Having previously discussed a rational approach to eating saturated fats, I’ll now move to monounsaturated fats. A primary source of monounsaturated fats is olive oil which is a staple of the ever popular “Mediterranean diet”. But what is the Mediterranean diet? That’s a harder question to answer than you might think as no accepted standard definition has ever been established. A lecture that I attended this past weekend noted that it contained up to 28% fat while an article in a highly respected journal claimed 48% fat. Coming right between these two is a popular guide developed and promoted by Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willet. It states that the Mediterranean diet is “based on the dietary traditions of Crete circa 1960 structured in light of 1993 nutrition research“. i.e. Take the now discarded “low fat” USDA pyramid (the one which actually shows pictures of bread, rice, pasta, crackers and cereal in a large lower section) and add liberal amounts of olive oil and some nuts. This same guide stated that fat can be as high as 35-40% of calories presumably mostly from olive oil with some from nuts, avocados and seafood. Willet’s version of the Mediterranean diet handily beat the U.S. Government approved “low fat diet” in a 2008 study performed in Israel by another Harvard epidemiologist, Meir Stampfer. Interestingly, this study had a third arm, low carb and higher fat, which resulted in an even greater weight loss (12 pounds) and better heart disease biomarkers yet garnered little media attention and was not promoted by the study authors. Subsequent studies have continued to affirm the Mediterranean diet over the low fat diet. Let’s pause here for a minute and make sure something is very clear …
NO LEGITIMATE, WELL CONTROLLED TRIAL HAS EVER SUPPORTED THE LOW FAT DIET. EVEN THOSE WHO RETAIN CONCERNS ABOUT SATURATED FAT SHOULD AT LEAST GET OVER ANY CONCERN ABOUT OVERALL FAT PERCENTAGES
… Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll return to the Mediterranean diet. Nina Teicholz reasonably speculates that “the Mediterranean diet may very well have outperformed the low fat diet simply because it delivered more dietary fat since the largest difference was in the amount of nuts and olive oil they ate.” (Of course we shouldn’t ignore the fact that in addition to the med. diet containing more fat, the added nuts and olive oil provide far healthier fat than vegetable oil, margarine and various trans-fats) Subsequent analysis shows that Cretans traditionally ate more red meat, eggs and whole fat dairy but were unable to obtain these staples due to postwar poverty which continued through the 1950’s.
Why go on about this? It’s because we are seeking to understand healthy eating which produces vitality and prevents or cures disease. It’s time to move beyond pseudoscience and trendy speculation. Why push someone randomly to a “Mediterranean” eating pattern sullied by late 20th century American bias when an honest to goodness traditional Cretan diet is probably even better for their health as is their own traditional ethnic pattern which is likely to be preferred? Remember, we see almost none of the diseases of modern civilization (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, most cancers) in any traditional culture in which records were kept. Does it really make sense to recommend this diet to a South Sea islander, an Alaskan Inuit, an African cattle farmer or a Korean American even if they have adopted a western or urban lifestyle? Teicholz amusingly concludes, “No doubt a Cretan or Calabrian peasant might find it ironic that New York socialites and Hollywood movie stars – indeed nearly all the wealthy people on the planet – are now trying to replicate the diet of an impoverished post-war population desperate to improve it’s lot.”
Besides a mention of olive oil, I really never discussed monounsaturated fats as planned. I’ll attempt that in the next post.