How to Get America on the Mediterranean Diet
In 1953, not long before President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in office, the social scientist Leland Allbaugh published “Crete: A Case Study of an Underdeveloped Area.” The landmark analysis of the eating patterns of an isolated Greek population strongly suggested that a calorie-limited diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil and low in animal protein, particularly red meat, could lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes, decrease chronic disease and extend life.
Medical research over the last half-century has largely borne out this initial finding. Weight-loss fads and eating trends come and go, but the so-called Mediterranean diet has stood fast. “Among all diets,” Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded in an email, “the traditional Mediterranean diet is most strongly supported for delivering long term health and wellbeing.”
Behind the large amounts of meat in the American diet are the roughly one trillion pounds of corn and soybeans American farmers grow every year. This ocean of grain and beans is mostly used to feed livestock in the United States, but a rising percentage of it is exported to China. Planting corn and soy, year after year, depletes soils, and the fertilizers used to prop up those exhausted lands wash into surrounding watersheds, degrading drinking water and driving the formation of coastal dead zones.
Now, as China prepares to slap a 25 percent tariff on American corn and soybeans, policymakers might think about shifting our agricultural production away from feed for animals and toward food for American humans.
If America were to diversify its crops and plant more small-seed, cool-weather grains like oats (which also may reduce bad cholesterol), it would go a long way toward locking in healthy soil and limiting erosion. Farmers might even embrace emerging crops like kernza, a deep-rooted perennial grain developed by the Land Institute in Kansas that can be harvested in successive years without replanting.