[The following content is originally published in Wall Street International magazine, of which I’m one of the regular contributing authors. I intentionally repost this to supplement my previous Mediterranean Diet article here]
The Mediterranean Diet: What Makes it Effective
The World Health Organization (WHO) has recorded worldwide obesity at almost triple higher from what it had in 1975. Particularly in 2016, over 1.9 billion adults were reported overweight, 650 million of whom were obese, while 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese. Obesity is a major risk factor that leads to non-communicable conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and cancers.
Why do overweight and obesity happen?
The basic cause of these ballooning problem among many people in the world is the energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. This means that the present generation consumes more energy-dense foods that are high in fat even as they engage in less physical activity. Likewise, the sedentary nature of many forms of work, increasing urbanization, and the changing modes of transportation are key factors that lead them to exert less on physical activities.
The Mediterranean Diet
It’s worth noting that about 5 or 6 decades ago, the problem of obesity and overweight, and the resulting non-communicable diseases, may be considered an isolated case. We can point to the kind of diet that the people in that period consumed.
Let’s take a look at the popular Mediterranean Diet, for example. The Mediterranean diet, as you may have known it today, is not really a hype diet. Rather, it’s a traditional eating pattern that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
In the 1950s, the Mediterranean people, especially those living on the island of Crete were noticeably physically healthy. They had also lean bodies. And most important of all, you would never hear of any Cretan suffering from heart diseases back then. Why? The Cretans’ diet mainly consisted of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and some fish. Although more than 40% of their caloric consumption was from olive oil, their use of saturated fat was only less than 6% compared to the volume of the plant-based foods they ate every day. Besides, the Cretans during that time were actively engaged in regular physical activities. They worked hard in the fields, often pushing plow and other farm equipment. And, walking about 9 miles each day was part of their life.
In other words, it’s the high consumption of plant-based foods and the active lifestyle that make the Cretans lean, healthy, and disease-free. The secret to the Mediterranean diet’s efficacy lies in plant-based foods, and not on olive oil. Fiber, phytochemicals, and other essential nutrients are heavily packed into green vegetables, making these plant-based foods the most nutrient-dense of all foods. On the other hand, olive oil is not a health food as many people tend to believe it is. In fact, it’s packed with 4,020 calories per pound, beating butter which contains only 3,200 calories per pound. But the Cretans of the olden times consume olive oil within a controllable level.
Sadly, the modern-day Cretans have not stuck to the original diet anymore. Today, their consumption of fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans has alarmingly dwindled yet they persist in using the same amount (or may even more) of olive oil in their meals. High energy-dense foods that include cheese, meat, and other foods high in fat have become their new staples. Their physical activities have also dropped for some reasons. Thus, it’s no longer surprising to hear that many Cretans today have ballooned to obesity. Many of whom suffer from heart disease and other ailments that were rarely known in the past. According to the reports in 2016, Greece ranked 11th among the countries in the European Union that hold the highest rate in obesity, a figure that’s over the EU average. The same report showed that 17.3% of its population was obese (18.3% of men, and 16.4% of women).
Obesity is preventable: the McMahon Story
Overweight and obesity, including their related non-communicable diseases, are actually preventable. Even diabetes is reversible. Take it from Jon McMahon, the founder of iThrive, who was once a diabetic and obese.
If you are someone with a raised body mass index (BMI), you must increase your consumption of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Limit your energy intake of sugars and total fat. And, just like what the Mediterranean people did in the old times, engage in regular physical activities.