The latest dispatch from the food wars: For those at high risk of heart disease, following the Mediterranean diet results in 30 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes. Focused on nuts, beans, fatty fish, fruits and vegetables – all washed down with olive oil and wine (separate glasses, please) – the diet is said to be more effective in combating cardiovascular disease than the low-fat regimens now in vogue.
Thus reports The New England Journal of Medicine to cheers from many, though not all, advocates of healthy eating. Understandably holding their applause are backers of low-fat diets, including the famed Dr. Dean Ornish of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, Calif.
Clapping with one hand are skeptics like your author, who, although no medical expert, has read one too many authoritative reports on how to live forever, if not longer, only to see it subsequently blasted by another authoritative report.
Anyhow, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes the traditional foods of Italy, Spain, Greece and elsewhere in the region. Their people are known to suffer relatively low rates of heart disease.
Ornish complained on The Huffington Post that “the researchers appear to have done everything they could to bias the outcome in favor of the Mediterranean diet by encouraging the ‘low-fat’ diet to increase consumption of foods that are known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, including bread, potatoes, pasta and rice ...”
He wrote that the low-fat group didn’t cut its fat consumption enough to matter much and was discouraged from eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. “We have recommended for decades that patients take 4 grams/day of fish oil or flax oil to provide the omega-3 fatty acids.” Yum.
One problem in comparing the diets was that many in the low-fat control group couldn’t stay with the program. One can sympathize.
Again, I’m no expert, but I suspect that the Mediterranean diet seems to work in part because Mediterraneans eat it. They live in a communal culture where people know how to relax. There’s no hup-hup-hup, “How’s my career going?” to interfere with digestion.
There’s also the curious fact of folks living to hardy old ages in the northern Great Plains, where Chianti and pesto are hardly mainstays. One doubts that promoters of either the low-fat or the Mediterranean diet would recommend kolaches, pork dumplings and cheese-breaded lamb chops as the key to prolonging good health.
So I may be on to something, as suggested in a decade-old news story about elderly people thriving in Ashley, N.D. Public health officials credited low stress, physical exertion, long marriages and tight community for their longevity. Said the town’s doctor, a native of Thailand: “The diet surprises me. They have a high meat diet, but they live long.”
Adding to the conversation, a new study out of Penn State suggests that upon reaching age 75, it doesn’t matter much what you eat. That includes sugar, eggs, hamburger and – may they survive their new private-equity ownership – Twinkies.
“The results suggest that if you live to be this old, then there may be little to support the use of overly restrictive dietary prescriptions, especially where food intake may already be inadequate,” said Gordon Jensen, head of Penn State’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.
The study didn’t go into what the subjects ate in their younger days. But the scientists assume the survivors didn’t radically overhaul their diets at age 75.
So, what goes into making a centenarian is clearly complicated. But I still like to read the studies, because even though I may not have much control over all this, I like to think I do.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board.