Mediterranean diet is old but good news

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

I went gro­cery shop­ping over the weekend and if you knew any­thing about my normal eating habits, you would have been rather sur­prised by the things I brought home with me: tons of fruits and veg­eta­bles, a huge bag of pota­toes, shrimp, had­dock, whole grain bread, nuts galore, yogurt, and even a little gra­nola. I don’t think there was a single stick of butter in the entire lot. This all hap­pened because I was dras­ti­cally impressed by a con­ver­sa­tion I had with North­eastern pro­fessor of nutri­tion, Katherine Tucker.

I asked her to talk to me about the results of a new study from her col­leagues at the Uni­ver­sity of Navarra in Spain, which, as you prob­ably heard from sig­nif­i­cant reporting on the sub­ject last week, val­i­dated the pos­i­tive health effects of the so-​​called “Mediter­ranean diet.” They pub­lished their results in the New Eng­land Journal of Med­i­cine, putting a signed, sealed, and deliv­ered stamp on some­thing we’ve been pretty sure about for a while.

What’s unique about it is that it’s a real, suf­fi­ciently pow­ered lon­gi­tu­dinal study,” said Tucker. “It’s not just obser­va­tional, but a ran­dom­ized trial.” The study authors ran­domly assigned people from a range of demo­graphics to one of three groups — the par­tic­i­pants either ate a low fat diet or a tra­di­tional mediter­ranean diet for a period of eight years. Both groups were pro­vided con­sid­er­able sup­port from nutri­tion coun­selors. The Mediter­ranean diet group was split fur­ther into two groups, one that ate more nuts than the others and one that used more olive oil. The study authors did this in order to tease out the effects of dif­ferent ben­e­fi­cial com­pounds found in the two ingre­di­ents. Both of the MeDiet groups (as the researchers called them) had sig­nif­i­cantly fewer car­dio­vas­cular events than the low-​​fat group.

It’s a big deal,” said Tucker. “It’s just stronger sci­en­tific evi­dence that the Mediter­ranean diet is impor­tant and that it does work.” So what kind of data did we have before? The obser­va­tional kind that Tucker men­tioned above. In studies like her own Puerto Rican Health Study, researchers have tracked the eating pat­terns of large cohorts of people over long periods of time. They’ve noticed that those who follow the tra­di­tional diet eaten in places like Spain, Italy, and Greece have overall better health. They get less cancer, they have better cog­ni­tive func­tion, and have fewer heart attacks. But these studies aren’t con­trolled or ran­dom­ized, meaning that a lot of other fac­tors — like exer­cise or genetic makeup — could be playing a role in the out­comes. This is the first time those obser­va­tions were backed up by a ran­dom­ized trial, con­sid­ered by many to be the gold stan­dard for research.

It’s also notable that the low-​​fat group had a much harder time sticking to the pro­tocol. So much so that the study authors had to recon­figure the design. But the MeDiet groups had much better com­pli­ance. Why? Because every­thing in the Mediter­ranean diet is so deli­cious! You get to eat bread drip­ping in olive oil with a nice glass of San­giovese to wash it down.

It is based on good quality, whole foods and a bal­anced dietary pat­tern that evolved over the mil­lennia. And it seems to agree with our bodies,” said Tucker. “It’s anti-​​inflammatory, it has a bal­ance of nutri­ents, it doesn’t include too many refined car­bo­hy­drates, it’s not too high in sat­u­rated fat. It’s just a real bal­anced diet.”

So it turns out that part of the solu­tion to the biggest health chal­lenge of our time has been staring us in the face for cen­turies. Low fat diets aren’t the answer, said Tucker, because they’re so hard to stick to and they don’t pro­vide all the nutri­ents we need. Same goes for any other kind of diet the excludes a major subset of nutri­ents that our body needs to be healthy, like high pro­tein or low carb diets.

Tucker is on the advi­sory com­mittee for the African Her­itage & Health pro­gram of Old­ways, a non­profit food and nutri­tion edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tion whose mis­sion is to guide people to good health through her­itage. The group has long touted the ben­e­fits of tra­di­tional diets, including those of both Mediter­ranean and African her­itage among others.