The New England Journal of Medicine told us last month that the fresh produce, olive oil, and nut-filled Mediterranean diet confers significant health benefits, reducing the rates of heart attacks and strokes more so than diets that rely on low-fat foods. It's believed to contribute to well-being and feelings of happiness, too.
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Done right, it also ends up being much cheaper than buying specially made diet foods or lean cuts of meat, according to a new study. This is important news for people who aren't shopping for premium organic goods at Whole Foods -- people for whom having access to food at all is and will continue to be the reigning dietary concern.
Dr. Mary Flynn specifically addressed this advantage by designing a Mediterranean-style diet based on items available at a local Rhode Island food bank. The emphasis, here, wasn't on daily glasses of wine or fresh seafood. Instead, Flynn, a research dietician, wanted to focus on meals that contained no meat, poultry, or seafood, as such foods can account for up to 50 percent of low-income households' budgets. She recruited 83 clients from food pantries and low-income housing sites, of which 63 completed the program.
The participants were given six weeks of cooking classes, in which they learned simple techniques for creating quick (10 to 15 minutes) meals. This consisted mainly of watching an instructor prepare the meals while discussing the health benefits of the ingredients, like whole grain pasta, brown rice, olive oil, fruits, and vegetables. After class, they'd be given a bag of groceries containing enough ingredients for them to recreate some of the recipes for their families. They weren't given any additional nutrition information or told what to buy in the future.
Once the classes ended, the participants were followed for an additional six months, during which they reported consuming more meals based on Flynn's diet -- three or more per week -- and a greater amount and variety of fruits and vegetables. Their grocery lists, which the researchers collected and analyzed, show that they started stocking up on fresh fruits and vegetables and, as a seemingly natural consequence, purchasing significantly less meat, soda, dessert and snack foods.
Along with that, the participants more than halved their weekly food spending, and reliance on food pantries dropped from 68 to 54 percent. Before the cooking classes, 48 percent qualified as "food insecure," meaning they didn't have steady access to food; after, only 33 percent. Although this wasn't a focus of the study, half lost weight as well.
Where this succeeds as a food strategy, wrote Flynn, is that the positive results stemmed from the participants' eliminating unhealthy foods, instead of just adding healthy ones to their diets -- and budgets. That purchasing fewer snacks would save money is mostly intuitive, but it's significant that the participants arrived at this change on their own, without being instructed to do so. It's as good a reminder as any that the Mediterranean diet, on top of everything else, makes common sense.
"A Six-Week Cooking Program of Plant-Based Recipes Improves Food Security, Body Weight, and Food Purchases for Food Pantry Clients" was published in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition.