What is a Mediterranean Diet?

What is a Mediterranean diet? When you visit Greece chances are you will eat Greek food and, thus, immerse yourself in what doctors, in the last 40 years, proclaim to be the key to a long and healthy life: the Mediterranean diet.

What is known as the Mediterranean diet first came to public attention in the 1960s, when doctors and public health officials from Europe and the US started studying the likely factors that contribute to the populations around the Mediterranean basin having considerable better health records and longer life expectancies than the populations of richer countries in the North.

This interest was sparked from the observation that the people of Crete exhibited low incidence of chronic disease, including heart disease and cancer, and had perhaps the highest life expectancy rates in the world. Those studies concluded that dietary habits were the factor that made the difference in heart disease, cancer, and mortality rates.

In January 1993, a joint committee of the Harvard University School of Public Health and the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, a Boston based educational organization, reviewed data from a variety of epidemiological studies that described the dietary traditions of the people from the Mediterranean area (Crete, the rest of Greece, Southern Italy and Northern Africa) and developed the Mediterranean Food Guide Pyramid.

The traditional diets of the Mediterranean region were mainly based on a diverse menu of plant sources, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. In North Africa, couscous, vegetables and legumes form the center of the diet; in Southern Europe it was rice, polenta, pasta, potatoes with vegetables and legumes.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, bulgur and rice together with vegetables and legumes, such as chick peas, constitute the core of many meals. Throughout the Mediterranean bread is a staple in the diet and is eaten without butter or margarine.

The Mediterranean diet delivers as much as 40% of total daily calories from fat, yet the associated incidence of cardiovascular diseases is significantly decreased because the fat comes mainly from olive oil and fish.

As a monosaturated fatty acid, olive oil does not have the same cholesterol-raising effect of saturated fats. Olive oil is also a good source of antioxidants.

Eating fish a few times per week benefits the Mediterranean people by increasing the amount of “omega-3 fatty acids”, something that the rest of the developed societies don’t get enough of.

Eating red meat sparingly also seems to increase health. There is a general consensus among health professionals that the Mediterranean diet is healthier than the North European and American diets because of the higher consumption of grains such as spaghetti, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and olive oil.

What exactly is a Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet is not a diet in the sense of the “Atkins diet” and other such prescribed eating programs. Rather, it is a set of eating habits that evolved through the centuries, and are mainly based on the particular flora and fauna of the Mediterranean basin.

It so happens that these eating habits result in low levels of heart and other chronic diseases. Some of its key characteristics include:

  • In traditional Mediterranean diets, fruits and vegetables are locally grown and often consumed raw or minimally processed. This may be a crucial factor given our present understanding of the potential protective factors of dietary fiber, antioxidants, and other micronutrients found in plant foods.
  • Olive oil, high in monounsaturated fat, is a good source of antioxidants and is the area’s principle source of fat. Evidence suggests that Mediterranean diets are about 40% fat, when bodies like the American Heart Association recommend 30%. However, it is very low in saturated and polyunsaturated fat. A high intake of fat in the form of olive oil in the traditional Greek diet does not have any apparent negative health consequences. It is believed that olive oil is neutral with respect to effects of serum cholesterol. However, current research has found olive oil and its high monounsaturated fat may actually increase HDL (good) cholesterol, but has little effect on LDL (bad) cholesterol.
  • Dairy products from a variety of animals like goats, sheep, buffaloes, cows, and camels, primarily in the form of cheese and yogurt, are traditionally consumed in low to moderate amounts. In the entire region, fresh milk is consumed sparingly and meals are usually accompanied by wine or water. Research suggests that the live bacterial cultures of yogurt may have contributed to the region’s good health.
  • Meat and especially red meat is avoided. Fish consumption varies between countries but overall is slightly higher than red meat. There is evidence to suggest that red meat is associated with colon cancer, prostate cancer, and heart disease, possibly due to carcinogens formed from cooking. Furthermore, animal products contain no fiber or antioxidants and may displace plant based foods that do contain these important elements.
  • Throughout the Mediterranean wine is drunk in moderation and usually taken with meals. For men moderation is two glasses per day, for women moderation is one glass per day. That is important because current research suggests there is a correlation between alcohol intake and a reduction in heart disease. The Mediterranean diet food pyramid is not based solely on either the weight or the percentage of calories intake. It is rather a combination of these that is meant to convey relative proportions and a general sense of frequency of servings, as well as an indication of which foods to favor in a healthy Mediterranean-style diet.

So, when you visit Greece, partake of the local eating habits and try to adopt some or all them when you return home. This may turn out to be a much more important long-term legacy of your stay here than the memories, the experiences, and the photos.

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