Nutrition Counseling

Mediterranean Diet Myths and Misperceptions

My mother-in-law called me recently to tell me about a new salad dressing she’d bought. “It’s a low-fat Mediterranean vinaigrette,” she said. “What an awful product,” I replied. I told her the dressing likely contains more sodium and sugar than a full-fat vinaigrette.

I went on to explain that the traditional Mediterranean diet is a moderate fat diet, one with more than 40% calories from fat.

“Well, how can that much fat be good for you?” she asked. My mother-in-law, like so many other people, still thinks low fat is best while nutrition research has shown us that total fat doesn’t matter if total saturated fat is low: less than 10% of calories. In the traditional Mediterranean dietary pattern, saturated fat is 7%.

Despite the fact that my mother-in-law has been diagnosed with prediabetes, and that I’ve counseled her on diet and lifestyle habits that can reduce her risk of developing type 2 diabetes, she continues to think like the 1960s housewife who joined Weight Watchers every January, counted points, and bought low-fat and fat-free everything.

As a dietitian, I was thrilled to see the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans included three healthful eating patterns: the Healthy US-Style Eating Pattern; the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern; and the Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern. The inclusion of multiple eating patterns subtly shows people there are many ways to create a healthful eating pattern. But clients need our help to find their way when it comes to healthful fat.

They need tips for cooking with extra virgin olive oil. It’s OK to sauté foods in extra virgin olive oil; the naturally occurring phenols protect the integrity of the oil.

They need to appreciate how awesome hummus is as a dip or sandwich spread. It’s such an easy way to consumer more fiber and potassium-rich pulses. And they need ideas for cooking with pulses of all kinds, including peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

They need reassurance that putting regular mayonnaise on a sandwich is OK; more than 80% of the fat in regular mayo is unsaturated. If using the mayo gets someone (like my husband) to put more vegetables on a sandwich, that’s great.

And they need advice on eating more seafood. Buy the farmed salmon, experiment with canned tuna packed in oil, enjoy some smoked oysters. Please put down the low-fat vinaigrette!

Clients need us to help them feel good about embracing healthful fats, and enjoying better health when their diets are filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, protein- and potassium-rich dairy foods, and healthful proteins from multiple sources.

— Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, is the founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc, in Carmichael, California. Her clients include the American Pulse Association, California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, The Culinary Institute of America, Dairy Management Inc, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Northarvest Bean Growers Association. She wasn’t compensated by any client for writing this blog.

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