Wednesday 14 January 2009

'The Mediterranean Diet' strictly for the dogs!

Browsing through the free literature in the Vet's today - it was a long wait - my attention was caught by two quite eye-opening ads for dog food. One was a very special sounding, 'Cavallo e Patate, con Aloe Vera e Rosmarino'. It may sound delicious - very Mario Batali or Carluccio - but I can tell the manufacturer right now that this will not sell well in Cheltenham. For those not up to speed in Italian, 'Cavallo' is Horse. I doubt 'Horse and Potato' dog food wil be gracing the shelves in Waitrose any time soon, with or without the addition of Aloe Vera and Rosemary.
The gasps of horror from the dog-food aisle would be audible half way up the M1.

The other dog-food ad, though, initially sounded more innocent: 'Italian Way - based on our traditional Mediterranean diet'. This actually is the more worrying. The very idea that there is a 'traditional Mediterranean diet' for dogs is so breathtakingly silly that I hardly know where to begin.

Firstly, dealing with the doggy side of things, the traditional Mediterranean diet for dogs is a bowl of slops to be consumed by the poor dog in the yard, at the end of the long chain to which the dog is permanently attached. The Mediterraneans in general are not sentimental about dogs. Afraid yes, sentimental not. The prime role of a Mediterranean dog was, and in many places still is, as a burglar alarm.
Secondly, what is this about 'OUR traditional Mediterranean diet'? To which of the 17 or 18 national Mediterranean diets are they referring - Turkish? Albanian? Algerian? Maltese? Let's face it, they are all very different. What is this 'Mediterranean diet' we hear so much about? Who eats it? And it's supposed to be so good for us, because...?

The factual answer is that it was an idea cooked up by an American named Ancel Benjamin Keys. Mr Keys wasn't a Doctor or even a nutritionist, he was an economist with a Ph.D in oceanography who became a Professor in Physiological Hygiene - whatever that is - at the University of Minnesota. Keys had a theory that the modern life style and diet, particularly the consumption of saturated fat, especially cholesterol, was the cause of the dreaded CVD - Cardio Vascular Disease. The theory caused a sensation and propelled Keys to fame if not fortune - he even made the cover of Time magazine in 1961.

Professor Keys may have been a clever man but his theory was complete nonsense. Although, at his urging, Americans cut down massively on saturated fat, and cholesterol became a dirty word, nobody got any healthier. Forty years later it is easy to see that Greeks and Italians are just as unhealthy - or healthy - as the French or the British, yet they eat completely differently. Where did Professor Keys go wrong?

In his now long-forgotten 'Seven Countries' study, he appeared to demonstrate that Greeks and Southern Italians suffered less CVD than others, basing his conclusions on the results of free health checks given mostly to the elderly poor in Crete and Southern Italy by American Forces personnel based there. In Crete the patients were a particularly gnarled and robust lot, and the Doctors were quite surprised that they were healthier than Americans of the same age.
What Professor Keys neglected to notice was that the first half of the 20th century had been terribly tough on the Mediterranean agrarian poor. Two World wars and a depressed economy meant that conditions in which they lived were appalling. Many emigrated, many died and those that didn't, lived, with no healthcare to speak of, on the smell of an oil rag. When Keys' colleagues were checking their health, they were checking the few survivors of a generation literally decimated by poverty and disease. These survivors were the fittest of the fit, and it is not surprising that they were much healthier in general than the average person of the same age living in comfy towns in Northern Europe or America. They did eat differently, but it wasn't the diet which explained the difference in health - it was the conditions in which they had lived, or rather that they had managed to survive.

Unfortunately, this little - or not so little - mistake escaped notice for years. Professor Keys' theory in practice triggered an enormous change in attitudes to the consumption of dairy products. It massively boosted the consumption of products, like margarine, which were heavily marketed as the 'safe' substitute - how ironic is it that now we call margarine 'transfat' and have
banned it? Milk became 'skimmed', Yoghurts became 'light', much to the joy of the dairy industry which had been trying to sell watered-down milk for generations. Cuisine became Nouvelle and Minceur, basically all because of Professor Keys' theory.
Doubts were only raised much later. French statistics didn't fit the theory, the Southern French ought to have been healthier than their Northern cousins, but they weren't. As an explanation, the so-called 'French Paradox' was born and a host of theories to explain it, among which, that it was the French wine that made the difference. When the results of large scale long term studies came in, they didn't support Professor Keys' theory either.

Even though it is known that the theory is wrong, the effects of it are still all around us. People still think eating cholesterol causes heart attacks, they still think olive oil is better for you than butter, and they still believe that at one time, somewhere, there existed a happy bunch of Mediterraneans who lived long, heart-attack-free lives thanks to their diet. A lovely mythical diet that fills the glossy pages of our life-style magazines. And now, to continue the myth, we can feed our dogs matching 'Italian Way Mediterranean diet' dog food. It's all completely potty.
Horse and Potato is beginning to sound like a safer bet!

And if you still think something in our modern life makes us ill, consider the case of the dead gentleman that Dario, my pathologist friend, examined recently. He was only 48 years old and extremely fit - in fact, so fit he had worn out his joints with exercise. He had no body fat, didn't smoke and his diet seems to have been the very model of organic living - grains, fruit and vegetable only in season plus a little grilled meat, mostly goat. In spite of this, his arteries were so hopelessly clogged that had he not died accidentally he was a prime candidate for a stroke before 50. In fact he was murdered, shot in the back, with an arrow, 53 centuries ago. He is now known as Oetzi and you can visit him here

Tonight's Un-Mediterranean Dinner:

Salad of Cold, roast Poussin, stuffed with Duck Liver & Marjoram.

Sea Bass fillets, fried with Lemon & Basil.

Baked Apples, filled with hazelnut-infused Amaretti.

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