On Nutrition

I’ve written a lot about the Mediterranean diet over the years, and I think it might be time to stop, or at least slow down. It’s not that it’s not a nutritious way to eat (it is). It’s not that I don’t find it appealing from a culinary point of view (I do). It’s not that it doesn’t have research supporting its healthfulness (it does, in spades). Continually lauded as the “best diet,” there’s certainly a lot to like about the Mediterranean diet. It’s rich in produce, whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), fish and seafood, fermented dairy (yogurt and cheese), healthy fats (nuts and olive oil) and flavorful aromatics (herbs and garlic). But lately, two things have started to bother me.

One is that as the Mediterranean diet has been promoted broadly, it’s become detached from its cultural roots. Much of the research done in the U.S. and other non-Mediterranean countries focuses on how closely people eat in a way that “adheres” to the framework of the Mediterranean diet. Which makes it not the Mediterranean diet, but a mere facsimile that’s been stripped of its customs and context.

I’ve been asked to reduce the olive oil in Mediterranean recipes I included in publications I wrote or edited for major East Coast schools of public health — even though those publications touted the healthfulness of the Mediterranean diet, which is not low-fat. Along those lines, there is a glut of “Mediterranean diet” books on the market, and many have been sanitized or otherwise altered for American consumption. I’ve seen low-carb, Paleo and ketogenic Mediterranean diet cookbooks, and books that weirdly meld the Mediterranean diet with diets from different cultures. If you’re going to do that, just call it eating, because it’s not Mediterranean anymore.

Two, the fixation on this one way of eating is also Eurocentric. Why is the traditional Mediterranean diet elevated above other cultural dietary patterns? Why are only certain Mediterranean countries centered? It’s because in the 1950s researcher Ancel Keys decided to study the eating pattern of male, predominantly white subjects for his Seven Countries Study. The diet eaten by men in Greece and southern Italy was associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, compared with the eating pattern of men in the U.S. (railroad workers in the Midwest), Finland, the former Yugoslavia, Netherlands and Japan.

However, there are 21 Mediterranean countries — many of which also are considered part of the Middle East — and their rich cultural food heritages are largely glossed over. And what about the traditional cuisines of Latin American and African countries, or of Native Americans? They also include nutrient-rich produce, whole grains and often seafood — they just don’t have researchers clamoring to study them. Putting the cultural eating pattern of a small segment of the Mediterranean region on a pedestal has a backhanded way of dismissing or even shaming other cultural diets.

I personally enjoy the Mediterranean diet, and I have many authentic cookbooks in my collection — particularly books by Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden, both of whom are culinary anthropologists as well as food writers and chefs. But I also enjoy other cuisines, and have made an effort to learn about them. (And, yes, I have plans to write about them.) If preparing and eating Mediterranean-style recipes delights you, then bon appétit. But there are many delicious and nutritious ways to eat — whether associated with a specific culinary tradition or not — and locking on to one of those ways as the “best” way limits our options.