Auburn Research Supports the Mediterranean Diet as Defense against Disease

Charlotte Tuggle | Communications Editor

Auburn University associate professor of nutrition Mike Greene is an expert in the field of how diet interacts with disease, especially regarding how the Mediterranean diet improves health and well-being. During the pandemic, Greene focused his Mediterranean diet lens on how what we eat may protect us against COVID-19.

The Mediterranean diet promotes the consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, while limiting the intake of meat, processed food, and sweets. The diet is high in essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, omega 3-fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, and fiber.

“From both a physical and mental standpoint, a healthy dietary approach is key,” Greene said. “A central component of well-being is the consumption of a healthy diet which is associated with reduced risk of the most common chronic diseases that afflict people worldwide.”

Studies suggest that adherence to the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease , muscle atrophy, and obesity. Greene’s lab at Auburn University focuses specifically on how obesity is linked to chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and heart disease, and works to understand how Mediterranean diet intervention can prevent them.

Greene also studies where this diet is adopted, focusing on the southeast U.S., where diabetes and stroke rates are high. When the availability of meat began to decline last year, Greene explained the benefits of transitioning into a mostly plant-based diet.

The Mediterranean diet originated in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and to further understand the value and history of the diet, Greene leads a study abroad experience in the area. Students in the program have met with farmers, chefs, and experts in Italy. Future programs will explore the Mediterranean diet in other countries with a cultural heritage in the diet, such as Greece and Portugal.

“The Mediterranean diet study abroad program provides students with first-hand experiences in the culture, history, and traditions that make up the Mediterranean diet,” Greene said. “Students have described their experiences in the program as ‘once in a lifetime,’ ‘a perfect blend of culture and nutrition,’ and ‘extremely beneficial’ to their major course of study.”

Building on his extensive research on Mediterranean diet adherence, Greene recently published a paper in Frontiers in Nutrition that suggests a healthy dietary pattern that reduces inflammation and risk of chronic disease is associated with lower regional rates of COVID-19 pathology and mortality. The ecological study examined more than two dozen countries’ adherence to the Mediterranean diet and compared the rates against COVID-19 cases or related deaths.

Greene also took into consideration factors which can influence health outcomes such as income, education, housing, environment, and life satisfaction. These factors have all been linked to well-being, so the results were adjusted accordingly for a clearer picture of the relationship between diet and disease.

“Our research suggests that a healthy dietary approach like the Mediterranean diet may be beneficial for more than chronic disease risk reduction,” Greene said. “Thus, making healthy dietary choices right now may help with both your current well-being and your ability to age in a healthy manner.”

While more research into the relationship between diet and COVID-19 is necessary to understand the preventive role the diet could take in this infectious disease, the overlap of comorbidities in COVID patients and those that the diet helps to reduce, such as obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease, is promising.

More on this research and other Human Sciences work at the intersection of diet and disease will be featured in the fall 2021 edition of Auburn Research.