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The Mediterranean ‘Best Diet Overall’ Is More than a Diet

With the Mediterranean diet ranked the “Best Diet Overall” by U.S. News & World Report for the 7th year in a row in 2024, it is a model for healthy eating. In fact, it is even more. It goes beyond food to include various aspects of the traditional Mediterranean way of life. Resembling other traditional, healthy lifestyles, it is easy for many to embrace.

The components and benefits of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle and the way they are similar to healthy cuisines and ways of life from other cultures were central to several presentations at the 2nd Annual Cretan Lifestyle: Mediterranean Tradition & Modern Applications Experiential Conference at Grecotel in Rethymno, Crete, Greece in November 2023.

The conference opened with an explanation and comparison of traditional Mediterranean (Med) and Asian diets by Dr. Frank Hu from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Hu proposed that fusing these two healthy diets could yield even better results, for example for healthier brains as people age. Describing the Med diet as largely plant-based (rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and olive oil), with moderate consumption of dairy, fish, and poultry, but little red meat, sweets, and processed food, Hu mentioned its association with such health benefits as a reduced risk of coronary heart disease and certain cancers, among other chronic diseases, as well as increased life expectancy.

Hu pointed out that the traditional healthy Asian diet includes most of the Med diet’s main components, except for red wine and olive oil, while adding healthy soy, green tea, fermented vegetables, and seaweed. He concluded that the recognition of a number of healthy dietary patterns from various cultures offers the possibility of different combinations of beneficial elements “to create more personalized diets. This ‘fusion diet’ approach not only amplifies the benefits of diverse dietary strategies to promote healthy aging, but also enhances acceptability by broader populations.”

Considering the well-being of the earth as well as humans, Dr. Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, discussed the wide-ranging benefits of a mainly plant-based “Planetary Health Diet” that “really does describe a traditional Mediterranean diet pretty well” and also resembles other traditional diets in many parts of world, such as one from West Africa. He emphasized that plant sources of protein are much healthier than animal sources for both people and the planet.

According to Willett, there is convincing evidence that this “healthy reference diet” could drastically reduce premature death, as well as decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer use, and cropland use. Considering the Planetary Health Diet in terms of current food intake throughout the world, he showed how much each area would need to change to reach healthy diet goals, for example by reducing red meat and starchy vegetable consumption in much of the world, and increasing intake of nuts, whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables everywhere.

Of course, as the conference title and several speakers emphasized, the Mediterranean diet is not just about food. It is also a way of life, as suggested by the broader meaning of the Greek word δίαιτα, where the English term “diet” originated. The 2010 version of the Mediterranean diet pyramid, as Hellenic Health Foundation president Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou showed in her presentation, is subtitled “a lifestyle for today,” and it includes “regular physical activity; adequate rest; conviviality; biodiversity and seasonality; traditional, local and eco-friendly products;” and “culinary activities” at the bottom of the pyramid, where we find what should be done or consumed most.

Dr. Stefanos Kales of Harvard Medical School and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health emphasized these lifestyle aspects as he discussed a book he co-authored with Dr. Labros Sidossis of Rutgers University, the Textbook of Lifestyle Medicine. Kales also mentioned the importance of relaxation and stress control. As Sidossis indicated, in the Mediterranean lifestyle, physical activity tends to occur in the context of daily family and community life, for transportation, during leisure time, and while doing chores, as well as in play and games.

Most of these components of the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet were considered in Nick Buettner’s talk on the Secrets of the World’s Blue Zones, which have “the highest proportions of people who reach age 100.” Two of the five zones identified by the Blue Zones Project are in the Mediterranean, while three are in other parts of the world. Nine habits are characteristic of the blue zones: the “Power 9” habits. Three of them relate to food and drink: a plant-based diet with moderate portions eaten with others, stopping eating before being completely full, and drinking a glass or two of wine a day with friends or family during meals.

The other habits are unrelated to food, but typical of a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle: exercise as part of other activities; a sense of purpose; religious faith; simple stress reduction such as meditation, socializing, or hobbies; spending time with friends; and the centrality of family, often in multi-generation households. Focused on transferring such habits to new places and groups, the Blue Zones Project has been bringing beneficial changes to hundreds of communities in the USA for more than 20 years.

Dr. Michael Katharakis of the Mediterranean Agrofood Competence Center mentioned a similar goal, which he called the “Mediterranization of local food systems,” or adapting a “‘Mediterranean nutrition’ paradigm outside geographical constraints” in order to take advantage of all its social, financial, and environmental benefits, as well as the health benefits. This seems to capture the essence of what Buettner and Hu were advocating, although they also embraced beneficial components of other cultures’ lifestyles in efforts to encourage the best habits in the world, wherever they may be found, and wherever people are.

In an entire session devoted to the “Translation of [the] Med Diet to Institutions,” the Cretan Lifestyle Conference examined the ways the Mediterranean diet has been incorporated alongside or fused with other healthy diets in various institutions in the USA and Europe, such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, the World Bank, the University of Massachusetts, and Yale University.

For example, Rafi Taherian from Yale Hospitality explained how he and his team aim to “influence people’s diet through deliciousness,” taking bad options away and providing the opportunity to taste healthy foods such as olive oil and learn about their origin, use, and production. As Taherian explained, “we bring people from all over the world to tell that story to our students and do some experiential learning with them. It’s not just about the food that we are feeding to our students; it’s about education, experiences, engagement.”

So was the Cretan Lifestyle Conference. And so it will be in its third edition next year, as professionals from varied backgrounds again come to Crete from several continents to consider the ways a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle— or something very much like it— can benefit human beings worldwide, as well as the planet we live on.

Originally published on Greek Liquid Gold: Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil: http://greekliquidgold.com/. See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, agrotourism and food tourism suggestions, and olive oil news and information.

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