How the Mediterranean diet died
First time I snorkelled the Med, in 1956, the waters were very occupied. Shoals of small fish swarmed around – I remember how it felt when they brushed past me – while bigger fish flitted in and out of sight. Most of that has gone now. Over-fishing, bottom-trawling and pollution have left large areas of the Med almost empty, with much of the former marine culture dying or dead (1).
Squid, sea urchins and starfish are still present in abundance, but the former glorious diversity of the sea between the lands, which spilled out of fishermen’s nets and fishmongers’ stores sixty years ago, is fading fast (1, 2). Dead zones in all the world’s oceans are multiplying (3), for basically the same reasons.
Seafood has always been an important part of the Mediterranean diet, but that too is dying.
It is being killed off by a handful of food multinationals who are flooding the world with their toxic products, changing traditional eating habits and spreading disease and death on an industrial scale; together, of course, with obesity. While underweight / malnourished people in the world have remained at around 800 million since the 90’s, the overweight / dysnourished overtook the starving in 2006 (4).
Big Phood’s ultra-processed slop has poured into developed and developing markets alike (5-10), in parallel with the expansion of junk food chains such as McDonalds (9). Domestic manufacturers in the Far East, South America and Africa have been forced to produce competing products (11, 12), which are making current trends even worse (13). ‘Coca-colonisation’ (14, 15) brings disease and death in its wake. It started in South America, but is now firmly focused on Southern Europe.
A team of scientists from Bari, Barcelona and Naples recently found that the Mediterranean diet, one of the last hold-outs for good health, is on its way out too. Their paper (16) is a little flowery in parts but it documents the ongoing dietary decline, which picked up speed back in the 90’s (17-19) and continues to this day (20-23), in convincing detail.
The shift includes a huge increase in the consumption of animal fats and plant oils, and an equally significant fall in the consumption of complex carbs (ie prebiotic fibers) in cereals and legumes (24). In food terms the folks who traditionally followed the Mediterranean diet are now consuming fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and more products with low or zero nutrient density such as sugar-sweetened soft drinks, confectionery, bakery products, breakfast cereals and salted snacks; and they are becoming more malnourished as a result (25, 26).
Many other countries, of course, are further down this Gadarene slope (27, 28), and for a while it seemed that important components of the Mediterranean lifestyle such as seasonality, the use of fresh and locally grown products and involvement in social and physical activity (29, 30), might hold Big Phood at bay. But the Med is dying, and the culture and its people will follow.
Adherence to the old Mediterranean diet conferred major health benefits (19, 24, 29, 30), including significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (31-33), metabolic syndrome and diabetes (34, 35), various cancers (36-38), and possibly dementia (38, 40) and depression (41).
Killing the Med diet will inevitably increase the burden of chronic ill health all around the Mediterranean, and is yet another example of the way in which Big Phood privatizes its profits but socializes its costs.
We cannot afford to continue going down this road. The major food corporations must be forced to assume a degree of moral and financial responsibility for the damage they are doing to us. Only in this way will they be persuaded to make their products less toxic, and even pro-health. This is not technically difficult to do.
For example, many baked goods can be turned into functional foods merely by altering the time and temperature of the cooking process, and changing some of the digestible starch into resistant (fermentable) starch. Alternatively, prebiotic fibers can be added to the dough before baking, together with a pinch of 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans.
These very simple changes to currently toxic foods would reduce metabolic disease and diabetes, vastly increase herd immunity to infections of all kinds, and reduce allergy. They would add approximately 5% to manufacturing costs, which could be offset by government subsidies made available by the reduced need for health care spending.
There are other benefits too. The core of the Mediterranean diet consists of regional and seasonal crops and is based on small-scale production methods, local distribution and low transport costs. This is the very opposite of the centralized technology and profiteering of the big corporations; and whereas centralised food production is environmentally ruinous (ie 42), local and small-scale is safer (any problems are localized), and sustainable (43, 44).
All it requires to make this happen is a political class that genuinely cares for its constituents.
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