Two research nutritionists discussed the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet and called for a change in the way that nutritional information is marketed to consumers in a lecture at Luce Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
The lecture, entitled “Nutrition, Social Change, Politics and Olive Oil: The Revival of the Mediterranean Diet,” sought to educate members of the community about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, which is based primarily on fish, fruits, vegetables and olive oil. Dr. Anthonis Kafathos, an expert on the Greek and Mediterranean diets and a professor at the University of Crete Medical School, and Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, each spoke at the event, the third in a series sponsored by the MacMillan Center Council for European Studies.
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The presentation, which attracted a mostly adult audience, was followed by a reception featuring traditional Mediterranean snacks such as yogurt and honey.
Kafathos used Power Point slides to present his research on the effects of the Mediterranean diet on health. In the 1960s and ’70s, Greece enjoyed the highest life expectancy and one of the lowest rates of coronary heart diseases in the world, he said. Kafathos said he believes that these statistics can be attributed to the benefits of the Greek diet and the culture’s emphasis on physical activity.
In the last half-century, Kafathos has tracked the decline in Greece’s life expectancy and the steady increase in cases of coronary heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity. He said he believes this change is due to the movement away from the traditional Greek diet in favor of more processed food eaten outside the home.
According to Kafathos, such foods are difficult for the body to metabolize and lack the vitamins that protect it against cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
“In the last 40 years, I have seen a 20 kilogram increase in the average weight of Cretans,” he said. “This is a result of the rejection of the traditional Cretan diet of non-processed, homemade olives, grapes, whole grains and snails. Now people eat many more heavily sugared and saturated foods that create problems for the body.”
Kennedy said many American consumers who want to eat better are confused by government dietary guidelines. According to a national survey she conducted, Kennedy said, consumers feel that they do not possess the knowledge required to sift through the guidelines and find the information that actually applicable to them.
“I think that right now consumers are experiencing an information overload in what constitutes the right way to eat,” she said. “Consumers need to have information related to what they want to know.”
The discussion concluded with a question-and-answer session that focused on the ways in which consumers can eat healthier. The panelists recommended that Yale students seek out healthy alternatives to fried and heavily sugared foods in the dining halls, such as fruits, vegetables, fish and various types of legumes.
“In my experience, cafeterias do not usually have optimal nutritional alternatives,” Kennedy said. “College students can still improve their nutrition by cutting down on sugar. A lot of caloric intake comes from soda. Why not drink water?”
Many who attended the panel found the presentation informative. Esther Psarakis, president of Taste of Crete, a New Jersey-based Greek gourmet food company, praised the panelists’ messages.
“I think it’s an incredibly important topic,” she said. “We have gotten away from eating things close to the earth. Fruits and vegetables are the staples of the Mediterranean diet, which are both healthy and cheap. If you want to improve your nutrition you should try to eat salad or granola instead of a candy bar.”
Professor George Syrimis, associate chair of the Hellenic Studies program, cited the success of last year’s Greek dinner in Jonathan Edwards College as an example of how ingredients for the Mediterranean diet are easy to procure, healthy and tasty for students.
“I don’t think that the dining halls need to be overhauled, but they should focus on serving less fried food,” he said. “They could introduce healthy alternatives such as legumes and other vegetarian dishes that are easy to prepare.”
The event was sponsored by the Yale School of Public Health in conjunction with the Hellenic Studies program.