What’s the best way to keep America’s veterans healthy and reduce their risk of chronic disease? Researchers at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration, intrigued by claims made for the Mediterranean Diet, put matters to a test. They reviewed 90 research papers summarizing results from 56 Med Diet studies to find out if the Med Diet truly benefited health – and whether it’s a diet people would easily stick with. They found that a Mediterranean Diet – with no restriction on fat intake – may reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes. That makes it a good choice for veterans, and for everyone.

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Here at Oldways, we’re smiling knowingly as we watch today’s news coverage of the VA study (published in the Annals of Internal Medicine). Yup. That’s what we’ve been telling you since 1993, when we created the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid with the Harvard School of Public Health. A healthy diet need not be low fat, as long as the fat comes from sources like olive oil, fish, nuts, and avocados.

In fact, one of the main joys of the Mediterranean Diet (and of traditional diets overall) is an emphasis on simply eating a variety of whole foods, without turning every meal into a math test. No one needs to figure out the percentage of calories from fat at each meal, or measure out exactly one-half cup of carrots.  Anyone who wants to get started with the Med Diet can do so in just eight simple steps.

Of course, this isn’t the first study to document the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. You can find scores of them here on our website, showing connections between the Med Diet and better outcomes in everything from weight control and blood pressure to gut bacteria and longer telomeres.

While we’re happy this study brings the time-tested Mediterranean Diet top of mind once again, we’d like to mention two major limitations we note in reading the full study.

First of all, the researchers listed 7 characteristics of a Med Diet:

  1. High ratio of monounsaturated fat to saturated fat (e.g. from using olive oil for cooking)
  2. High fruit and vegetable intake
  3. High consumption of legumes
  4. High grain and cereal intake
  5. Moderate red wine consumption
  6. Moderate consumption of dairy products
  7. Low consumption of meat with increased intake of fish

These criteria seem okay to us (except we’d note a preference for whole grains) – but it seemed very strange that the researchers included in their meta-analysis any study with 2 or more of these 7 factors. A great deal of Mediterranean Diet research notes that it’s likely the synergy between all elements of this eating pattern that creates its benefits – not just one or two factors. That said, if the VA affirmed the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet based on just 2 factors, we can only imagine how overwhelming the evidence would be if all factors were included! (Take our fun online quiz – How Mediterranean is your Diet? – to see how many factors your eating habits include.)

But what about that other goal of the researchers, to “assess whether North American populations are likely to adhere to such a diet”? The VA said they couldn’t find any research that convinced them one way or the other. Here’s what we say to you, VA: Get yourself a few good Mediterranean-style chefs and run your own trial in the cafeterias of all your VA hospitals. We think you’ll find that veterans, staff, and visitors alike will show you that healthy eating can be both nutritious and delicious. We offer our recipe database as a starting point!

— Cynthia

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