Last week, more than a dozen academics, chefs and food connoisseurs gathered for an engaging symposium at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies under the leadership of Dr. Stefanos Kales, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
Titled “Mediterranean Diet: Promotion and Dissemination of Healthy Eating,” the symposium brought together a distinguished, diverse and multidisciplinary group of attendees, who came from various countries including the United States, Greece, Italy and Spain.
The attendees came from top universities and institutions such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Google, Culinary Institute of America and the US military. Their fields of expertise included areas such as nutrition science, medicine, population health and culinary science.
During the seminar, participants discussed how to best promote Mediterranean diet principles in workplaces, schools, hospitals, public institutions — and the food service industry.
One of the participants, New York City-based Chef Maria Loi, led a session on chefs and the food industry to help others identify best practices for adapting the Mediterranean lifestyle to modern society.
“Don’t be surprised if you see ‘fakes’ or ‘fasolada’ in your child’s school cafeteria soon,” Loi said. “We are determined to improve the public health one healthy Greek bite at a time.”
During the meeting, Dr. Kales and others said that the modern scientific concept of the “Mediterranean diet” is most closely associated with the traditional eating patterns found during the 1960’s in rural Greece and southern Italy (formerly Magna Grecia).
American scientist Dr. Ancel Keys first described the “Mediterranean diet” in 1956 in his famous “Seven Countries Study,” which included pioneering observations that Mediterranean eating patterns were strongly associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease.
Keys’ study investigated dietary patterns, health and longevity in America, Europe and Asia. The study documented the traditional diet of Crete as being associated with remarkably lower health risks as compared to “Western” diets and even to be more favorable than the diet of Japan.
In the past 60 years, various scientific experiments conducted throughout the world have found Mediterranean eating to yield both long and short-team benefits — e.g. promoting health, quality of life and decreasing the risk various illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease and dementia.
Kales said that today, as a result of the “abundant and high-quality evidence,” the USA’s 2015 official nutritional guidelines formally recognize and recommend the Mediterranean diet as one of three healthy options for Americans. And for the past two years, a consensus of health experts selected the Mediterranean diet as the best overall diet for US News and World Report.
Variations of the diet have been consumed for several millennia in regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea basin. In ancient times, native olive trees grew wild and eventually would be cultivated for their fruit, and its juice, olive oil, which is the most central and essential element of this eating pattern.
Based on its prototype, the traditional Cretan diet, the Mediterranean diet is characterized by several features.
Extra virgin olive oil is used generously for cooking and serves as the principle dietary fat. Second, it is heavily plant-based with a high intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, unrefined cereals, nuts and seeds. But there is also moderate consumption of fish, seafood, fermented dairy products (yogurt and cheese), poultry and eggs. In addition, alcohol use in moderation with meals (usually wine) is common. Finally, the consumption of processed and red meats, as well as sweets is limited, but they are not prohibited.
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been described as the world’s most evidence-based eating pattern for promoting health and longevity. Many experts at the conference, noted that while most people react negatively and even reject vegetarian diets out of hand, they respond very positively to the Mediterranean diet concept and pattern.
Kales and others lamented at the meeting that, even in Greece and other Mediterranean countries, traditional eating patterns have given way to Americanized habits — with documented decreases in fruit, vegetable and bean intake and increased consumption of red meat, refined carbohydrates and other processed foods.
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