Cultural differences in diet and health
Is a Mediterranean diet better for us?
Food in some countries seems to keep people healthier there, but it takes population-wide studies of health and disease to pin down what it is about different diets that provides particular benefits.
The effects of a diet featuring lots of olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and fish but little dairy or red meat – as traditionally seen in Spain, Greece, southern Italy and Morocco – were tested by the Seven Countries Study, which began in 1958.
It compared food habits and health in the USA, northern Europe, southern Europe and Japan and confirmed that a high blood cholesterol level increases the risk of heart disease. It also suggested, however, that the Mediterranean diet tended to reduce coronary heart disease separately from other factors such as cholesterol levels, smoking and exercise.
Shifts in eating habits also shed light on links between diet and disease. Japan – where the traditional diet includes plenty of fish, rice, soy and vegetables – has seen a move toward the larger portions of meat and dairy fats consumed in the West. Patterns of disease in Japan have become more like those of the USA. Heart disease rates have risen, although they remain relatively low. The death rate from strokes, associated with high blood pressure from a large sodium intake (eg a diet high in fermented soy products, such as soy sauce), has fallen steeply.