Tuesday, October 6, 2009

That drifting Mediterranean diet

Normally we grab hungrily at stories about the so-called Mediterranean diet. Yesterday we chose to ignore one, which has seized the attention of the world's media.

This was the story that the Mediterranean diet can help relieve depression, from research published by a Spanish team in the Archives of General Psychiatry. The nature of journal, part of the American Medical Association group, probably helped stir interest.

There has been a great deal of analysis of the "Mediterranean diet" recently, mostly originating from Spanish researchers. Here is another recent one. It's all interesting material and is not to be dismissed - as it links a good healthy diet to all sorts of benefits. In this instance we noted the funding source:  The Spanish Government Instituto de Salud Carlos III, Fondo de Investigaciones Sanitarias and the Navarra Regional Government project.

This is how the "Mediterranean diet" was defined for the research: high ratio of monounsaturated fatty acids to saturated fatty acids; moderate intake of alcohol and dairy products; low intake of meat; and high intake of legumes, fruit and nuts, cereals, vegetables and fish. A shorter version stated it was "rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and fish."

I've comment on this drift in definition before. It's increasingly looking as if the Mediterrranean diet is being defined by researchers as a standard "healthy" diet - low in meat and saturated fat and containing only moderate alcohol - rather than as a diet that is recognisably Mediterranean. It creates a circular argument - study a diet known to be "healthy", prove it is "healthy" and link it to a specific region of the world.

Surely the true Mediterranean diet is certainly rich in grain, fruits and vegetable - but specifically it contains large amounts of olive oil, olives and wine. If my memory serves me correctly, this was the kind of diet studied in the original research that defined this diet many years ago. As for the meat content, yes, coastal communities tend to eat fish but do they not raise sheep and goats in the mountains? Choose your dish, Greek moussaka, Italian spaghetti bolognese - it's made with mince from meat.

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009;66[10]:1090-1098
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