Sunday, April 3, 2011

Do you crave lentils or fat steaks?

Posted By on Sun, Apr 3, 2011 at 2:24 PM

This week's New York Times Magazine includes a revelatory piece entitled, "Does the Mediterranean Diet Even Exist?" by Annia Ciezadlo.

I say it's revelatory because it demonstrates how easily we turn — with science's help — a fantasy into reality. Case in point is the famed Mediterranean diet.

Ciezadlo writes:

In Europe and the United States, the so-called Mediterranean diet — rich in olive oil, whole grains, fish, fruits and vegetables and wine — is a multibillion-dollar global brand, encompassing everything from hummus to package trips to Italy, where “enogastronomic tourism” rakes in as much as five billion euros a year. Studies at Harvard and elsewhere correlate the Mediterranean diet with lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and depression. In America, health gurus like Mehmet Oz exhort followers to “eat like a Greek.” But according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Mediterranean people have some of the worst diets in Europe, and the Greeks are the fattest: about 75 percent of the Greek population is overweight. So if the Mediterranean diet is not what people in the Mediterranean eat, then what is it?

Ciezadlo goes on to explain that the mythologized Mediterranean diet is actually "the food of the poor," a way of eating required by food shortages during World War II. A wartime researcher, Ancel Keys, is responsible for "inventing" the diet in two best-selling books.

It's not that the invented diet isn't healthy. But it doesn't account for reality. First, there's the fact that Keys actually took the healthier aspects of seven different countries' diets and hybridized them into one diet without really saying so. There has never been such a diet widely practiced when people had access to more. So, the diet doesn't account for those little bugaboos of the brain that create cravings for unhealthy but tasty food here, there and all around the Mediterranean. Yes, the whole world is waddling through the door of McDonald's. Ciezadlo writes:

Diet is mostly about desire. The diet that Keys and his colleagues invented bore little resemblance to what Mediterraneans actually wanted to eat. “I’m not sure whether the prestige of such a diet would be high enough for many of the people in the Mediterranean to follow it,” says Josef Schmidhuber, a senior economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “Because they aspire to a Western diet, which they conflate with prestige and wealth.”

So, K.D. Lang has it right. Food is a magnet and craving is inevitable. (Read the neuroimaging studies.) If we live on olive oil and lentils, it's not because we naturally crave them, but because that's what we can get our grubby little hands on — or because we make a conscious decision to eat healthily.

God, I wish David Sweeney would make all of this moot and bring back Dynamic Dish.

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