You’ve surely heard the stories. The Mediterranean diet is the healthiest one in the world and all human beings must follow it right away or else you risk cardiovascular failure, diabetes and obesity.
People have been especially excited about this diet since 2008, when a study was published after analysing humans on a Mediterranean style diet versus those on a standard American one. Apparently, the followers of the Mediterranean diet had a 6% lower risk of cancer, a 9% lower risk of heart disease and a 13% lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Even the British NHS, which moves at a pace of a tortoise when it comes to recommending new strategies, says that “The Mediterranean diet has been associated with good health, including a healthier heart”.
The American Diabetics Foundation is telling stories about how “Studies have shown that the people of the Mediterranean region are some of the healthiest”. They later claimed that “research suggests that the Mediterranean diet can also help with weight loss and weight management. As you can see, there are many potential benefits of following a Mediterranean eating plan.”
There’s a lot of acne patients wondering whether the Mediterranean diet could be the glorious solution to acne they’ve been searching for.
Understand now though, that this diet is nothing but an ideal and a fantasy at best. At worst, it’s a story invented by vegetable oil companies to scare people away from saturated fat.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The whole idea of the Mediterranean diet is to eat like somebody living on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea – so people in Greece, Southern France, Spain, Italy, Macedonia, even Libya and Egypt. The key principles are as follows:
- Low to moderate consumption of dairy products, like butter and cheese.
- Low consumption of saturated fats from red meat, eggs, etc.
- High consumption of fruits and vegetables, with 5 servings plus per day.
- Liberal quantities of olive oil splashed over almost anything.
- The base of the diet is cereal grains, like bread, cereals, rice, and pasta.
- Plenty of beans, seeds and potatoes.
- Moderate red wine consumption.
- Lean meats, but with an emphasis on oily fish for protein.
- Emphasis on locally produced, fresh food rather than processed food.
It’s a nearly identical diet to the USDA’s food pyramid in America; saturated fat is minimised and there’s copious amounts of whole grains forming the base of the pyramid.
Since the 1990s when Dr Walter Willet first popularised the diet, there’s been a ton of research into its health effects. A review of 35 scientific studies found that consistently eating a Mediterranean diet improved traits such as low levels of the good HDL cholesterol, belly fat, high blood pressure, elevated blood fat levels, and high blood sugar.
People who stuck with the Mediterranean diet in comparison to eating a regular low-fat diet trimmed their waistlines by about 0.43 cm, slashed their blood pressure by 2.35 points on the high reading, and reduced their fasting blood sugar by 3.89 milligrams per decilitre.
This is the type of study that the American Diabetes Association point to saying that the Mediterranean diet is a miracle, but in reality it’s all smoke and mirrors.
How the Mediterranean diet stacks up for acne
High consumption of fish – oily fish like salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel contain nearly all their fat content as omega 3 fatty acids. Mediterranean countries generally favour these fatty fishes over the likes of tuna, with haddock and cod also thrown in as the perfect accompaniment to red wine.
Omega 3s are the reason why fish oil tablets are so popular, and fish oil was shown to reduce acne by 42% in one study. Acne patients should make an effort to eat plenty of small oily fish.
Fish is also high in magnesium compared to meat, an important mineral which up to 80% of the US population is deficient in. Orange and pink fish like salmon are high in carotenoid antioxidants like astaxanthin, which can build themselves into your skin cells and protect your acne from UV rays.
Americans eat relatively little fresh oily fish. What fish Americans and Brits eat is mostly fried stuff like haddock, packed with inflammatory vegetable oils, or canned tuna, which is contaminated with the heavy metal mercury.
Olive oil – famous for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Olive oil contains many antioxidants, but the most famous is oleuropein, a phenolic compound which not only lowers inflammation but also free radical activity (study). Olive oil itself was linked to substantially reduce oxidative stress in this study; that means more antioxidants are available to prevent acne on your skin.
The fact that Spaniards and Italians and so on love olive oil is dramatically better for their skin then the favoured oil of America – canola oil. This vegetable oil is touted as heart healthy but it’s the opposite; canola oil contains a poor ratio of omega 6 fatty acids, which increases the inflammation in your entire body, including your face.
In this article, we discussed how resveratrol from red wine also encourages your body to manufacture its own antioxidants. Red wine has been linked to improved heart health, despite its alcohol content. It’s one of the acne friendly indulgences which I recommend.
The French and Spanish are the chief countries for red wine production and vineyards and they are notoriously obsessed with the stuff. Americas and Brits have less of a wine drinking tradition, and are more likely to down a can of beer for their alcoholic indulgence. That’s detrimental for acne because beer is made from grains like barley and wheat (note: complete guide to alcohol and acne here).
Emphasis on unprocessed food – in this article we discussed how processed food is the bane of the Western world, and the bane of all acne patients.
You never know what you’re eating in a fast food hamburger, a 50 cent milk chocolate bar, or a packet of blueberry flavoured cookies. Added sugar where you least expect it, vegetable oils like canola oil, phthalates which leach in from the plastic packaging, trans-fats – processed foods can contain any of those acne villains.
That’s why eating mostly fresh produce from local farms, in the style of the French or Italians, is a very smart idea. Processed food has a seriously bad reputation in the Mediterranean. Wine comes from local vineyards, family dairy farms haven’t gone out of business yet, and the same applies to meat farms. Chocolate is not laced with additives like in the US; instead its superior flavour comes from being lovably hand crafted.
Their recipes are cleaner; a pizza from the Italian is more likely to rely on varied herbs, well sourced ingredients and culinary expertise rather than neurotoxic flavour enhancers like MSG. A pizza isn’t a healthy food for your acne, but in the Mediterranean it will have less inflammatory additives and the same applies to meat, dairy, fish.
Mediterranean countries have a more relaxed way of eating and living; there’s no manic rush to shove their dinner into the microwave and wolf it down in five seconds to catch the bus to work. Their emphasis remains on fresh food cooked from scratch.
Fruits and vegetables – eating more fruits and vegetables is a cornerstone of any acne strategy. Basically, they’re high in not only vitamins and minerals but also antioxidants and many less known plant compounds. All of these compounds have unique benefits for the conditions behind acne. Therefore if you eat a variety of these plant compounds, whether from sweet potatoes, apples, broccoli or cinnamon, you can cure your acne with a multi-pronged offensive…
…but the problem is that vegetable consumption is at an all-time low in the West. Parents no longer force their kids to eat green vegetables, and we’re so addicted to sugar that even fruit cannot satisfy our cravings.
In the Mediterranean, they eat many traditional fruits like apples, but there’s a big emphasis on wild plants in cooking. Herbs like oregano, thyme, and wild fennel are all added for flavour. Such plants are even more nutritious than cultivated vegetables, which are great for acne themselves.
The Mediterranean diet has some great points, but does the mean you have to religiously stick to its dogma, and stop using your own expertise? Definitely not. Furthermore, following the Mediterranean diet has two key disadvantages:
Fear of saturated fat – similarly to the US food pyramid, the Mediterranean diet is supposed to be healthy because it favours monounsaturated fats over saturated fats, which apparently cause heart disease. But saturated fats do not cause cardiovascular failure; that myth has been disproved.
Furthermore, saturated fats are the best fat for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins like vitamin A and E. Saturated fat is critical for the conversion of plant based vitamin A, beta carotene, to its active form retinol.
Another downside is that the Mediterranean diet encourages you to avoid healthy fatty foods. 60% of the fat content of cocoa butter is saturated fat, and dark chocolate can cure acne by creating anti-inflammatory by-products as your gut bacteria digests it. If you eat dark chocolate regularly then it might be your best source of antioxidants.
Red meat is apparently minimised on this diet, but it’s higher in minerals than white meat. Eggs are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, but also a terrific source of selenium (cures acne by increasing glutathione production), zinc, magnesium and vitamin E.
Eggs are like nature’s multivitamin. Egg yolks, the fattiest part, contain vitamin A (a critical acne nutrient) in both retinol and beta-carotene forms.
Since the 1970s, fear of saturated fat and glorification of whole grains has ruined countless lives, and given countless people acne. The Mediterranean diet simply continues that trend.
Heavy grain consumption – this is where the diet really falls apart. The US food pyramid, American Diabetics Association, British NHS, and American Heart Foundation all recommend eating 6-11 servings of whole grains per day. The Mediterranean diet features lots of pasta and delicious pizzas in the case of Italy and the finest (admittedly fantastic) breads dripping with olive oil. But wheat, barley and its cousins, are the worst foods for acne ever.
That’s especially true if you eat whole grains or refined grains as the base of your diet; you’ll eat so many carbohydrates that you’ll become insulin resistant fast. When that happens your blood sugar and insulin levels will become chronically elevated, and that leads to chronically oily skin, blocked pores and acne.
High consumption of whole grains is the single biggest cause of diabetes in the West, and it’s among the top five causes of acne. Bread, cereal and pasta are the key cause of hormonal acne, since insulin is the most important acne hormone. Wheat and barley also cause digestive problems, most notoriously leaky gut syndrome because they’re so high in lectins and gluten.
A diet based so heavily around grain based foods is a disaster for acne. That fact is enough to make the Mediterranean diet a no-go for acne patients.
Not so breaking news – Mediterranean people aren’t healthy
The Mediterranean diet has some great strategies for acne. Eating olive oil, more fish, and vegetables is very smart. But following the whole system is, as with any diet, unnecessary.
What’s more, Mediterranean dwellers are almost as fat, diabetic and prone to heart disease as Americans and British these days.
The studies above sound promising at first, but the reductions are tiny. The risk factor for cancer for a Western male is roughly 40% across his lifetime. The Mediterranean diet offers a 6% reduction in that chance, so what you’re left with is a 37.6% chance of cancer.
The other study found a 0.36 centimetre reduction in the average man’s waistline. That’s great – if you have a magnifying glass at hand.
The improvements in heart disease and Alzheimer’s are more impressive, but look at the data in the countries themselves. By 2020 it is estimated that the average Frenchmen will be just as obese as the average American.
According to the European Society of Cardiology, cardiovascular disease mortality rates have dropped significantly since the 1970s. But the biggest reductions have occurred in the North European countries, like Denmark and Norway.
50 years ago, the French were known for being thin, and free from heart disease, but from 1997 to 2012, the number of obese people doubled to 7 million. In the USA, 30% of children are overweight, but Greece and Italy both have them beat. In Greece, 44% of boys and 38% of girls are overweight. In Italy its 36% and 34% respectively.
We could rattle off a load more statistics but the general picture of Greeks and Italians sitting back, chinking red wine glasses together and laughing about how much thinner they are than the rest of the world is a myth.
The Mediterranean diet does not exist
Furthermore, the entire diet itself is a myth. The French, Italians and Greeks are following very similar dietary trends to the rest of the world nowadays; so less healthy saturated fats like butter, and more wheat from pasta and bread. The old art of top French cuisine is dying out among normal people, except of course all those angry Parisian chefs.
If any of those doctors actually visited a healthy area of a Mediterranean country, then they’d notice that they don’t limit saturated fat; they eat chocolate, and cheeses, red meat, dairy and eggs galore.
Traditional Italian and French recipes use fatty cream in everything. An authentic Italian pasta is often dripping with tasty butter. The Greeks eat goat’s cheese and lamb all the time, the Spanish eat tons of fatty pork and eggs. The world’s oldest women ever, a Frenchwoman called Jeanne Calment (who lived to age 122), apparently ate nearly 1kg (2 pounds) of dark chocolate a week.
That was the diet of the traditional Mediterranean dweller. The mid-20th century marked the birth of the French Paradox; the fact that the French ate tons of saturated fat from cheese and butter while still enjoying trim waists and healthy hearts.
In other words, when the Mediterranean countries actually were healthy, they were eating a lot more saturated fat and their whole grain intake was more moderated.
Speaking of Dr Ancel Keys, it was actually him who invented the Mediterranean diet in the first place. He spent time in a poor coastal region of Italy in the years following World War 2 and observed the local diet…
…but this era was one of famine and remaining destruction; nobody could afford fattier meats and cheap grains were all people could survive on. Food shortages were rampant in the years following World War 2. Ancel Keys was also an underpaid professor at the time, so he probably didn’t have the money to burn on top Mediterranean cuisine and thus never witnessed the realities of their love for cheese and butter. The original Mediterranean diet was not based on proper observation.
It should also be said that Ancel Keys was behind the original scare story on saturated fat; the seven countries paper which showed a big correlation between saturated fat intake and heart disease. The problem was that his original study was on seventeen countries. The full dataset did not show any problem with saturated fat, so he conveniently left out the other ten countries.
Shortly afterwards, his shocking discovery propelled him onto the front cover of Time magazine…
Nowadays, the Mediterranean diet works wonders for vegetable oil companies, who benefit from the fear of saturated fat. It works well for bread and cereal manufacturers, and it works especially well for the olive oil industry. The Mediterranean diet purveyors pray on US citizens who love pasta and olive oil and are happy to hear they can eat more.
Fear of saturated fat has become so ingrained that the diet makes sense, but few aspects of the entire story are based in reality. The Mediterranean is just a story, a shining ideal that exists independently of any real situation.
The Mediterranean diet does not actually exist and hence you should make no attempt to follow it. The fantasy version should be ignored because it’s too high in acne causing grains like wheat.
This whole saga illustrates a very important point in your acne strategy – always rely on your own intuitions and convictions from the knowledge you have and the evidence you have seen. You should never get sucked into rigid dogma.
Take the raw food diet. Its central tenant is that we didn’t have ovens when we were evolving, and that all foods are healthiest and most nutritious when raw. But consider that cooked tomatoes contain more acne-clearing antioxidants than raw ones, and that heating cocoa beans makes the magnesium in chocolate much more bioavailable.
The Paleo diet’s guiding principle is to only eat the foods which “Grok”, a prehistoric man, had access to. Strict paleo followers say that all dairy is deadly since Palaeolithic man didn’t have a farmyard full of cows to milk. But aged cheese is a fantastic source of magnesium, which can beat sleep deprivation and hence any acne derived from it.
The fact with any matter of health is that you need the nutritional knowledge to make your own decisions. Otherwise you’ll forever be led astray by greedy marketers and bumbling national health bodies.
In summary then, the Mediterranean diet is nothing but a phony farce. Don’t get pulled into it whether for your heart or your acne!
Thanks for reading!