We love it when folks call or email Oldways with questions about food and nutrition! Having the opportunity to chat with people and share our nutrition knowledge is so rewarding.
So, as we continue our month-long Mediterranean Diet Celebration, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to look back at some of the great Med Diet questions that have come our way over the years — and share our answers on The Oldways Table to help shed even more light on the many beneﬁts of the Mediterranean Diet. (Sneak preview: the Mediterranean Diet is aﬀordable, delicious and nutritious!)
Q. Is the Med Diet vegetarian? I’m not ready to give up meat.
A. While scores of studies (especially those from Loma Linda University) show the beneﬁts of a vegetarian diet, the Med Diet is what we call a “plant-based” diet rather than a vegetarian diet. This means that most of its foods come from plants — but there’s no need to give up meat. In the Mediterranean Diet, small amounts of good-quality meat are used as “condiments” — beef sliced thinly on a salad, for example, or a kabob that mixes a little lamb with onions, peppers and tomatoes — rather than serving a large piece of meat in the middle of the plate.
Q. Does the Mediterranean Diet include any other saturated fats beyond meat?
A. Yes. Though saturated fat is low in the Mediterranean Diet, it’s not “forbidden.” Even olive oil, at the center of the Mediterranean Diet, contains saturated fat (about 14% of its total weight). Cheese and yogurt are also regular staples in the Med Diet, eaten in moderate but nearly daily amounts. Think of Med traditions: Fresh feta topping a Greek salad of ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, olives, etc. or small samples of local cheeses ending a meal in France. The cheese and yogurt in the Med Diet are quite diﬀerent from some foods by the same name in today’s supermarkets, however. Natural cheeses, including raw milk cheeses, are not the same as sliced “cheese food,” and traditional plain live-culture yogurt (no added sugar) is not the same as a commercial vanilla yogurt that may contain no live cultures and may have more than 5 teaspoons of added sugar in a six-ounce container.
Q. Won’t eating pasta as part of the Med Diet make my blood sugar spike dangerously?
A. No. As Oldways documented in its ground-breaking conference on Glycemic Impact in 2013, a diet heavy in foods with high Glycemic Index or Glycemic Load scores is indeed dangerous for health. Pasta, though, has a glycemic impact closer to that of intact grains than to that of bread or crackers, and is a part of traditional diets around the Mediterranean. Because of the structure of the starch molecules in pasta, it’s digested slowly, providing steady fuel instead of dangerous blood-sugar spikes. Plus, pasta’s partners on the plate — vegetables, olive oil, beans, small amounts of ﬁsh or meat — further pull down its glycemic impact, when eaten in moderate portions. While the glycemic impact of both reﬁned and whole grain pasta is similarly low, whole grain pasta adds an extra bonus of more healthy nutrients.
Q. Is olive oil the main reason the Med Diet is so healthy?
A. Olive oil has been proven on its own to be an especially healthy fat choice, with studies connecting olive oil consumption to reduced stroke and diabetes risk, among other beneﬁts. That said, while olive oil is a key component of the Mediterranean Diet, eﬀorts to pinpoint “the superfood” in the Med Diet have repeatedly shown that its beneﬁts come from the interaction of all its healthy foods, working together. It’s a great illustration of that old saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” — or, put more simply, 2+2=5. Anointing certain foods as “superfoods” and others as “demons” keeps us from seeing the Big Picture of enjoying a wide variety of whole and minimally-processed foods.
Q. Wait! Isn’t all processed food bad for me?
A. Food has always been processed, since the beginning of civilization. Before refrigeration, cheese and yogurt were ways of processing milk to extend its shelf life beyond just a few hours. Lacto-fermenting vegetables (think kimchi, sauerkraut and traditional pickles) allowed people to enjoy vegetables in the dead of winter. Bulgur and pasta are the original grain fast-foods — ways of precooking wheat ahead of time so that it could be put on the table in minutes, with minimal use of fuel. Traditional processing generally makes foods more nutritious — by adding “good” bacteria — while modern processing too often makes foods less nutritious. So look for the old ways of processing; they’re a key part of the Med Diet!
Q. What’s the science behind the Mediterranean Diet? Can you prove its health beneﬁts?
A. The beneﬁts of the Mediterranean Diet are more solidly documented than those of any other eating pattern. A nutrition expert named Ancel Keys ﬁrst drew attention to the possible beneﬁts of the Mediterranean Diet starting in the late 1950s. In the half-century since then, more sophisticated and modern research has uncovered some shortcomings of Keys’ original ground-breaking work, while at the same time solidly establishing his basic premise: that the Mediterranean Diet signiﬁcantly cuts the risk of heart disease. Today’s research extends the known beneﬁts of the Med Diet to a wide range of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, dementia, obesity, and overall mortality, when compared to outcomes of people eating a typical Western Diet. Although the Mediterranean Diet’s been center stage for ﬁve decades and Oldways introduced the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid 20 years ago, it’s still relevant today, thanks to fresh research every month. Check out some of the research on the Oldways website.
Q. So is the Mediterranean Diet the best diet, overall?
A. You might expect us to answer with a quick yes — but actually, there’s no single “best” or “only” way to eat. In fact, all traditional diets around the world — including the meat-milk-blood diet of Masai warriors in Africa and the ﬁsh-meat-and-blubber diet of the Inuit in North America — support health better than the typical Western Diet. The Mediterranean Diet is not the only healthy approach, it’s just the best-documented healthy diet in the world, because of the hundreds if not thousands of Med Diet studies that have been carried out by serious researchers. It’s also prized because it’s so enjoyable and easy to stick to. Check out our recipes for inspiration, or order our Oldways 4-Week Mediterranean Diet Menu Plan book.
Q. My ancestors aren’t from the Mediterranean. Is the Med Diet still healthy for me?
A. Research has shown that the health beneﬁts of the Mediterranean Diet can apply to people from around the world. (We’ve seen research from Korea and India, for instance.) The principals of the Mediterranean Diet – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, ﬁsh/seafood, limited meat, cheese/yogurt – can apply to many diﬀerent food traditions, just by changing out the spices and ﬂavors.
Q. You’ve convinced me to “Go Med.” But isn’t it expensive?
A. The traditions of the Mediterranean Diet come from the food of country folks with limited means. Eating seasonal vegetables and legumes (beans) while cutting back on meat and processed foods can actually end up saving money in your grocery budget. The best way to control your food budget is to cook more often: it’s easy to ﬁx a Mediterranean dinner for less than $2 per person, when you know a few cooking basics.
Q. Once last question. If I follow the Mediterranean Diet, will I still have to go to the gym?
A. Being healthy is not just about what you eat. Lifestyle matters too. You could eat the healthiest diet in the world, but if you aren’t active, your body won’t be able to move nutrients into your cells and move wastes out. Stress and sleep matter too. New evidence is mounting that sitting all day is especially harmful, and that a full night’s sleep is essential to health. But don’t despair if the gym isn’t your thing. Try dancing, bike-riding, kayaking — or simple walking. Think about the joy of movement throughout the day.
Do you have questions about the Mediterranean Diet that we may not have answered? Ask away, we are here to answer.