What can we learn from the diets and lifestyles of the world’s healthiest cultures? Even though the research has been mostly observational, there are lessons to be learned from how they live their lives and what and how they ate in the past and how those times are changing.
Although the Mediterranean diet has been researched and reputed the world over its health benefits, it is now unfortunately in decline in the very countries of its origin. Older adults remember the good days. One says: “My preferred diet is anything that is green. On a recent day, she prepared a meal of her staple mix of zucchini, tomatoes, and other vegetables all tossed in homemade olive oil. Often she describes adding beans and once in a while some meat from her chickens or rabbits.” New York Times, 2008
How have recent changes from their traditional ways of living affected their once coveted low disease rates of heart disease, cancer, obesity or diabetes? First take a look at the graph above. It represents cancer incidence rates in both men and women from the major countries of the Mediterranean region when compared to the United States. These rates reflected the traditional diets of the selected countries. Time will tell whether their low disease rates will continue or begin to emulate those of the United States.
The Mediterranean Diet – Then
The traditional diet is plant-based in nature, with a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, beans and olive oil. Eggs, dairy, poultry and fish are consumed regularly, but the portions are smaller than typically consumed in a Western diet. Red meat makes only an occasional appearance, and it is usually added in small amounts to make sauces, beans and pasta dishes more flavorful. Refined sugar, flour, butter, and fats other than olive oil are consumed rarely, if at all. Mediterranean eating also typically includes moderate consumption of red wine. One of the key components of Mediterranean eating has to do with the presentation of the meal as a social event. Meals are consumed at leisure with family and friends. This dietary pattern more recently is based on the foods consumed in the 1960’s in the Greek Island of Crete and in southern Italy. At that time, rates of chronic disease were among the lowest in the world and life expectancy was among the highest.
The Mediterranean Diet – Now
What has changed? One thing is that small towns in Crete are now abundant with chocolate shops, pizza places, ice cream parlors, soda machines, and fast-food restaurants.
Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta upped their calorie count by 30 percent. As a result, this made Greece the EU country with the highest average Body Mass Index and the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity. In other words, three-quarters of the Greek population are overweight or obese. The rates of overweight 12-year- old boys rose more than 200 percent from 1982 to 2002. In addition more than half of the Italian, Spanish and Portuguese populations are overweight also.
A resident of Rome says it this way when asked if he thinks the Mediterranean diet is on its way out: “I think it is possible — everything is changing so fast- everyone is eating on the run. No one can be bothered anymore; people don’t have the time or want to dedicate the time. Everything is pre-cooked, frozen, and just zapped in the microwave.” Sound familiar? Others say ” it is so hard to get their kids to eat the old ways. They complain about the food companies and fast-food ads that entice children by the prizes offered. Our kids just end up eating mostly pasta, chips and meat..” Children are now tested in elementary school in Crete and a one quarter of all children was found to have high cholesterol. It is not uncommon for doctors to see children with diabetes and high blood pressure. New York Times, 2008.
As one parent complained: “We’re trying to keep her off sugar. If we continue like this, we are going to become like Americans, and no one wants that.” That pretty much sums it up. Time will tell whether that will happen or will they return to their traditional healthy ways.