.

In short, as Dr. Dean Ornish said, “It’s clearly better than a horrible diet, which is what most people eat.” Ornish, who has devised a low-fat diet that has been demonstrated to reverse heart disease, said that “the most responsible conclusion from this study would be, ‘We found a significant reduction in stroke in those consuming a Mediterranean diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, when compared to those who were not making significant changes in their diet.’ ”

Exactly. And that’s good news, because it might encourage some of the majority of people who are not making significant changes in their diet. Most Americans eat so badly that even a modest change in the direction of this diet is likely to be of benefit. That was the revelation of the Mediterranean style of eating when it came to public notice a generation ago. (Next year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ “Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”)

Nothing new …

What’s new is all the junk that been injected into our foods and our diet since the end of World War II. What’s not new is that eating real food is good for you.

You could say that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing that was recognized as food by your great-grandmother. Whole, minimally processed foods of almost any type can be included in a sound diet. Period.

This probably means you should think about salads or rice and beans for lunch. It probably means that breakfast should be oatmeal or fruit salad — or eggs, which were unrestricted in this study — because you’re probably not going to whip up a Japanese breakfast. Snacks should be nuts or fruit or more vegetables or beans.

And it probably means you should take control over dinner. So you’re looking at a vegetable dish or two, some legumes and a piece of fish, all cooked in or dressed with olive oil, and maybe a little bit of bread (preferably whole grain).

For dessert, fruit, or at least a dessert based on fruit or nuts or both. (The researchers had their subjects steer clear of what they called “industrial desserts,” and one might just as well take that a step further and say “steer clear of industrial food.”) Good chocolate, by the way, appears to be just fine.

As does wine: The study’s participants were allowed seven glasses a week. Though red wine has a substance called resveratrol that seems to protect against cardiovascular disease, I have a hard time believing you must drink wine to be healthy. (I have an equally hard time limiting myself to a glass a day.) I started a similar regimen to the one just described a few years ago, and by every measure my health improved.

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