The demise of the Mediterranean diet?

This week is Mediterranean diet week. Unfortunately after 2,000 years, no one really knows what the Mediterranean diet actually consists of. Is it the Italian, Spanish, Moroccan, Egyptian, Greek or Lebanese Mediterranean diet? Each diet is very different from each other. What is clear is that people in the Mediterranean region are becoming fatter and less healthy (1).

Part of the reason for the demise of the benefits of a “Mediterranean diet” is the time it takes to prepare a quality meal. It takes time to purchase fresh vegetables. It takes even more time to prepare them. In a world without globalization, you have a lot more time. Now you are competing with every human on the face of the globe for a job, and the result is time-compression. The first casualty of this time-compression effect of globalization is the inability to cook and consume good food containing high-quality food ingredients. Another sinister aspect of globalization is the reduction in the number of food ingredients being used by the general population. In particular, those food ingredients are the least expensive, have an extended shelf life and can be made into very inexpensive, convenient, and portable (not requiring a knife or fork to eat) processed foods. The only food ingredients that meet those requirements are cheap refined grains and cheap refined vegetable oils. And the low-cost producer of these food ingredients is not China, but the United States.

Fruits and vegetables are really expensive unless you grow them yourself. With urbanization of the Mediterranean region, most people now rely on processed foods and restaurants for their meals. Not surprisingly, is the consumption of cheap, refined grains and vegetable oils, which in the past were alien components to the Mediterranean diet (regardless of the location). Now they have replaced vegetables, fruits and olive oil (the primary food ingredients of a Mediterranean diet) because they are cheaper. For example, vegetables and fruits are now 400 times more expensive for the same number of calories as cheap, refined grains imported from America. Corn oil from America is now five times cheaper than olive oil produced in the Mediterranean region.

The people in the Mediterranean regions are eating the same foods that have produced the Perfect Nutritional Storm in America. This explains why 75 percent of Greeks are now overweight or obese and more than half the populations of Italy, Spain and Portugal are now overweight or obese. They are making the right economic choices (cheap food), but the wrong health choices (an increasingly inflammatory diet).

Even if you were to go back to the original Mediterranean diet (circa Roman times), it is apparently still not the best diet for health. This was demonstrated in a recent publication that compared the Mediterranean diet (50 percent calories as carbohydrates, 20 percent calories as protein, and 30 percent of calories as fat) to a diet that contained 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat in a cross-over study. The higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet was more satiating and had better clinical results, especially in hormonal responses, than a real Mediterranean diet (2). Besides having a different macronutrient ratio, the other diet was extremely limited in grains and dairy products compared to the Mediterranean diet.

So if you want to follow a diet that is the evolution of the Mediterranean diet, then make it a diet that is higher in low-fat protein, lower in carbohydrates (but rich in vegetables and fruits) and low in omega-6 fats. Sure sounds like the Zone diet, but call me crazy (3).

References

  1. Ciezaldlo A. “Does the Mediterranean diet even exist?” New York Times April 1, 2011
  2. Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Erlanson-Albertsson C, Ahren B, and Lindeberg S. “A paleolithic diet is more satiating per calorie than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischemic heart disease.” Nutr Metab 7:85 (2010)
  3. Sears B. “The Zone.” Regan Books. New York, NY (1995)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

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