Mediterranean diet and blood sugar

Data such as that from the Lyon Heart Study have demonstrated that a so-called Mediterranean diet substantially reduces risk for heart attack.

But there are aspects of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle that are not entirely sorted out.

For instance, what specific component(s) of the diet provide the benefit? Is it olive oil and linolenic acid? Is it red wine? Is it the reduced exposure to processed snack foods that Americans are indundated with? Is it their more slender builds and greater tendency to walk? How about exposure to the Mediterranean sun? What about the inclusion of breads, since in the Track Your Plaque program I advocate elimination of wheat products for many abnormalities?

Anyway, here's a wonderfully thoughtful set of observations from Anna about her experiences traveling Italy, trying to understand the details of the Mediterranean diet while also trying to keep blood sugar under control.

I just returned from a two week stay in Italy, doing a bit of my own "Mediterranean Diet" experiments. When practical, we sought out food sources and places to eat that were typical for the local area, and tried as much as possible/practical to stay away from establishments that mostly catered to tourist tastes. I was really curious to see how the mythical "Mediterranean Diet" we Americans are urged to follow compared to the foods really consumed in Italy.

The first week, we stayed in a rural Tuscan farmhouse apartment (agriturismo), so many, if not most of our meals were prepared by me with ingredients I bought at the local grocery store (Coop) or the outdoor market in Siena. In addition, I purchased really fantastic free-range eggs from the farm where we were staying. (Between some language issues and seasonality, eggs and wine were what we could buy from them - though I was tantalized by the not-quite-ripe figs heavy on many trees). Mostly, our meals consisted of simple and easily prepared fresh fruits and vegetables, rustic cured meats (salami, proscuitto, pancetta, etc.) hand-sliced at the deli down the road, fresh sausages, various Italian cheeses, plus plenty of espresso. It was a bit disappointing to find underripe fruit & tomatoes as well as old green beans in the grocery stores, not to mention too many low fat and highly processed foods, but all over Europe the food supply is becoming more industrialized, more centralized, and homogenous, so I'm not too surprised that it happens even in Italy. But even with the smaller grocery store size, the amount of in-season produce was abundant, yet one still was better off shipping from the perimeter of the store, venturing into the aisles only for spices, olive oil, vinegar, coffee, etc. Without the knowledge of where to go and the language to really talk in depth about food with people, I wasn't able to find truly direct and local sources for as many foods as I would have liked, but still, we ate well enough!

The first week I maintained blood sugar levels very similar to those I get at home, because except for the Italian specialties, we ate much like we always do. A few rare exceptions to my normal BG tests were after indulging in locally made gelato or a evening limoncello cordial, but even then, the BG rise was relatively modest and to me, acceptable under the circumstance. Even with the gelato indulgences, it felt like I might have even lost a few pounds by the end of the first week and my FBG didn't rise much over 100.

The second week we stayed in two cities (Florence & Rome), and I didn't prepare any of my own food because I didn't have a kitchen/fridge. I found it impossible to get eggs anywhere for breakfast, and the tickets our hotels provided for a "continental" breakfast at a nearby café/bar was always for a coffee or hot chocolate drink and some sort of bread or roll (croissant, brioche, danish, etc.). At first I just paid extra for a plate of salami and cheese if that was available - or went to a small grocery store for some plain yogurt, but then I decided to go off low-carb and conduct a short term experiment, though I didn't consume nearly as many carbs as a typical Italian or tourist would.

So I breakfasted with a brioche roll or plain croissant for breakfast with my cappuccino, but unfortunately no additional butter was available. I didn't feel "full" enough with such a breakfast and I was usually starving an hour or two later. Additionally, when I ate the "continental" breakfast, I noticed immediate water retention - my ankles, lower legs, and knees looked like someone else's at the end of a day walking and sightseeing, swollen heavy. Exercising my feet and lower legs while waiting in lines or sitting didn't seem to help.

Food is much more expensive in Europe than in the US, and the declining US$ made everything especially expensive (not to mention the higher cost of dining out rather than cooking at home), so we tried to manage food costs by eating simple lunches at local take-away places, avoiding the corporate fast food chains. I was getting tired of salami/proscuitto & cheese plates, but the typical "quick" option was usually a panini (sandwich). At first I tried to find alternatives to paninis, but the available salads were designed for side dishes, not main meals and rarely had any protein, and the fillings of the expensive sandwiches were too skimpy to just eat without the bread. So I started to eat panini, although I sometimes removed as much as half of the bread (though it was nearly always very excellent quality pan toasted flatbreads or crusty baguette rolls, not sliced America bread). So of course, my post-prandial BGs rose, as did my FBG. I also found my hunger tended to come back much too soon and I think overall I ate more than usual in terms of volume.

Then we deviated from the "Italian" lunch foods and found a better midday meal option (quick, cheaper, and easier to customize for LC) - stopping at one of the numerous kebab shops and ordering a kebab plate with salad, hold the bread (not Italian, but still Mediterranean, I guess). I felt much better fueled on kebab plates (more filling and enough protein) than paninis, though I must say I still appreciated the taste of caprese paninis (slices of fresh mozzerella and tomato, basil leaves, mustard dressing on crusty, pan-toasted flat bread). If I followed my appetite, I could have eaten two caprese paninis.

We had some great evening dinners, at places also frequented by locals. This often was a fixed price dinner of several courses ("we feed you what we want you to eat"). Multi-course meals included house wine, and invariably consisted of antipasta (usually LC, such as a cold meat and cheese plate), pasta course (much smaller servings than typical US pasta dishes), main course plus some side vegetables, and dessert/coffee. These were often the best meals we experienced, full of local flavor and tradition (sometimes with a grandmotherly type doing the cooking), and definitely of very good quality, though we noticed the saltiness overall tended to be on the high side. I ate from every course, including some of the excellent bread (dipped in plenty of olive oil) and usually about half of the pasta served (2 oz dry?), plus about half of the dessert. After these meals I always ran BGs higher than usual, varying from moderately high (120-160 - at home I would consider this very high for me) to very high (over 180). By late in the week, my FBG was into the 115 range every morning (usually I can keep it 90-100 on LC food). Nearly everything that week was delicious, well-prepared food, but the high carb items definitely were not good for my BG control in the long run.

And most days I was doing plenty of walking, sprinting for the Metro subway trains, stair climbing (4th and 5/6th floor hotel rooms!), etc. but since I didn't have my usual housework to do, it probably wasn't too different from my usual exertion level.

So it was very interesting to experience the "Mediterranean Diet" first hand. Meats and cheeses were plentiful, fruits and vegetables played a much more minor role (main courses didn't come with vegetables other than what was in the sauce, but had to be ordered as additional items), but the overall carbs were decidedly too many. As I expected, it wasn't nearly as pasta-heavy as is portrayed in the US media/health press, but it is still full of too much grain and sugar, IMO. Low fat has become the norm in many dairy products, sadly, and if the grocery stores are any indication, modern families are gravitating towards highly processed, industrial foods. Sugar seems to be in everything (I quickly learned to order my caffe freddo con panno or latte sensa zuccero - iced coffee with cream or milk without sugar) after realizing that adding lots of sugar was the norm).

And, after several days of breakfasting at the café near our Rome hotel (where carbs were the only option in the morning), I learned that our very buff, muscular, very flat-stomached, café owner doesn't eat pasta (said as he proudly patted his 6 pack abs). I probably could have stuck closer to the carb intake I know works better for my BG control, but I figured if I was going to go off my LC way of eating and experiment, this was the time and place.

And yes, there were far fewer really obese people than in the US and lots of very slender people, but I could still see there were *plenty* of overweight, probably pre-diabetic and diabetic Italians (very visible problems with lower extremities, ranging from what looked like diabetic skin issues, walking problems, acanthosis nigricans, etc.). Older people do seem to be generally more fit than in the US (fit from everyday life, not exercise regimes), but there were plenty of "wheat bellies" on men old and young, even more young women with "muffin tops", and simply too many overweight children (very worrisome trend). So it may well be more the relaxed Italian way of living life (or a combination of other factors such as less air conditioning, strong family bonds, lots of sun, etc?) that keeps Italian CVD rates lower than the American rates, more than the mythical "Mediterranean diet".

Comments (6) -

  • Zute

    7/30/2008 8:42:00 PM |

    Even between the Italian countryside and city you can see the broad difference in a "Mediterranean diet" but what about between Sardinia and Italy or Greece or the many other regions.  I think in Greece it is a lot of lamb and fish and veggies and not much in the way of grains.  

    To me, this whole concept is just another silly thing generated by misguided doctors and greedy marketeers.  I'm sure we'll be seeing "Mediterranean Diet Approved" labels on breakfast cereals someday.  *sigh*

  • Alan

    7/30/2008 9:09:00 PM |

    G'day Anna, via Dr Davis

    You brought back memories of my own wanders in Europe while managing BGs, thanks.

    Just a brief comment on definitions. You wrote "Then we deviated from the "Italian" lunch foods and found a better midday meal option (quick, cheaper, and easier to customize for LC) - stopping at one of the numerous kebab shops and ordering a kebab plate with salad, hold the bread (not Italian, but still Mediterranean, I guess)."

    That is part of the difficulty; the various papers recently are based on an American understanding of the "Mediterranean" diet. Some are based on old studies from Crete, others from Corfu, others simply add olive oil or wine as Dr Davis notes. The Mediterranean littoral has diets which vary enormously from Moroccan to Libyan to Egyptian to Turkish to Greek to Albanian to Italian to French to Spanish and all the small nations and islands nearby.  

    I think you sensed the real Mediterranean difference, and that is disappearing. The rustic Mediterranean diet, with local produce, locally farmed and killed animals and local processing and production of cheeses, sausages and breads eaten by people who walk to work is part of that. That diet isn't just Mediterranean, it's simply rural. It has also mostly disappeared from our own cultures.

    Of course, we can't turn back the clock because the reduction in farm production would lead to famine. However, one thing we can do is start reducing our personal purchases of over-processed foods in the supermarket and start searching a little harder for local products such as free-range eggs, fresh fruits and farm-fresh vegetables in season, range-raised animals and similar products.

  • Jonathan Shewchuk

    7/31/2008 4:41:00 AM |

    What specific component of the Lyon Heart Study diet provided the cardiovascular benefit?  The most likely explanation I've seen is that it was the higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the "Mediterranean Diet", largely on account of a special margarine that was provided by the researchers to the Mediterranean dieters.  Details here:

    I've seen lots of writing pointing out the disparities between what Americans (and researchers in Lyon) conceive to be the "Mediterranean diet" and what's actually eaten around the Mediterranean.  One example:


  • Anne

    7/31/2008 9:13:00 AM |

    I enjoyed Anna's account of her experiences of the Mediterranean diet whilst on holiday on Italy. Such a shame she didn't pop over the border into France for a week or so. Having a house in France and relatives in Italy I can say from first hand experience that the food available in the stores, markets and restaurants in France is better than Italy when it comes to fresh fruit and veggies, meats, fish, and those lower carb foods which help our blood sugars (I am diabetic too) and hearts.

    The Coop where Anna shopped the first week made me smile. It reminds me how the Italians do not like, on the whole, to shop in supermarkets.  I don't think I've ever seen another supermarket chain other than the Coop in Italy ! Most Italian housewives shop in small local shops or in markets on market days, and that will explain the poor fruit and veggies in the Coop....a very dismal store. Go across the border to France and, although the French still like to shop at fresh markets and smaller shops, their supermarkets and hypermarkets are rather splendid for fresh fruit and veggies, and fresh fish and meat, as well as the usual things. The French too are increasing their intake of junk foods, but I don't think as much as the Italians who have always enjoyed bready things like paninis, cakes and sweets. The French do have their bread but it is much more crusty and full of air. Breakfasts in France are not suitable for a diabetic either being carbohydrate affairs as in Italy, but doing self catering, as in Anna's first week gets round that. Mind you, some French hotels are now providing self service breakfasts where you can help yourself to eggs, ham and fruit if you don't want the usual croissants and bread. French 'fast food', ie caféterias (caféterias are often attached to hypermarkets) or brasseries are excellent places to get good quality low carb food...freshly cooked steak with vegetables are easily obtained everywhere. I hardly ever have problems with my blood sugar in France.

    I believe the French have a lower incidence of heart disease than other Mediterranean countries...let's hope they keep it up. You see more fat French than there used to be but much fewer than in the UK (where I come from) and fewer than in Italy. There's a Mediterranean diet and a Mediterranean diet !


  • Kevin

    7/31/2008 5:32:00 PM |

    As an army brat we spent a lot of time in Italy. Maybe it's different now but I remember whenever there was bread on the table there was also a bowl of olive oil.  Bread was torn into morsel sizes, dipped in olive oil and eaten.  I think on a weight-basis more olive oil than bread was consumed.

  • Anna

    7/31/2008 7:08:00 PM |

    zute, alan, jonathan, anne, & Dr. Davis,

    Why is it I can find so many people that "get it" online but hardly any in my own circles do (though I am gradually changing some minds)?  It's so frustrating to constantly hear the "Mediterranean diet" in the US inaccurately defined by Italy generically (and as some of you point out, largely excluding the other distinct diets that ring that area), and dominated by grain consumption, olive oil (with references to low animal fat & protein consumption, which is *not* necessarily accurate) and though produce is often mentioned and advocated, other than tomatoes, produce isn't isn't what most people load up on when they adopt "Mediterranean" ways.

    Zute, I fear you are correct, in that there is a huge profit motive in the over-marketing of many foods even remotely connected to the "Mediterranean" diet.  There certainly have been huge scandals over Italian olive oils for export (much of the Mediterranean olives are produced outside of Italy, but they go through Italy for pressing, bottling, and  distribution, and there is much fraud in the labeling/accuracy, especially with the pricier extra virgin OO designation).  I've no doubt there are numerous other ways various health claims are distorted for profit.  Dr. Davis has mentioned a number of them in several posts.  it takes a skeptical mind these days, doesn't it?

    Jonathan, I remember well the great, tantalizing photos of the low carb Italian food on Dr. Eades' blog last year, and often mentioned those to people who teased me prior to the trip about managing my low carb requirements while in Italy.  

    Being a short-term tourist brings about a necessary need to adapt standards to a certain degree, which is why we shopped more in Coops/Pam supermarkets (Pam was farther but open on Sundays) while we were preparing our own meals (easier to find and saved time for sightseeing and family visiting) instead of local markets, and we dined out while in hotels.  The kitchen in the farm apartment didn't even have a decent cheese grater or sharp knife so I purchased those and left them behind for future tourist tenants.  And of the 6 adults (of 9 family members), I was the only one interested in doing any cooking while we were in the countryside (a role I gladly took on).  One of my SILs is a chef in Norway, and she understandably wanted a vacation from cooking.

    My other SIL lived in Paris for 14 years (now back in London 12 years) and she many times said the Italian produce we encountered (she especially complained about the underripe fruit) didn't compare to French produce, which echos what Anne describes, as well as my own experiences during earlier travels to Brittany and Paris.  I never know where our next trip will be (usually determined by my husband's meeting locations or invitations from his friends and colleagues), but I always enjoy going to France, despite the complete inadequacy of my junior high school French level.  Haven't been to the southern part yet, though.

    And I think Alan hit the nail on the head with his description of the so-called various Mediterranean diets being "simply rural" diets (which to me implies local, seasonal, varied, and produced more in harmony with nature no matter where in the world), much like my rural Pennsylvanian great-grandmother's diet (I'm quite sure she never saw olive oil, gorgonzola, or an eggplant).  It was nice to reinforce that I can and already do create a largely "rural diet" for my family in my own locale (Southern California), which in many ways is similar to many parts of the Mediterranean region.   My small fig tree is now loaded with fruit, and the first one ripened just two days ago!  I have the chevre and walnuts ready!  Now that I have seen how small they can be, I  plan to get a olive tree or two, for the olive fruits as much as the beauty of the tree (plus I am a lazy gardener of edibles!).

    BTW, we only really had one "dud" dinner meal that was an expensive mistake (ordering "traditional" dishes), at a restaurant in Florence.   It was hard to determine quality based on price, as nearly all dinners were on the expensive side.  Our other full restaurant dinners were excellent (although I recommend skipping the pasta course).  If anyone is interested, I have recommendations for some places a tiny bit off the beaten track:  one in Florence, one in Siena (where the 9 of us had a celebratory dinner for my MIL's 80th year near the incomparable Il Campo square), and two in Rome (one specialized in "the fifth quarter" for those who appreciate that).  All were in the Rick Steve's italy book (but so was the "dud").  I'll probably be posting the names and locations on my own blog, along with meal photos sometime in the next week or two.

    Anyway, nice to read your comments on my experiences.  Good to know I am not the only one who explores the world with my stomach, too. Smile