The Mediterranean Diet was popularised by Ancel Keys, an American nutritional scientist living in Southern Italy in the 1940’s. Keys started investigating this diet because he observed the great health of the Southern Italian population, who also had the highest life expectancy in the world at the time.
This is not a ‘diet’ in the modern sense because it is not based on exclusions of food types – it is the way an entire population ate naturally, passed down through generations. It can be traced back more than 3,000 years to the ancient Greeks.
Just to clarify, the Mediterranean Diet is a reference to the historical diet of the people who lived in what we now call Greece and Southern Italy.
Subsequent to Keys’ research many others have followed suit and continued that research. So rather than reinvent the wheel, here is the abstract from research published in The American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, which I explain afterwards:
Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for healthy eating.
We present a food pyramid that reflects Mediterranean dietary traditions, which historically have been associated with good health. This Mediterranean diet pyramid is based on food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s, where adult life expectancy was among the highest in the world and rates of coronary heart disease, certain cancers, and other diet-related chronic diseases were among the lowest.
Work in the field or kitchen resulted in a lifestyle that included regular physical activity and was associated with low rates of obesity. The diet is characterised by abundant plant foods (fruit, vegetables, breads, other forms of cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts, and seeds), fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yoghurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts, normally with meals. This diet is low in saturated fat (< or = 7-8% of energy), with total fat ranging from < 25% to > 35% of energy throughout the region. The pyramid describes a dietary pattern that is attractive for its famous palatability as well as for its health benefits.
There you have it, in a nutshell so to speak. Food was unrefined and unprocessed. Bread originated in the kitchen from a mortar and pestle and from wheat grown locally. Food was fresh and organic. Interestingly one of their primary sources of meat and dairy was goat.
Olive oil played a very important role. It not only added calorie density to vegetables but flavour as well. Researchers describe the Mediterranean Diet as ‘floating in oil’. It is high in omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and improve HDL (good cholesterol) production.
Not mentioned in the abstract was the very low consumption of sugar. Sugar as we now know it is a recent development, becoming popular and readily available only in the last 100 years.
If we use the Mediterranean diet as our benchmark, how does that contrast with the typical Western Diet? The contrasts are not just in what we eat now, but also in how we eat it, and lifestyles.
Let’s start with the Mediterranean Diet.
Food was fresh, organic, unprocessed and produced locally. It was grown, not manufactured.
38% of calories were derived from grains, mostly wheat, and mostly as bread and pasta. The bread was eaten with the meal and drizzled in olive oil – as opposed to toast and jam – and therefore digested quite differently.
Historically they did not have refrigeration and therefore dairy was made into cheese and yogurt and was available only in limited quantities.
They ate as a group in a social environment, and work kept them active.
Now look at the typical western diet.
A high percentage of calories come from manufactured products that could have been produced anywhere. These products are highly refined, with chemical additives and added sugar, salt and extremely unhealthy refined fats.
It is very high in red meat, eggs and dairy.
A significant percentage of calories come from wheat and notably hybridised strains. These strains contain gluten proteins that have never previously existed, causing gluten intolerance. They also contain ‘super starches’ that make you fat very quickly and / or wreck your arteries.
It is low in anything fresh, especially vegetables and fruit – only one in eleven Australians gets enough fibre.
The western diet is very high in sugar.
People often eat in isolation in front of a screen. They are generally inactive.
In reality the Western diet is almost the complete opposite to the Mediterranean Diet.
So what do you need to do? Eat a plant based diet rich in fibre, minimise red meat, eat some fish, cut back on the dairy and sugar. Eat with your family and friends. Get active. Pretty simple except for perhaps the wheat component. Ultimately modern wheat varieties are an inedible health hazard. Traditional wheat is known as ‘spelt’ and you can buy spelt bread from some health food stores.
Feel free to contact me if you would like to know more, or would like a copy of my book which explains it all in detail: Eat Move & Thrive: the 5 secrets of very healthy people.