Is there a perfect diet?

What’s the best diet in the world? Is there such a thing? It was not much of a surprise to hear of a new study recently, showing a Mediterranean-style diet is effective in cutting the risk of heart disease.

In the Spanish study with over 7,000 participants, half were instructed to follow a Mediterranean diet including either nuts or extra virgin olive oil, and the rest were given advice on following a standard low-fat diet. Those on the Mediterranean diet had 30 per cent fewer ‘cardiovascular events’ (mainly strokes) compared with people in the control group.

So what is a Mediterranean diet? If you’d read or watched the news reports about this study, you could be forgiven for thinking it mainly involves chugging down olive oil and nuts and drinking red wine. Much was made of the seven glasses of red wine a week included in the participants’ diets. But dig a little bit deeper and we discover that if we want to get the heart-health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, it’s going to take more than just pouring olive oil over everything.

As with any of the diets proclaimed the ‘best’ in the world, they don’t necessarily work when you take them out of context, or indeed when you just cherry-pick aspects of them without looking at your whole diet. The Japanese, for example, have the highest life expectancy rates in the world and one of the lowest rates of obesity, and much of this is down to the traditional Japanese diet. But if we just added sushi and sodium-heavy soy sauces to our Western-style diets, we couldn’t expect any real benefit. We’d also need to take on board their portion control, their high vegetable intake and the way they eat – always sitting down at a table and never scoffing on the run. Scandinavians live long, healthy lives and eat a diet heavy on dense grainy bread, dairy products, canola oil and salted fish. But they also eat lots and lots of vegetables and hardly ever snack.

It’s the same with a Mediterranean diet. The people in the study weren’t just adding olive oil and wine. What they were actually eating was a lot of fish, a lot of vegetables, legumes, sofrito (onions and garlic simmered with tomatoes and olive oil) and either a handful of mixed nuts or four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day. They drank red wine only if they were already drinkers – if they didn’t drink, they were not encouraged to start. It’s also important to note what they didn’t eat. They ate very little red meat. They didn’t eat butter, spread or processed foods like cakes and biscuits and they cut out soda drinks. In other words, they had a really healthy, plant-based diet with the main fats coming from nuts, olive oil and fish – a great diet to adopt, no matter where you are, for lifelong good health. But let’s remember to look at things with a ‘big picture’ view, and not be cherry-pickers!

First published: Mar 2013

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