What exactly is this Mediterranean diet everyone speaks of?
Having lived on a Mediterranean island for a few weeks, where eating anything other than the local diet wasn’t really possible, I’m going to say it’s very delicious, but I'm not so sure it travels well.
Recently, UNESCO declared the “Mediterranean Diet” an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Quite a mouthful.
The UNESCO designation includes seven countries: Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Spain, Italy, Morocco and Portugal. While it emphasizes olive oil, wine and fish, it places an equal emphasis on community, heritage and being physically active. They have an institutional video that explains it all. Apparently the diet may also cause women to prematurely age, have frizzy grey hair that’s always in a bun and wear lumpy black cardigans. If you are a man, your hands are shaped like grape vines, your nose resembles a tuber and you like to wear straw hats.
Health studies came out declaring this the perfect, heart-healthy diet. Eat Med and live to be 100, drink red wine, eat fish, and make love all night long. (OK, I made up the part about living to be 100. However, Ancel Keys, who researched and wrote about the Mediterranean diet from his little hamlet of Pioggi in Calabria, did live to be 100.)
The Mayo Clinic in the US calls it a diet plan. The heart-healthy Mediterranean [sic] is a healthy eating plan based on typical foods and recipes of Mediterranean-style cooking.
An entire regional culture, with its gazillion variations, has been reduced to a diet plan? I know that’s a sound bite, but “diet plan” sounds so….medical.
From the patient.co.uk website: The term 'Mediterranean Diet' describes a specific mix of dietary food ingredients, shown, to promote health and long life in people from many countries, including the UK and USA.
Whew! Good to know it covers the UK and USA. You guys in South America and Australia…I’m really sorry. Seems you are out of luck.
And more good news: “For example, using a range of fruit and vegetables gives the body maximum access to sources of vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients. This is quite logical, because it's only recently that supermarkets have been able to make foods available throughout the year. This counteracts natural seasonal variety in the human diet.”
Counteracts natural seasonal variety? Who knew it had to be counteracted?? I’m supposed to be grateful that I can now eat tomato-like orbs all year long?
The Mediterranean diet feels like the six blind men who go to see an elephant. Each one feels a different part of the elephant, and thinks they’ve seen the ‘whole’ elephant.
Myth v. Reality of the Mediterranean Diet
Myth: Gloriously simple food, served al fresco on a summer night, a long table filled with family and friends.
Picture this dinner: grilled fish, glistening with local olive oil, seasoned with an organic lemon and a branch of rosemary. There are side dishes of leafy green salads, loaves of fresh bread, stacks of vibrant green beans and a bowl of peaches for dessert.
Reality: Food that has minimal preparation needs to be very fresh and flavorful.
That glorious fish is whole, and it has bones. Try finding a whole fish with bones in a US fish market. Using the whole fish means it will stay moister, and bones add flavor. A grilled filet of tilapia is a close cousin of grilled cardboard.
Most urban dwellers, and that includes urban Europeans, would kill to have outdoor space for a family of four, let alone an extended family of twenty. Throwing a piece of filet of sole in a pan and eating in front of a computer is nowhere near as much fun.
Myth: This is an affordable way to eat.
Reality: They call the Whole Foods stores Whole Paychecks for a reason. The US government subsidies corn, not cauliflower. Extra virgin olive oil costs more than corn oil. Fresh fish costs more than a fast food burger. Kids raised on cake and ice cream for dessert aren’t so happy with a crunchy tasteless peach. (Except for our son, who was born a fruitaholic. When he was little we sent him to sleep-away camp and he called home, crying, “They are making me eat cake!” He was not consoled when they offered him fruit cocktail.)
Myth: You can eat like this all year round.
Reality: No you can’t. Even when you take into account those fancy ass supermarkets that offer the same few vegetables all year round (Broccoli…I’m talking to you.) They are imported from various parts of the world, and things cost more or taste better at different times of the year.
And you know if you have a garden that its a very small window of opportunity to harvest and preserve the best of the season.
Why am I so down on the Mediterranean diet?
I’m not. I love eating this way when I can.
I am down on the marketing of this diet. I’m down on people not realizing that it’s more than the sum total of the number of calories and nutrients in a ripe tomato.
It takes thousands of years of heritage to know when to fish for swordfish without destroying the swordfish population. It's hand-me -down knowledge to know how to perfectly preserve the artichokes so they retain flavor and crunch. Or to know when to go out and forage for the oregano or capers so they’ll be tasty and they’ll grow back again next year.
And to know that it is physically demanding labor to fish and forage and grow vegetables. Much more physically demanding than going to the supermarket.
If there is a moral here, it’s to trust your common sense. You know you are eating healthier if it’s fresh food, not processed. You know exercise matters. You know it’s more fun to have friends over for dinner than to eat alone. And for god’s sake, don’t feel guilty if you have that occasional burger in front of the TV.
As our chef friend Maurizo says, “Enjoy life. Nobody survives.” And for me that sums up the very best of living the Mediterranean diet.
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