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The Mediterranean Diet and Ancestral Foods

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, are the leading cause of mortality in the world.  It turns out cultures around the world have abandoned their traditional diets for the unhealthily processed versions of food we’ve been consuming in the United States, add in lack of physical inactivity and tobacco use and you have all the major global determinants of the presentation of noncommunicable disease.

Of course, shifting diets is nothing new; we originally started out as a species that fed itself through hunting and gathering. Then about 10,000 years ago we switched to the domestication of plants and animals for agricultural food production.

While we were hunting and gathering out population growth had been low and stable, once we began farming our population size and density ended up increasing significantly. According to the WHO, it was originally assumed that “the abundance of food would have led to a better-nourished and healthier population with a reduced rate of mortality and a continuous and steady increase in population size”. However, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Instead, this shift towards the agricultural way of things produced an “increase in infectious and nutritional disease rates”. But how can this be? It turns out that the more sedentary way of living that is tied into agriculture (farming is tough to be sure, but you’re not roaming 20-30 miles every day gathering food) increased the parasitic disease rate, which was spread through human bodily byproducts. Furthermore, our new domesticated animals were also a new steady supply of disease. In an even more alarming twist, researchers “came to the conclusion that farmers suffered more from infection and more from chronic malnutrition in comparison to their forebears living on wild resources and had reduced life expectancies”.

The key to the problem: farmed diets lacked diversity and thus a full range of nutrients.

This link between what you eat and how well you are has extended into today. The W.H.O. states “studies have revealed that there is a consistent relationship between an unhealthy diet and the emergence of a range of chronic non-infectious diseases—including coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, various cancers, diabetes mellitus, dental caries, and various bone and joint diseases”. Finding your ancestral diet amidst all the processed post-industrial era food in the markets today can be trying. Even more of an issue is the cost. Suddenly, urban centers in developing worlds are charging their citizens much more for their traditional staples than for the processed homogenized option.

How does one combat this rising trend of high sugar, high-fat foods being spread globally? It’s simple: by returning to a countries roots.

It’s been a successful plan of attack in South Korea, where the government has put a lot of effort into advertising the low fat, high in a plant-based diet of the people’s ancestors. Eastern Finland also had a similar approach, under the name of The North Karelia Project. The program was able to decrease the saturated fat portions of the Finnish people’s diets and increase vegetable consumption.

If this method can work for whole countries it can certainly help the individual. What if you don’t know what your ancestors ate? Or you don’t necessarily care for their dietary choices? You’re in luck. If you happen to like seafood, lean meat, olive oil and other Greek staples you can always return to Greek roots. According to the latest research of Dr. Jose M. Ordovas, Ph.D. from the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging,

“It has been proposed that the Mediterranean diet may be closer to the ancestral foods that were part of human development and our metabolism may have evolved to work optimally on such a diet rather than with the current diets richer in saturated fat and highly refined and processed foods.”

Furthermore “Molecular, clinical, and epidemiological studies have begun to shed some light about how various components of this diet may protect the cardiovascular system and decrease the risk of other diseases such as cancer.” It’s a great dietary option then especially since Dr. Ordovas concluded that: “it is possible that alleles that are associated with increased disease risk may be silenced in the presence of that more ancestral and traditional diet and lifestyle. This knowledge may provide the basis for successful public health as well as individual approaches for disease prevention.”

With all this in mind, it might be high time to take a personal approach to disease prevention; you may not be able to save the entire world but you can better your own life. Start today, whatever your ancestral roots may be and eat Greek: time tested and the original heart healthy. You’re heart, body, and mind will thank you for it (and so will your tastebuds!).

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