What's so good about the Mediterranean Diet?

Diets | October 18, 2016 | Author: Naturopath

What's so good about the Mediterranean Diet?

Everyone is talking about the Mediterranean Diet, with new research every month documenting its benefits. However, with 21 nations with coastlines along the Mediterranean Sea, each with its own cultural, ethnic, religious, economic, and agricultural distinctiveness, is there really a single unique Mediterranean Diet? And does it really work?

The Region

The Mediterranean Diet reflects food practices that have always been woven into their history and environment. The Mediterranean Sea is the world’s largest inland sea, and a meeting place of three continents – Europe, Africa and Asia; Historians call it “the cradle of society”, because within its geographical borders the whole history of the ancient world took place. The hot and dry summers and mild winters, the landscape and the sea, dictated the crops, while the unique food culture of the Mediterranean developed over centuries with every ancient civilization inhabiting the region.

Definition of the Mediterranean Diet

The term ‘Mediterranean Diet’ was first coined in the 1960’s, following the 7-Countries Study by the American scientist Ancel Keys.

The study showed that the eating pattern found in Italy and Crete (Greece) in the 1950s and 1960s was associated with low rates of heart disease

The study led to defining the Mediterranean Diet as a diet that reflects food patterns found in olive-growing areas of the Mediterranean region before the mid 1960’s, mainly in Greece and Southern Italy.

In 2010, in recognition of the cultural value and the historical context of Mediterranean Diet, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) inscribed the Mediterranean Diet on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, as follows:

“The Mediterranean Diet constitutes a set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions ranging from the landscape to the table, including the crops, harvesting, fishing, conservation, processing, preparation and, particularly, consumption of food.
The Mediterranean Diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting the beliefs of each community” (UNESCO, 2010).

The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Increasing scientific evidence demonstrate that adherence to a Mediterranean dietary pattern is associated with reduction in deaths from heart attacks and cancer, reduction in incidence of Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and type 2 diabetes, reduction in overall death, and increased longevity. Some of the studies are listed below:

  • Cardiovascular diseases

In 2013, a large study of 7447 Spanish men and women (PREDIMED trial) made headlines by showing that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with either olive oil or nuts reduced the combined risk of stroke, heart attack and death from cardiovascular disease.

Another landmark study published recently, analysed the eating habits and health outcomes of 23,902 adults in England (EPIC-Norfolk) and observed a lower incidence of heart disease with higher adherence to the Mediterranean Diet.

  • Cancer

A study of dietary intakes of 14,807 Greek women (Epic-Greece) demonstrated that conformity to the Mediterranean Diet was associated with lower breast cancer risk among postmenopausal women. 

  • Neuro-degenerative diseases

An Australian review analysed18 studies that explored the effect of Mediterranean Diet on cognitive function, and found that adherence to a Mediterranean Diet was associated with “slower rates of cognitive decline, reduced conversion to Alzheimer’s disease, and improvements in cognitive function”.

  • Longevity

Telomeres are structures found at the end of our chromosomes. Shorter-than-average telomere length is associated with a mortality risk.

The Nurses’ health Study examined telomere length of 4676 disease-free women and found that greater adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with longer telomeres. This could translate to living 4.5 years longer.

Characteristics of the Mediterranean Diet

The traditional Mediterranean Diet is characterised by high consumption of whole grains (especially wheat, but also barley, rye, millet and spelt), fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, chickpeas, broad beans and lentils), herbs and spices (thyme, oregano, rosemary, cumin, coriander, rue, basil, parsley, mint, nutmeg, pepper, saffron, clove and cinnamon), nuts and relatively high fat consumption.

 

Olive oil is the principal source of dietary fat, and is used for cooking, baking, and for dressing of salads and vegetables.

Fish and seafood are typically eaten at least twice a week, and dairy foods – especially fermented dairy like yogurt and traditional cheese – are eaten in moderate portions. Feta cheese is traditionally made of sheep or goat’s milk.

Eggs and occasional poultry are also part of the Mediterranean Diet, but red meat and sweets are rarely eaten. Water and wine are typical beverages.

Getting started with the Mediterranean Diet

Oldways, a non-profit food and nutrition education organisation, with a mission to inspire healthy eating through cultural food traditions and lifestyles, recommends eight simple guidelines to incorporate into your diet:

Eat lots of vegetables. From a simple plate of sliced fresh tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and crumbled feta cheese to stunning salads, garlicky greens, fragrant soups and stews, healthy pizzas, or oven-roasted medleys.

Change the way you think about meat. If you eat meat, have smaller amounts.

Enjoy some dairy products. Eat Greek or plain yogurt, and try smaller amounts of a variety of cheeses.

Cook a vegetarian meal one night a week. Build meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables, and heighten the flavour with fragrant herbs and spices. Down the road, try two nights per week.

Switch to whole grains. Whole grains are naturally rich in many important nutrients; their fuller, nuttier taste and extra fibre keep you satisfied for hours.

Cook traditional Mediterranean grains like bulgur, barley, farro and brown, black or red rice, and favour products made with whole grain flour.

 

Use good fats. Include sources of healthy fats in daily meals, especially extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, olives, and avocados.

Eat seafood twice a week. Fish such as tuna, herring, salmon, and sardines are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and shellfish including mussels, oysters, and clams have similar benefits for brain and heart health.

 

For dessert, eat fresh fruit. Choose from a wide range of delicious fresh fruits — from fresh figs and oranges to pomegranates, grapes and apples. Instead of daily ice cream or cookies, save sweets for a special treat or celebration.

 

References

Altomare, R., Cacciabaudo, F., Damiano, G., et al. (2013). The Mediterranean diet: a history of health. Iranian Journal of Public Health, 42(5), 449–57. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23802101

Crous-Bou, M., Fung, T. T., Prescott, J., et al. (2014). Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses’ Health Study: population based cohort study. BMJ, 349.

Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvadó, J., et al. (2013). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet. New England Journal of Medicine, 368(14), 1279–1290. http://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa1200303

Hardman, R. J., Kennedy, G., Macpherson, H., et al. (2016). Adherence to a Mediterranean-Style Diet and Effects on Cognition in Adults: A Qualitative Evaluation and Systematic Review of Longitudinal and Prospective Trials. Frontiers in Nutrition, 3, 22. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2016.00022

Oldways 2016, Mediterranean Diet, Oldways traditional diets, retrieved 15 October 2016,

The Seven Countries Study 2016, What is the Seven Countries Study?, retrieved 15 October 2016,

Tong, T. Y. N., Wareham, N. J., Khaw, K.-T., et al. (2016). Prospective association of the Mediterranean diet with cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality and its population impact in a non-Mediterranean population: the EPIC-Norfolk study. BMC Medicine, 14(1), 135. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0677-4

Trichopoulou, A., & Lagiou, P. (1997). Healthy traditional Mediterranean diet: an expression of culture, history, and lifestyle. Nutrition Reviews, 55(11 Pt 1), 383–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9420448

Trichopoulou, A., Bamia, C., Lagiou, P., & Trichopoulos, D. (2010). Conformity to traditional Mediterranean diet and breast cancer risk in the Greek EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92(3), 620–5. http://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.29619

UNESCO 2010, The Mediterranean diet | Intangible heritage, UNESCO Multimedia Archives, retrieved 15 October 2016, <www.unesco.org>

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