Using the Word “Mediterranean” is No Substitute for the Real Thing

April 27, 2011 in Antioxidants, Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean, Whole Grains by Joyce Bunderson

Last week I reported on the offering of a pair of green colored capsules instead of actually eating a Mediterranean diet. It is clear that the strong research on the benefits of the Mediterranean style of eating is becoming well known. Predictably, marketers are trying to link their products to these benefits. Trouble is, the products proposed miss the point of where the benefits are derived. The advertising for the two green pills suggests that in these two small capsules, one can receive the benefits of 22 wonderful Mediterranean vegetables and fruits, as though these foods could somehow be condensed down into two capsules that equate to eating the 22 whole foods. This seems one of the more egregious attempts to remove the need to eat the actual fruits and vegetables. You can rationalize that you will be getting a similar index of antioxidant power (The ORAC number), as though that was all you need. At least this approach recognizes the vegetables and fruits part of the Mediterranean-style of eating. But, of course, the real power is pandering to those who don’t really want to purchase, prepare, and actually eat the fruits and vegetables. In so doing it will likely sell pills, but not promote the real health benefits.

Other attempts to link products to the Mediterranean style of eating are more blatant in replacing the core reliance of the Mediterranean style on plant-based foods with something more appealing to the western style of eating – especially eating red meat.  The Mediterranean diet is low in red meat and dairy products. Nevertheless, you can search on “Mediterranean beef” and get any number of recipes that offer large portions of hamburger or various cuts of beef, while pretending to be wonderfully healthy. How? By putting the large portions of beef into a recipe with the word “Mediterranean” in it.  I tried this search and quickly found recipes with a pound or two of ground beef, and another with two pounds of chuck roast. Maybe these were cooked with a few teaspoons of rosemary, a bit of olive oil, and with some unspecified vegetables cooked separately. Still, the main focus, the bulk of the ounces of food you would eat, were in the red meat.

I also tried the search terms “Mediterranean beef oxymoron” to see if anyone realized that beef, especially in large portions, is not really a part of the beneficial Mediterranean diet. What came up first was my own article Is ‘Mediterranean Burger’ an Oxymoron? But I did find a few articles examining how you could make beef (and other things) not be an oxymoron when paired with ‘healthy eating’.

British government committees have recently made a stronger recommendation regarding red meat than do our own new U.S. Dietary Guidelines. The experts on our American committee wanted to recommend for us to “move to a more plant-based diet” but, in the end, they never gave that advice. Should we think that the powerful lobbies like the National Cattleman’s Beef Association could have an influence on the nutrition experts?  Just wondering. Well, the bottom line is that the British are recommending that people eat no more than 1.1 pounds of red meat a week. If you divide that by 7 days, it would be 2.5 ounces daily. They used to say the upper limit should be less than 3 ounces per day. They actually said that their change was based upon an independent expert Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which concluded that eating red and processed meat likely increases the risk of bowel cancer. They do say that “red meat can be part of a healthy balanced diet…but people who eat a lot of red and processed meat should consider cutting down.” Maybe some of us on this side of the pond should consider the same advice. From the studies of the Mediterranean diet that showed its benefits, red meat was rarely consumed. Eating fish was more common. Certainly the portion of red meat in the Mediterranean studies was nowhere near even the lowered target of 2.5 ounces of the British.

In addition to putting large portions of red meats in, and replacing plant foods with supplements, another mistake is to use a lot of products made with refined white flour and claim it will provide the benefits of the Mediterranean style. Sometimes people tell me that they love Mediterranean foods: pizza, pasta, and raviolis. But foods that fit the research model of the Mediterranean eating style are not those processed foods prepared with white flour, and lots of saturated fats. Those of you who read this blog often know that we’re really talking about eating whole real foods. The Mediterranean-style of eating is high in monounsaturated fats (like olive oil); whole-grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, and low in the consumption of refined flours and animal fats. The fact that the Mediterranean-style of eating can be adapted to the flavors and recipes of any region of earth makes it exceptionally versatile.  But it cannot be adapted to an entirely different ratio of meat to plants, or plants to supplements. It cannot have the benefits of whole grains when these are replaced with nutritionally impoverished refined white flours.

Because of these confusions about what is needed to actually get the health benefits, rather than just use the word in marketing, I thought that I should share a few little pieces of news related to the Mediterranean diet.

Mediterranean-style of eating

A team of physicians and PhDs in Greece and Italy has conducted yet another, meta-analysis of the Mediterranean diet. It has been published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The researchers, lead by Christina-Maria Kastorini, looked at 50 different studies and 534,906 individuals. They examined the factors that make up the pre-diabetes Metabolic Syndrome (larger waist circumference, abnormally high blood pressure and blood sugar, low levels of HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), and high triglycerides (fats in the blood). They found that adhering to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 31% reduction in developing Metabolic Syndrome. In the conclusions, the authors wrote: “….the results are of considerable public health importance, because this dietary pattern can be easily adopted by all population groups and various cultures and cost-effectively serve for primary and secondary prevention of the metabolic syndrome and its individual components.

Do we as a nation, have a healthy appreciation for prevention of metabolic syndrome? I think that many of us are confused and/or complacent. Many are thinking, “If I get diabetes, I’ll take insulin.” But in reality, diabetes is a steep slippery slope to bad health, including cardiovascular disease; and its treatment is not a simple oral insulin-stimulating tablet or an injection. It’s a lot of hard work to manage diabetes and be a healthy diabetic. Preventing it is so very worth our efforts. I hope we can come to realize that avoiding metabolic syndrome (the factors preceding full-blown disease) is worth making some major lifestyle changes.

Olive Oil

Researchers are working to learn why the Mediterranean-style of eating is so effective in preventing heart disease. Some researchers believe that olive oil is central to the healthiness of the diet; that, as a thought, has been around for quite a while.  A new piece of research that probed farther into the details has been published in the journal of Clinical Nutrition.  The researchers were trying to understand the mechanism that seems to link olive oil to less damage in the cardiovascular systems of those who consume it. The researchers realized that olive oil is a rich source of polyphenols. Knowing that polyphenols in olive oil seem to be related to less heart disease, they gathered researchers from Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Finland to try to find out how the phenols do their job. The phenolic compounds of olive oil got the attention of the researchers, because other research has pointed to the antioxidant activity in studies that were looking at anti-diabetic, and anti-inflammatory properties. This group of European researchers found that the groups that received more of the phenolic compounds in olive oil had less oxidized LDL cholesterol. It seems that the phenols in the olive oil help our bodies produce a protective autoantibody that helps to keep our LDL from becoming oxidized. That great because the oxidized LDL is a building block in artery hardening (athersclerosis). As a result of their research, they believe that olive oil’s phenolic compounds stimulate an immune response and, in addition, the autoantibodies are not cleared from the blood as a result of the reduction in oxidized LDL by the olive oil’s phenolic compounds. Essentially, there are two different ways that the olive oil phynols do their job. So hoorah for high phenol olive oil! You really don’t need to remember the science, you may want to consider, however, adding extra virgin olive oil to your diet.

Whole Grain Cereal

A study reported on by the National Institutes of Health found that eating breakfast cereal – especially whole grain cereal – might reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure. The lead researcher, Dr. Jinesh Kochar said that they found up to 25 percent decreased risk of developing hypertension in those that ate the whole grain breakfast cereals; in addition, he included low sodium intake and physical activity in his healthy lifestyles to reduce the risk of hypertension. Even those who only had cereal once a week had an 8 percent reduction in risk compared with those who ate none. One of the observations of Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine is: “Eating more whole grains means eating less of something else.” The contention is that consuming a bowl of cereal might mean fewer scones, donuts, croissants, hash browns, sausages, ham, bacon, cheese-covered eggs, and syrupy pancakes. Consider having eggs with veggies, see today’s recipe; or contemplate Dr. Grandma’s Pancakes made with mild extra virgin olive oil and no added sugar, then topped with yogurt and fruit instead of syrup.

Yogurt and Added Sugar

I was thinking about an incident in my kitchen during the week before Easter; you know, the EEEE (Easter Egg Extravaganza Event).  One son-in-law is trying to lose some weight. I was proudly telling him that the delicious whipped zero-fat Greek Yogurt was sweetened with Dr. Grandma’s all-natural, zero-calorie Delight sweetener. The children were eating it by the mounds. He pointed to the side of the yogurt container, that read, “9 grams of sugars” per one-full 8-ounce cup serving.

I hate the food label – it doesn’t differentiate between the natural lactose, a sugar found naturally in milk and yogurt, for example; and the refined sugar dumped into yogurt.  It’s impossible to know how much sugar in your flavored yogurt comes from the sugar in the fruit, and how much from the added sweeteners in the yogurt. The added sugar in yogurt can vary significantly; some brands are as high as 26 grams per 6 ounce serving (¾ cup); that’s 6.5 teaspoons of sugar per 6 ounce serving. If you want to be in control of the sugar, just choose an unsweetened, unflavored yogurt and sweeten it yourself and add your own fruit; two real whole foods – a nice and nourishing food combination. Note: the yogurt that I served was sweetened with a zero calorie sweetener; there was no added sugar and the yogurt’s thick creamy consistency was a perfect topping for the strawberries.

Look for clues – is any of this stuff added to your yogurt?  High fructose corn syrup, syrup, dextrose, honey, sugar, molasses, syrup, glucose, and sucrose. This stuff is ready to get straight into your blood and increase your blood sugar – and don’t forget the back side – a possible crash when the load of insulin stimulated by all the sugar, causes you to feel that you need to get a sweet soda pop or something to eat. You’re hungry – go figure – you just ate a little while ago.

It seems like common sense that body weight will rise as sugar is added to processed and home-cooked foods. But just in case there is any question, a new study reviewed sugar added to foods during processing, preparation or at the table in six surveys. The researcher, Huifen Wang, found that added sugars and weight, increased concurrently. Her conclusion is to advise limiting added sugar intake. Based upon the advice of the American Heart Association, as we have reported before; most women should limit added sugar to less than 100 calories a day (25 grams of sugar) and most men should limit sugar to less than 150 calories a day (37 grams of sugar).

The Mediterranean-style of eating will not produce its benefits by substituting the word for the actual whole plant–based foods. It is an eating style that has borne the tests of time; we’ve known many of the benefits since Ancel Keys did his research about 50 years ago. The Mediterranean-style of eating continues to show that eating whole real foods, mostly plants, can lead toward improved prospects for health. These substantial benefits cannot be attained by pretenses using the word “Mediterranean” in foods and dishes that do not deliver the real contents.

Scrambled Eggs Mediterranean Style

The flavors were a wonderful 'good morning' to our taste buds.

Thinly slice Roma tomatoes; arrange in skillet with a little olive oil.

Sprinkle with dried basil, a little salt, and pepper.

Remove from skillet when brown.

Using the same skillet, spread with parsley, mushrooms and olive oil.

Add chopped steamed broccoli and heat for a minute or two.

Break eggs over vegetables.

Scramble until eggs are solid.

Serve eggs with whole wheat toast and the browned herbed tomatoes.

Is spring really coming?