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Mediterranean Diet News Isn’t New, but Good to Remember

Mediterranean diet

Elements of a classic Mediterranean diet. Credit: Prudencio Alvarez Carballo/iStock

The latest news is good news, but it isn’t really new news.

It was 20 years ago almost to the day that my editor at Bantam Books buttonholed me in a hallway in Cambridge, Mass., and said: “We have to do a book about this.”

She was talking about the Mediterranean diet, subject of heated discussions at the First Mediterranean Diet Conference, organized by the Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, an organization that I had founded with my colleagues Greg Drescher and the late Dun Gifford. The book that resulted was “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” published by Bantam in 1993. And from that day to this I have never ceased believing that this smart, sensible and delicious diet is also one of the healthiest ways of eating that we know, and the easiest to adopt and put on our families’ tables.

Mediterranean diet evidence piles up

So it’s just plain gratifying to have confirmation from the latest and most impressive study, published a few days ago on the New England Journal of Medicine’s website and creating a firestorm of comment in the media and on the Internet. What makes the study truly significant is not just the prestige of the Spanish medical researchers who conducted it meticulously, but also the large cohort (more than 7,000 people) and the long duration (more than five years). In fact, the study was cut short because the results were so clear that it seemed unfair to the control group not to let them in on the good news.

And what is the good news? Following a traditional Mediterranean diet — rich in vegetables, fruits, and legumes, with a low consumption of meat and dairy products, and with plenty of seafood and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil — brings a healthful outcome. Lots of healthful outcomes. In the case of this study, researchers were looking at cardiovascular disease. The conclusion? A traditional Mediterranean diet can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease by at least 30%.

Some commenters have called that insignificant, but if you come from a family with a genetic predisposition to heart disease (as I do, both my parents and at least half my grandparents died of stroke and related problems), that’s significant. For me, it is enough to want to follow this diet to the end of my days.

Fortunately, that’s not hard to do. Because the best news of all about the Mediterranean diet is that it is very easy for most Americans to follow. It emphasizes dishes with ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket, that are easy to prepare, and that are easy to eat because they are  all so darned delicious. It doesn’t require fancy ingredients, trips to exotic neighborhoods, or long hours over a hot stove to eat well the Mediterranean way.

But if you are an adherent of what we might call the traditional American diet, it will require some adjustment.

First , cut out processed food entirely. If you read Michael Moss’s new book, “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” you will be compelled to do exactly that. No industrial fats, no added salt, no added sugar.

Then, be prepared to spend more time shopping than most of us do cooking. You need more time at the produce section than standing over a hot stove. Take time to select fresh, seasonal, well-raised fruits and vegetables. These do not necessarily need to be organic, but it helps. Choose produce from as close to home as possible, whether you shop in a local supermarket or are lucky to have a good four-seasons farm stand near where you live.

When it comes time to cook, make it simple:

  • Steaming vegetables and tossing them in extra virgin olive oil with finely chopped garlic and herbs is about as complicated as you want to get.
  • Grill or oven-roast a piece of fish and serve it with a dribble of olive oil, chopped herbs  and a spritz of lemon.
  • Make a soup or a pasta sauce by cooking fresh or canned tomatoes with garlic, onion  and some chopped basil, then purée for a soup or cook down a little more to thicken for a pasta sauce.
  • Soak a batch of dried legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, fava beans, etc., and cook till done, then use half of them in your tomato soup and freeze the other half for another recipe later in the week.
  • Make whole-grain bread the only bread on your table. Do away with sweet muffins and sugary breakfast pastries.
  • Drink a glass of wine with your dinner.
  • Make dessert a piece of fresh seasonal fruit.
  • Above all, switch from whatever fats you now use, such a butter, lard or canola, to extra virgin olive oil, which is the finest kind. Use an expensive high-quality oil for garnishing, and a cheaper one for all your cooking, but always choose extra virgin. An aspect of olive oil untouched on in the Spanish study is the presence in extra virgin olive oil of health-giving antioxidant polyphenols that are lacking in regular or refined oil.

And, as the waiter says when he sets down a plate before you: Enjoy!

Top photo: Elements of a classic Mediterranean diet. Credit: Prudencio Alvarez Carballo/iStock

Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

  • Stile Mediterranean Cooking Italy 3·5·13

    Dear Nancy!
    what beautiful article! It is really thank to you, Oldways and the Harvard School of Public Health that our Mediterranean style way of eating and cooking started to receive attention. This, not just because it is one of the most delicious cuisines in the world but also because it is very healthy!
    As you know at the Stile Mediterraneo Cooking School in Puglia Italy we try to promote this ancient Mediterranean way of eating, cooking and living. Because Marika is a cardiologist, we focus a lot on the health benefits of this way of eating in terms of cardiovascular diseases.
    We notice that even in the Mediterranean countries there are more and more risks of cardiovascular diseases among the new generations. This is only because of the influence of the new and “modern” food that was not in our traditions.

    Therefore we are really happy that this Spanish study brought back the attention to the importance of eating the old, simple and delicious food that Southern Italian Women have handed down for centuries.

    Please come visit us in Puglia next time you are in Italy.
    I and Marika would love to see you again!

  • Barbara Lauterbach 3·5·13

    Thank you for the well written reminder Nancy. Trying hard in Northern New England to follow the Med diet , your comments are well timed!

  • L. John Harris 3·5·13

    Congrats Nancy on yet another reminder from science of the healthful properties of the Mediterranean diet. Your book was no doubt the first to put it all together, but I think we always knew intuitively that foods like garlic, olive oil, fresh vegetables, legumes and seafood were the fountain of youth. All we had to do was visit the Mediterranean, taste the food and observe how people lived healthy lives long into their senior years. When we published Maggie Klein’s “Feast of the Olive” at Aris Books in 1983, we didn’t have the weight of scientific evidence we have today for extra virgin olive oil’s virtues. And when my “Book of Garlic” was published in 1974, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that garlic was one of life’s miracle foods, but no real proof. In fact Western science was busy trying to dispute the medical claims for garlic as extolled in herbal literature and folk medicine. So bravo to us all for knowing early on that to eat well and stay well is not rocket science. And bravo to our more enlightened current science for proving our case.

  • Claudia Brown 3·6·13

    In 1990, I picked up a book called “The Mediterranean Diet”. The cover of the book had fruit, fish, olive oil and legumes. It looked good to me, since I love that kind of food. Too bad it took so long for the public to learn about it.

    I lended the book to my sister and never saw it again. I think it may be out of print. It was about 4′ x 6″, very thin and told more of a story of the receipes. If I ever (or if you know) get my hands on that book again, I will never lend it out. I bought it at a book store that sold books going out of print.

    If you know of this book, any help would be appreciated.

    Thank you.

  • Dana Jacobi 3·7·13

    Thank you for recalling the great work Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust has done and how forward thinking they were starting in the 80s. Their focus on The Mediterranean Diet, including your talks and books, the enlightening trips and all the scientific presentations transformed my thinking. Best of all, they transformed my cooking, professionally and personally. If this adds years to our lives, it is a delicious bonus along with decades of pleasure.

  • Elisabeth Luard 4·23·13

    It’s a brilliant book, Nancy – I keep it just behind my work-space on the never-to-be-lent shelf. I’m an olive-oil woman myself, so it’s doubly joyous. And even though I now live in the Welsh uplands, I get through almost as much of the juice of the olive as I did when I lived in Andalucia. Salute/saludos!

  • Sheila ann young 2·23·15

    I like the black eye pass dish looks good
    I like eating Healthy foods.