What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is not like the Adkins diet or the Skinny Bitch diet — there is no text to read or prescribed rules to follow. In fact, when people say they’re “on the Mediterranean diet” you may be surprised to learn what exactly they’re consuming. Rather than concentrating on eating a certain number of calories, a certain number of meals, or buying expensive pre fabricated meals from a diet system, these people are simply eating the way that people who live in the Mediterranean have eaten for hundreds of years. Specifically, people on “the Mediterranean diet” mimic the way that the people of Greece eat.
Why do they do this? It has become apparent that people who follow the diet of the Greeks tend to live longer. In fact, the people in the world with the longest life span are people who live on the islands surrounding Greece.
Among the thousands of popular fad diets and diet books available to the consumer, the Mediterranean diet is considered heart healthy as well as easy to eat — put simply, the foods you eat on the Mediterranean diet are good. What is it about the Mediterranean diet’s menu that makes it so healthy? You will often hear people suggest that the amount of red wine consumed in parts of Europe makes for healthier hearts, while others place emphasis on consuming good quality olive oils.
A study released Tuesday in the British Medical Journal attempted to answer this question once and for all. Doctors and researchers from Harvard the University of Athens Medical School in Greece looked at the diets and health statistics of more than 20,000 Greek men and women participating in a study known as the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. Over the course of about eight and a half years, the doctors (led by Harvard’s Dimitrios Trichopoulos and the University of Athens’ Antonia Trichopoulou) compared the relative health of the study’s participants against that patient’s diet — how “Mediterranean” was the diet, and what exactly was it made up of?
What the study found was that certain foods on the Mediterranean menu offer the majority of the nutritional benefits, and that some long held beliefs about the Mediterranean diet may need to be re-evaluated.
According to the study’s author, the date collected indicates that the dominant health components of the Mediterranean diet are “moderate consumption of alcohol, low consumption of red meats, and high consumption of vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts, and olive oil” are the keys to Mediterranean longevity. While some had suggested that the Greeks’ high consumption of fish, cereals and grains, and a general avoidance of dairy have little to do with their long lives, contradicting what many experts once believed.
Of course, no single study (regardless its length) should be taken as God’s own truth. In responding to the study, one researcher suggested that “examining the Mediterranean diet food by food may not be the best approach.” The Mediterranean diet’s benefit may come from a combination of foods and eating habits, a “diet pattern” that contributes to heart health and longevity as a unit, not as individual pieces in a puzzle. A researcher from Yale, responding to the publication of the study, suggests that “Once you have a mostly plant based diet and eat few processed foods, almost any variation on the theme will be fine.” The suggestion here is that the Mediterranean diet is healthy for what it doesn’t contain as much as what it does.
What to avoid? The Mediterranean diet is basically free from red meat protein and high amounts of sugars and preservatives.
So now that you’re ready to live long and prosper, like the Greeks, how can you use the study’s findings to improve your diet? To live by the Mediterranean diet means to eat large amounts of certain foods.
Fish and Seafood
While researchers are not in agreement about seafood’s ability to contribute to a longer life, some suggest that the health benefits of consuming seafood may be tied directly to two factors — the “fattiness” of the fish and the way it is prepared. Believe it or not, a “fatty” fish can help lower cholesterol, as long as it isn’t deep fried.
This versatile oil is widely used in Mediterranean style cooking, in fact, olive oil has become a symbol for the Mediterranean diet as a whole. While Greece is not the only nation that consumes a large amount of olive oil, they are one of the largest consumers and producers of the product, and eating larger amounts of good quality olive oil along with the other foods in the diet appears to improve your cardiac health and contribute to a longer life.
The healthy reputation of olive oil may be justified, as the authors of the new study into the Mediterranean diet have found that this component of the Greek diet appears to contain much of that diet’s health benefits.
Why? Olive oil is rich in something called monounsaturated fat. This is a fat that scientists believe can lower your total cholesterol and has special impact on the levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood — this is the “bad” cholesterol we’re all trying to avoid.
Of course, consuming too much olive oil is just as bad as not consuming enough healthy fat — pouring the stuff all over your food is definitely too much of a good thing.
Don’t forget that olive oil has just as many calories per gram as unhealthy fats. Olive oil does not contain cholesterol that will clog your arteries, but it will almost certainly have a negative impact on your weight should you become too fond of it.
This one is controversial. While some researchers suggest that moderate intake of alcohol contributes to heart health and longevity, others suggest that individuals who consume only a moderate amount of alcohol are healthier to begin with than people who may consume larger quanitities. Regardless of where your opinion lies, it is no secret that the Greeks love their wine.
The debate over what place alcoholic beverages should hold in a healthy diet has been going on for decades. First alcohol was bad, then it was good, now its bad again. Who can you trust?
According to the new study into the Meditteranean diet, a moderate level of alcohol consumption (in Greece this traditionally comes from red wine) appears to have a protective effect against heart disease. That’s right — according to these doctors and researchers, having your glass a day could keep the cardiologist away.
In fact, one doc who participated in the study had this to say about the impact of alcohol on the Mediterranean diet — ” . . . of all the components in the diet, the strongest association [with positive health] was regarding protection from moderate alcohol.”
How does this work? Doctors believe that resveratrol — a compound found in grapes, wine made from grapes, fruits like pomegranates and a few other purple colored foods — is the chemical in some alcohols that has a positive effect on heart health. But along with the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption come some dangers. We all know that too much alcohol can have a devestating impact on heart health, as well as put extra weight on our bodies and potentially damage our livers and internal organs.
So unless you can control your drinking it would be best to skip the bottle and reach for a glass of water.
Fruits and Veggies
Your mother was right. Eating your fruits and veggies can be a major factor in living a long and healthy life.
This fact was verified by the researchers into the Greek diet. In fact, the veggie and fruit heavy meals and snacks of the Mediterranean diet are responsible for a great deal of that diet’s positive health impact.
The more fruits and vegetables in your diet the healthier you will be. Food that comes out of the ground is simply healthier for us than any other food. Fruits and vegetables are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. It seems new research appears daily to verify what we already knew about natural foods. The Mediterranean diet suggests that we eat these foods every day, ideally that means consuming at least one fresh fruit or veggie at every meal.
Besides what they contain, fruits and veggies are another healthy food for what they do not have — few calories. Besides absorbing healthy amounts of water and fiber, fruits and veggies are more filling than other heavily caloric foods and fit better into a low calorie diet. Layman’s terms — you can eat more of them without feeling guilty.
The Question of Dairy
Probably even more controversial than the role of alcohol in the Mediterranean diet is the question of dairy. Many doctors are concerned that people avoiding dairy here in America (for health reasons and as part of fad anti dairy diets) is contributing to an epidemic of diseases related to a lack of calcium, such as osteoporosis, broken hips, and other calcium deficiencies. In the Mediterranean diet, dairy products are generally very scarce. Thankfully, according to the new research into the way Greeks eat, doctors don’t feel that the lack of dairy contributed either way to the Greek’s relative health.
If you are going to consume dairy, reach for low fat dairy products. Remember that avoiding dairy altogether could be a dangerous decision. You don’t want to deal with brittle bones later in life.
Nuts and Seeds
The final aspect of the Mediterranean diet that seems to contribute strongly to its success was the presence of large amounts of nuts and seeds.
Nuts and seeds offer a healthy source of unsaturated fatty acids, specific nuts like almonds and walnuts offer a wealth of nutrients including calcium potassium and fiber.
Almonds and walnuts are favorites in the Greek diet, and both have been tied to better heart health through research.
Just like other facets of the Mediterranean diet, nuts and seeds are healthy for what they don’t contain as much as what they do — these foods tend to be free of “bad” fats, as well as sugars and salts if they are properly prepared.
Is the Mediterranean diet for you? If you’re looking to extend your life, increase your heart health, and enjoy the food you’re eating while you do it, the Mediterranean diet is one of the only “diets” approved across the board by doctors. If you don’t think you can handle cutting out red meat, and depending more on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and healthy fats for your calories, you may be better off with a fad diet. After all, if you don’t like what you’re eating, you won’t stick to the diet.