Everywhere you look these days, someone is touting the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. But… what is the Mediterranean Diet? What makes the so-called Mediterranean Diet so special?
Mediterranean Diet: What does it mean?
The Mediterranean Diet refers to a diet that reflects the eating habits of people who live in Mediterranean countries—primarily Italy, Spain and Greece.
Like any country, the dietary habit of countries in the Mediterranean have changed somewhat in the past several decades—as a result of the introduction of ‘fast food’ and new food processing methods. For this reason, the ‘Mediterranean Diet’ refers to the normal diet in these countries in the 1960’s and earlier—before the introduction of modern habits that have somewhat compromised the original health benefits of the traditional diet in these regions.
The Mediterranean Diet isn’t a diet of ‘donts.’ In fact, there are very few things that are completely excluded. Rather, it’s a diet of moderation that prioritizes food in different quantities than has become the habit in many countries.
Mediterranean Diet: Who recommends it?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the Mediterranean Diet as a healthy eating pattern that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends the diet as an eating pattern that might reduce type 2 diabetes.
According to the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinsons Research, there are two studies correlating the Mediterranean diet with lower Parkinson’s
disease risk and one that demonstrated that for those that get Parkinson’s, this diet
might delay time to diagnosis— perhaps related to the antioxidant or
anti-inflammatory effects of the diet.
The US Dietary Guidelines has named the diet as one of three diets it recommends from 2015-2020.
What do people in the Mediterranean eat?
Vegetables, Fruit, Legumes, Grains, Olive Oil
Eat every meal!
Traditionally, people in Italy, Spain and Greece have eaten meals that include a lot of vegetables, fruit, legumes (beans or lentils), unrefined grains.
Vegetables that are commonly used in Mediterranean dishes include: cabbages, leafy greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, chard), onions, garlic, tomatoes, and pepper.
Also, people in Mediterranean countries consume a lot of olive oil—which is one of the primary fats they use for cooking. There is a historical reason for this, as the climates in these countries are perfect for growing olives.
Olive oil is arguably the condiment of choice in these regions, used the way ketchup might be used in the United States. Need to dress your salad? A pinch of salt, a plenty of olive oil! Finishing off a pasta dish? A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil!
Fresh Fish and Seafood
Eat more than 2 servings a week.
Since Mediterranean countries are near the Mediterranean Sea, they have traditionally had great access to fresh fish and seafood—and eat a lot of it!
Examples of fish that pop up again and again in Mediterranean cooking are: salmon, sea bass (branzino, spigola), tuna, trout, and anchovies.
Smaller Quantities of Meat
Eat less than 2 servings a week.
While people in the Mediterranean do eat non-fish meat (beef, pork, poultry), they eat it less often and in smaller quantities than people in many other countries do. They don’t eat red meat in particular as often.
Eat 2-4 servings a week.
Eggs are an outstanding source of protein. Since the diet of the hens laying the eggs affects the nutrition of the egg itself, always look for eggs that labeled as free-range eggs. Eggs from hens that eat a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids produce eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids!
Quality Cheese and Yogurt
Eat 2 servings a day!
The Mediterranean Diet includes a moderate consumption of eggs and quality dairy—in particular un-processed cheeses and yogurt.
Sweets and Desserts
Eat less than 2 servings a week!
People in the Mediterranean are as likely to reach for a piece of fresh fruit for dessert or a snack as they are another type of dessert.
Desserts traditional in these regions tend to be less sweeter than desserts in other parts of the world. And, it’s not uncommon for desserts to be enjoyed at breakfast—especially in Italy. Or, think greek yogurt and honey and Greece.
Drink in moderation.
People in the Mediterranean countries do love a drink—especially wine! They consume wine moderately, for instance a glass of wine during a meal. Wine has some important health benefits that are lacking in other types of alcoholic drinks.
For instance, red wines contain resveratrol. Resveratrol is a substance that may help to prevent damage to blood vessels by reducing ‘bad’ cholesterol. It also may help to prevent blood clots.
Potential Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Cardiovascular, Cancer, Longevity
The great thing about the Mediterranean diet is that it doesn’t exclude any of the major food groups. Rather, it’s a diet of moderation and choosing quality food ingredients that are more nutritious and less processed.
As we mentioned, the American Heart Association (AHA) does currently recommend the Mediterranean Diet as an eating pattern that may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Determining if a diet ’causes’ or ‘reduces’ heart disease is not easy task for scientists. Heart disease is a problem created over time in a person’s life. That person’s life is affected by diet, but also genetics, the health of their environment and more.
Many studies and reviews of studies have been done to determine if there seems to be a correlation between eating a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of heart disease. The conclusions have been promising.
The Mediterranean Diet is high in dietary fiber and monosaturated fat—and low in saturated fats. Those following the diet will be eating relatively low amounts of red meat (higher in saturated fat) and more monosaturated fats (found in fish and olive oil). This kind of diet has been correlated with better heart health.
Also, olive oil is the fat of choice used in Mediterranean cooking —more than say, lard, butter or other types of saturated fats. There is evidence that olive oil helps the blood maintain normal LDL cholesterol levels (‘bad’ cholesterol) by replacing saturated fats in the blood with monosaturated oleaic acid found in the olive oil. In fact, the European Food Safety Authority Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies have approved heart-healthy claims for olive oil products.
Cancer Risk Reduction
Reviews in 2008 and 2014 of multiple scientific studies studying the question concluded that strictly following the Mediterranean diet was correlated with a decreased risk of dying from cancer.
There is evidence that following Mediterranean diet is associated with longer telomeres. Short telomeres are associated with mortality, aging and aging-related diseases.
The Mediterranean countries that tend to follow the Mediterranean diet top the world’s list of longest living populations again and again.
A 2020 report by the United Nations of life-expectancy by country lists Spain as #5 and Italy as #6 in the world in terms of highest life-expectancy for its population.
From 2010 to 2015, the United Nations reports that Italy is the #2 in terms of countries with the highest life-expectancy at birth. Spain follows at #7.
A World Health Organization report from 2016 lists Spain as #5 in terms of highest average life-expectancy by country. Italy follows at #7.