Try Mediterranean food? Specialist says start here. —Harvard Gazette

Importantly, we’ve also learned enough about the components of the Mediterranean diet that those components can be combined in other food cultures – Asian, Latin American, African – to produce what could be called a Mediterranean diet, based on different tastes . and various foods.

For example, you can exchange olive oil for many other types of vegetable oils. In Asian diets, soybean oil has traditionally been one of the dominant oils, used to prepare stir-fries with lots of vegetables and nuts. The fruits available can also vary, and tofu is a widely consumed vegetable source of protein.

About two years ago, we published an article examining olive oil consumption here in the US in relation to risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality. In our large cohort studies, there were inverse relationships – in other words, better health with higher dietary amounts of olive oil, but we also saw similar inverse relationships with other vegetable oils, such as soybean and canola oils.

GAZETTE: What if I follow the diet most but not always?

WILLETT: Of course, this depends on what you do on those other days. If you eat the average American diet half the time — which is high in refined starches, sugar, meat and dairy products — you’ll get about half the benefit of the Mediterranean diet. If you really wanted to get the full benefit, it would usually be a healthy diet. Viewed another way, there is benefit in every step in the right direction.

This pattern is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, multiple cancers, neurological disorders, dementia – the list goes on.

Some of us who have become accustomed to a Mediterranean pattern find the thought of returning to our Midwestern pattern – with large portions of meat, mounds of potatoes, lakes of butter and slabs of cheese – a bit repulsive. But again, if someone really wants to eat a good chunk of red meat, as people in the Mediterranean do a few times a year on special occasions, that’s fine too.

GAZETTE: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the diet?

WILLETT: The big one was that all fat is bad and therefore the Mediterranean diet should be avoided. This was conventional wisdom in the nutrition community in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was embedded in dietary guidelines. The nutrition community has moved on to focus on the types of fat, which is supported by layers of evidence, but there are still lingering tensions of this idea.

GAZETTE: The Mediterranean diet is far from the only area of ​​study related to nutrition and health. What else have we learned recently?

WILLETT: Until recently, we had little information on nutrition during childhood and adolescence in relation to long-term health. We can now look at the effects of nutrition at different times in life. So far, diet during adolescence appears to be particularly important for cancer risk later in life, and sometimes even more important than what we eat in middle age.

Another important part of our current work is the impact of our diet on environmental sustainability and climate change, which is an existential issue. In that respect, the Mediterranean diet is quite good, because it is mainly plant-based.

We’re also digging to look in more detail at specific fruits and vegetables. We’ve usually lumped them all together, but what does a carrot have in common with, say, a head of lettuce? It’s not much, and we see that they can have different health effects. Some appear to be particularly important for breast cancer prevention.

Greater specificity is important. Because someone could eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, but miss out on some important parts of the total basket of different foods. In addition, almost everything has side effects, and we should not assume that fruits and vegetables do not have them. An example where we can get in trouble is eating too much spinach, which has health benefits but can also cause kidney stones, presumably due to its high oxalate content. In the American diet, when we encourage the consumption of leafy green vegetables, people think that overwhelmingly means spinach.

GAZETTE: What is a good first step for people interested in adopting the Mediterranean diet?

WILLETT: It’s important that we enjoy what we eat, otherwise we probably won’t stick to that food. So I would suggest thinking about the components of the Mediterranean diet and starting with parts that are tasty, and building on that by adding more variety, especially for vegetables and the methods of preparing them. This can be grilling, frying and adding to salads. Healthy fats are important, and extra virgin olive oil is a central core of the traditional Mediterranean diet. However, there are many varieties and flavors, so it can be an adventure trying many to find one that suits your taste. As I mentioned, other liquid vegetable oils can also be healthy, and these can also be explored; you may want different ones for dressing salads than for sautéing your veggies. We also see that nuts are very healthy and there are many varieties with different flavors, so think about expanding their use, such as at breakfast, in salads and as an alternative to meat in mixed dishes.

Those are some places to start – actually I’d encourage being adventurous.

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