December 9, 2010

Mediterranean diet's science studied

The first Emory Conference on Mediterranean Diet and Health brought together researchers, physicians and health care providers from across the country and from Italy to discuss the science behind the diet — a pattern of eating habits traditionally followed by people in the Mediterranean regions in the early 1960s.

Meeting Dec. 3 at the Rollins School of Public Health, participants focused on the diet’s relation to cardiovascular disease, cancer, neuropsychiatric disorders and vascular health.

While the diet, along with exercise, has proven beneficial for many throughout the years, the why of isn’t so apparent.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, complex carbohydrates and nuts; moderate consumption of fish and red wine; low consumption of red meat; and olive oil as the chief source of fat, explains Viola Vaccarino, one of the conference chairs.

She says recent changes in nutritional epidemiology have meant researchers are moving away from focusing on individual nutrients to evaluating the entire diet; that is, looking at how a global nutritional profile could be associated with better health.

Harvard University’s Dariush Mozaffarian agrees. “I don’t think we should abandon nutritional science,” says the associate professor of epidemiology. 

We need to understand nutrients to inform our food-based guidelines and continue to look at nutrients, for example, sodium, in scientific research, he says. “But dietary guidelines grounded in whole foods would inherently lead us to eat more healthy foods and minimize nutrient deficiencies.”

Dramatic changes coming

Yet, thanks to new technology and the subsequent availability of new data, our take on nutrition is evolving and will continue to do so, says Dean Jones, Emory professor of medicine, pulmonary division. “We are facing a dramatic change in all aspects of health care in medicine with the completion of the human genome and the availability of new technologies, which allow us to get more and more detailed information on individuals.”

This wealth of information, says Jones, will transform the way everything is done with regard to nutrition including the interpretation and study of the Mediterranean diet, as well as the risk factors of chronic disease.

The conference was sponsored by Rollins School of Public Health and Federsanità-ANCI, a community health and public health service confederation in Italy.

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