What makes the Mediterranean diet so successful?

Judith Wills / 20 June 2014

A new book suggests that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are not down to the food at all. Diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills begs to differ and considers what makes the Mediterranean diet so successful.

The new book Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald suggests that the success of the Mediterranean diet in preventing heart disease, some cancers and obesity – and in being a useful way to lose weight and stop the latest news trend, pre-diabetes, in its tracks – has little to do with that glorious olive oil, the fruit, the veg, the sardines and so on. And everything to do with religion.

Yes. Author Matt Fitzgerald says that it's all down to the high number of religious fast days that occur – as a stunning example he reminds us that the Greek Orthodox church has no less than 180 fast days a year, while Muslims have Ramadan, the month of fasting each year – and so on.

Interesting theory. Perhaps that's where the 5:2 idea came from. Matt Fitzgerald also points out that the major diet fads of recent decades, such as Dr Atkins, the Scarsdale Diet, and so on, encourage followers to behave somewhat like members of a sacred sect with rules, leaders, disciples and renegades...

As with most theories on diet and nutrition, it has an element of truth anyway – but Fitzgerald maybe hasn't checked the huge list of scientific trials and studies all published on PubMed, showing how food elements of the classic Mediterranean diet do in fact work in nutritionally sound ways within the body to do things such as help reduce blood pressure, cholesterol and so forth.

Back to basics, almost all natural, unprocessed indigenous diets (and here I use the word 'diet' to mean what people ate and nothing more) across the centuries have been far healthier than those that many of us eat today whether they were eaten by the Aboriginals in Australia, the peasants in the Shichuan province of China or the cavemen of deepest Wales. They were all probably versions of the 5:2 by necessity rather than conscious decision, too and by goodness they kept everyone slim.

But for the wild bears and tigers, the foul weather, the lack of hospitals and drugs and the in-fighting with large clubs, people would have been sitting round their firepits celebrating their 100th birthdays and thanking their Gods for their perfect diets that kept them alive so long, way back in the day.

Back in the here and now, I do try to eat Paleo when I remember. The meal I had last night didn't quite get there, though the fish part of it was more or less OK.

Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald (Pegasus Books W. W. Norton, £14.86) is out now.

Ate last night:

Monkfish and red pepper kebabs

Monkfish is very expensive, and rightly so because we should eat it only rarely as it is an endangered species. I do eat it about once a year as its firm flesh, perfect for kebabs, is hard to find in other species. When Sainsburys stops selling it, I won't buy it anymore.

Anyway to make it go further, I fillet it, cut it into cubes and thread it on kebab sticks with squares of red pepper, whole mushrooms and, in this case, wafer-thin squares of lean Italian prosciutto ham. Then I brush the kebabs with olive oil. Yesterday we cooked some rice (sorry, white) and I made a little side sauce by finely chopping a few semi sundried tomatoes – out of fashion now but still nice so who cares? - and spring onions and mixing them with a little red pesto and more olive oil. I grilled the kebabs for around 4 minutes each side.

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