Will the Real Mediterranean Diet Please Stand Up?

Photo: David Hernández baltha/Flickr .

One of the most popular diets of recent years is the Mediterranean diet. This diet was first introduced in the 1940s by the American doctor Ancel Keys. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the diet was popularized. The theory behind the diet is simple: the eating patterns in the Mediterranean — places like Spain, Southern Italy, and Greece — provide better health and freedom from heart disease and obesity.

So what is this “diet”? According to the Mayo Clinic, key components of the Mediterranean diet include getting plenty of exercise and eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts; replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil; using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods; limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month; eating fish and poultry at least twice a week; and drinking red wine in moderation (optional).

The question I have is whether the above guidelines (or similar ones promoted by other Mediterranean diet “experts”) are a faithful representation of the traditional foods eaten in Spain, Italy and Greece.

First, I’d like to point out two things about the guidelines mentioned above. Canola oil is often touted by dieticians as being just as good or a good backup for olive oil. While rapeseed oil (we developed Canola oil from the rapeseed) has a history of use in China, Japan and India, it wasn’t in use (to my knowledge) in Greece, Spain, or Southern Italy. While rapeseed oil was in use in some traditional societies, it was used in conjunction with other healthy fats, including saturated fats such as ghee in India or lard in China. (As a side note: In areas that had a selenium content deficiency, rapeseed oil use was associated with a high incidence of fibrotic lesions of the heart.)

Plus, the bottle of canola oil you'll find on a typical grocery store shelf is a far cry from traditional rapeseed oil. About 80 percent of the oil from Canada is genetically modified and further engineered to mess with the traditional ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats. If you want to follow traditional guidelines for rapeseed oil, buy it unprocessed. The processing of canola oil generally entails high heat, making the omega-3s in the oil go rancid, which is why the oil is deodorized, which then turns a percentage of the omega-3 fatty acids into trans fats. I’d also look for canola made without the use of solvents. To take it one step further, it would be preferable to follow the traditional practice of getting freshly pressed rapeseed oil and using it along side ghee, lard, butter, or other traditional fats.

Secondly, unlike the guidelines above, Mediterranean diets are not low in salt. Do we really think that people in Italy and Greece sprinkled herbs on their food in place of salt? I don’t think so. How about some salty feta cheese, salami, fish roe or salt cured olives with that bland herbed chicken breast?

Another thing that I noticed while browsing through recipes for the Mediterranean diet is that some cooks try to use the least amount of oil possible — following the fat phobia we have embraced in our country. I just can’t imagine a cook in Spain doling out half a teaspoon of olive oil per person for a meal. I borrowed a beautiful cookbook from the library that was full of traditional recipes from Spain. It’s funny, the author never mentioned holding back on the oil or using nonstick pans once!

I enjoyed reading this opposing view to what a traditional Mediterranean diet is composed of on the Weston A. Price Foundation website. I read with fascinated interest about the history and origins of this fad, and some other voices chiming in about what people in Croatia, Italy, and Spain really ate. Things like salami, sausage, pounds of cheese weekly, and young pigs roasted whole (along with grains and vegetables, and legumes, of course).

My main concern is this: if we are going to promote a diet as a traditional diet, is it honest to recommend canola oil, low-salt and low-fat guidelines? If saturated fats were an important part of a traditional Mediterranean diet, should we leave them behind while we pursue our modern Mediterranean diet?

If you want to eat like the Spanish, or the Italians, or the Cretans, slogging down under-salted food, dolling out oil by the teaspoon, running from meat, and stuffing yourself with vegetables and grains may not be the answer. While anyone turning from a typical American diet to a diet full of whole grains, vegetables, better fats, and lower sweets will probably feel better, let’s not call that a “Mediterranean diet” unless it is a true representation.

Sometimes we think that we can “tweak” a traditional diet and still have all of the health benefits (like lowering or changing the fat and salt content). For example lycopene (commonly found in tomatoes, especially cooked tomato products) is a fat-soluble substance known to have a wide variety of health benefits. A dinner made with whole-wheat pasta, tomatoes and herbs, isn’t going to have the same effect if it is not made with a generous drizzle of olive oil. Our little tweak of taking out olive oil in the dish removes our body’s ability to absorb lycopene.

Next time I want to make a Greek-inspired meal, I’ll probably start with an appetizer featuring salty, full-fat traditional feta cheese and olives and roasted vegetables. Then perhaps we'll move onto Greek Lemon Soup, made with mineral-rich homemade chicken broth and egg yolks (Saturated fats! The horror!). Plus, a salad on the side (made with a homemade dressing. I will be sure to use olive oil). I can imagine some nice Greek meatballs being served as well, or perhaps some Lemon Garlic Chicken drumsticks (skin and all!) served over rice. Then we can end the meal with an olive oil cake, lightly sweetened. Of course, I can’t forget that glass of red wine, too.

What? That’s not on your Mediterranean diet, you say? Strange. Perhaps once again we have taken the enjoyment out of a traditional diet and lifestyle by giving it extra rules and regulations.

What do you think? Do you think that the Mediterranean diet is helpful and/or a true representation of a “Mediterranean” diet?