Food fads come and go, giving most people the mistaken impression that nutrition science changes daily, when in fact the basics of good eating are quite well documented. If you believe everything you read on the internet and in the popular press, the latest “truth” is that we should all be abandoning our low fat diets and seeking out as much butter and bacon as we can eat.

This idea has many holes in it. The truth is, few people ever managed to switch to the low fat diets that were recommended in the early 1990s — and one reason for that was Oldways’ work in offering a better alternative — one that set the science straight —immediately following the first USDA Pyramid.

Let me take you back to the early days of Oldways (early 1990s).  The government dietary guidance on fat was decidedly low-fat.  In response, food manufacturers were producing a wide variety of low-fat foods — things like Snackwells, the famously low-fat, high-sugar and high-calorie cookies Americans started devouring by the caseload, figuring they were okay eating as much as they wanted.  After all, Snackwells were low fat!  

Dietitians and doctors were beating the same drum.  They advised consumers to avoid fat. Olive oil was an unknown quantity — more of an ethnic product. The avocado industry was so worried that they started putting signs on avocados in stores, proclaiming them cholesterol free!  People were afraid of nuts, peanuts, avocados, anything with fat.  Despite all this low-fat focus, more and more Americans were overweight or obese.

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In response to what we knew was an unreasonable and unfounded fear of fat, Oldways developed and introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid with the Harvard School of Public Health in 1993.  This pyramid, featuring extra virgin olive oil as the principal fat, was a departure from the newly-introduced 1992 USDA Pyramid. The Mediterranean Pyramid’s recommendation was 35-40% of calories from fat, a far cry from the low-fat mantra of the day.  The Pyramid also differentiated between plant and animal protein, and included legumes and nuts in the everyday part of the Pyramid, rather than lumping them with red meat as the USDA Pyramid did.  Moderate wine drinking and exercise were included for the first time.  In the end, best of all, the Mediterranean Diet proved to be a delicious way to enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods, including extra virgin olive oil. 

While there are still some who proclaim the positive benefits of a low-fat diet, most scientists and governments have changed their tune, since the 1990s.  The US government no longer advocates a low-fat diet.  Rather, since 2000, the US dietary guidelines have included moderate dietary fat.  Similarly, over time, a large number of scientific studies have validated the healthfulness and common sense pleasures of the Mediterranean Diet. Today, almost 25 years later, our Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is still a sound model for a healthy lifestyle. It is a well-documented eating pattern that governments have pointed to in their dietary guidelines as an example of a healthy way to eat.  

We originally focused on the Mediterranean Diet because it was the best-documented example of a healthy traditional diet at that time — though the small body of evidence for it in 1993 is dwarfed by the hundreds of useful studies published since then! However, while Oldways has been a key force in educating about the Mediterranean Diet, we have long maintained that it is not the one and only way to eat. Ongoing research seems to indicate that all traditional diets — with widely different approaches, from the caribou and blubber of the Inuit to the milk, blood and meat of the Masai, with many plant-based diets in between — support health better than the Standard American Diet (SAD!).

So, rather than focusing on fat or carbs or protein, Oldways is committed to communicating the delicious pleasures of cultural models for healthy eating from around the world.  Whether celebrating Mediterranean Diet Month, creating meaningful programs that support cultural models for healthy eating or developing resources for nutrition education, balance, pleasure, variety, whole foods, and cooking are the song that we’re singing, rather than the johnny-one-note focus on the kind of fats, carbs or proteins to put on the plate. If you’re creating meals from a variety of real ingredients, and savoring them in moderate portions with friends and family, in all likelihood you’ll do just fine.


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