About fifteen years ago I had a really high cholesterol and triglycerides count at my annual checkup. I had never really paid much attention to my diet before that, since I was one of those blessed people who could eat pretty much anything without gaining much weight. Three cheeseburgers for lunch? Why not?
Back then, my GP automatically prescribed statin drugs for every patient with high cholesterol. I resisted. I was too young to have to take meds every day for the rest of my life. But to me, food is one of the essential pleasures in life, and I didn’t want to swear off meat, or any other food group, completely. Robin handed me Nancy Harmon Jenkins’s Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which was already sitting on our shelf, and it pointed to a way out of my predicament.: A book full of delicious sounding food, all somehow associated with very low incidence of heart disease.
Jenkins quotes this description of the Mediterranean diet from a 1993 Harvard Medical School conference:
Plentiful fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains; olive oil as the principle fat; lean red meat consumed only a few times a month or somewhat more often in very small portions; low to moderate consumption of other foods from animal sources such as dairy products (especially cheese and yogurt), fish, and poultry; and moderate consumption of wine (primarily at meals).
Sounds good to me! As Jenkins puts it “A diet of Mediterranean dishes . . . will be healthful and satisfying but never austere.” Best of all, the med diet didn’t require me to totally give up meat or carbs or fats or anything else – just moderate my consumption of some foods. As an article on the NIH website puts it,
In a somewhat reductionist approach, the traditional Mediterranean diet can be considered as a mainly, but not dogmatically, exclusive plant-based dietary pattern.
Not dogmatically vegetarian! The Mediterranean diet, where red meat is either a garnish in small quantities or a rare treat at a celebration, is pretty good for the climate too, since beef and lamb have about the highest climate footprint among food choices (unfortunately, dairy products have big footprints, too). But part the Mediterranean diet and culture also includes “feast days” – usually religious celebrations, where people indulge in the rich food that is not part of their daily fare, so you can still enjoy these rich foods as a treat.
So that beautiful and savory minestrone soup in the picture above is good for my health and for the climate. But it’s not vegetarian – you start it by frying a little pancetta in the soup pot, and adding beef stock enriches the flavor. I am not dogmatic about vegetarianism. Or my climatarianism for that matter. When climate conscious friends chide me for eating some free range organic beef about once a month (13 lbs CO2 for an 8 oz portion), I just smile and resist comparing my meat eating to their jet travel (2000 lbs CO2 for a typical round trip flight). I might even get on a plane myself on occasion for a really good reason, as long as it fits in my carbon budget. We all deserve our occasional feast day.
After about three months of a Mediterranean diet, together with adding daily exercise to my routine, my cholesterol was back in the normal range.