Mediterranean-Style Eating is Joyful Delicious Eating

March 5, 2013 in Foodland, Health, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

I’m afraid that you may not be able to bear my writing another article about the Mediterranean-style of eating; since I already have ten pages of articles listed on the subject. Knowing that I’ve been so dedicated to touting the Mediterranean-style of eating for so many years, would you, my dear readers, humor me by bearing with me one more time? The new research reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled: Primary prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet is such nice validation.

In essence, the researchers, all in Spain, did an actual clinical trial, with over 7,000 persons. You can read the entire study for yourself. In it, you will learn that the results were so convincing that the study was ended early because it was deemed to be unfair to the control group on the low fat diet to continue. In effect, the researchers say that about 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk by sticking to a Mediterranean-style of eating.

Why is this study so important? When I was at UCLA, studying for my Masters in Public Health, one of the lessons that was driven home, again and again, was the subject of  “a preponderance of evidence.” Essentially, it is saying that when you have so much evidence that something like the mountain of evidence for the Mediterranean style of eating, you begin to say, “There is such a great weight of evidence in favor of, in this case, the Mediterranean-style of eating,” that we can accept it.

One of the facts of this study that I especially liked was that they did not focus on cholesterol, hypertension or weight. They looked at heart attacks, strokes and death – and that is what we’re really trying to avoid. Isn’t it?

Another fact that I especially appreciated was that the group on the Mediterranean-style diet did not have trouble staying on the diet. Those on the low-fat diet had considerable difficulty in this area. Of course, when you’re getting so much olive oil and/or tree nuts, all high in fat, you don’t feel hungry as easily.

Those on the Mediterranean diet (low in damaging foods: sugar; red meat; processed meat; processed carbohydrate foods; and high in olive oil; nuts; vegetables; fruits; legumes; and eggs (which were unrestricted in this study). Those on the Med diet ate real foods. I should mention here that they were not eating cookies, pie, cake, soda, cheeseburgers, or hot dogs. I like the way Mark Bittman said it; “What’s new is all the junk that has been injected into our foods and our diet since the end of World War II. What’s not new is that eating real food is good for you.

You could say that the Mediterranean diet prohibits nothing that was recognized as food by your great-grandmother. Whole, minimally processed foods of almost any type can be included in a sound diet. Period.”

For me, a person who is still devoted to public health three decades after receiving my degree, it is actually heart breaking to read some of the negative articles about the Mediterranean-style of eating.

Joe Queenan’s article Our Inalienable Right to Snarf Junk Food conveys the attitude many will take to the research confirming the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.  Queenan is a cultural critic and self-styled negative humorist. His books and articles do not emphasize food and nutrition practices, but the latest increasingly decisive research on the Mediterranean Diet moved him to create the perfect example of the nihilistic attitude and use of ridicule by deniers. Those who do not want to believe or adjust to the dietary changes implied by the research might react like this, but few could use language and faulty argument so well as he did. If this is a tongue in check example of cultural denial, he does a brilliant job of satire – except you cannot tell if he is serious or not.  He claims to hate all of the foods mentioned, thus offering himself as an articulate spokesperson for the deniers. I can even imagine his article becoming a rallying cry for many who feel this way.

Queenan uses several forms of argument centered on the opinion that Americans are going to keep voting for junk food with their mouths – “No to vegetables,” he says. He continues: “The Mediterranean Diet might just as well be called the Monastic Diet or the Joy of Joylessness Diet. For those of us who loathe fish and celery and lima beans and walnuts, the Mediterranean Diet is a nutritional death sentence. Sure, we might live longer; sure we might end up being less of a burden on society, but at what price? No more bacon double cheeseburgers. No more banana splits.” … “Welcome to Polyunsaturated Alcatraz.” Then he heads off into a set of analogies designed to ridicule the importance of the overwhelming research on the Mediterranean diet. One analogy is to compare the limiting of contact sports as the same as eating healthily. And he throws logic to the winds when he delves into the economies of the Mediterranean countries – the current trouble with the economies of many of the Mediterranean countries, according to Mr. Queenan and his post-hoc logic, is certain proof that it is the diet of the Mediterraneans that causes their struggling economies. We could use the same post-hoc logic to assert, with equal validity, that it was only after they increasingly adopted the Western Diet and cheap processed foods that their economies stumbled.

If I want to make myself feel a tinge of hope, that we Americans can learn to enjoy healthy delicious, Mediterranean-style of eating, then I’ll read a little of Bittman’s writing or T. Susan Chang. Chang rescued me from a moment of melancholy.  “Like many intrinsically boring foods – say, tofu or grits – lentils shine because they get out of the way….They provide a sturdy, comforting stage for a colorful cast of characters, from chaste cumin to tart sumac, brilliant lemon zest to cool cucumber.  …..After eating mudardara, Chang said, “I always fell comfortable full, as if I could want for nothing. I enjoyed how she weaved Esau's mess of potage and selling his birthright through her article. She ended with, “And if I can pass along to my children the know-how expressed in a dash of cumin, a handful of grains and a crisply dealt-with onion, surely that's an inheritance worth a good deal more than a hill of beans.”

I really feel sorrow for those whose taste buds only know salt, sugar and fat; those who have never had lentils, limas, fish, walnuts, or celery (to use Queenan’s disparaged list) cooked with other flavors into something fabulous. These are they who haven’t tasted the flavors of caramelized onions, varieties of herbs, spices and flavors mixing and dancing together.  These are the ones who in the name of their “Inalienable Right to Snarf” protect a childish desire to cling to the unhealthy, limiting flavors provided by salt, fat and sugar. These are usually the ones first on the bandwagon to claim their rights are being infringed by such simple civic measures as keeping junk food machines out of schools. No one denies their rights to the narrow taste preferences they have lovingly nursed along unchallenged for years.

Why is it so extremely sad for me? I’ve had the opportunity to interface with numerous persons, in the hospitals and clinics where I have worked, those who were suffering the results of an unhealthy diet. They pay a high price for their denial and rationalization. Queenan unsympathetically says “all so we can live a couple of extra years.” I say, Mr. Queenan, please don’t forget quality of life. Not everyone who has a heart attack or stroke or lives with obesity dies; but sometimes there are decades of poor quality of life. Certainly, life offers no guarantees, but maybe making some changes in the frequency and quantity of red meat, processed meat, cheese, white flour, bakery products, soda pop, processed fake fude, and junk food could be bearable. The research shows convincingly that it importantly helps to extend a higher quality of life.

If you’ve read this blog for very long you know that I do not believe in ‘forbidden foods.’ I was just speaking to two friends who asked for some nutritional advice this past week. They’re Mexican Americans and we talked about tamales. After being taught how to make tamales and discovering how much lard goes into the recipe, I learned that tamales would be added to my list of foods to only be enjoyed once or twice a year. There are so many delicious everyday foods that I don’t feel deprived. When I have a beefsteak, or a tamale, it is an indulgence, a delicacy, a once-in-a-while pleasure. Why do we want to scorn eating delicious, real, healthful food? Seriously the emphasis should be on delicious. That’s why the Dr. Grandma’s motto is: Good Health Can Be Yummy. Maybe just make a goal to learn one or two new recipes in a month. You may be surprised that well-flavored, healthy food is amazingly delicious.

Because we Americans are eating so poorly any change toward the direction of the Mediterranean-style of eating is very likely to be a health benefit. You may discover, as many have, that you truly enjoy feeling better.