This week, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, praised the Mediterranean diet for its heart-healthy effects after a lengthy 5-year study. However, the article would’ve made a larger impact among the public had it been released 5 to 10 years sooner. In a coinciding news article published in the New York Times after 4 years of investigative journalism, award-winning journalist Michael Moss called out junk food for its addictive nature in a sneak peek of his upcoming book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. The article went viral overnight.
Researchers from the University of Barcelona concluded that a Mediterranean diet can better prevent heart attack, stroke, and death in high risk people compared to a low-fat diet. However, critics were quick to point out the many limitations. Study participants were between the ages of 55 and 80 years old, making the findings less generalizable than they initially appear. Furthermore, the low-fat diet control group was incapable of reaching a low-fat diet, reducing their fat intake by a mere 2% (39% to 37%) over the course of the study, well above the 20% to 30% definition of “low-fat diet.” It should be further noted that participants in the Mediterranean diet group were handed olive oil and mixed nuts on a regular basis at no cost compared to the non-low-fat “low-fat” diet group that was only handed non-food gifts. In addition, the Mediterranean diet group was mistakenly given more intense support during the first 2 to 3 years of the 5-year study, resulting in twice the dropout rate among low-fat dieters. The study ended with a laundry list of conflicts of interest, ranging from funding by the California Walnut Commission to affiliation with various alcohol and pharmaceutical supplement companies.
Meanwhile, modern-day muckraker Michael Moss took a stab at the everyday proceedings in the junk food industry. His clever insight to the minds of C.E.O.s and food scientists that brought us Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper, Lunchables Beef Taco Wraps, Go-Gurt, and Cheetos struck a chord among taste-nostalgic readers that grew up in the early 90’s. His impressive reporting of industry tactics made a clear message: we don’t have a choice in what we eat.
The public no longer wishes to hear the same tired message about what foods are healthy. While the idea behind super-foods will remain strong, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact our immediate environment has on our health. In a study that hands participants free olive oil and mixed nuts, benefits are obvious; but in a junk-food laden world, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t stand a chance. So is it so surprising that New York City chose to place a soda cap and increase the availability of fruits and vegetables in bodegas?
We live in a time where decreasing unhealthy food is equally – if not more important – than increasing healthy foods.