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Mediterranean diet, plant-based foods becoming more popular as pandemic disrupts food supply chain

Mediterranean diet, plant-based foods becoming more popular as pandemic disrupts food supply chain

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused breaks in the food supply chain, resulting in shortages of products, like beef and pork, or even elevated prices of meats in some areas. Between scarcity and rising prices, Americans may be considering a change in their food consumption. Mike Greene, an associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, has conducted extensive research on the Mediterranean diet, a more plant-based food plan. He even created a Mediterranean diet tour of Italy and Greece, giving students an immersive study abroad experience at the source of the diet trend. Greene explains why it could be beneficial for Americans to rethink the foods they currently eat.

Since there are genuine concerns about the availability or price of meats due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some people may consider voluntarily eliminating meat from their diet and following a more plant-based approach, like a Mediterranean diet. What exactly is the Mediterranean diet?

There a number of reasons for interest in a more plant-based diet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One clear reason is the availability of meat. Most Americans have been alarmed to see that meat, particular red meat, is being rationed at our local stores. From necessity, many Americans are thinking about consuming a plant-based diet. In addition, many Americans have started to reexamine their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no question that eating a healthy dietary pattern is important for your overall health. There is a significant body of evidence that consuming a plant-based diet is a healthy way to obtain all the nutrients your body needs. The Mediterranean diet is one of the most studied, recommended and popular diets. It is better to think about the diet more as a dietary approach or a way of life as opposed to a strict “diet.”

A general consensus on the traditional Mediterranean-based diet is that it contains high intakes of fruit, vegetables, nuts and whole grain cereals. Red and processed meats, dairy products and sweets are limited while fish and poultry are encouraged in moderation. Extra virgin olive oil is the primary dietary fat, and red wine is preferred in moderation with meals, respecting social beliefs.

What are the health benefits to the Mediterranean diet?

Consumption of a Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced heart (cardiovascular) disease risk and overall mortality, prevention and control of type II diabetes and decreased risk of developing metabolic syndrome, certain forms of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The Mediterranean diet was added to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as a recommended healthy food pattern to increase overall health. More recently, the Mediterranean diet was named the Best Diet two years in a row (2019-2020) by U.S. News & World Report and has been promoted by the American Heart Association for reduction of stroke risk for its similar benefits to the DASH diet, while the American Diabetes Association recommends a Mediterranean diet for the prevention and treatment of type II diabetes.

Does your body miss the nutrients found in meats?

Meats are a good source for a number of essential nutrients, such as iron and vitamin B12. However, average red and processed meat consumption in the United States is greater than the amount recommended by health professionals. It is important to note that all essential nutrients can be obtained by consuming just plant-based foods and dairy or specific foods like nutritional yeast. Vegetarians and particularly vegans need to play close attention to their diet so that they obtain all of the essential nutrients.

One appealing aspect of the Mediterranean diet is that meat consumption does not need to be eliminated; red and proceeded meat should be limited to approximately once a week or biweekly. In contrast, fish and seafood are recommended to be consumed at least twice per week, while poultry is recommended to be consumed once per week. If a Mediterranean-based diet is consumed then the risk of developing a nutrient deficiency is low.

By consuming a meat-heavy diet, particularly red and processed meat, our bodies are getting high amounts of saturated fat and missing out on fiber and important plant chemicals called polyphenols. What if Americans did cut back on red and processed meat consumption? Well, we know that people who live the longest and healthiest in the world consume a plant-based diet. There is also an environmental cost for humans consuming a heavy meat-based diet. Can our bodies adapt to eating less meat? The answer is absolutely yes. Can you improve your health by shifting from a meat-heavy diet to a plant-based diet? There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that measures of heart health and other chronic disease including diabetes are improved by consuming a plant-based diet.

What have you learned about the diet from your research at Auburn University?

Our studies here in Lee County demonstrate that measures of heart disease risk can be improved by consuming a Mediterranean-based diet in adults that are at risk for heart disease. We have also found that there are key barriers for Mediterranean diet consumption here in the southeast U.S. We have been surprised in preliminary studies with undergraduate students that approximately half of the Auburn students we’ve surveyed have not heard of the Mediterranean diet.

Talk about the Mediterranean diet study abroad trip available to Auburn University students. What do students gain from this trip? (Note: Auburn is not currently sending students on this study abroad trip due to travel restrictions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Current plans are to resume the trip in 2021.)

I lead a study abroad program that emphasizes experiential learning on the Mediterranean diet in Italy and Greece. Through partnerships in Italy and Greece, we learn about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet/lifestyle and examine key components of the diet by meeting with producers, farmers, chefs and experts. The role of food in the culture of Italy and Greece is emphasized. The study abroad experience can have a profound effect on my students. This is an example of a typical comment from a student that participated in a prior program: “I absolutely adored this study abroad trip to Italy. I learned so much about food, and I learned so much about how to speak to others about food. I truly want to take everything I learned on this trip into my professional life and try to get individuals to appreciate natural ingredients and the Mediterranean lifestyle as much as I saw in Italy.”

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