The old recommendation for “low-fat” does not make so much sense, at least the way it has been interpreted by many physicians, public health organizations, and food companies. It’s the saturated fat, not the fat itself, that gets you in the end. The plethora of low-fat food products on the market over the last few decades has obviously not helped us with reducing obesity, heart disease, and diabetes; it is likely that it has helped us with ratcheting them up instead.
It’s not all about fat, and it’s not all about carbs, and it’s not all about protein. In fact, it’s not about eating a nutritionist-engineered diet at all; it’s about eating delicious, traditional foods that have come out of centuries of cultural evolution: the Mediterranean diet. This dietary pattern focuses not just on vegetables, not just on fish, not just on whole grains, but on the whole package: lots of varied produce, lots of whole grains, lots of olive oil and fish, and small amounts of cheese and red meat (i.e. have a special roast leg of lamb on holidays, not a hamburger three times a week). I hesitate to even call the Mediterranean way of eating a “diet” since it implies that it is in the same category as things like Zone and Atkins.
If you’re looking to change what you eat, you have a much better chance of sticking to the Mediterranean way of eating than trying some weird fad diet. Study after study have found not only that people have better health outcomes with this way of eating, but also that they don’t go back to unhealthy eating patterns as much. This is not nothing. Treatments for any health problem don’t make sense if people can’t tolerate them. Many nutritionists who back low-carb or low-fat or whatever types of diets ignore the issue of taste and the enjoyment of food, as if caring about flavor and pleasure is a silly consideration for weaklings. Well, ignoring how your food tastes and feels is a pretty hard thing for most of us to overcome, and not being able to do so is not evidence of a failing of character (unless you’re a Puritan, I guess). More importantly, though, the health effects of the Mediterranean diet show that there does not have to be a tradeoff between health and pleasure; we don’t have to subscribe to this mantra that if it’s good for us it has to taste bad.
We need to stop eating processed foods and start cooking again, period.
But, of course, even if it is e-mailed around and around again, it’s still only going to New York Times readers, and it’s unfortunately not likely to catch fire in the popular imagination (especially since we’re all thinking about the economy now anyway). Ms. Brody’s column is not going to change the fact that most of us don’t know about this surprisingly simple and sensible solution to healthy eating, and that even if we did, our agricultural and food manufacturing system is not set up to allow us to eat this way (and, of course, this dietary pattern is dying out in the Mediterranean itself due to globalization, so we’re losing some of those cultural gatekeepers who know how to prepare the foods in the right way). What would it take to change things around so that this diet was the default? Food companies were able to jump on the low-fat bandwagon before—could food companies switch their business models to promote these foods instead of processed foods, if we had a strong enough movement to convince consumers that “low-[fill in the blank]” isn’t good for you? Could we base school lunch policy changes on switching over to this dietary pattern instead of trying to follow guidelines on macronutrient contents? It seems as though we know what we need to do—we just need to get the message out there, and figuring out how best to do that is the real challenge.