The Mediterranean diet is one of America’s slower growing diet fads. The main idea behind it is that the key to longevity and optimal health is to abandon our modern diets, which make us ill, and move far back in time to the people of Crete more than 60 years ago and eat like them.
This idea was started in 1945 by Ancel Keys and has become more popular since then (Google: ‘books on the Mediterranean diet’). The language makes references to nutritionism, and plant-based diet. The diet seems primarily targeted at women as there are many images of skinny women near water
Lots of red wine!
This idea broken down into 4 parts:
- Our modern diet today makes us chronically ill and is high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt and high GI carbs
- We need to abandon these modern diets and move back in time to the 1940s and eat more like the people of Crete over 60 years ago
- We know what these diets were like and they had a lot of red wine, they were mainly plant based and that was supplemented with fish and chicken. But it definitely did not contain much animal fat and red meat
- If we emulate this diet we will improve out
health and enable us to live longer
All that red wine!
The Mediterranean diet as it is promoted in popular books, on TV, on self-help websites, and in the overwhelming majority of popular news articles has virtually no basis in diets of the Mediterranean
Myth 1: People in Crete consumed large quantities of red wine. Quite the opposite, at most they consumed an average of about 30 grams (one once) per day. (Calculated from these data: people in Crete ate about 2500 calories per day and 1% of those came from wine, beer and spirits , a glass of wine contains 85 calories per 103 grams )
Myth 2: Mediterranean peoples did not eat much red meat, animal fats and in some portrayals total fat. The Cretan diet in in 1940s was higher in fat than the SAD (38%  vs. ~30-35%). And it seems Mediterranean peoples may have eaten more animal foods and animal fats than what we are told* . Also low fat dairy is a modern first world invention. Many Cretans were hungry** , so they probably didn’t make low fat cheese then throw the fat away.
Myth 3: Mediterraneandiet foods are what people in the Mediterranean have traditionally eaten. This is not true. Most food pictures in Mediterraneandiet promotional images are from non-organic and genetically modified plants or animals***. Also in this recipe (first one I came across) the black pepper and basil came from India, not the Mediterranean (tut tut).
Mediterranean diets were regionally and seasonally variable and they did a lot more activity than we did. But it’s almost impossible for us now to eat this sort of diet. Grain agriculture, as it’s currently practiced, is not sustainable
What dietary lessons can we learn from real Mediterranean diets?
- Diversity is important
- Eat fresh foods in season, when they are ripe and most nutritious
- Eat whole foods, not processed foods
* Although that article may have just as much selection bias as Keyes, et al
** If you want a diet to be sustainable why would you base it off an eating pattern where 72% were dissatisfied with their diet (which is probably mainly due to there not being enough calories) and many wanted more meat.
*** Not that I'm an organic and anti-GMO zealot. I'm just applying the same stupid criteria that is used to say that: 'since Paleo isn't 100% perfect reenactment, therefore it is a completely invalid approach to diet'
Just so everyone knows, this isn’t a real criticism of the Mediterranean diet, but rather a tongue in cheek post on Christina Warriner’s ‘Debunking the Paleo Diet’. I don’t consider this post or her talk to debunk any diet as neither has used biological mechanisms or data from clinical trials. Robb Wolf has commented on the talk (here and here) so I won’t add much, just a few things:
3:10: “Humans have no known anatomical, physiological, or genetic adaptations to meat consumption”. What about our requirement for vitamin B12, K2 and LCO3s
10:30: She discusses how we have selectively bred plants to increase their size and calories and reduce their toxins, seeds and fibrous bits as if that’s a bad thing. But also the idea that plants were toxic and fibrous kind of contradicts her earlier assertion that we didn’t eat much meat. If plants were too difficult for ancient humans to extract calories from they would have turned to something else, animal foods
14:20: ‘To look at a Paleo diet lets go 7,000 years back in time’…Really?
Throughout the talk she made references that allude to Paleolithic peoples having a harder time finding calories, which is true, but is a popular idea often taken to extremes beyond the boundaries of common sense. I compiled the list below from various sources. While not all of these were said by Christina Warriner, how could hunter-gatherers have possibly survived assuming:
- They maintained a high level of activity and muscle mass (comparatively)
- Meat was scarce and lean and getting it required a lot of effort
- Plants were more toxic, more fibrous, had more seeds and less sweet
- They often went hungry (thrifty gene hypothesis) and missed meals (the intermittent fasting idea)
- They lacked central healing (therefore used more energy to warm up)
- They had (more) parasites that stole calories
- Food was blander so people ate less
- Amylase activity was lower
- There was less food processing, therefore food
was more difficult to digest
Something has to give
* By the way, I have bought Marlene Zuk’s ‘Paleofantasy’ and plan to read it after my exams in June.
** Some credit for this post should go to Jamie Scott who inspired this post with the following tweets