By: Pam Smith, RDN
Diets consumed by people living in Mediterranean countries have been a subject of interest since antiquity, with more recent investigations focused on their health benefits. People residing in the countries along the Mediterranean Sea have lower rates of coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer.
The Traditional Mediterranean Cuisine
Although there are many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, offering different cultures, food availability, and lifestyles, there are broad characteristics that make up the foundation of this healthy way of eating:
An abundance of plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes) which are minimally processed, seasonally fresh, and grown locally.
Olive oil as the principal source of fat.
Cheese and yogurt consumed daily in low to moderate amounts.
Fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts.
Red meat consumed in small amounts and used more as a sauce and to season food than as the main ingredient in meals.
Fresh fruit as a typical daily dessert, with sweets containing sugars and honey eaten only a few times each week.
Wine consumed in moderate amounts, usually with meals
The traditional Mediterranean cuisine is low in saturated fat (less than 8% of total calories), with total fat ranging from 28% to more than 40% of total calories. Albeit higher than traditionally considered healthy, because the fats are of the beneficial type, the body appears to thrive – and live long. In addition, the diet includes modest amounts of foods from animal sources. As in many traditional diets, plant foods make up the core of the daily intake. This balance increases the amount of nutraceuticals, vitamins, and minerals available in the diet, and at the same time, keeps the amount of saturated fat low.
This isn’t new! In 1994, the Lyon Heart Study evaluated the effect of a Mediterranean diet on heart disease. More than 600 patients who had a heart attack were randomly selected to eat either a traditional American Heart Association diet or a Mediterranean-style diet. The Mediterranean-style diet used fish and poultry as the major sources of protein and was high in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, bread, olive oil, and nuts. The diet guidelines called for less meat, butter, and cream. The study used a specially prepared spread that contained alpha linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).
After only four years, the results of the Lyon Heart Study showed a significant difference in coronary events (heart attacks and stroke) in the groups who ate the Mediterranean diet versus the American Heart Association diet. The rate of coronary events was reduced by 73%, and total deaths were reduced by 70% in the Mediterranean-style group.
More recently, a study was published examining more than 22,000 adults in Greece and their adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet. The data showed that the Greeks who had a higher degree of adherence to the diet had a significantly lower total death rate, and fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer.
Tips for Eating Mediterranean-Style (no matter where you live!)
Use extra virgin olive oil as your main fat source.
Choose grains that are whole, unrefined, or minimally processed.
Limit use of unhealthy fats (saturated and trans).
Fill your plate with vegetables, using small amounts of olive oil in preparation or as a salad dressing.
Try fresh fruit for dessert; let small amounts of honey be the sweetener of choice.
Use fish, seafood, poultry, and legumes as your main protein sources, while limiting red meat.
Use small amounts of yogurt and cheese, mostly as a topping.
Use herbs and spices to boost flavor and lessen the need for salt.
Mix daily exercise with weight control and Mediterranean-style eating and you have a terrific recipe for healthier living. While there are many other healthy cuisines that can do just as well, the most convincing argument for going Mediterranean is the taste!