|Image courtesy of the NY Times|
When Diet Meets Delicious
The “How do I eat?” thing has become increasingly combative and confusing. Do you give up carbs, or fat, or both? Do you go vegan or paleo?
No. You eat like a Greek, or like a Greek used to eat: a piece of fish with a lentil salad, some greens and a glass of wine. It’s not onerous. In fact, it’s delicious.
The value of this kind of diet (“diet” in the original, Latin sense of the word “diaeta,” a way of living) has once again been confirmed in a study from Spain involving thousands of participants and published in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine. So compelling were the results that the research was halted early because it was believed that the control group was being unfairly deprived of its benefits.
Let’s cut to the chase: The diet that seems so valuable is our old friend the “Mediterranean” diet (not that many Mediterraneans actually eat this way). It’s as straightforward as it is un-American: low in red meat, low in sugar and hyperprocessed carbs, low in junk. High in just about everything else — healthful fat (especially olive oil), vegetables, fruits, legumes and what the people who designed the diet determined to be beneficial, or at least less-harmful, animal products; in this case fish, eggs and low-fat dairy.
This is real food, delicious food, mostly easy-to-make food. You can eat this way without guilt and be happy and healthy. Unless you’re committed to a diet big on junk and red meat, or you don’t like to cook, there is little downside.
On Monday I spoke by phone with Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has been studying the Mediterranean diet for as long as I’ve been writing about food. His take was simple: “We have so many types of evidence that this kind of eating works, but the weight of evidence is important, and this adds a big stone to that weight.”
As encouraging as the study is, it’s far from perfect, and it would be hyperbolic — ridiculous — to say that it represents The Answer.
For one thing, the control group was supposedly on a low-fat diet, but didn’t necessarily stick to it; in fact, it wasn’t a low-fat diet at all. And the study did not show reversal of heart disease, as was widely reported; as far as I can tell, it basically showed a decrease in the rate of some cardiovascular diseases in people at risk as compared with people at risk who ate the typically lousy contemporary diet.
In short, as Dr. Dean Ornish said to me, “It’s clearly better than a horrible diet, which is what most people eat.” Dr. Ornish, who has devised a low-fat diet that has been demonstrated to reverse heart disease, said that “the most responsible conclusion from this study would be, ‘We found a significant reduction in stroke in those consuming a Mediterranean diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, when compared to those who were not making significant changes in their diet.’ ”
Exactly. And that’s good news, because it might encourage some of the majority of people who are not making significant changes in their diet. Most Americans eat so badly that even a modest change in the direction of this diet is likely to be of benefit. That was the revelation of the Mediterranean style of eating when it came to public notice a generation ago. (Next year is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s “Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”)
Since we’re being all Med, I could say nihil novi sub sole — there’s nothing new under the sun — but it’s not exactly true. What’s new is all the junk that has been injected into our foods and our diet since the end of World War II. What’s not new is that eating real food is good for you.
You could say that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing that was recognized as food by your great-grandmother. Whole, minimally processed foods of almost any type can be included in a sound diet. Period.
Sounds good to me!!