There are some eating plans that have been controversial from the get-go, like the ketogenic diet, Whole30, and intermittent fasting. But the Mediterranean diet—an eating plan that advocates for lean proteins, whole grains, seafood, and plenty of vegetables along with the occasional glass of wine—has long been the least problematic of any eating plan, quick to be endorsed by doctors, dietitians, and other healthy eating experts.
It’s easy to see why. The Mediterranean diet is the most studied eating plan in the world, backed by decades of robust clinical research. Hundreds of studies have found it to be beneficial in many ways, from supporting brain and heart health to reducing inflammation and keeping the gut healthy. All these reasons and more are why U.S. News and World Report has named the Mediterranean diet the best eating plan three years in a row. These benefits are also why the eating plan has been extensively covered by Well+Good.
But there’s a blaring problem with the Mediterranean diet that many have failed to see, including the editors and writers of this publication. “The Mediterranean diet is an eating plan that was created by Westerners, studied by Westerners, and is recommended to everyone,” says Gerry Bodeker, PhD, who has researched and taught in medical sciences at Oxford University for two decades and is an adjunct professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.
Dr. Bodeker works with private sectors, governments, and United Nations organizations, currently serving as senior advisor to a UN University project on Asian traditions of nutrition. He says that recommending the Mediterranean diet to all people not only ignores the foods and eating patterns of different cultural traditions but can also work against people nutritionally. “If you’re going to have a global health message, you need to make sure it fits every single culture,” Dr. Bodeker says. The Mediterranean diet, for all of its benefits, does not quite fit the bill.
The research gaps of the Mediterranean diet
The very first Mediterranean diet study was published in 1958 by an American physiologist named Ancel Keys. He called it the “seven countries study.” The study (which only included men) focused on the connection between dietary habits and heart disease rates in Greece, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Japan, and Finland. His study found that rates of heart disease were lowest in Greece, Italy, and Spain—regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The “Mediterranean diet,” as identified by this study, sparked decades of additional research into the lifestyle’s benefits for all aspects of health.
What has remained consistent in the following seven decades is how scientific researchers, doctors, and nutrition experts talk about the Mediterranean diet. While the plan’s benefits largely come from the consumption of specific nutrients (a specific balance of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and complex carbohydrates), the foods often…