The Mediterranean diet is on everyones lips. Its always been on Elisabetta Politis.
Politi, director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, is a native of Italy who speaks with a lilting accent.
I have been lecturing on the Mediterranean diet for the last 15 years, she says. Whether you call it the Mediterranean diet or the anti-inflammatory diet or a diet based on vegetables and fruits and whole grains, it seems thats the diet to really help people stay healthy.
In February, the New England Journal of Medicine reported on a major clinical trial in Spain that showed the so-called Mediterranean diet, supplemented with either more olive oil or extra nuts, cut the incidence of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease by 30 percent.
While many nutritionists are pleased, theyre not surprised. Theyve been telling us for years to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, limit red meat and stick to unsaturated fats like olive oil.
Its like, duh, right? said Dr. Nancy Fey-Yensan, dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Health and Human Services. Its a plant-based diet. It treats animal protein like a condiment. And weve known this for a long time.
So what is a Mediterranean diet? It generally means an eating style that is focused on fruits, vegetables and whole grains with a little protein, mostly from fish, shellfish and chicken. Fat comes from olive oil. Dairy products are limited and are mostly cheese and eggs, not butter and milk. It includes red wine in moderation, with meals.
People think its low-carb, says Politi. It is not. You eat vegetables, fruits, grains all of which are carbohydrates.
Theres so much confusion. When I ask (people) what food is a carbohydrate, they think pasta, rice and potatoes the doughy stuff.
If youre eating Mediterranean, ideally, it should be based on a fruit at every meal. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Vegetables with lunch and dinner. Then fish at least twice a week.
Now, before you run to the kitchen and pour olive oil over your cornflakes (in the words of one skeptic), consider a few cautions. First, as is true in anything involving nutrition, research is ongoing. Questions are being raised about what actually caused the beneficial effect, whether it was the diet or the extra nuts or olive oil.
For another, no one is suggesting unlimited amounts of olive oil or nuts.
If you eat too much of a good thing and it causes weight gain, thats not going to help, says Politi. If you just start thinking olive oil is great for you and every day you eat 200, 300 calories from olive oil, that is not going to help you.
A single tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories 18 more than a tablespoon of butter.
Fey-Yensan hopes what people take away isnt the idea of living like youre in a Sardinian fishing village. What she hopes youll remember is that its a good goal to focus your meals on fresh, unprocessed foods and lean forms of protein.
Make those small changes first, says Fey-Yensan. Is half of my plate filled with fresh food that isnt of animal origin? Youre on your way.
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