Make it Mediterranean

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

April 2010

The true Mediterranean diet isn't what you'll find at your neighborhood pizza parlor but if you choose carefully you can come pretty close to the kind of food that used to make Italians, Greeks and other inhabitants in that region so healthy. Why "used to"? Because as they mimic our lifestyle and foodstyle they have become more like us: overweight, hypertensive and diabetic.

Shortly after World War Two research teams that examined dietary habits of Mediterranean populations found that they were long-lived, had low rates of coronary artery disease and low cholesterol levels. Their diet was high in fruits and vegetables. About 40 percent of calories came from fat; they ate pasta almost daily. Red meat was for special occasions and they ate fish a couple of times a week. Except for all that fat and pasta it sounds like a pretty good diet. But there's more to the story.

Remember that after the war those economies didn't bounce back immediately. They lacked mechanized tools and so they burned lots of calories in daily living. Food wasn't abundant either, causing one remarkably fit senior to remark "We are hungry most of the time."

Almost all of their fat came from olive oil, not from beef or dairy products. Cheese was a garnish. What Americans consume on one or two slices of pizza would last a family in Crete for a couple of days. The mild climate allowed them to grow vegetables throughout the year. Potatoes were the smaller variety, not baked whoppers or French fries. That daily pasta was a 3- or 4-ounce side dish, not a one-pound entrée.

Even 60 years ago the visiting scientists observed that things were different among the wealthy, who developed diseases of affluence: obesity and coronary artery disease. These diseases, as well as type 2 diabetes, are now prevalent in the younger generation of Italy and Greece.

We are relearning the lesions of 1950s Crete. Numerous studies show that the true Mediterranean diet is associated with lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, cancer, depression and type 2 diabetes.

There's no need to shun Shakey's or diss Domino's but leave off the pepperoni and the sausage, ask them to reduce the cheese by half and add some vegetables. Enjoy a cup of minestrone and a garden salad.

And don't forget a glass of red wine and a little dark chocolate.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.