Eating Like Ancestors
We’ve been discussing prescription diets in one of my classes. The four week module included two powerpoint presentations with an overview of the material. One presentation covered a variety of special diets----Paleolithic, ketogenic, elimination, macrobiotic, anti-candida, vegetarian, etc. The other was solely on the Mediterranean diet, special enough to have it’s own 30+ set of slides.
The Mediterranean diet (MD) centers a diversity of fresh, high-fiber vegetables and herbs, and promotes the consumption of nuts, lean proteins, and whole grains.1 As a prescription diet, it’s one of the most studied, accumulating a body of evidence proving its efficacy in promoting long term health.1,2 It’s hard to argue with a diet receiving so much scientific acclaim and attention, first made famous by Ancel Key’s Seven Countries Study in the 1950’s and later canonized with its own Harvard School of Public Health pyramid in 1993.3
My longtime friend and cooking mentor, Alice, is Italian-American and as her student, I am well acquainted with the wonders of extra virgin olive oil. I have no Italian roots (that I’m aware of), yet cooking with liberal amounts of this oil has been fundamental to my education. Ever since I attended Alice’s olive oil tasting over ten years ago at the Old Creamery Coop while she was co-owner, I began to appreciate the full range of flavors possible from olives. Alice’s food has fruity notes characteristic of the Cretan extra virgin oil she blesses nearly every plant, protein, and grain that passes through her kitchen. It’s seductively delicious and I want to swim in it.
While I do not refute that the health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, fatty fish, and wild herbs are worthy of praise, I agree with critics of the MD’s popularity that what drives the power of this diet is not inherent to one region of the world.2–4 As the authors Bere and Brug point out, the MD refers more accurately to a traditional eating pattern found globally in communities insulated from industrialization and hardly describes the current eating patterns of most people in Crete today.4 Currently Greece suffers from some of the highest obesity rates in the world and a markedly low adherence to the MD amongst children.5 These trends show that what was special about the diet of those in Crete studied by Keys in the 1950’s says more about intact cultural food ways and land based living, than the regionally specific components.2
Looking at the strengths of MD from the angle of food groups, we can see these valuable foods found in other traditional food cultures around the world.4 Salmon and herring for instance, commonly promoted in the MD are actually from the North Sea and Northern Atlantic, not the Mediterranean.4 People in Nordic nations are able to obtain the omega-3 fatty acids often promoted from Cretan wild greens in the MD from their own wild Nordic berries, containing 15 times the fatty acids of commonly consumed imported fruits.4 That said, wild edible plants are found all over the world and humans have evolved to rely on their polyphenols and other micronutrients for sound health.6 Sub-Saharan Africa for instance, boasts 1,000 species of wild green leafy vegetables.6 While Mediterranean refers to a whole region, the diet itself really only includes southern Italy and Crete, ignoring countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, “despite their populations eating diets that match the principles of the model.”3(36)
Fetishizing a diet of one region and attempting to universalize it around the world as the ultimate protector of cardiovascular disease erases the diversity of pre-industrial food cultures that were able to maintain sound health without the importing of foods from far away. Modern peoples are not struggling from “Mediterranean food deficiency.” They are suffering from centuries of colonization and the consequent pumping of cheap, processed food into the market.I don't believe worldwide consumption of olive oil is the answer to cardiovascular disease, a proposition of questionable environmental consequence. Does anyone else see the irony that this diet originates from the birthplace of the Greco-Roman empire, the starting place for millennia of colonization of indigenous peoples and breaking with land and foodways?7 Does the fact that the MD has received so much acclaim have to do with Eurocentric biases in the scientific community?8 Can the way we do nutrition science uphold white supremacist ideas and mores?9 By claiming it’s a place or people that has all answers, rather than characteristics of a bygone, preindustrial era, excludes the myriad of ways we can thrive with food. Instead, it’s more useful to understand the key components of the MD that have delivered so well in scientific study and focus on regionally based, culturally appropriate diets.
Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig deliver this point well in Nourishing Traditions, delineating the flaws of a one-size fits all approach, particularly when it comes to the role of dietary fat.10 Fallon points out groups like the Masai in Kenya, whose diet is rich in saturated fat and have strong cardiovascular wellness.11 She also names the Inuit, who rely heavily on fish and marine animal foods for subsistence, a far cry from the plant/grain based recommendations of the MD.10 Both the Inuit and Masai have had longstanding, intact cultural food traditions, reaching far enough into modernity to be examined by western science. An interesting article from 2017 discusses the cardio-protective role of these omega-3 rich foods in the traditional Inuit diet and how “nutrition transition” away from this diet is impacting the mental health of the Inuit living in Northern Canada.12 The authors share that it may be not just a lower level of omega-3’s increasing the prevalence of serious psychological distress, but the increasing absence of the socially bonding food gathering traditions.12Thanksgiving approaches now, a holiday with these conflicts and musings at its core and also for many, one of the few semblances of a "socially bonding food gathering tradition." What if we got curious about pre-colonial nourishment, both on this continent and if we’re not native, from our respective homelands? My hunch is that in asking those questions we’re taking one step back from buy-in to the overculture of sameness and a step toward a glorious kaleidoscope of health and strength deep within our ancestral cores. How did our people connect to land? What wild plants did they gather? What were the potent, scared foods of their culture? What was/is their “olive oil?”
Many of us are amalgams of where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going. Some of us don’t have the privilege of knowing our roots exactly. I’m certainly not suggesting we all “stay in our lane.” As I said, I indulge in olive oil on the regular. Yet I also appreciate the value of bear fat, pasture raised lard, or clarified butter pressed from the cream of grass munching cows. There are many ways to find home and health through food. As social creatures, who we ally with is who we eat with and eat like. Let’s not let nutrition science’s propensity to universalize technical knowledge and dissociate it from the social contexts, dictate what’s good and bad, without examining the wisdom of place and people first.8
Conviviality and pleasure are values central to the food traditions that inspired the MD.3 As Phull notes, evidence shows the more people present at a meal, the longer it lasts and that pleasure seeking cultures have healthier eating behaviors than those who are fixated on health at the expense of pleasure.3 During this strange time when our gatherings may be smaller or nil, let the extra space be an opportunity to ponder how pleasure, belonging, and health intersect for you. Maybe light a candle for those ancestors while you're at it, they may have something to say.
2. Lăcătușu C-M, Grigorescu E-D, Floria M, Onofriescu A, Mihai B-M. The Mediterranean Diet: From an Environment-Driven Food Culture to an Emerging Medical Prescription. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(6). doi:10.3390/ijerph16060942
5. K.D. TAMBALIS, D.B. PANAGIOTAKOS, G. PSARRA, and L.S. SIDOSSIS. Current data in Greek children indicate decreasing trends of obesity in the transition from childhood to adolescence; results from the National Action for Children’s Health (EYZHN) program. J Prev Med Hyg. 2018;59(1):E36-E47.
7. Morell-Hart S, Moffat T. How the Mediterranean diet became No. 1 — and why that’s a problem. The Conversation. February 2020. http://theconversation.com/how-the-mediterranean-diet-became-no-1-and-why-thats-a-problem-131771. Accessed October 22, 2020.
10. Fallon S, Enig MG. Nourishing traditions. The Cookbook that Challenges Policitally Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats Revised. 2001;2:40-45.
12. Skogli H-R, Geoffroy D, Weiler HA, Tell GS, Kirmayer LJ, Egeland GM. Associations between omega-3 fatty acids and 25(OH)D and psychological distress among Inuit in Canada. International Journal of Circumpolar Health. 2017;76(1):1302684. doi:10.1080/22423982.2017.1302684