Auburn University’s Mike Greene was not surprised to learn that US News & World Report had ranked the Mediterranean diet as the best diet for the fifth straight year.
An associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management at Auburn College of Human Sciences, he has been studying nutrition 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’s about eating healthy, balanced food; It is a way of life that an individual or an entire family could easily follow.
“It’s better to think of nutrition as more of a nutritional approach or a way of life, as opposed to a strict ‘diet,'” he added.
The word “diet” is almost obsolete these days as many food products have been renamed “zero sugar” instead of “diet.” PepsiCo Beverages North America’s chief marketing officer told a recent industry conference that “younger people just don’t like the word ‘diet.’ No Generation Z wants to be on a diet these days.”
Greene said the Mediterranean diet is simply the eating style associated with countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy and Greece. It is a plant-based diet characterized by high consumption of fruit, unrefined grains, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil and nuts; a moderate amount of chicken and fish; and a lower consumption of dairy products, red meat and sugar. Aromatic herbs are used and water is the main drink, although wine is accepted in moderation.
As the COVID-19 pandemic caused disruptions in the global food supply chain and some foods became more expensive or scarce, Americans may have considered changing food consumption. A more plant-based plan was a logical alternative since its food was more readily available and a healthy eating pattern promoted positive overall health.
The virus itself drew attention from people with underlying health conditions like obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, as they were at higher risk of being hospitalized or even dying 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 have a lower risk of chronic disease,” he said. “We used to recommend the Mediterranean diet for preventing chronic diseases, but now we know it’s also good for preventing infectious diseases.”
In his studies, Greene learned a lot about consuming the Mediterranean diet in the United States and even in Auburn.
“We found that shoppers at Auburn and Opelika farmers’ markets are more likely to adhere to a Mediterranean diet than shoppers at grocery stores in Auburn and Opelika,” he said. “In general, Auburn students do not know much about the Mediterranean diet and, unsurprisingly, there is low adherence in the student population, with the exception of senior nutrition majors.”
Greene found that adherence to, or commitment to, the Mediterranean diet was significantly lower in the southeastern United States than 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 of the Mediterranean Diet as the best diet for diabetics. He said the extra virgin olive oil, nuts and fish are great for reducing inflammation, which may help people with diabetes.
“I like that the Mediterranean diet is easy to follow and that sticking to a diet is important for any health benefit,” he added.
Greene valued the Mediterranean lifestyle so much that in 2015 he created a study abroad option so Auburn students could experience the Mediterranean diet in a country where it is a cultural heritage. The program includes food and culture experiences, meetings with Mediterranean diet experts and food producers, and visits to historical sites and the coasts of southern Italy and Chalkidiki in Greece.
“Some of the most important studies on the Mediterranean diet were inspired by the diets of people living in southern Italy,” Greene explained. “It is for this reason that Italy, and southern Italy in particular, was a focus of the program.”
The pandemic prevented the trip for two years, but Greene plans to take students to Italy this summer. You will also travel to Greece for the first time.
“It will be fascinating to explore the cultural and culinary differences between the two countries where the Mediterranean diet is the cultural heritage,” he said.