The traditional Mediterranean diet can be considered mainly, but not exclusively, as a plant-based diet, and certainly not a whole foods, plant-based diet. Olive oil and wine can be considered essentially fruit juices. Even if one is eating a “vegiterranean diet,” an entirely plant-based version, there are a number of problematic nutritional aspects that are rarely talked about. For example, the Mediterranean diet includes lots of white bread, white pasta and not a lot of whole grains.
In an anatomy of the health effects of the Mediterranean diet, the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, high cereal consumption, meaning high grain consumption, did not appear to help. This may be because most grains that modern Mediterranean dieters eat are refined, like white bread, whereas the traditional Mediterranean diet was characterized by unprocessed cereals—in other words, whole grains. And while whole grains have been associated with lower risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, refined grain may increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases. In the PREDIMED study, those who ate the most white bread—but not whole grain bread—gained significant weight.
Alcohol may also be a problem. As a plant-centered diet, adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower cancer risk, but does not appear to lower breast cancer risk. With all the fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, beans and low saturated fat content, you’d assume there would be lower breast cancer risk, but alcohol is a known breast carcinogen, even in moderate amounts. When researchers created a special adapted version of the Mediterranean diet score that excluded alcohol, the diet does indeed appear to reduce breast cancer risk.
The wonderful grape phytonutrients in red wine can improve our arterial function such that if you drink nonalcoholic red wine (wine with the alcohol removed), you get a significant boost in endothelial function—the ability of our arteries to relax and dilate normally, increasing blood flow. If you drink the same red wine with alcohol, it abolishes the beneficial effect and counteracts the benefit of the grape phytonutrients. So, it would be better just to eat grapes. You can find more information about this in my video Improving on the Mediterranean Diet.
Similarly, there are components of extra virgin olive oil—the antioxidant phytonutrients, that may help endothelial function, but when consumed as oil, (even extra virgin olive oil), it may impair arterial function. So even if white bread dipped in olive oil is the very symbol of the Mediterranean diet, we can modernize it by removing oils and refined grains.
Another important, albeit frequently ignored issue in the modern Mediterranean diet is sodium intake. Despite evidence linking salt intake to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes, dietary salt intake in the U.S. is on the rise. Right now, Americans get about seven to ten grams a day, mostly from processed foods. If we were to decrease that just by three grams every year, we could possibly save tens of thousands of people from having a heart attack, prevent tens of thousands of strokes, and tens of thousands of deaths. There is a common misperception that only certain people should reduce their salt intake and that for the vast majority of the population, salt reduction is unnecessary, but in reality, the opposite is true.
There is much we can learn from the traditional Mediterranean diet. A defining characteristic of the Mediterranean diet is an abundance of plant foods, but one thing that seems to have fallen by the wayside. No main Mediterranean meal is replete without lots of greens, a key part of not only a good Mediterranean diet, but of any good diet.
Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:
- Why Was Heart Disease Rare in the Mediterranean?
- The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
- PREDIMED: Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes?
- Do Flexitarians Live Longer?
- Mediterranean Diet & Atherosclerosis
- Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life?
More on sodium in Dietary Guidelines: With a Grain of Big Salt, Big Salt – Getting to the Meat of the Matter, and Can Diet Protect Against Kidney Cancer? But what if without salt everything tastes like cardboard? Not to worry! See Changing Our Taste Buds.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:
- 2012: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death
- 2013: More Than an Apple a Day
- 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food
- 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet
- 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers
Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.