The latest news about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet came as no surprise to Dr. Carmela Sebastian, a Tampa resident and senior medical director for Florida Blue.
"I'm so glad that the world is finally agreeing with what my parents have been saying for years," said the 50-year-old internal medicine specialist, whose family is Italian. Sebastian, who has a healthy living website and is a frequent TV guest on wellness topics, devotes part of her upcoming book to the Mediterranean diet. Sex and Spaghetti Sauce: My Italian Mother's Recipe for Getting Healthy and Getting Busy in Your 50s and Beyond is due out in mid March.
The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported that the first major trial to evaluate the Mediterranean diet's effect on heart disease risk was stopped early, so overwhelming were the findings. The study of more than 7,000 people in Spain at risk of heart disease found the diet lowered the risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease by 30 percent.
The diet — mostly fresh vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts, fish several times a week, a glass of wine a day and up to a quarter cup a day of olive oil —is based on what people in Mediterranean countries have eaten for centuries. Study participants were counseled to avoid such known diet downers as prepackaged baked goods, sugary sodas, French fries and red meat.
If a quarter cup of olive oil a day sounds excessive to you, I should tell you that I was raised on the stuff. Meats, vegetables, rice and beans, the soft boiled eggs I ate every morning as a child — all of it was doused in a swirl of oil from my Puerto Rican mother's decorative cruet, a fixture on the table.
I caught up with Sebastian by phone this week to talk about the new research and how to apply it to everyday living.
What's so magical about the way people in the Mediterranean traditionally ate?
It's the food itself that's powerful and the portion sizes, which are smaller than what most Americans eat. It's not giant plates of spaghetti or Alfredo sauce on pasta. Italians in Italy don't eat like that. It's a small amount of pasta, usually with a light, vegetable and olive oil based sauce. It's a different way of eating that's also a lifestyle.
In the study, the comparison group was put on a low fat diet, but hardly anyone followed it. What do you think happened?
People will only stick to a meal plan that can work with their lifestyle. It is incredibly difficult to maintain a low fat diet. That's what is so good about this study. It proved that whatever diet or meal plan you choose, it has to fit with the way you really eat. It was easy for the Spaniards to live life on the Mediterranean diet. The foods were familiar and commonly eaten there.
People in the study didn't lose weight yet they lowered their heart disease risk.
Right, and they weren't encouraged to restrict calories or to exercise. That wasn't the point of the study. The idea was to find out the metabolic consequences of what we eat and its impact on heart disease and stroke. The food worked because it worked on a cellular level.
So what's the take home message?
That whole, fresh foods really are medicine and if we want to live a healthier life, we need to think about that. My Italian aunt is 95 years old. She has always eaten the Mediterranean way. Her brain is sharp and her skin is amazing.
How does the diet work in your life?
We live it. Tonight we are having lean, grilled pork chops, sweet potatoes and spinach sautéed in olive oil. We eat dinner out maybe once a week.
Have you converted anyone to this way of living?
My mother-in-law came to stay with us for a while when she was recuperating from surgery. She was in bad shape, obese, could hardly walk because of peripheral artery disease and was on 10 medications a day. I prepared all of her meals in the Mediterranean way. My husband, who's a personal trainer, got her up and walking around the neighborhood, eventually walking 2 miles a day. In the six weeks she was with us she lost 20 pounds and was down to just five pills a day. Now, I have to say, when she went back to her own home and her own cooking, she regressed, unfortunately.