January 08, 2015


The Vegiterranean Diet: The New and Improved Mediterranean Eating Plan with Deliciously Satisfying Vegan Recipes for Optimal Health. By Julieanna Hever. Da Capo. $17.99.

     There is so much dietary nonsense around these days that even when a particular nutritional approach makes sense, it can be hard to separate it from all the others being pushed by one advocacy group or another and that lie somewhere between misguided and just plain silly. The recent exposure of the manifest inaccuracies of claims by purveyors of the “paleo” diet – scientists pointed out that human ancestors ate pretty much anything they could catch and stuff into their mouths, not some idealized version of “noble savage” food, and noted that our ancestors’ lifespans (reflecting, in part, their diet) were exceedingly short by modern standards – has done nothing to reduce claims that other diets are ideal, for one reason or another.

     The Mediterranean diet, though, has stood up amid all the silliness and controversy as a genuinely healthful method of eating with potentially significant cardiovascular benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, this diet emphasizes:
  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthful fats, such as olive oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)
The Mayo Clinic adds that the diet also recognizes the importance of being physically active, and enjoying meals with family and friends – that is, exercise and social connections are an integral part of eating in a way that parallels that used in the Mediterranean region.

     Not surprisingly, though, some individuals and groups have taken the basics of the Mediterranean diet in directions that they particularly favor, for reasons of their own. And that is where Julieanna Hever’s The Vegiterranean Diet comes in. Hever, a Californian who hosts a “wellness talk show,” argues that the Mediterranean diet can be made even better by eschewing fish and poultry altogether. She does acknowledge non-food elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle: “The traditional people studied were very active, performing rigorous physical activity daily for work, lifting heavy equipment, farming, gardening, walking an average of five or so miles a day.” And she warns against stress, which “impacts immune function, memory and cognition, mood, weight, digestion, and more.” But rather than get into detail about the Mediterranean lifestyle, and how its longstanding rural traditions in a mild-weather part of the world may or may not be transferable to urban and suburban life in colder geographical locations, Hever gives the non-food elements rather short shrift and focuses on “vegetarianizing” the Mediterranean diet. Her arguments for vegetarian eating are nothing new, and it is not entirely clear whether she is directing her book at non-vegetarians or at existing vegetarians who want to adopt a version of the Mediterranean diet. Buy the simplest possible foods, she says, and prepare meals yourself: “Regardless of what exactly you prepare at home, it will likely be healthier [sic] than food eaten out.” Eat a “rainbow” of vegetarian foods: red, orange/yellow, green, blue/purple and white. Take in plenty of fiber and leafy greens.  And so on.  She then presents the Mediterranean diet pyramid, which includes an emphasis on fish, and transforms it to a “vegiterranean food pyramid” that is based on vegetables and fruits and surmounted by wine – which she does describe as optional, and which scientists and nutritionists agree should not be drunk by people who are not drinkers already, but which happens to be integral to the Mediterranean lifestyle on which these dietary approaches are based.

     Unlike many diet-advocacy books, Hever’s does not simply give a relatively brief introduction to the food approach she favors and then follow up with an extensive series of recipes: the foods themselves are not central here. Hever does present a variety of sample meals and list some travel-friendly foods, some that do not require refrigeration, etc. And she does list elements that she considers crucial for setting up and maintaining a vegetarian kitchen. But the book contains only 60 pages of actual recipes, making The Vegiterranean Diet fine for those interested in dietary analysis but not particularly useful for those who want to put Hever’s recommendations into practice. Some recipes have the cutesy names that advocates seem to think will make the foods more appealing: “Betta’ than Feta,” “Brain-Boosting Blue Smoothie.”  Other names are simply descriptive: “Tuscan Garden Salad with Fresh Tomato Dressing,” “Baked Oat Bread.” Committed vegetarians will not find any surprising suggestions here, but may be pleased with the straightforward ingredient listings and preparation descriptions. As for the overall value of the book, it is neither more nor less than the value of other books arguing for consumption of foods that appear to be better for cardiovascular health and overall fitness than a diet filled with red meat and highly processed foods. What all these books downplay, though, is that what is really best for the body is moderation. There is nothing wrong with red meat – in moderation. Nothing wrong with packaged snack foods – in moderation. Nothing wrong with sweets – in moderation. For that matter, there is nothing wrong with vegetarian or “vegiterranean” eating – in moderation, which means as part of a genuinely healthful lifestyle that includes a strong emphasis on physical activity, stress reduction, the proper nightly amount of restful sleep, and other factors that are every bit as crucial for health as are the foods we eat.

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