The Mediterranean Diet

A recent landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has touted the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. What is this diet and should you follow it?

For this study, the “Mediterranean diet” basically means:

  • Olive oil in generous quantities
  • All the fish you want
  • White meat instead of red, if you eat meat
  • Beans
  • Vegetables
  • Avoiding sodas
  • Nuts and seeds

The study followed participants for 5 years and tracked their rates of cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, etc.). They found that the Mediterranean diet yielded significantly lower rates of these health issues.

I read the study to get the information directly from the source. So what conclusions can we reach from this study?

CONCLUSION SUMMARY

Diet can make a difference in cardiovascular disease. This is the biggest conclusion from the study and it’s a major one. The design of the study was so good that this conclusion was clear.

A diet that features olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish and avoids red meat and baked goods is better than a low fat diet that features bread, pasta, and low fat intake for preventing cardiovascular disease.

The diet in this study decreased risk 30% compared to the control group’s diet. That’s pretty good, although considering the other questions in the study we can’t conclude that olive oil and nuts are a miracle cure.

The jury is still out on meat, although eating less red meat is likely helpful. The Mediterranean diet group was not discouraged from eating chicken or fish, in fact they were asked to eat AT LEAST three servings per week of fish (especially fatty fish). Regarding other meats, they were only asked to eat white meat instead of red. The Mediterranean diet group was not discouraged from eating dairy products, either – so this study is not an endorsement of a vegan or vegetarian diet (although read the next conclusion to understand why vegan diets could still be better).

Some other diet could be even better than the Mediterranean diet – we just don’t know. The study only compared the Mediterranean diet with a low fat diet. No other comparisons were made. If you are not on a low fat diet, it’s not clear how much this diet will help you. It might help you a lot, it might not help you that much. If you are eating a diet close to the Mediterranean diet, it’s not clear what other changes you can make to even further improve your cardiovascular risk.

BOTTOM LINE

The Mediterranean diet is not a miracle cure and there might even be something better, but it’s better than the bread+pasta+low fat diet when it comes to avoiding cardiovascular disease.

Recent Food I’ve Cooked

I specialize in whole foods dishes which are typically free of dairy and gluten. And while I do cook meat and fish, I also specialize in vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic/Engine 2 cooking. Here are some recent dishes for your viewing pleasure…

Below: Spinach salad with basil-lime dressing, avocado, and marinated grilled beef.

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Below: Nishime of burdock, carrot, onion, and radish (macrobiotic).

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Below: Bun (Vietnamese dish) with seared tofu, grapefruit and cilantro.

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Below: Romaine salad with Kalamata olives, grape tomatoes, crisp cucumber, and fresh basil.

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Below: French potato salad with dijon mustard and capers.

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Soy – Friend or Foe?

It seems that many folks are concerned about soy foods. Tofu, soy milk, miso, etc. all contain soybean and these foods are being debated among those concerned about nutrition (which should be everyone).

Two Point Test

I’m going to summarize up front by saying that my two point philosophy of food is (1) moderation and balance are key and (2) heavy processing of any food is to be avoided. This means that traditional soy foods like soy milk, tofu, tempeh, and miso are totally fine. Mechanically and chemically produced derivatives of soy, such as soy protein isolates found in many snack bars and other foods, violate both points in my two-point philosophy because they are heavily processed and they make it easy to overconsume soy.

But, that’s my opinion. Let’s think about consulting other sources about soy…but which sources should we refer to?

Flash and Dash vs. Conservative Science

Hucksters and special interests may sound interesting and smart, and they may have smashingly good titles for books and web articles, but when it comes to health issues I like to reference sources with high credibility. I prefer sources that seek to inform readers with repeatable and accepted evidence, rather than enamor them with the writer’s ability to “fight the system.” Don’t get me wrong, “the system” is messed up, but I tend to trust sources that take a more clinical approach and have more at stake when they report on scientific findings.

Who Has More at Stake? The Icon or the Iconoclast?

What do I mean a source has “more at stake?” Let’s look at cancer.org, an icon of the fight against cancer. The name of the organization is the American Cancer Society. This is an organization incredibly invested in ending cancer. They take in a lot of money from donations, so their reporting better be sound. They cannot afford to be slack in how they approach this serious topic. Their success is based on doing the work of ending cancer in a methodical and effective way.

Now let’s look at another health source, Mercola.com. Dr. Joseph Mercola is a medical doctor who is a brand in and of himself. His product is the image of “Dr. Mercola, Health Guru” and he sells it well. The image of Dr. Mercola is that of a tough, alternative, and iconoclastic wellness champion. His brand is enhanced by attacking the icons – no one wants to read a website that says “we agree with the American Cancer Society, keep up the good work!” Therefore everything he promotes is designed to convince you that the other sources are corrupt and only he can be trusted. This is how he makes money.

If Dr. Mercola reports something inaccurately, he will be completely fine as long as he does it in a scary way that enhances his “fight the system” image. The mainstream media does not question Mercola or call him on any lies or misinformation. They only use him as a source when they want to rake up some muck for a TV interview. On the other hand, if the American Cancer Society reports something inaccurately, their credibility as THE cancer authority is seriously shaken. News outlets will be ALL over their backside if they pass on bad information. Therefore, the American Cancer Society has much more at stake when they make any nutrition-related claim. Make sense?

By the way, I’m not saying that the system is working great or that Dr. Mercola only reports inaccuracies, but I am suggesting that everyone review a wide array of reputable sources before making any decision about health, especially extreme decisions/prohibitions (e.g., “I will NEVER eat X again in any amount” or “I will eat TONS of Y every day”).

My Sources

Sources I like are mayoclinic.com, and cancer.org. I have also been impressed with health guru Andrew Weil. Even though Weil is a media “personality,” his articles always have a balanced tone and reference scientific research. When Dr. Weil doesn’t know something, he lets the reader know that more research is needed in a certain area. This is a trait to look for in a source. Other writers take a more inflammatory tack. Dr. Mercola, for example, likes to use words and phrases such as “danger” and “dirty little secret,” in his writing. This is not the hallmark of a balanced source.

Summary

What I’ve read about soy from reputable sources leads me to conclude that normal human consumption of minimally processed soy foods like tofu, soy milk, miso, tempeh, etc. are just fine. None of the reputable sources discourage readers from any of these products at all. They pass my two-point test: they are minimally processed and you can eat them in moderation. Soy isolates and concentrated soy pills do not.

More Reading

(1) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/soy/NS_patient-soy/DSECTION=evidence
(2) http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/dietandnutrition/soybean
(3) http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/QAA401156/How-Safe-is-Soy.html