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The secret of the Mediterranean diet? There is no secret


Whoop-de-doo, researchers at King's College London and the University of California claim to have identified the "secret" underpinning the oft-quoted healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet. From their lab tests on mice (not just any old mice, genetically modified ones) they conclude that when olive oil and vegetables are eaten together, they form nitro fatty acids that help lower blood pressure – a risk factor for heart disease – by blocking the enzyme epoxide hydrolase.

The lead researcher, Professor Philip Eaton, describes the chemical reaction of oil and vegetable as "nature's protective mechanism", and sees a commercial future in it. "If we can tap into this we could make new drugs for treating high blood pressure and preventing heart disease." Nitro fatty acids could soon be touted as the next pharmaceutical preventative for cardiovascular disease. Pills aside, though, if nitro fatty acids are indeed the magic formula on which the healthy Mediterranean diet is predicated, should we be conducting our own personal diet experiments to take on board this revelation?

Initially, the more holistic notion that health and slimness lies in combining food groups, rather than fixating on an ever-changing procession of "superfoods", has its attractions – not least because few of us lick our lips at the prospect of eating a bucketload of kale, or can afford to breakfast daily on chia seeds and blueberries. Combining salads and vegetables with oil is hardly onerous, but can this double act really be the holy grail of heart health?

Cynicism is surely merited. This study was part-funded by the British Heart Foundation, a body that finds itself on a sticky wicket because its rote script – the oft-quoted "lipid hypothesis" that eating fat causes heart disease – has gone into meltdown like a defrosting fridge. In nitro fatty acids, the BHF has a way to explain the apparent anomaly that a Mediterranean diet is healthy, even though it contains its dietary villain.

Bear in mind that the BHF, along with other charities and the public health establishment, has evangelised a selectively edited, much traduced, some might say mythical account of the Mediterranean diet. The longevity of Mediterranean populations, we were assured, was explained by their high consumption of fruit and vegetables (true), and low consumption of red meat and saturated fat (false).

In fact, no sentient visitor to southern Europe could fail to notice the reliance on fatty lamb, full-fat yoghurt and cheese (feta, mozzarella, manchego, pecorino), kebabs and slow-cooked red meat dishes, such as the Greek beef stifado. Even vegetables come stuffed with red meat. Yes, monounsaturated olive oil is the default oil of the Mediterranean region, but a serious amount of saturated fat is eaten too.

Modern perceptions of the Mediterranean diet stem from observation of dietary traditions in Crete, Greece, and southern Italy in the 1960s, when people were physically active, spent lots of time outdoors and ate shared communal meals of fresh, seasonal, homecooked, locally produced foods. That's not the same thing as bolting down a huge plate of pasta in a cook-in sauce, followed by a high-sugar, reduced-fat yoghurt, while watching MasterChef on the settee.

NHS Choices actively encourages us to "make our diets more Mediterranean" by, among other things, "eating more bread and pasta" (studiously ignoring the growing body of evidence that implicates refined carbohydrates in obesity) and telling us, somewhat inarticulately, to eat "more fruit and salad, including tomatoes and vegetables". But this reheated, rehashed "Mediterranean" diet increasingly looks like a lazy student's essay cobbled together from out-of-date textbooks.

Can there really only be one global prescription for life-sustaining eating? What about Japanese people? They are some of the slimmest, healthiest, longest-lived people on the planet, and their diet is not Mediterranean. Might there be something to explore there? All that fermented food, micronutrient-packed seaweed, low sugar and, last but not least, the appreciation of beef marbled with a high percentage of intramuscular fat?

Comparing European countries, it is becoming obvious that obesity is more prevalent in laissez-faire markets – notably the UK and Ireland – where a light regulatory touch allows powerful multinational food companies to maximise profit by encouraging children and adults to overconsume their highly processed, nutritionally compromised products.

The debate around what really constitutes healthy eating is heated and continuing. We may not know yet with great certainty what is good for us, but using our own powers of observation, it is crystal clear what is bad for us: a diet of processed, industrialised junk food.


By: Clara Loves her Dog
On: 06/07/2014 10:33:39
"Super" foods, combining foods, acoiding certain foods, etc are all great ways to be aware of how food impacts health and are certainly worth incorporating. But I am wary of any fad diet. Not that this is a fad. But I think the best diet doesn't have a name. That sounds weird but to me if you have a name it isn't just how you eat it is a thing you are adopting for a while in the hope of making a change. A real diet, one that works, helps you hit your body weight goals, helps you get healthy and that most importantly that lasts doesn't have a name and is just the way you eat. Most things sold as a diet are often too limiting for people to sustain long term. So I think the best thing is too look to this diet as a great way to incorporate some really healthy ideas and practices into your life and make some helpful changes and not as a diet really.
By: John
On: 06/07/2014 10:57:53
The best sentence in this article is: "Can there really only be one global prescription for life-sustaining eating?" The answer is NO. In a less globalized world, back in the old old days, people ate what was local to where they lived and this made perfect sense both for the well being of their communities and economies as well as to their environments. It is possible to eat in a healthy way without having to eat in an exotic way and there is more than one way to have a healthy life and a healthy diet that what one particular country or area is doing... That said, another good point the article makes is that clearly something is wrong in the west. It talks about Europe, but the same is true in the US, more so in fact, that there is a poswerful marketing push to sell manufactured pre-prepared food that is created to get you to love it, buy it, eat it all the time, rather than for health. I don't like the hint that the remedy may lie in government oversight, but I do like the idea that we shoudl be aware and take responsibility. Ultimtely that truly is the only solution and the only diet anyone needs - individuals need to be aware of what is healthy, and what is not and take ownership of their own eating and well being. There are lots of ways to do that, but the key is actually doing it.
By: Adam
On: 06/07/2014 21:11:59
Whenever a study is "funded" by a group/cause/company/foundation I am suspicious. Diets don't work. Overweight? Eat less, move more, avoid junk (and we all know what junk is and we all know what healthy food is). Not overweight - avoid junk. There, that's all you need to know
By: Anna
On: 06/16/2014 00:11:58
I have to agree with the other commenters, and with the tone of this article. There are SO many "diets" and ideas about how to eat, but it really is hard to believe there is some universal prescription. That makes no sense from a natural point of view. If not for how advanced our technology, just like animals, humans would eat what can be produced in their local area and a lot of diets prescribe foods that would be exotic to many people... There is no magic bullet, except for common sense, and the last line of the article is probably the only universal diet that is hard to debate.
By: John
On: 07/02/2014 19:12:51
What a great article. I saw the title and thought - oh no, another pitch for a geographically based fad diet. But instead it went on to explain exactly why such fad diets make no sense and to explain what we really should be thinking about what this kind of information comes our way. Well done! Thanks GC!
By: Miranda S. Blake
On: 08/25/2014 18:38:14
I like how so many of the articles in this blog teach people not to be sheep and to think. I really believe that's half the battle in eating well and enjoying food. Thanks GC.
By: Angie's mom
On: 09/07/2014 17:47:33
I love this article. The secret to ANY diet is there is no secret. Come on now we all know how to be healthy! Whenever I am "on a diet" everyone wants to tell me how to do it. Now don't get me wrong, some people have given me GREAT tips and that has really helped, and if you are trying to get healthy or lose weight, having input and support and interest and encouragement from those around you, and some ideas from those who have had some success is a great help. That isn't what I mean. I am talking about the people who preach some methid I must follow as though the way I choose, which is perfectly healthy and is something I am likely to be able to do and if I stick to it, will work, is NOT ok and I have to follow their way... that is exactly what these fad diets are doing. It isn't about giving ideas and tips and a sense of support, it is about selling books and videos and product via some brainwash... The idea that there is some ONE solution and I have to follow that annoys me. It just isnt true. And all these fad diets play on that idea - the idea that there is some one right way. In fact people all over the world eat differently and many are healthy. And what would work for some people will absolutely NOT work for me at all and I can't do it their way and I may as well give up if that is the only way. There is no one way, there are many, and any diet with a name slapped on it gives me pause. I think we would have a lot more healthy people and less obesity if all fad diets would disappear and people just realized there are many ways to be healthy, to eat healthy and lots of great information and not one single way to do it but many.

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