An extensive new study of the effects of a so-called Mediterranean diet on about 7,500 people with a high risk of cardiovascular problems, conducted in Barcelona, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that following the traditional Mediterranean regimen of fruit, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, legumes, cereals, and moderate amounts of wine, with only limited amounts of red and processed meats and dairy products, could reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by as much as 30 percent.
The results confirm earlier studies suggesting that this sort of diet has considerable health benefits. But just how "Mediterranean" is it? As has been pointed out frequently in recent years, the way people eat in most countries around the Mediterranean today resembles the American and Northern European diet evermore closely with every passing year. Many of the virtues of the old ways of eating in the area, especially the low consumption of red meats and the avoidance of processed foods, have turned into the vices of high-fat eating and fast-food consumption in general.
More to the point, though, is that the Mediterranean diet as it is now commonly understood never did have all that much to do with the way residents of the region actually ate.
The first studies of the Mediterranean diet were made in Crete in the early 1950s by epidemiologist Leland Allbaugh, at the request of the Greek government and under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. In his paper on his studies, Crete: A Case Study of an Undeveloped Area, published in 1953, and in subsequent studies by another American epidemiologist, Ancel Keyes, the picture that emerges of the heart-disease-free people of Crete is probably not exactly what you'd expect. Allbaugh described the Cretan diet as "swimming" in olive oil, noting that fat (mostly, but not entirely, olive oil) constituted some 38 percent of his subjects' daily calories. He also noted that they consumed wine not in moderation but frequently, with midmorning, noon, and evening meals. In fact, Allbaugh reported, those surveyed systematically underreported their wine consumption, because of "an expressed feeling by the respondents that the visiting Americans might be expected to frown on heavy wine consumption when food was short." So, then, why don't our doctors and nutritionists recommend that we, too, consume wine frequently?
More to the point, note that "when food was short." The Cretan diet was one of privation. Allbaugh found that fish, meat, and dairy products — that is, protein — provided only 7 percent of the energy in what his subjects ate, and that only about 17 percent of the people he talked to considered their diet satisfactory. One family said, "We are hungry most of the time." Allbaugh also reported that 72 percent of the families he surveyed identified meat as their favorite food, and that Cretans overall listed meat as the element they most desired more of to improve the way they ate. Allbaugh himself concluded that the local diet could best be improved by providing more foods of animal origin.
In other words, our common conception of the Mediterranean diet seems to have been based originally on an expurgated version of a calorie- and probably protein-deficient diet. But, hey, that doesn't mean that it's not a good way to eat…