The Mediterranean diet: a miracle cure or PR triumph?

Food fads come and go, and nutritionists will always argue about the perfect diet, as if such a thing exists. For hundreds of thousands of years before the agricultural revolution our foraging ancestors ate anything they could get their hands on. This was happening all over the world, from Siberia to the Sahara. The fact that you are reading this attests to the variety of healthy diets humans are able to thrive on.

But according to a slew of headlines that started appearing in 2008, a Mediterranean diet is the answer to just about everything that ails us. It improves cognition, combats heart disease and depression, and can even cure gout. Today’s Daily Mail reports that it’s also a miracle cure for breast cancer.

But by most measurements, no country which borders the Mediterranean comes near the top of health league tables.

Most of the studies which back up these claims were carried out by the same researchers, and promoted by the same groups. One example is MedDiet, an organisation whose partners are business associations which profit from the sale of olive oil and other Mediterranean staples.

Its website says the diet is ‘characterised by the abundance of fruit, vegetables, legumes, cereals and nuts, the usage of olive oil, the frequent consumption of fish, the moderate consumption of dairy derivates and the low consumption of red meat and simple sugars’.

All of which sounds great, but the MedDiet is about so much more than food. To quote from its website:

‘The most consistent part of the values that constitute our identity and define the Mediterranean diet as a lifestyle is mirrored and perpetuated in everyday life and in the normality of our traditional habits.

‘To enhance the Mediterranean diet means to exalt all of its historical components, to recompose the frame of the multiple territorial experiences in a perspective of cultural enhancement, recalling all those influences and contaminations that contributed in forming our diet patrimony.’

The Mediterranean diet is undoubtedly a healthy one. But grand claims about the ‘MedDiet’ being a miracle cure should be taken with a pinch of salt, or a spoonful of olive oil if you prefer.


  • Zalacain

    Spain and Italy, which are both archetypal Mediterranean countries, have among the longest life expectancies in the world.

    • I’d rather have our medical resources, thanks very much.

  • attests to the variety of healthy diets humans are able to thrive on
    Not exactly. It attests to the variety of diets that humans are able to subsist on: thriving is another matter. As for health, some degree of health is obviously required of any successful creature, but Daniel Lieberman in his book on the subject makes the point that evolution cares about reproductive success over and above individuals’ health. Nature was quite ‘content’ to throw women’s health under a bus so long as they could squeeze a big-brained baby out (for example).