The 5 Biggest Misconceptions About the Mediterranean Diet

This is a guest blog post by Elena Paravantes, RD which originally appeared in Olive Tomato

The Mediterranean diet has become the “it” diet. While it has been gaining popularity since the 1990’s when the Mediterranean diet Pyramid was presented by Harvard and the World Health Organization researchers along with other experts, today its popularity has reached new heights.

Ever since the New York Times presented a recent Spanish study showing that the diet may be better for the heart than a low fat diet, the media has gone crazy. Numerous e-books on the diet literally appeared overnight, articles on the diet were everywhere, Mediterranean style recipes are popping up on all the food websites and blogs, and basically everybody not only has an opinion on the diet but they also feel that they can dispense advice on a diet that they may have never experienced themselves.

So here are the 5 biggest misconceptions going around:

1. There is no single Mediterranean diet.
Well, not exactly, there is one Mediterranean diet model. The Mediterranean diet was based on the diet of Cretan men in the 60’s and more generally Greece and Southern Italy of that period (read about it in this Harvard article). At that time the rates of chronic disease in those areas were among the lowest in the world, and life expectancy was among the highest.

We often see articles stating that it is a combination of components of the diets of countries surrounding the Mediterranean. The diet of Crete and most of Greece and Southern Italy combined all those components, almost all other countries have locations where they do not follow a Mediterranean style diet, such as Northern Italy or Spain where meat is very prominent and some countries around the Mediterranean do not even use olive oil as the main sort of fat. So it is wrong to state that their is no single Mediterranean diet, there is one prototype. That doesn’t mean that you can’t combine Mediterranean components from all these countries, but it is important to know what diet did serve as the prototype for the well-known Mediterranean Diet.

2. Olive Oil should be drizzled on salads
Many articles advise you to drizzle a bit of olive oil on your salads or over cooked vegetables. There was a lot of discussion about the amount of olive oil used in that Spanish study: 4 tablespoons, and some thought that was way too much. Well, I have got news for you: You know that Cretan diet we were talking about earlier? Well in some cases their fat intake made 45% of the total calories of the diet.

If you looked at Greeks cooking traditional vegetable recipes, you see them pouring the olive oil straight from the bottle. In Greek cuisine there is even a whole category of dishes named “lathera” which means “cooked in oil”. For a good lathero, the rule was that you should actually see the olive oil among the vegetables after they are cooked. The meal as a whole had a moderate caloric value, because all you ate were vegetables cooked in olive oil, with some bread and cheese, so you did not see weight gain with that sort of meal. We have to remember that these people had to support themselves with what they produced and that was olive oil, vegetables and dairy.

Vegetables and olive oil were used as a means to provide satiety, since they could not afford meat. So when reading all that advice, it makes me wonder if these experts really know what a Mediterranean diet is, if they did, they wouldn’t be telling people to add one teaspoon of olive oil to their food.

3. Nuts are a big part of the diet
Everywhere you read about the prominence of nuts in the Mediterranean diet. Well, they aren’t so prominent as it is suggested. Greeks would have walnuts at home when they were in season. Nuts, mainly almonds and walnuts were used mainly in sweets, and in some sauces such as skordalia (garlic sauce) but they were not a daily habit. Georgia Petraki, a Cretan Nutritionist who specializes in the traditional Cretan diet, tells me that the consumption of nuts in Crete at that time was seasonal and nuts generally were not available in large amounts. Each family may have had an almond tree, and when it was almond season the family ate some and the rest were saved as they were considered precious and served only to guests. So yes, nuts have a high nutritional value, but they are to be consumed 2-3 times a week, not every day.

4. Plenty of Pasta
Many people associate the Mediterranean diet with pasta and are worried it will make them fat.  While there is a good amount of starch in the diet, it’s not huge bowls of pasta but whole grains foods such as barley rusks, whole wheat bread as well as potatoes, polenta, rice and of course pasta. So pasta can be a part of the diet, depending on the area. But it is usually an accompaniment and not drowned in butter and cream based sauces. Enjoy your pasta, but make sure it’s made with an olive oil or tomato based sauce, and accompanied by plenty of vegetables.

5. The Mediterraneans follow the Mediterranean diet
In the articles I’ve written in the past I make it clear that when I talk about a Greek-Mediterranean diet, I am referring to the traditional Greek diet. Unfortunately many Mediterraneans do not follow their famous traditional diet any more. No, we don’t sit around having long lunches with family and friends every day, nor do we eat meat once a month.

More and more Greeks are eating fast food meals at their desk accompanied by a Coke. More and more Greeks are eating meat everyday rather then a lathero dish. And more and more Greeks (and Italians, and Spaniards) are becoming obese.

You might think: “it’s all that olive oil they pour on their food”. I wish it were all that olive oil, I wish Greeks would use only olive oil. But the fact of the matter is that it’s exactly the opposite: Greeks slowly have stopped eating their traditional food, which happens to be one of the healthiest in the world. Processed foods have become prominent in the average diet of the modern Greek.

Elena Paravantes is an award winning Registered Dietitian, Nutritionist and Writer specializing in the Mediterranean Diet. She has been active in the field of food and nutrition for over 15 years as a clinical dietitian, food and nutrition consultant, writer, teacher and lecturer, both in the U.S. and in Greece. Learn more about Elena by visiting Olive Tomato.
  • Renato Bruni

    There is a further caveat to add: the “original” Mediterranean diet was also rich in bitter, fiber-rich plants that were not cultivated but rather collected in the wild. The mediterranean diet pyramid prepared by the Hellenic Ministry of Health mention that explicitly, with 6 daily servings of “vegetables (including wild greens)”. These are of course completely gone from today’s diet.

    • Elena Paravantes RD

      Renato, You are correct. The famous “horta” wild greens. You can get cultivated ones in the super markets and open markets here in Athens. But in the countryside many people still find wild horta and other plants. But they still are very much part of the diet, but unfortunately for the most part not wild.

    • Niki

      absolutely, bitter and dark greens as well as herbs are very common in Mediterranean cuisine.

  • Jess

    you aren’t addressing the caloric load at all on the unmeasured amts of oil that might be used by a person just “drizzling” oil on their salads….Read what RD jeff Novick addresses with use of oils…and read part 1 too…

    • Alyssa

      If you’re only eating vegetables and maybe some bread and cheese, like she stated, I don’t think you’d need to worry about the calories.

  • Gerry

    I think we should keep in mind the differences in the lifestyles
    of those initially studied in the Mediterranean Diet. As the Harvard Study
    notes, (thanks for linking that) if we look to the 1960′s in Crete we see a far
    less sedentary lifestyle and one where stress reduction is prominent. No diet
    is a panacea. We need to look for a holistic approach in our

  • OAllieG67

    If you would like to hire me as an editor, I would be happy to do the work! I am an Eng composition prof who has noticed some grammar and punctuation errors here. (and please know I say that with all due respect. My goal is to help instruct for improvement, not to degrade)

  • The Candid RD

    Great post. I’m afraid people might get confused though, when you write “nuts should be eaten 2-3 times a week”. You’re not saying it’s bad to eat them every day…..just that’s now how often they eat them in the MEditerranean….right? Sad to know they are slowly migrating towards a more Western diet, ugh. Not good!

    • Elena Paravantes RD

      Thanks, Yes, exactly. I am saying that nuts were not a daily occurrence on the traditional Mediterranean diet, most often they were a seasonal occurrence (not even a weekly one), so I am not saying that they are bad, but they most likely were not one of the most important components of the Mediterranean diet either (as is often noted).

  • Sophia Antillon

    I hadn’t heard of this diet before. It’s now something I may implement in to our meal planning. I love olive oil, veggies, pasta, and cheese.

  • Dan Ingram

    It seems like the Mediterranean Diet makes for a nice structure for so many people who need to follow something and are not well versed in nutrition. Ditto on the exercise – everyone was so much more active even 25 years ago, never mind 50. This diet also reflects the components and themes of many well-known diets used for healing health conditions and even cancer. Thanks Elena for the education!

  • gerry