What makes the Mediterranean Diet work?


One of the joys of traveling to another culture is the experience of seeing how people live, and to eat the foods they eat.  I visited Rome last week and saw some amazing sites and of course ate some amazing food!  I experienced the magnificent ancient stone metropolis structures that was utterly overwhelming, and also placed throughout miles and miles across the city.  That’s just the city of Rome, a place where I ate like a Roman, and no less walked the city like a Roman.  Let me explain why many people can visit a place like this, eat twice their normal food intake, and still maintain a healthy body weight.

According to our Roman friends, most working class people will walk about 2-3 miles a day, and some more than that.  It’s common to use public transportation since cars are cumbersome and it is difficult to find parking.  Walking to the train station, then standing and waiting for the train or bus, and then walking to work is routine for most everyday people.  They repeat this process home, but later walk to the local market and then hand carry their produce home into an old apartment building that has no elevators!  We stayed in a building that was quite modern for the area, maybe 200 years old, and our place was at the top of 9 long flights of stairs - on the 5th floor.  In essence, walking constituted a major portion of Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, meaning you are burning calories just in your day-to-day routine.  If you exercise, you burn even more calories.  The foods you eat also trigger thermogenesis, furthering your metabolic potential.

Now my favorite part: the foods of Italy!  Once again, our Roman friends eat pasta and bread which was the center of many meals including breakfast.  The vegetables are often fresh, coming from local growers.  Many buildings had rooftop and window gardens to grow produce for personal consumption and likely for resale to local markets.  Eggs were rich in their color, and every part of our meals were rich in aroma and flavor.  This was the typical Mediterranean diet.  A meal plan that was dominant in carbohydrates and vegetables, fats from olive oils and dairy, and the smallest portion consisting of meats. 

Like the American food pyramid, the Mediterranean diet is centered around carbohydrates.  Yet the obesity prevalence for Italian adults is nearly 20%, and 39.8% of adults in the U.S. according to the CDC in 2017.  We’ve heard so much of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but the way that it works is in the details.  Let me explain further.

The Mediterranean diet works well for people in that region because the ingredients are fresh, local grown, non-GMO and they use less pesticides because of the climate and the small farming techniques.  Likewise, many young and old people from that region are walkers, active in their non-exercise routines every day!  It’s an interaction of physical and nutritional chemistry from that part of the world that forms an effective Mediterranean lifestyle, not just their diet. 

We live in Southern California!  Can we effectively mimic this lifestyle?  Yes we can, if this is the right lifestyle for you.  Give yourself more time between commitments so you can walk to and from your destination, such as shopping.  Limit your purchases to what you can carry by hand rather than hauling by cart to your car.  Eat more whole food sources and support your local growers.  Take the stairs.  Increase your non-exercise thermogenesis with increased recreational activities.  Go Roman for a few weeks and let me know how it went!

Dr. Adrian is an educator, Strength Specialist, and Doctor of Chiropractic, serving South Pasadena since 2000.

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