Mediterranean lifestyle is more than a diet
The Mediterranean diet has been hailed, including by me, as a wonderfully safe, effective, better-than-drugs way to reduce risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and heart attack.
At the same time, there have been critics of various studies supporting this claim. Some make fair points. In one widely cited study, for example, only men showed significantly improved health outcomes.
I’ve had some issues of my own with the near-universal acceptance of the Mediterranean diet as the best thing since oven-roasted kale. But here’s the thing…
Diet is only part of it
You can live the Mediterranean diet until you start singing Italian opera—and still kill yourself with bad habits like smoking and drinking, sitting around instead of moving around, or isolating yourself socially.
Plus, your environment—a stress-mad, polluted city environment, a draining or demeaning work situation, a difficult family life—can do just as much damage as bad habits.
But are those realities really “inescapable”?
Of course not.
It’s also the Mediterranean lifestyle
Greeks and Italians living on the shores of the Mediterranean caught medicine’s attention in the 1950s. With cardiovascular diseases skyrocketing in the US, and, in 1955, with average life expectancy for men 66.7 years, these folks were living active, virtually heart-disease-free lives until an average age of 90.
Remember, “average” combines everyone from youngest to oldest—which means that a lot of these folks lived well past 90.
How could this be? Especially when their diet is loaded with animal fat—demonized at the time as the root of all health evil?
Well, those people really knew how to live.
True, they didn’t have much choice. When you’re a part of a fishing or agricultural village, far from the madness of city life, you’re physically active every day—getting around on foot or by animal, working your fishing boat or your land.
You’re out in the clean air and sunshine, not in a fluorescent-lit, electronic, radiation-generating office. You walk on the earth, not on pavement.
And, of course, you dine on only what you and your neighbors grow, catch, or raise organically, with every meal a healthy, family-uniting celebration. And talk about luck—it just so happens there are lots of olives in the neighborhood, lots of nuts, fresh fruit and veggies, lots of clean-living seafood, and nice, fat ducks and geese.
How to walk the Mediterranean talk
The Mediterranean diet alone is not the walk-off home run that wins the health game. The physical and social activity, the fresh air, sunshine, and lower-stress complementary pieces must also be in place.
You can make changes that put those pieces in place—at least a best-case local version—no matter how much you think your current lifestyle prevents it. I’m not saying it’s easy. But it breaks my heart that so many of my patients are willing to make changes only after a serious health incident.
What’s tragic is that they probably could have prevented the incident if they’d just behaved differently.
Like embracing the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, for example.
But Dr. Connealy, you say, I don’t live in an Italian fishing village.
Fair enough. So let me break this down.
What threatens your health?
Toxic diet, of course, is number one. Is there really something preventing you from improving yours? You don’t have to mimic the Mediterranean diet olive by walnut—just eliminating the known evil twins, processed foods and sugar-rich trash, will improve your health.
Smoking, drinking? You know the answer. I know, it’s not easy, but people give them up every day.
Stress? I see yoga and tai chi studios and traveling instructors everywhere I go. And meditation is something you can do on your own, anywhere. Even ten minutes a day can make a great difference. And it’s free!
Lack of exercise? Just walk more. If you drive, park farther away from your destination and walk the difference. If you take public transport? Walk to the next stop before getting on board. Or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
You live and work in a concrete jungle? Go to a park. No park? Even watching a video of natural beauty measurably improves health markers. Amazingly, so does just sitting indoors looking at nature through a window.
Social isolation? Don’t be shy. People need people. There are all sorts of opportunities to get social. Join a club or sign up for MeetUp.com and find like-minded people who enjoy similar activities.
The goal is simply to start … simply.
I must emphasize again that some of the changes you must make will not be easy. But we can’t just leap from danger to safety all at once. It’s a journey, and as the saying goes, even the longest journey starts with a single step.
We’re fortunate that we have a wonderful map to direct our steps.
And by the way, the food’s great, every step of the way.
The World Health Organization defines health as follows:
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
Buon viaggio — have a good trip.
Last Updated: June 19, 2019
Originally Published: December 7, 2015