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Mike Greene of Auburn University was not surprised to learn that US News & World Report had ranked the Mediterranean diet as the best diet for the fifth year in a row.
The associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management at Auburn College of Humanities has studied diet and its health benefits for seven years.
Greene attributed the popularity of the Mediterranean diet to the fact that it is not restrictive, like so many fad diets. He said it was a healthy, balanced diet; it is a way of life that an individual, or an entire family, could easily follow.
“It’s best to think of the diet more as a dietary approach or a way of life, as opposed to a strict ‘diet,'” he added.
The word “diet” is almost outdated these days, as many food products have been rebranded as “sugar-free” rather than “diet.” PepsiCo Beverages North America’s chief marketing officer told a recent industry conference that “young people just don’t like the word ‘diet.’ No Gen Z wants to diet these days.
Greene said the Mediterranean diet is simply the dietary lifestyle associated with countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, such as Italy and Greece. It is a plant-based meal plan, characterized by a high consumption of fruits, unrefined grains, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and nuts; a moderate amount of chicken and fish; and less consumption of dairy products, red meat and sugars. Aromatic herbs are used and water is the main drink, although wine is accepted in moderation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in the global food supply chain, making some foods more expensive or scarcer, Americans may have considered changing their food intake. A more plant-based plan was a logical alternative because her foods were more available and a healthy diet promoted positive overall health.
The virus itself warned people with underlying health conditions, such as obesity and chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, that they were at higher risk of being hospitalized, or even to die after contracting the virus.
For researchers like Greene, the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet became clearer than ever during this time.
“People who adhere to a Mediterranean diet are at lower risk for chronic disease,” he said. “In the past, we recommended the Mediterranean diet for the prevention of chronic diseases, but now we know that it is also good for the prevention of infectious diseases.”
In his studies, Greene learned a lot about eating the Mediterranean diet in the United States and even in Auburn.
“We found that shoppers at farmers’ markets in Auburn and Opelika are more likely to adhere to a Mediterranean diet than shoppers at grocery stores in Auburn and Opelika,” he said. “In general, students at Auburn don’t know much about the Mediterranean diet and, unsurprisingly, there’s low uptake in the student population, with the exception of senior nutrition majors.”
Greene found that adherence or commitment to the Mediterranean diet in the southeastern United States was significantly lower than adherence in California. However, a rural Portuguese community in California with less education than a California reference population had greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
Greene agreed with US News & World Report’s assessment that the Mediterranean diet is the best diet for diabetics. He said extra virgin olive oil, nuts and fish are great for reducing inflammation, which can help people with diabetes.
“I love that the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow and adherence to a diet is important for any health benefits,” he added.
Greene was so keen on the Mediterranean lifestyle that in 2015 he created a study abroad option for Auburn students to experience the Mediterranean diet in a country where it is a cultural heritage. The program involves learning about food and culture, meeting Mediterranean diet experts and food producers, and visiting historical sites and the coasts of southern Italy and Halkidiki, Greece.
“Some of the most important studies of the Mediterranean diet were inspired by the diets of people living in southern Italy,” Greene explained. “For this reason, Italy, and in particular southern Italy, has been at the center of the program.”
The pandemic prevented the trip from happening for two years, but Greene plans to take students to Italy this summer. They will also visit Greece for the first time.
“It will be fascinating to explore the cultural and dietary differences between the two countries where the Mediterranean diet is the cultural heritage,” he said.