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.
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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