Hi, I'm "Penguin" Pete Trbovich, and last I checked, I weigh about 260 pounds. Considering that I only stand about five foot ten, that puts me in the Body Mass Index bracket roughly equivalent to Jabba the Hutt, or just your typical American bucket of lard. News reports the world over agree that Americans as a nation are on average blubbery landwhales. Gosh, what could be the cause of it?
Well, in my case, exercise is a factor. I write for a living. That involves (a) typing, and (b) sitting still for long periods of time. Even if I sprang out of my chair for a set of jumping jacks in between each paragraph, I would not be able to keep up on exercise, and I'd also have to explain to my hourly clients why I'm billing by the hour for jumping-jack time. I can mow the lawn and hike up the bike trail all I want to - Iowa life provides infinite opportunities for healthy outdoor exercise - but there just isn't enough hours in a day to compensate for basically being a professional couch potato.
The only other answer, then, is diet. Now, left to my own devices, this would be a no-brainer. Not only am I motivated to eat healthier before I croak too early - depriving you Internet people of years and years of my sparkling wit - but I actually LIKE healthy foods just like those found on the Mediterranean diet. Too bad it's impossible to have a healthy lifestyle while being an American citizen.
Staples of the Mediterranean Diet
Before I diverge into that rant, let's tippy-toe into the subject by introducing the aspects of the Mediterranean Diet that have stood the test of time. As the name suggests, it's based on the common diets of those countries which border the Mediterranean Sea, with a zoomed-in focus on Greece and Italy.
Its health benefits have been touted and sometimes proven in case studies:
- Heart disease - Some evidence that it helps combat this.
- Type-2 diabetes - Conclusive evidence it decreases the risk.
- Cancer - Numerous studies say it fights this too.
- Cognitive performance - Some studies suggest this diet is even healthier for your brain.
- Depression - Yep, it helps control this too.
Beyond the clinical findings, you can find just about any claim for this "miracle" diet. There's stories about how it fights Parkinson's disease, keeps you agile, increases longevity, stabilizes blood sugar, and who knows what all else.
Olive Oil - The Panacea?
If you research the Mediterranean Diet, the first and most important component you will find is olive oil. Is there any benefit you can't find somebody claims for olive oil? There's a whole website just for this elixir of immortality. The rest of the Med. Diet can be mix-and-match, but you must include the olive oil.
Now about the difficulty of following the diet in America: Go out and buy some olive oil. Well? Yes, corn, sunflower, palm, and canola oils are all commonly found on any store shelf, typically blended together under the "vegetable oil" mash-up label. You can also find jugs of stuff labeled "olive oil" on the shelf too, just look for the highest-priced bottles in the oil section.
And those labels will most likely be a BIG FAT LIE. You can buy "extra virgin olive oil" that is actually 80% sunflower oil. There's a lawsuit against Iberia Foods now for this. That site again is TruthInAdvertising.org, and there's a staggering number of complaints about olive oil deception.
- Bertolli and Carapelli - Not extra virgin, not imported.
- Filippo Berio - Also not imported nor extra virgin.
- Safeway - ditto.
- Crisco - Non-stick spray is not extra virgin.
- Pampa - Not extra virgin.
- Kalamata - labeled as "100% pure olive oil - no actual olive oil in it, just this "pumice" runoff!
- Ken's Steak House - "Olive oil salad dressing" actually contains mostly soybean and canola.
- Capatriti - More veggie pumice sold as "100% pure olive oil.
This goes on for days! According to Food Renegade, 70% of products sold as "extra virgin olive oil" are fake - mixed with cheaper grade oils, cut with canola, or just flat out having nothing to do with olives whatsoever. This is a bad enough racket that organized crime is involved in Italy and police raids have arrested 23 people and confiscated 85 farms, but the deception continues.
Bottom line: You want olive oil? Buy your own whole olives. Prep them yourself. Make your own oil. Anything less is livin' in denial. Let's move on to the rest of the Med. Diet, which is at least easier to trust:
Other Important Mediterranean Diet Components
Ranking in order of importance/proportion:
Veggies - They mean "salad" here and not baked potatoes. Your best friend is arugula, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, spinach, onions, and generally everything the most stereotypical cracker named "Karen" at Whole Foods eats.
Fruits - Nearly any fruit works here, with an emphasis on citrus and produce native to the Mediterranean region, like dates and pomegranates. Spare us the "fruit salad" jokes, but tomatoes are important here too.
Bread, Cereals, and Grains - This is another sticky point in American cuisine. Don't accept anything starched, bleached, or processed here. You want whole grain. You also want lots of it; the Med. Diet is big on fiber. Along with dark, coarse, gritty bread with whole oat and barley seeds to picking out of your teeth, you also want granola, couscous, and whole-grain pasta. A lot of people make the mistake of saying "Well, the Med. Diet is based on Italy and pizza is Italian?" Nope, sorry, doesn't work that way. What we think of as "pizza" in America has nothing to do with the dish of the same name in Italy.
Legumes - Lentils and hummus! You can work around other bean-class dishes too, but by the time you get to refried burrito beans you've wandered too far from the Mediterranean.
Nuts and Seeds - If you have nut allergies, you'd better bailout of the Med. Diet now. Get ready to dine like a squirrel: Almonds, pistachios, cashews, walnuts, pine nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds.
The above are all recommended as "every meal." Of course, olive oil is included in that recommendation (all you need is your own mafia to keep your supply line open). A typical Mediterranean lunch would be a leafy green salad and a hearty dark bread, each drizzled in olive oil, with a handful of nuts and maybe a yogurt. If you haven't noticed by now, the chief texture of the Med. Diet is "crunchy."
Now for the rest of the list, none of these appearing at every meal, but in the order of relative frequency for occasional foods:
- Fish and seafood - The primary meat source in the Med. Diet.
- Eggs - Go easy on them.
- Poultry - When you're tired of fish, go fowl.
- Dairy foods - The main ones to know here are yogurt and cheese. Mediterraneans are huge on yogurt. Quaffing a jug of kefir isn't out of the question. You will develop an uncomfortably intense relationship with your gut bacteria.
- Red wine - The alcohol of choice here if you're drinking at all.
- Red meats - The bottom of the list, reserved for holidays only.
For a certain class of folk like me, the Mediterranean Diet is not only appealing but composed mostly of foods I enjoyed anyway. In parts of the world, they call this "the diet of the poor," and, with the exception of olive oil, which apparently needs a Scarface cartel to obtain, that assessment is pretty correct. The Med. Diet is economical, convenient, varied, and composed of some of the most popular foods in the world anyway.
Remember that if you get tired of dining in Greece and Italy, you can always break it up with some Egyptian, French, and Spanish cooking, since they count as part of the Mediterranean too, albeit not as focused in the classic diet.
But now that we have that out of the way, let me tell you some more about how difficult it is to follow the Mediterranean Diet or any other sensible eating regimen in the US:
The Fat Conspiracy
Yes, there is one. Fanatic market capitalism demands it. Visit America from another country, and you will be hit by these striking contrasts:
Portion size - Everything is huge!
Pretty much every meal at every restaurant is big enough for two. Most menus sell you a combo package, you take the whole thing. But forget eating out, let's talk cooking at home.
You will notice on the "nutrition facts" consumer information panel on all our packaging that the container is never "one serving." Even for something like a packet of Ramen, it says "two servings per container." Yeah sure, you see people tin-foil wrap the opened pack with half a brick of noodles all the time, right?
Look at a can of peaches, what does it say? "About 3.5 servings per container." An actual serving size is half a cup. To completely conform to this serving size ideal, you will have to keep track of two cans across seven meals to balance it out to exact servings. But who has time for that? It all comes in a 3.5 serving can. You have to Tupperware the rest, then count on wanting peaches again for six more meals in a row to eat it quickly before it spoils.
The path of least resistance is, of course, to scarf down the whole thing at once, preferably standing up in the kitchen within arm's throw of the trash can.
Calories - They make the math hard on purpose!
That can of peaches gives the calories as "60," but wait! That's the "per serving" rating! Quick, calculate how many calories are in the whole can. That's 310 calories. That wasn't so bad, but try that standing up in the kitchen while suffering from low blood sugar. Wait, it gets better. You're not supposed to make a whole meal out of just peaches, you're supposed to get a full nutritious diet from each section of the food pyramid in appropriate percentages. Now put together a 700-calorie meal out of what you have on hand, and do it before you have to go to bed tonight. Let's see, that's this sliver of fish, three drops of this sauce, seven green beans, one and a half slices of bread…
Or, you know, screw the calories, I have a fifteen-minute break here, I need to eat and get back to work.
Sugar - SUGAR! SUUUGGAARRRR!!!!!
Notice the calories on that can of peaches seem a little strange for fruit? Something you're supposed to eat as part of a healthy diet? That's because it's drowning in sugar. The whole can is 16 grams of carbohydrates and 16 grams of sugar. The rest is water.
That's eating healthy in America. If it isn't sugar, it's corn syrup, and if it isn't corn syrup, it's a fancy laboratory sweetener where they switched around two molecules in corn syrup so they could call it something else. Corn syrup is basically diabetes in lard form as far as your body is concerned. Not only does your body convert it directly to fat, not only is there zero nutritional benefit - you could go your whole life consuming zero sugar and zero sweeteners and not miss a thing - but corn syrup actually shuts down the body's natural mechanism for telling when you've had enough to eat, contributing to helping you get EVEN FATTER.
You can not screen sugar from your diet in America; it is impossible. By American labeling laws, they can change the name of sugar to anything they want and lie to you right on the can. Even if you label food "sugar-free," you're still allowed to add 0.5 grams of sugar per serving! Everything is sweetened: fruit juice, bread, ketchup, cheese, lunch meat, rice crackers, tofu, hot sauce, coleslaw, peanut butter.
Hey, you know what you should eat more of to help lose weight? Salad! Let's get some salad dressing… first ingredient: "CORN SYRUP." Because that was totally my motivation for eating salad, right? You can't dodge sugar in America. If you grow carrots in your back yard and harvest them yourself, the Fat Mafia will break into your house at night and shellac them with molasses.
Of course, don't get us started on the beverages. Basically, if you want any diet to work, your only choice of beverage is either water straight from the tap - hope you live somewhere with good water quality - or squeeze your own fruit juice.
American Culture: Consume, You Cow!
It's pretty easy to find three kinds of ethnic foods in the US: Mexican, Italian, and Asian (mostly Chinese).
Finding an actual Mediterranean restaurant or deli is next to impossible anywhere but a major city. On top of that, American cooking seems almost like it was built to be the exact opposite of the Med. Diet: red meat, starch, and SUGAR! The Italian foods are the only small reprieve, but again, what passes for Italian food in America is starch, grease, and SUGAR! Yes, pasta and pizza sauces are loaded with it.
You get all but put on a terrorist watch list in the states if you try to eat pure, authentic Mediterranean. Which is all the more reason to fight the oppression of the right-wing and demand FDA guidance, consumer rights, and all those liberal left-wing values like "not wanting to die of a heart attack at age 50."