May 15, 2023. By Ray Cheever.
The Mediterranean diet is all over the news given the strong scientific evidence for lowering the risk of many chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. However, North Carolinians may be skeptical about eating this way because we assume it means giving up all the Southern foods we enjoy.
As a lifelong North Carolina resident and a current MD-PhD student with a nutrition focus, I see now that my family and I have repeatedly fallen into this trap of avoiding all Southern foods when trying the Mediterranean diet. Following along with Mediterranean cookbooks, we have attempted cooking meals using only Mediterranean ingredients like hummus, salmon, quinoa, and Greek yogurt. However, this is so different from how we are accustomed to eating that we don’t usually stick to it for long.
Fortunately, the reality is that we can eat a Mediterranean diet while still embracing many of the Southern foods we cherish. Although the term “diet” usually implies a weight loss plan, the Mediterranean diet really describes a healthy way of eating. A better term for this is “dietary pattern.” The dietary pattern in this case includes ample healthy oils (mostly vegetable-based oils), whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, and limited sugar, highly processed meats, and snack foods.
The good news is that almost every Southern food, including pinto peas, chicken, sweet potatoes, and collard greens among others, is quite healthy if we focus on these foods and cut out or limit the salty snacks, pastries, french fries, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Healthy seasonings like vinegar, olive oil, and spices like red pepper flakes (for those who like it hot!) can help make Southern foods flavorful while still retaining their nutritional value.
This approach has been captured and tested by public health experts and doctors at UNC Chapel Hill, calling it the Mediterranean South, or “Med-South Lifestyle Program”. The Med-South diet is based on the idea that a Mediterranean diet doesn’t require quinoa, hummus, and Greek yogurt to provide health benefits. For my family members, and countless other North Carolinians who dislike quinoa and love Southern foods, this is fantastic news – Mediterranean diets can look and taste Southern and still be healthy.
In the Med-South diet, new takes on old recipes can make Southern classics like hush puppies heart-healthy with the addition of chopped veggies, nuts, and whole grains cooked in healthy fats like olive oil. To learn more about the Med-South Lifestyle Program and similar recipes, use the following link: https://hpdp.unc.edu/med-south-lifestyle-program/.
In studies, people who have adopted the Med-South diet report enjoying the food and feeling better, and many have experienced improved blood pressure and short-term weight loss. Researchers are currently studying the effectiveness of the Med-South diet for long-term weight loss and improved heart health outcomes.
My family has wasted enough time trying to like the taste of quinoa. Going forward, we will be cooking Med-South recipes, and this time, I’m hopeful our healthy habits will last.
2022-23 NC Schweitzer Fellow
MD/PhD Candidate, UNC School of Medicine and UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health