The Mediterranean diet is a modern adaptation of the way many Mediterraneans—namely Southern Italians, Cretans, Greeks, Spaniards, and Moroccans—ate during the mid-twentieth century. It is widely practiced, and lauded by many for its purported health benefits and piquant foods.
In the following text I offer an overview of the Mediterranean diet, as well as a list of some of its oft cited pros and cons.
Overview of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet was first introduced to westerners in 1945, by Dr. Ancel Keys. During the 1940s, Keys, who was a doctor of oceanography, biology and physiology, noticed that “well-fed” Americans had markedly higher rates of cardiovascular disease than did Mediterraneans. After assessing both culture’s diets, he posited that the Americans’ higher intake of saturated fat was likely the cause of the disparity. To test his theory he collected stats on fat consumption and heart disease deaths from twenty-two countries. After mining the information, he rather impudently dismissed fifteen countries whose data did not avouch his theory. For the remaining seven, he devised a longitudinal epidemiological study—known today as the “Seven Countries Study.” Through this abstraction, Keys ultimately concluded that saturated fat negatively impacts cardiovascular health, and that unsaturated fat—like that found in the olive oil prominent in the Mediterranean diet—positively impacts cardiovascular health. Though Keys helped usher the Mediterranean diet into mass consciousness, his reputation will forever be marred by his selection biases and questionable testing methods. Paleo diet adherents in particular tend to loathe Keys.
Despite the efforts of Keys, the Mediterranean diet really did not reach critical mass until the mid 1990s. In 1993, Oldways, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the World Health Organization created the Mediterranean Food Pyramid; and, in 1995, Dr. Walter Willett, Dr. Lawrence Kushi, and Dr. Elizabeth Lenart published “Health implications of Mediterranean diets in light of contemporary knowledge. 1. Plant foods and dairy products,” and “Health implications of Mediterranean diets in light of contemporary knowledge. 2. Meat, wine, fats, and oils.” Said pyramid and research papers, along with Willett’s later pièce de résistance, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, are largely what forged our modern Mediterranean diet.
Since the Mediterranean diet is not the succinct creation of a single doctor or nutrition scholar, it offers a looser interpretation than does many of its popular peers— “Atkins,” “the Zone,” etc. Generally, it includes copious amounts of olive oil, unprocessed grains, legumes, and native fruits and vegetables; modest amounts of fish, wine, salty cheeses, and yogurt; and minimal amounts of meat, and meat products. There is no calorie counting or food measuring, and you eat whenever you are hungry. Simply put, you eschew processed foods, opt for fresh seasonal ingredients, and eat minimal amounts of meat. Purists also try to stay socially and physically active—both traits of the mid-twentieth century Mediterranean people.
Frequently Cited Pros and Cons of the Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet has been heavily researched by the international medical community—arguably more so than any other conventional diet. Fitness fanatics, writers, adherents, detractors, etc., have all given it thorough scrutiny as well. Following are a few of the commonly cited pros and cons among these groups.
- The Mediterranean diet is generally easy to follow. There is no calorie counting, food measuring, etc.
- Though subjective, many consider the Mediterranean diet’s inclusion of red wine a plus. Most contemporary structured diets eschew alcohol.
- There is evidence that shows staying active and adhering to a Mediterranean diet significantly lowers the chance of early death. On the Journal of the American Medical Association website in an article entitled, “Mediterranean Diet, Lifestyle Factors, and 10-Year Mortality in Elderly European Men and Women,” the following is stated:
“Among individuals aged 70 to 90 years, adherence to a Mediterranean diet and healthful lifestyle is associated with a more than 50% lower rate of all-causes and cause-specific mortality.”
- Conclusions from the large-scale “European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition” study show that adherence to a Mediterranean diet may lower breast cancer risk for post-menopausal women. On the Journal of the American Medical Association website in an article entitled, “Conformity to traditional Mediterranean diet and breast cancer risk in the Greek EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) cohort,” the following is stated:
“Conformity to the traditional Mediterranean diet may be associated with lower breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women and could explain, in part, the lower incidence of this disease in Mediterranean countries.”
- The Mediterranean diet can feel restrictive to those who are used to consuming meat at every meal. While meat is allowable fare on the Mediterranean diet, it is to be eaten only occasionally, and in small quantities.
- Since the Mediterranean diet is merely an adaptation of a cultural diet, it is not tailored to a goal of weight loss. Adherents who want to lose weight will likely need to be mindful of their caloric intake.
At the end of the day there are a lot of positives to the Mediterranean diet. There is compelling evidence that it is a “healthy lifestyle diet,” most think its fare is “tasty,” and it is pretty easy to follow. Still, it is not for everyone. Those who prefer a high protein, low-carbohydrate diet will surely look elsewhere.
I am, for the most part, a proponent of the Mediterranean diet. Despite the fact that they are largely incongruous in approach, I like it for the same reasons I like the Paleo diet— a call for carefully sourced, nutrient dense fare; and, no calorie counting, food measuring, etc.