Mediterranean Diet: Facts and Health Benefits

Traditionally, Western Europe has two broad nutritional approaches – the Northern European and Southern European. The Mediterranean Diet is Southern European, and more specifically focuses on the eating habits of the people of Crete, much of Greece, and southern Italy.

Today, Spain, southern France, and Portugal are also included; even though Portugal does not have a Mediterranean coast.

The Mediterranean diet includes

  • Lots of plant foods
  • Fresh fruit as dessert
  • High consumption of beans, nuts, cereals (in the form of wheat, oats, barley, corn or brown rice) and seeds
  • Olive oil as the main source of dietary fat
  • Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods
  • Moderate amounts of fish and poultry
  • No more than about four eggs each week
  • Small amounts of red meat each week (compared to northern Europe)
  • Low to moderate amounts of wine
  • 25% to 35% of calorie intake consists of fat
  • Saturated fat makes up no more than 8% of calorie intake
Olive oil
Olive oil is one of the main sources of dietary fat.

Fats – the Mediterranean diet is known to be low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat, and high in dietary fiber.

Legumes – the Mediterranean diet includes plenty of legumes. Legumes are plants in the pea family that produce pods which slit open naturally along a seam, revealing a row of seeds.

Examples of legumes include peas, chick peas, lentils, alfalfa, and beans.

Scientists from the University of Toronto reported in Archives of Internal Medicine, October 2012 issue, that eating more legumes helps improve glycemic control in people with diabetes type 2, as well as lessening the risk of developing coronary heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet – worldwide recognition

The Mediterranean diet became popular in the 1990s – even though the American Scientist Dr. Ancel Keys (1904-2004) publicized the Mediterranean diet while he was stationed in Italy, it was not until about the 1990s that it was widely recognized and followed elsewhere by nutritionally conscious people.

An enigma

Compared to other Western diets, the Mediterranean diet was seen by others as a bit of an enigma. Although fat consumption is high, the prevalence of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes has always been significantly lower in Mediterranean countries than northern European countries and the USA. The American diet is more similar to the northern European diet – with high red meat consumption, greater consumption of butter and animal fats, and a lower intake of fruit and vegetables, compared to the eating habits of Italy, Greece, southern France, and Spain.

Mediterranean diet more popular in non-English speaking nations

The non-English speaking countries of northern Europe, such as Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria have adopted the Mediterranean diet to a much greater degree than English-speaking nations, such as the UK, Ireland, the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Dietary habits in Canada vary; with the French-speaking Quebec areas tending more towards a Mediterranean diet, compared to the rest of the country. Many experts believe that is why developed English-speaking nations have a lower life expectancy than the other developed nations.

Mediterranean countries consume higher quantities of red wine, while northern European countries and the USA consume more beer. Red wine contains flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants, according to a study in the Journal of Natural Products.

The Mediterranean diet, compared to the Anglo-Saxon diet, contains much higher quantities of unprocessed foods.

Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Studies have been carried out which compare the health risks of developing certain diseases, depending on people’s diets. People who adopted the Mediterranean diet have been compared with those who have an American or Northern European diet.

An article published in Food Technology in October 2012 explained that plant-based diets either considerably reduce or totally eliminate people’s genetic propensity to developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Mediterranean diet helps prevent a genetic risk of stroke – a variant (mutation) in the Transcription Factor 7-like 2 (TCF7L2) gene, which is associated with the development of type 2 diabetes, is also linked to higher stroke risk, especially if a person carries two copies (homozygous carriers).

Scientists from Tufts University, USA, and the CIBER Fisiopatología de la Obesidad y Nutriciόn, Spain, found that the Mediterranean diet may protect homozygous carriers of the mutated gene.

The researchers wrote in the journal Diabetes Care “Being on the Mediterranean diet reduced the number of strokes in people with two copies of the variant. The food they ate appeared to eliminate any increased stroke susceptibility, putting them on an even playing field with people with one or no copies of the variant.”

An Italian study published in BMJ Open reported that people who stick to a Mediterranean diet tend to have better HRQL (health-related quality of life). They added that the link is stronger with mental than physical health. “Dietary total antioxidant and fiber content independently explain this relationship,” they added.

Heart benefits

Researchers at McMaster University found an association between good heart health and certain food groups or dietary patterns including vegetables, nuts, monounsaturated fatty acids, and overall ‘healthy’ dietary patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet. The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

A later study, published in the American Journal of Medicine, suggested that people who adopt a whole diet approach – such as a Mediterranean diet – have a lower risk of heart attack and cardiovascular-related death than those who follow a strictly low-fat diet

Diabetes

A study published in the BMJ in 2008 revealed that the traditional Mediterranean diet can help protect people from type 2 diabetes.