The Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean diet in the form of a dakos.
Photo by DanaTentis, c/o Pixabay.

The Mediterranean Diet has become accepted as one of the top diets in the world. We have often looked at the diets of those people who seem to be the healthiest and wondered what it was they were eating. This particular one appeals to those who are looking to reduce their risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular troubles.

The basis of the diet is of course lots of plant-based foods -fruit and vegetables, nuts, legumes like peas and beans, whole grains and plenty of exercise. There is very little consumption of any meat products although charcuterie forms a major aspect of Mediterranean culture. The diet though does allow for some lean protein such as fish and chicken.  Generally fish and poultry might be eaten twice a week

There is a moderate consumption of dairy products  mostly in the form of cheese and yogurt but not enough to continually elevated levels of blood cholesterol. Olive oil is also consumed in higher quantities than expected. What might surprise is the inclusion of some alcohol but then it is red wine.

As a consequence of the diet, nutritionally it is rich in vitamins. There is clinical evidence to indicate the risk of heart disease is reduced, as is cancer, various dementias including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The Mediterranean Sea is bordered by many countries in Southern Europe and North Africa. Countries include France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.  All the peoples in these countries have different takes on what constitutes a Mediterranean diet but they do have some similarities. Part of the benefit also reflects lifestyle and what is best described as a less frenetic approach to living. Oldways, a nonprofit food think tank in Boston, which has been working with the Harvard School of Public Health, has developed a consumer-friendly Mediterranean diet pyramid. Check out the pyramid as it gives you a sense of the proportions of various foods eaten in the diet.

UNESCO recognised the diet as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2010 for countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Cyprus and Croatia but of course not France or the Lebanon which have their own unique styles. It was chosen because in their words:-

“The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the haring and consumption of food.” 

The Seven Countries Study

The diet was first advertised and publicized by the American biologist Dr Ancel Keys which was known as Mr Cholisterol. he based his findings on the ‘Seven countries study’ in the USA around the late 1940s. He identified that diet had a major role in development of heart disease. His findings really gained credence in the 1990s but were being worked upon from the 50s onwards.

The study was one of the first to make comparisons in diets from different countries. It was also one of the most extensive. It allowed for comparisons of different styles and cuisines but looked at fundamental parameters. One key finding was that countries like the USA, Finland and the Netherlands had much higher rates of cardiovascular disease and heart attacks than others. The eastern side of Finland was considerably higher than the west even though their cholesterol levels in people were similar. Some countries such as Crete had low heart disease levels even though the blood cholesterol levels were high enough however much of it could be traced to lifestyle and eating habits which drew attention to the Mediterranean diet.

Subsequent studies showed that the diet is one of the most healthy and rivals the Okinawan diet. It almost protects people from heart attacks, rising levels of obesity and cancer, especially colon cancer.

The issue with the Mediterranean diet is that whilst it is a very good diet to follow, modern lifestyles have led us to overconsume large quantities of fast foods. These are rich in saturated fats but low in fiber.

What Is A Balanced Mediterranean Diet ?

One of the most important components is extra virgin olive oil. It is the primary source of dietary fat but is regarded as one of the healthiest sources. Plenty of vegetables especially green and leafy types, plenty of fresh fruit which can be consumed in snacks and desserts, lots of cereals which are mostly as grains, nuts and legumes.

If you are consuming meats, then sea fish is ideal especially if it is oily, other types of seafood, dairy products, some chicken – usually grilled, dairy which is cheese and yogurt. Red wine can also be included.

What isn’t eaten is red meat, eggs, processed meat and sweets. There is also a need for plenty of exercise.

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