We raised our eyebrows recently when a new study reported a lower risk of heart disease for those who follow a Mediterranean Diet — but only in people who have higher incomes and education. What’s with that???

Although widely praised by the well-heeled and academic elite, the great irony of the Mediterranean Diet is that it is actually quite humble in its roots. Based on simple ingredients (like vegetables, beans, and grains), rather than expensive supplements, snack foods, or meats, this eating patterns flies in the face of long-held assumptions that wholesome diets cost an arm and a leg.

Young or old, rich or poor, there is hardly a demographic group untouched by the wide-ranging benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. In addition to large, epidemiological studies, following people over time and tracking their diet, the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are also supported by controlled, clinical trials, where people are assigned to different diets so that scientists can assess cause-and-effect.

So as soon as we saw the headlines claiming “The Mediterranean Diet Doesn’t Benefit Everyone,” we made a closer inspection of the research, and found the facts tell a more nuanced story.

For the study in question, researchers analyzed the self-reported diets of 18,991 adults in Italy, to see how closely they followed the Mediterranean Diet, and then tracked their health outcomes over 4 years. The researchers concluded that both low-income and high-income participants had similar adherence to the Mediterranean Diet, yet the high-income group had lower rates of cardiovascular disease.

A closer look at the study, however, shows that the actual diets of the low-income and high-income participants were actually quite different in quality. 

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The higher-income and higher-educated participants reported eating more fish, more whole grains, and less meat than their less-educated, lower-income counterparts. Additionally, the higher-income groups also ate more fruit and nuts. In other words, the higher-income and higher-educated groups seemed to have more of a Mediterranean Diet after all! It is no surprise, then, to see that these people were also less likely to develop heart disease.

The relationship between income and health is nothing new. After all, fast food and highly-processed snacks can be a convenient, affordable choice for people who don’t have access to fresh produce or a well-stocked kitchen. But healthy diets need not be expensive. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank organized a six-week cooking program for 63 participants focused on plant-based cooking with olive oil. At the end of the six-month study participants had decreased their total food expenses, purchases of meat, and consumption of “junk” food. In another study, researchers found that choosing a plant-based diet with olive oil, instead of a budget MyPlate diet, could save $746.46 per person per year, and provide vastly more servings of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

Meat and sweets were more expensive, so many families relied on whole grains, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, local fish, and plant proteins like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, and of course, locally-produced olive oil. And after decades of research, it is clear that this humble eating pattern is in fact a roadmap to good health and well-being. Don’t fall for the latest sensationalist headline. Step away from the web, and go enjoy a delicious Mediterranean meal!

Kelly Toups, Director of Nutrition

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