Why the Mediterranean diet may all be a convenient myth
Are people in these areas living longer or suffering less disease? The answers don’t lie in a bowl of ratatouille
Ah, the Med. Everything about it is good, right? A balmy afternoon cocktail session on the French Riviera, so much like a scene from an early Bond movie; an al fresco meal in Sorrento, the azure sea below you; a boat trip to Santorini ... one could go on forever. And so, when those who should know such things – nutritionists and government health bodies for example – started telling us that virtually all our nutritional problems could be solved by following the so-called “Mediterranean diet”, we embraced it.
The truth is, the entire idea is a myth. I’ve gone into it before, I know, but the ongoing, nonsensical promotion of the diet, which seems immune to the interference of fact and logic, propels me to give it another bash. It was, of course, Ancel Keys – the madman who came up with the never-proved cholesterol theory – who invented the notion that such an eating pattern existed across several countries, islands or areas bordering the Mediterranean.
Apparently the diet is made up of lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seafood and lashings of olive oil. Sorry, but this is a fantasy. For one thing, there are many island communities who eat very little fruit and veg, as they have minimal crop land available. Whole grains? That’s the biggest joke – you’ll struggle to find a whole-grain pizza or pasta anywhere along the Italian coast (and thank God because whole-grain pasta is disgusting and quite pointless). Low-fat anything in these parts? Not likely. Generous amounts of fatty meat, full-fat dairy and eggs? Often.
Olive oil, yes usually, but so what? It’s never been shown as a source of greater health (association is absolutely not causation). Fruit and vegetables? Sure, but nothing to write home – or a piece of research – about.
The question is, why promote that particular fantasy? Why fixate on the Mediterranean? Are people in these areas actually living longer or suffering less disease? That’s a story for another day and the answers don’t lie in a bowl of ratatouille. If it makes you feel happier to follow what you believe is a Mediterranean diet, then that might be a solid reason to do so – the presence of fewer stress hormones and more happy hormones is one of the greatest predictors of health and longevity. Just don’t go buying their line about low fat or whole grains being the answer to anything at all. EXTRA READING
Check out Sicilian Godmother for a nicely un-PC take on real Sicilian eating. And definitely peruse the always great Zoe Harcombe. For a less mainstream, but more scientific, approach to whole grains, see Gary Taubes.