The Mediterranean Diet – The Answer To Rising Health Care Costs?

As I began writing this Article, I found myself wondering how many people reading it will have actually bought a fresh turkey from the butcher, cleaned it and cooked it themselves — from scratch? Not many, I’ll wager, given the preponderance of pre-packaged butterballs and even of pre-cooked meals to take home — timesaving benefits of today’s industrialized society. Fast-food meals vs. a home-cooked meal. But is it actually as good for you as the meal grandma used to make?

This is about more than cooking and spending time in the kitchen; or about going back to the good old days when strawberries weren’t imported from halfway around the world, served in places and at times of the year when the best your parents could hope to have were photos of strawberries. It’s about the relation between how you eat and what you become. It’s about health.

Governments around the world today are trying to figure out how to manage escalating health care costs — particularly those centering on systemic diseases that currently plague the modern world, such as heart disease, the world’s number 1 killer, according to the World Health Organization. Then there’s cancer and diabetes.

One good way would be to start encouraging people to eat well and maintaining a healthy lifestyle before they start falling ill, by focusing on diet. That was the main takeaway of an international conference on food values I attended February 14 in Vatican City’s Casa Pio IV (Pope Pius IV), under the patronage of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Organized by olive oil proponent Paolo Pasquali of Villa Campestri in the Mugello Valley near Florence, the conference focused on Food & health, Food Traditions & Cultural heritage, and Food Values, and drew experts from the field of medicine, diet, nutrition, and cuisine to discuss “The Renaissance of the Mediterranean Diet and its Significance for a 21st century World. Pasquali points out, “There is no mystery about the relationship between diet and health, both physical and mental. “Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body. And this can be achieved by returning to the food values of old, based on fresh produce, lean meats and fish and of course olive oil.”

What Is The Med Diet?

Basically, the Mediterranean diet includes fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, pasta and rice…and limits unhealthy fats. More specifically, according to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes:

  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Enjoying meals with family and friends
  • Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)
  • Getting plenty of exercise

Bloomberg’s just-released (March 2017) Global Health Index of 163 countries shows that Italy — cradle of the Mediterranean Diet – boasts the world’s healthiest people, despite a struggling economy and unemployment among young people approaching 40%. “A baby born in Italy,” says the report, “can expect to live to be an octogenarian,” with far less incidence of high blood pressure than the US, UK, or Canada. Iceland, Switzerland, Singapore and Australia made up the rest of the top 5 healthiest nations. The US ranked 34 and tipped the scales as one of the world’s heaviest nations.

Medical research makes a good case for the Mediterranean Diet as a powerful force in staying healthy — one good way to contain healthcare costs. For example, the Mayo Clinic website states: A meta-analysis of more than 1.5 million healthy adults demonstrated that following a Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality…(other) research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease. The diet has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol that’s more likely to build up deposits in your arteries.

The Mediterranean diet is also associated with a reduced incidence of cancer, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Women who eat a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil and mixed nuts may have a reduced risk of breast cancer.

Eating Well Is The Best Revenge

So eating well could be the best revenge against incipient disease that is costly to treat when it become a full-blown pathology. As Dr. David L. Katz, an internist and co-founder/director of the CDC-funded Yale Prevention Research Center, put it at the conference, “DNA is not destiny; dinner is destiny. And in fact, DNA is malleable to lifestyle changes.”

“The traditional Mediterranean Diet is the dietary pattern prevailing among the people of the olive tree-growing areas of the Mediterranean basin before the mid-1960’s,” Antonia Trichopoulou, of the Hellenic Health Foundation and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Health at the Athens Medical School, told the conference participants. “This is before globalization made its influence on lifestyle including diet.”

Indeed, the influence has changed some of the basic ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet, according to Stefano Benedettelli, Associate Professor of Food Sciences at the University of Florence. “The mechanisms by which wheat confers protective effects on human health are attributed to the physical properties and structure of grains. Modern species (0f grains) have been extensively modified and subject to crossbreeding in what is commonly referred to as the Green Revolution…that occurred between the 1930’s and the late 1960’s. The principle results of this revolution were the development of modern varieties characterized by higher yield, reduced susceptibility to disease and insects, an increased tolerance to environmental stresses, a homogeneous maturation (to optimize harvests) and a higher gluten content.” But all that came at a cost. “There was a concomitant decrease in genetic variability as well as a gradual impoverishment of the nutritional properties of the wheat.”

The human result? An overweight but undernourished population, prone to health problems. As Francesco Visioli, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine at the University of Padua, told the conference, “Undernutrition is different from malnutrition in that the latter is characterized by excessive caloric intake coupled with insufficient micronutrient consumption.”

Changing policy towards food processing would be costly and complicated if even possible; changing people’s eating habits takes political will, but it is by far the fastest way to get started. But that will take a concerted effort, creating a change in outlook through education, food preparation, and lifestyle change.

Align Change With Values

For example, what can be done about changing the habits of teenagers – a population young enough to actually prevent the early onset of heart disease and diabetes? An article by Christopher J. Bryan in the March 2017 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the way to go is to align healthy eating with important and widely shared adolescent values – such as taking a stand against what might be seen as manipulative and unfair business practices interfering with the teenage desire for freedom from adult control. In testing his hypothesis on eighth-graders (age 13), the author found that the students had foregone sugary snacks and drinks in an unrelated context the day after discussing healthy eating as a form of self-assertion and social-justice behavior. His conclusion: “Public health interventions for adolescents may be more effective when they harness the motivational power of that group’s existing strongly held values.”

But how do you make a profit around healthy, delicious, sustainable food? The Culinary Institute of America partnered with Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health to do that some five years ago, launching a Menus of Change national initiative in the US. “This initiative provides a roadmap for innovation for a growing number of American chefs and US-based food service companies,” Greg Dresher, the CIA’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Industry Leadership, told the conference. “The framing emphasizes the paramount importance of reducing red meat first and foremost, and secondarily foods from all animal sources in the diet. But it does it in a way that elevates the need for menu categories and R&D between what we call “regular” menu options and vegetarian and vegan, paving the way for broader acceptance. In short, this gets us to the same place as the Mediterranean Diet.”

Home-cooked meals could rely less on prepared foods. “Tap seasonal produce, use olive oil to amplify the flavor, and consider meat as a condiment,” Dresher said.

Conference participants also discussed the importance of nutrition and cooking education in schools, and they stressed the fact that embracing healthy eating and the Mediterranean Diet means a change of lifestyle. “Lifestyle intervention and a healthy diet can lengthen your life and make you more vital,” Katz said. “But knowledge is only a prelude to power; if you don’t translate what you know into what you routinely do, you will fail.”

This Article originally appeared on Forbes and is featured here with Author permission.

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Shellie Karabell
Shellie Karabell
Shellie Karabell has spent more than 40 years in international broadcast journalism, including executive news and management positions in her native USA, Europe, the USSR/Russia and the Middle East for ABC News/WTN, Dow Jones Broadcast, PBS, AP Broadcast and CNBC, responsible for news coverage, bureau management, and budgets of several million dollars. She has specialized in business news since 1982, covering hundreds of tier-one international companies and executives. As a TV correspondent in Europe, her coverage included the release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981; the Pan Am 103 crash in Lockerbie, Scotland,1988; the civil war in Lebanon in 1983; the civil war in Yugoslavia in 1991-92, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. She is a recognized expert on Russia, having started her coverage there in 1986 (including interviewing Boris Yeltsin and Edvard Shevardnadze) and continuing to the present day, and living/working in Moscow from 1996-1998 for ABC-WTN. Before moving to Europe in 1983, she was a chief news editor and field reporter for ABC Radio Network News in New York, and the business anchor for Satellite News Channel. From 2009-2013 she was Director of Media Relations and Editor-in-Chief of INSEAD Knowledge, the business school's online business magazine. Born in Philadelphia, PA, she has a BA in English from Pennsylvania State University and masters work in political science (Penn State) & Russian History (NYU) and lives in Paris.

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