Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study which, according to the fawning mainstream press, proved “conclusively” that the best diet in the world was the Mediterranean diet, that it protected everyone from heart disease and stroke, and that everyone in the world should be on it.
Except the study showed no such thing.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of the concept of Mediterranean eating, even though I’ve never seen anyone definitively define what “The Mediterranean Diet” actually is. (Check the definitions: most are squishy and vague with phrases like “higher in vegetables” or “lower in dairy”.) We do know that in all styles of Mediterranean eating there is way less sugar. And there’s lots of olive oil, nuts and other good stuff.
We also know that Mediterranean folks eat their big meal of the day in the middle of afternoon. And that they take naps. And that the men talk about their feelings. (A lot.) And they get lots of sun. And that all of these things have a great deal of impact, though that’s not what gets mentioned when the press talks about “The Mediterranean Diet”.
But I digress.
Back to the study. What the researchers actually did was create three groups of people. Group one ate what is generally thought of as a Mediterranean-type diet, but supplemented with lots of extra-virgin olive oil. Group two ate the same diet, but supplemented with lots of nuts. And group three ate the standard, American, low-fat high-carb diet that the diet dictocrats have been pushing on us for decades. The one recommended by such groups as the American Heart Association and the god-awful moribund American Dietetic Association (or whatever it is they’re calling themselves these days to try to reinvent themselves as contemporary. Good luck with that.)
Here’s what the results showed with laser-sharp clarity: The low-fat diet is a complete and utter failure.
Both “Mediterranean diet” groups did well on measures of cardiovascular health, and there wasn’t much difference between the two groups. But the low-fat group did horribly. In fact, they did so badly that in the middle of the study, the researchers intervened, and tried to give the low-fat group more instruction and attention to bring them up to speed. Didn’t matter. They bombed anyway.
Side note that was missed in all the media reporting: The researchers clearly state that they believe the excellent results achieved by both “Mediterranean” groups were largely driven by the supplemental nuts and the supplemental extra-virgin olive oil. Not necessarily the “diet” itself.
So what have we learned, class?
We’ve learned that the American, low-fat diet stinks. And that nuts and olive oil are extremely healthy foods.
As far as the Mediterranean diet being the “best” diet ever, that’s still up for grabs. This study certainly didn’t show that, as it didn’t pit the “Mediterranean diet” against any other diet but the low-fat one; there was no group doing a “paleo” diet, or a “high-protein” diet or a “raw foods” diet.
And we still don’t have a good definition of the Mediterranean diet. (As my mentor, the great Robert Crayhon once quipped, “People think the “Mediterranean Diet” means adding a bunch of olive oil to your corn flakes”.) And we still don’t know which aspects of the so-called Mediterranean lifestyle are the ones that really produce the results. Is it the olive oil? The nuts? The vegetables? The low level of red meat? The fact that they eat slowly and in the middle of the day? Maybe it’s all of those things, maybe it’s just some of them… this study certainly didn’t address that question, so we can’t say for sure.
What we can say is this: No diet, ever, in the history of the world, has been higher in sugar and processed carbohydrate junk foods than the one that most people in America consume on a daily basis.
And no diet is better designed to produce the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease we are currently witnessing.
My own personal opinion is you could design a dozen diet studies showing the superiority of a dozen different diets (from Atkins to Ornish to Zone) as long as you compare each of them to the crap we’re eating now.
With a bar that low, almost any diet is going to look like a superstar.