Does the Popularity of the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ Risk Erasing Other Healthy – but Non-European – Foodways?
Critics say the way we talk about the 'Mediterranean Diet' unfairly positions white and European food as 'better' than other healthy food traditions from around the world
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The ‘Mediterranean Diet’ has become globally popular, offering a shift from the fad diet focus on quickly shedding pounds to a more sustainable plan for healthy eating and well-being. There’s a reason U.S. News and World Report just named the Mediterranean Diet the “best eating plan” again, for the fifth year in a row.
The basis of the Mediterranean Diet is inspired by the eating patterns and lifestyle of Italian and Greek culture, in particular – two countries that have historically appeared on the list of Blue Zones, where humans have the longest lifespans. At its core are fresh, whole foods, that are local and in season. Foods are harvested at peak ripeness and therefore contain the highest possible nutrient content, and it’s easier on the body. “The fact that most foods in the Mediterranean Diet are whole and unprocessed makes it favorable to the digestive system,” explains Pamela Barton, registered holistic nutritionist.
Eating according to the Mediterranean Diet has proven anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy benefits – but, despite all the attention and research it gets, it is far from the only healthy way of eating.
Many other cultures have healthy ways of eating that better suit specific dietary needs or tastes; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating healthy and suggesting that there may be is both dismissive of other cultural foodways and potentially dangerous.
In “The Whiteness of the Mediterranean Diet: A Historical, Sociopolitical, and Dietary Analysis Using Critical Race Theory,” published in the Journal of Critical Dietetics, Kate Gardner Burt, a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the Dietetics, Foods, and Nutrition program of Lehman College at the City University of New York, Bronx, spotlights the fact that the promotion of the Mediterranean Diet as the healthiest — and therefore most “good” — diet is based on inherently biased research conducted by “white people on other white people.”
“The Med diet, in its construction and how it is communicated, is a fake dietary pattern that gives the illusion of inclusion but is really just a euphemism for an idealized white diet.”
What’s more, the Mediterranean Diet as we have come to know it — whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, and seeds — is not, in fact, an accurate representation of the foodways and day-to-day diet of diverse Mediterranean cultures, says Burt.
The diet consists of “a subset of foods acceptable by white European/Americans, rather than foods of the region it purports to represent,” Burt explained in her writing. “The Med diet, in its construction and how it is communicated, is a fake dietary pattern that gives the illusion of inclusion but is really just a euphemism for an idealized white diet.”
The focus on European-style eating, combined with the lack of more substantial research on diverse foodways has led to a collective failure on the part of nutritionists, says Burt, adding that people of color and those in underserved communities have a disproportionate risk of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, compared to white populations. This idea of a “healthy diet” looking like the Mediterranean Diet simply doesn’t make sense for every community, especially those who might not have access to the same abundance of fresh foods that others take for granted.
“We’ve got to consider cultural foods to be part of the conversation when counseling African American, Hispanic, and immigrant patients on healthy food choices, and not only the foods and ways that white people eat,” Burt explained.
There’s no denying that the Mediterranean Diet is a healthy foodway for many people to follow — but it is certainly not the only way to foster optimal health and wellness, especially on an individual level. Shifting the emphasis on a singular “good” or “virtuous” way of eating to a conversation that includes diverse cultures and eating habits based on an individual’s or a community’s needs may not only lead to a healthier society but could allow for a more inclusive understanding of what “healthy” can look like.
“There are plenty of other diets and cultural foodways — like the traditional Japanese diet; composed of fresh fish, soy, and rice — that are health promoting as well,” added Barton. “The emphasis here is on traditional, as the foods are mainly unprocessed, fresh, local and in season.”
The same goes for many traditional diets before European colonialism, and later, the industrial revolution started, says Barton. In fact, most cultures focused on whole foods before the popularization of fast and processed foods and ingredients.
Mexican and Hawaiian cuisine, for example, followed a similar approach to the Mediterranean Diet, with an emphasis on lean, largely plant-based protein and ample amounts of fruits and vegetables — but the addition of heavier meats, sugars, and flours that came with white colonialism altered the way these cultures approached cooking and eating.
There is no quick fix for the world of nutrition-based biases and food equity, but understanding that healthy eating looks and feels different for each individual is the only place to start. There are many approaches to healthy eating and food traditions – whatever way of eating we personally choose for our own well-being, it’s important to leave room for a diversity of cultures and circumstances.
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