While the Mediterranean Diet is a healthier choice compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD), it’s not a guaranteed ticket to preventing or reversing cardiovascular disease.
We recently spent some time on Turkey’s west coast and had the opportunity to experience the Mediterranean Diet in practice. I was thoroughly impressed with the wide variety of nutrient-rich veggies, seasonal fruit, nuts, seeds, numerous legumes, and wholegrain breads. Many meals were topped with heaps of fresh mint and dill. The produce tasted like it has just been picked that day. We ate the most delicious cherry tomatoes, fresh artichokes, beautifully presented babaganoush and hummus, fresh grilled vegetables, and salads loaded of dark leafy greens. We even had almonds that were grown just a few hundred meters away.
I was quite content with my daily feast comprised of the whole, plant-based foods mentioned above, but I would be remiss to not mention that these foods were surrounded by whole-milk cheeses, dairy milk, yogurts, eggs, cured meats, smoked fish, pasta, pastries and white bread.
So what exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?
This diet, which originated in the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, is characterized by the regular consumption of whole, plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes) with small portions of animal-based products such as poultry, fish, eggs, low-fat cheese, and yogurt. Red meat, high-fat dairy and sweets are saved for the occasional indulgence.
The key source of fat in the Mediterranean Diet is extra virgin olive oil. This defining feature of the Mediterranean Diet has received a great deal of attention in the media in recent years. Proponents of the Mediterranean Diet claim that olive oil’s health benefits lie in its high concentration of omega-3s and polyphenols.
How is the Standard American Diet (SAD) defined?
Simply stated, the SAD is about 50% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 35% fat (based on calories); however, these percentages don’t provide the full picture. The SAD is rich in red meat, sugary desserts, high-saturated fat foods, and refined grains. It also typically contains high-fat dairy products, high-sugar drinks and higher intakes of processed meat.
Why is it that many studies show improved health when people switch to a Mediterranean Diet?
It’s important to remember that in many studies participants often consume the Standard American Diet prior to the initiation of the Mediterranean Diet. I would be surprised if a participant’s health profile didn’t improve when making this switch, but do these results indicate that the Mediterranean Diet should be credited with improving heart health? A simple dietary switch from a “bad diet” rich in saturated fat to “a slightly better diet” that has less saturated fat will of course show some improvement. Unfortunately this improvement is not due to the switch to the Mediterranean diet; it’s simply due to the removal of the high levels of saturated fat.
Those who adhere to the Mediterranean Diet have about a 19-25% mortality reduction compared to those who consume the Standard American Diet. Additionally, the rate of obesity among the Mediterranean Diet consumers is about 50% less than that of the average American. This might sound pretty good, huh? However, while the Mediterranean Diet may slow the progression of heart disease, it does not prevent or reverse heart disease, something that can be achieved through a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet.
What’s the scoop on olive oil?
There is a great deal of controversy these days regarding olive oil and its claimed health benefits. Many media sources have touted olive oil as a cure-all that offers numerous heart-health benefits. Olive oil may be better for you than its animal-based counterpart (butter), but does “better for you” imply optimized health? I’m afraid not. When compared to butter, olive oil might seem like a smart choice as it does not contain any saturated fat, but when looking at one’s health from a holistic perspective, olive oil unfortunately represents a nutrient-poor, high-fat and calorie-dense plant-based product.
Olive oil’s claim to fame is its somewhat high concentrations of polyphenols. Polyphenols act as antioxidants and have been shown in studies to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer through reducing oxidation and inflammation. However, from the perspective of milligrams of polyphenols per calorie, dark leafy greens offer a greater polyphenols to calorie ratio compared to olive oil.
Check out this table for an extensive list of polyphenol levels in a variety of foods. Interestingly, extra virgin olive oil is ranked #61 out of 100 common plant-based foods.
There are two characteristics I like about the Mediterranean Diet: the emphasis on large portions of whole, plant-based foods and the de-emphasis on processed sweets. As for animal products, it’s nice that they’re consumed in small portions; however, I’m afraid that’s not quite good enough. Saturated fats have been consistently linked to higher levels of cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
Regarding extra virgin olive oil, I would prefer to get my polyphenols from nutrient-dense whole foods like flaxseeds, hazelnuts, whole olives, spinach, grapes and prunes. It just so happens that these fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds also have numerous nutrient and antioxidant benefits that extend far beyond polyphenols. This sounds like a more enticing deal to me!