What do you think of the Mediterranean diet? It seems healthy to me and a lot more interesting than the blah and boring "low-fat diet" that we're urged to adopt.
The Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, crusty breads, whole grains, and reliance on olive oil is really a composite of the cuisines of several countries -- including Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, Crete, and parts of the Middle East. People in these areas who still adhere to the traditional Mediterranean diet have a lower incidence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer than we see in other parts of Europe and the Americas.
The Mediterranean diet has a lot going for it:
Great variety, and tastes which appeal to people of many different cultures.
Lots of whole-grain products, as opposed to refined carbohydrates.
A preponderance of monounsaturated fat (such as olive oil) and plenty of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Less meat and poultry, but more fish and legumes than the Western diet.
Inclusion of some cheese and yogurt.
A great variety of fruits and vegetables, which provide fiber and protective phytochemicals.
An emphasis on fresh foods; little processed food.
Familiar ingredients and adaptability to locally available ingredients.
Foods that are easier to prepare than those in the Japanese or other Asian diets.
The only drawback I see is the possibility of too little iron and calcium for growing children and pregnant women (unless iron- and calcium-rich foods are emphasized, or calcium supplements added).
The first Western proponent of the Mediterranean diet was Ancel Keys, Ph.D., a researcher who pioneered the investigation of the relationship between dietary fat, serum cholesterol, and the risk of coronary heart disease. Today's foremost champion of the diet is Walter Willett, Ph.D., of the Harvard School of Public Health -- he's also a coinvestigator on the famed Harvard Nurses' Study. Though he's been criticized for failing to talk about cutting total fat intake, Willett has been urging us to pay more attention to the kinds of fat in our diets, rather than simply the amounts of fat (olive oil is better than butter, for instance).
While you certainly can eat well on the Mediterranean diet, I do have a few caveats. The total lifestyle that surrounds the Mediterranean diet plays a vital role in the health of the people in these areas. Keep in mind that the diet exists in a cultural context where people get more physical activity than most Americans. You should also bear in mind that food portions are not the gargantuan ones you get in restaurants here in the U.S. (specifically, pasta dishes). In parts of the world where the Mediterranean diet is traditional, people enjoy strong social and family bonds that are manifested around meals -- families and friends take as much pleasure in eating together as they do in the food itself. I think this offers health benefits that go beyond specific foods. It's not just the olive oil.