- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

Mediterranean diet: myth or miracle? Hardly a week goes by without news of a study showing the healthy effects of this diet, followed on occasion by another study disputing the claims — or at least saying that results were exaggerated.

The latest report comes out of New York’s Columbia University Medical Center, where scientists have found that reliance on vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals and fish, but little meat, dairy and alcohol — the essence of a low-fat Mediterranean-style diet —could help ward off Alzheimer’s disease by 40 percent. (The research was not challenged immediately, although the authors themselves noted the need for further study.)

Olive oil is an intrinsic part of any such diet, and to date, its value remains unquestioned. This liquid nutrient was a staple imbibed with bread or used in cooking in nearly all the countries that border the Mediterranean long before it became popular on American tables. A monounsaturated fatty substance, it has the ability to lower amounts of bad cholesterol and improve the better kind and hence reduce the risk of heart disease — the No. 1 killer in America.

However, a problem arises in many people’s minds about just what is meant by the term “Mediterranean diet.” It’s not only that different culinary traditions embrace slightly different items — Italians invariably include pasta while Greeks seldom do — but the word diet itself can be misleading. These days, “diet” often refers to a weight-reduction scheme rather than to a sensible and healthy way of eating.

Publishers continue to issue books trading off the linkage in the light of statistics showing a rapid increase in the numbers of obese children and adults in this country. The titles vary, but all come with the imprimatur of a medical professional and a message promising better health and a slimmer body. Recipes invariably recommend olive oil, preferably from a first pressing known as “extra virgin” oil.

There is a historical dimension underlying the trend, stemming from a study done long ago that connected the long lives and general well-being of inhabitants of Crete with the foods they ate. These were fresh fish, greens and herbs in season, lemons, homemade yogurt, fruit and, of course, olives from trees that were hundreds and, in a few cases, thousands of years old. Greece thus feels it “owns” the term, just as the Italians feel they own the word pasta.

Spain produces an enormous amount of olive oil and competes with Italy on the world market, but “Mediterranean diet” will forever be linked to Greece because of the work done on Crete, an island that is part of Greece. The point was made strongly at the first International Conference on Greek Gastronomy, held in Athens and sponsored by the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board. (This reporter attended the conference as a guest of the board.)

Presentations at the three-day conference included a detailed analysis of the Cretan study and more up-do-date research on the benefits of such national products as feta cheese, whose quality is assured by a “protected designation of origin” label given it in October by the European Court; the burgeoning business in organic wines of quality; and, of course, the advantage of native olive oil.

As noted by Dr. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and his wife, Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou, a director of the World Health Organization’s Center for Nutrition in Greece, the presence of fiber in most traditional Greek foods is a positive contribution to health. Dr. Trichopoulos cited a chemical analysis of a green pie made with fresh vegetables that showed it had “12 times more antioxidants than red wine.” Further, he said, “If we didn’t eat olive oil, we would not eat vegetables, because the two are combined” — in cooking and in eating.

Often called Greece’s gold, olive oil varies in quality according to climate and soil conditions. The country is said to be the largest producer of the olive oil worldwide, with nearly a fifth of a ton exported to Italy and Spain annually, both of them also heavy producers.

It’s not that contemporary Greeks are immune from an attraction to fast or packaged foods. A March article in the English-language newspaper the Athens News reports that four out of 10 Greeks have a problem with their weight, largely because of unhealthy dietary habits.

Though not denigrating the diet’s components, other scientists are less sold on an exclusive promotion of Mediterranean products.

“All our magic bullets seem to be duds; it is total lifestyle,” says Fergus Clydesdale, head of the Food Science Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “I’m not in the camp that says you should only have monounsaturated foods. We can have some polyunsaturated fats in there as well.”

“If you ask what constitutes the best diet and minimum requirements, we don’t really know it yet,” says Jim Simon, director of the New Use Agriculture and Natural Plants Products Program at Rutgers University, “but we are moving in the right direction.”

Dr. Angelo Acquista of New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital provides a good overview of the subject in his book “The Mediterranean Prescription,” laying out the scientific basis for adoption of a diet derived from that region. The book’s title was inspired by his habit of writing out his Sicilian relatives’ recipes for patients on his medical prescription pad.

At the top of Dr. Acquista’s chart of daily necessities is “physical activity” followed by “whole grains” and then, down the line, “quality time with family and friends.” The most beneficial vegetables, he says, belong to the cruciferous family — broccoli rabe, kale, arugula, sprouts, etc. — “so-named,” he writes, “because of the cross-shaped arrangement of their flower petals.”

A healthy 52-year-old, he opts for pasta twice a day as a needed carbohydrate but avoids cream and milk, getting his calcium mainly from cheese. He cooks with olive oil and applies it both to the pot and to the cooked dish.

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