Can Americans Do the Mediterranean Diet?


Good news, America!

You can now drink 7 glasses of wine a week and have unlimited chocolate, nuts, and olive oil and decrease your risk of stroke and heart disease. The latest study released by the New England journal of Medicine shows that the Mediterranean diet is an incredibly effective means towards preventing cardiovascular disease while increasing life expectancy. The diet consists of fish, legumes, olive oil, and nuts and is an antidote to the rampant heart disease affecting Americans. Processed foods and red meats have contributed to the preponderance of disease; to combat this, the Mediterranean diet recommends replacing red meat with white meat along with eating fish frequently, including at least one fatty fish like tuna or salmon a week.

Combine that with seemingly unlimited olive oil, nuts, and a glass of wine a day and you got yourself a mediteranean smorgasbord of a diet. This particular formula is in direct contrast with the low fat diet, which discourages nuts, fatty fish, and olive oil while encouraging consuming copious amounts of low-fat dairy, bread, and pasta. As a nation that thrives on instant gratification and extreme dieting and weight loss, an ancient routine like the Mediterranean one is sure to fail in such a culture of excess.

While the items in the diet itself don’t seem too complex, the cultural complexity is a greater issue to tackle. For starters, this diet was popularized during a time when processed food was not immediately available and the freshest and most local ingredients were abundant in the temperate climate of the Mediterranean. These days, every other commercial on television is for an endless value meal or buffet, and we can’t walk through a drug store without bypassing limitless varieties of pre-packaged candy and sweets. Only recently did fast food restaurants like McDonald’s start replacing fries with fruit as sides, and that’s mainly just in the happy meals for kids.

Even fast food diets have become popular ways to lose weight. Look no further than Jared, the Subway guy, who convinced people that eating a foot and a half sandwich along with chips and a diet soda every day for a year was the fastest way to weight loss. Shows like "The Biggest Loser" popularize weight loss but how does the guy on his couch at 8 p.m. with a plate of food benefit from wasting an hour of his life watching a TV show? According to a Nielsen poll, Americans watch 35 hours of television a week.

Weight Watchers is one of the most popular commercial diets in the U.S. Currently, 1.3 million members are part of the program, which hosts over 45,000 meetings nationwide. For an average cost of $40 a month, subscribers can sign up for meetings, consultations, and point calculators in order to chronicle their journeys through a point system that allows each member to customize their own journey. It’s even possible to stash away some points for splurging by using a points allowance each week; you can blow 35 on one big meal out. Another popular weight loss program, Nutrisystem, uses pre-packaged meals delivered to customer’s homes and boasts that subscribers can lose up to 25 pounds in just two months.

While these numbers and statistics are impressive, results may vary. The main problem with food delivery and pre-packaged meals is it’s very hard to go outside the constraints of this strict regime. The biggest excuse for poor diet and exercise habits is lack of time. Americans are working more and sleeping less. Most meals are either consumed at desks or on the go in between activities. Access to processed food has never been easier. Most grocery stores now have a prepared food section where even dinners are available for purchase. Even healthy grocery stores like Whole Foods seem to attract the most customers in their open salad bar buffets and packaged meals section.

So how do we take back our diets from these instant gratification programs that both reward and punish in equal amounts? For starters, there’s common sense and rationalization. More exercise and less junk food leads to a healthier self. But there are the more entrenched habits that lead to poor habits. If 4:00 rolls around at the office and you are used to getting up to go to the cafeteria, or visiting the vending machine to push you through until dinner, what are you really rewarding yourself with?

Is it the mental break? Or perhaps the physical exercise and act of getting up? Maybe it’s the people you come into contact with along the way. In The Power of Habit, the author examines this in an exhaustive case study and actually found that the subject who got up each day to get that afternoon cookie actually was not seeking pleasure and reward from the cookie itself but rather from the interactions he had with people along the way. If he had gotten up to get an apple, his net benefit would have been the same, while his waist line would shrink. In other words, if you can replace your bad habits with good ones, you can still derive the maximum amount of pleasure without falling victim to your own dependencies.

When studies like the most recent on the Mediterannean diet come out, everyone is quick to either applaud or abhor the study. Sure, you can run out to the grocery store and load up on legumes and make your own sofrito. But if you had to look up the definitions of these two staples, then you are probably not prepared for the dramatic alteration in lifestyle.

If you want good advice, take it from a man who was a victim and then a hero of American obsesity: Jared. The steps are so simple you may scoff, but when taken literally, they can be life changing. His last but most important tip, “Don’t let a bad day, or week, or month change your diet plans,” is key to his success. He now only eats two subway meals a week and works out consistently with a trainer, in addition to chasing around his toddler. Everything in moderation ... and take the stairs!