For years I’ve heard about the many healthy virtues of a Mediterranean diet — you know, the food they eat in Greece, Italy, and Spain. But why in the world are pizza, spaghetti, tomato sauce, and spanakopita so much better for you than what I eat? I didn’t get it.

In 2013 I attended a marvelous course by the Harvard School of Public Health, Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives. It’s intended for health professionals and teaches just what a healthy diet is and why. And how to cook it. It’s held at Greystone in Napa Valley, the home of the Culinary Institute of America, every February. It blew me away and answered my questions about a proper diet. Highly recommended.

The science on healthy eating is actually quite settled. There are four founding principles underlying what is a healthy diet:

People in five communities in the world are vastly healthier than the rest of us.

Residents of Greece, Crete, southern Italy (but not the north), Okinawa (but not the rest of Japan), and Seventh-Day Adventists live 10-15 years longer than everyone else. They have about half the incidence of cancer and heart disease. What do they have in common? Their diet. These studies of longevity were carried out in the decades after World War II, when people in southern Europe still didn’t have much money and lived close to the land. They ate fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lots of olive oil. Observant Seventh-Day Adventists in the United States consume a diet that’s a lot closer to the American norm, except they’re vegetarians and don’t eat meat, poultry, or fish. Lots of vegetables and whole grains.

American agribusiness is not our friend

The American food industry knows that just selling you real food like vegetables, fruit, and whole grains kills their bottom line. There’s no markup, and the profit margins are terrible. They’re much better off financially if they can peddle you cheap junk that they’ve filled with salt, sugar, additives, and flavorings. You pay more but it costs them much less. But there’s nothing nutritious about processed food. Check out the ingredients list of Nacho Cheese Doritos. I counted 23 ingredients, only eight of which resemble food. But the balance of salt, sugar, and fat in junk food is scientifically proven to be addictive. It triggers the same reward center in your brain as cocaine.

Which foods are healthy and which are not?

Bad or good? Name of food
The worst Processed meats (sausage, ham, bacon, salami)
Sugary drinks
Fried potatoes (French fries, potato chips)
The bad Candy, sweets
Sugary foods like pastries
Processed foods like sugary breakfast cereals and snacks
Red meat: beef, lamb, pork
Not good White starch (white bread, white rice, fully cooked white pasta)
Better Poultry, dairy, fish
The best Fresh fruits and vegetables
Whole grains
Nuts and seeds
Beans, legumes
Vegetable oils, especially olive oil

Eat real food

I love Michael Pollan’s books about the American diet. I list In Defense of Food below. Much of the book is contrasting real food with processed food. Real food isn’t guaranteed to be good for you, but processed food almost certainly is unhealthy. He boils these distinctions down to the essentials in the tiny manual Food Rules. Here are some of his rules:

  • If your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, it’s not food. (But in a big city, change that to yours or somebody else’s grandmother, like Chinese, Greek, or Lebanese. Great food all.)
  • If it has more than five ingredients, it’s not food (yeah, mostly I agree).

Recommended resources

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us is the best summary of how American agribusiness puts profits above the health of us consumers. Highly recommended.

I love Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. This is an easy read and explains the different between food and, um, “not-food.”

The tiny Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is sort of the Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book of how to tell the difference between real food and junk food. Example: if it’s made by a plant it’s food, if it’s made in a plant it’s not. If you get it through a car window, it’s not food. If you can’t pronounce one of the ingredients, it’s not food. Fun, funny, and very informative.

I’ve always been a fan of the conglomerate that produces America’s Test Kitchens show on PBS and publishes Cook’s Illustrated magazines and all their specialty cookbooks. Yeah, they market their stuff aggressively. But I think they really do try to optimize each recipe and make them easy to understand and follow. The The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook: 500 Vibrant, Kitchen-Tested Recipes for Living and Eating Well Every Day has recipes for every sort of dish. Worth a look.