8 health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is based on the dietary traditions of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy circa 1960 at a time when the rates of chronic disease among populations there were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest, even though medical services were limited.
However, the word traditional should be emphasised, as many people in that part of the world (especially cities in Greece), have succumb to a Western diet and thus obesity rates are soaring there as well.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The traditional Mediterranean diet consists mainly of fruits and vegetables, seafood, olive oil, hearty grains, and other foods that help fight against heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline. It’s a diet worth chasing; making the switch from pepperoni and pasta to fish and avocados may take some effort, but you could soon be on a path to a healthier and longer life.
Aside from eating a diet consisting mainly of fresh and homegrown foods instead of processed and packaged foods, there are other vital elements to the Mediterranean diet:
- daily exercise
- sharing meals with others, and
- fostering a deep appreciation for the pleasures of eating healthy and delicious foods.
According to a study by the Harvard School of Public Health, “Together with regular physical activity and not smoking, research suggests that over 80% of coronary heart disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.”
It has also been recommended that heart disease is better treated with a Mediterranean-style diet than cholesterol-lowering drugs, it has been claimed. A study found those who had a diet rich in vegetables, nuts, fish and oils were a third less likely to die early, compared with those who ate larger quantities of red meat, such as beef, and butter.
Based on much research, the traditional Mediterranean diet can help protect against the following:
- development of heart disease
- metabolic complications
- type-2 diabetes
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
And the best part is, even with all of these benefits, it still provides the opportunity for people to eat, drink and be merry with friends and family.
So let’s take a deeper look in to the health benefits of a traditional Mediterranean diet.
8 health benefits of a Mediterranean diet
1. Protecting against type 2 diabetes
Evidence suggests that the Mediterranean diet serves as an anti-inflammatory dietary pattern, which could help fight diseases related to chronic inflammation, including metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. One reason the Mediterranean diet might be so beneficial for preventing diabetes is because it controls excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, makes us gain weight and keeps the weight packed on despite us dieting.
According to the American Heart Association, the Mediterranean diet is higher in fat than the standard American diet, yet lower in saturated fat. It’s usually roughly a ratio of 40% complex carbohydrates, 30% to 40% healthy fats and 20% to 30% quality protein foods. Because this balance is somewhat ideal in terms of keeping weight gain and hunger under control, it’s a good way for the body to remain in hormonal homeostasis, so someone’s insulin levels are normalized. As a byproduct, it also means someone’s mood is more likely to stay positive and relaxed, energy levels up, and physical activity easier.
The Mediterranean diet is low in sugar, since the only sugar present usually comes from fruit, wine and the occasional locally made dessert.
2. Protects cognitive health, reducing risk of Alzheimer’s & Parkinson’s disease
Eating the Mediterranean way might be a natural Parkinson’s disease treatment, a great way to preserve your memory, and a step in the right direction for naturally treating Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Researchers speculate that the Mediterranean diet may improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and overall blood vessel health—all factors that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In a diet containing high levels of antioxidants that prevent cells from undergoing a damaging process called oxidative stress, the risk of Parkinson’s disease is practically cut in half.
Healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, plus plenty of anti-inflammatory veggies and fruits, are known to fight age-related cognitive decline. These help counter the harmful effects of exposure to toxicity, free radicals, inflammation-causing poor diets or food allergies, which can all contribute to impaired brain function. This is one reason why adherence to the Mediterranean diet is linked with lower rates of Alzheimer’s.
3. Helps keep you agile as you age
The nutrients gained with a Mediterranean diet may reduce a senior’s risk of developing muscle weakness and other signs of frailty by about 70%.
4. Improves heart health to help prevent heart disease and stroke
Refined breads, processed foods, and red meat are discouraged in a Mediterranean diet, and it encourages drinking red wine instead of hard liquor, which have all been linked to heart disease and stroke prevention.
Research shows that greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet, including plenty of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 foods, is associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality, especially heart disease. A striking protective effect of a Mediterranean diet rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) from olive oil has been shown in many studies, with some finding that a Mediterranean-style diet can decrease the risk of cardiac death by 30% and sudden cardiac death by 45%.
5. Might Help You Live Longer
A diet high in fresh plant foods and healthy fats seems to be the winning combination for longevity. Monounsaturated fat, the type found in olive oil and some nuts, is the main fat source in the Mediterranean diet. Over and over, studies show that monounsaturated fat is associated with lower levels of heart disease, cancer, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory diseases, and more. These are currently the leading causes of death in developed nations — especially heart disease.
In the well-known Lyon Diet Heart Study, people who had heart attacks between 1988 and 1992 were either counselled to follow the standard post-heart attack diet advice, which reduces saturated fat greatly, or told to follow a Mediterranean style. After about four years, follow-up results showed that people on the Mediterranean diet experienced 70% less heart disease — which is about three times the reduction in risk achieved by most cholesterol-lowering prescription station drugs! The people on the Mediterranean diet also amazingly experienced a 45% lower risk of all-cause death than the group on the standard low-fat diet.
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6. Helps Fight Cancer
Plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which fight cancer in nearly every way — providing antioxidants, protecting DNA from damage, stopping cell mutation, lowering inflammation and delaying tumour growth. According to the European Journal of Cancer Prevention, “The biological mechanisms for cancer prevention associated with the Mediterranean diet have been related to the favourable effect of a balanced ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids and high amounts of fiber, antioxidants and polyphenols found in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and wine.”
7. Low in Processed Foods and Sugar
The diet primarily consists of organic foods and ingredients that are very close to nature, including olive oil, legumes like peas and beans, fruits, vegetables, unrefined cereal products, and small portions of animal products. Beyond plant foods, another major staple of the diet is locally caught fish and a moderate consumption of cow, goat or sheep cheeses and yogurts that are included as a way to receive healthy fats and cholesterol.
8. Helps you lose weight in healthy way
If you’re looking to lose weight without being hungry and maintain that weight in a realistic way that can last a lifetime, this might be the plan for you. The diet is both sustainable and worthwhile, and has been undertaken by many people all around the world with great success related to weight loss and more, as it works to help manage weight and reduce fat intake naturally and easily due to eating many nutrient-dense foods.
More research studies on the Mediterranean Diet: Five (5) controlled studies
For more information on controlled studies, this article takes an objective look at 5 long-term controlled trials on the Mediterranean Diet. All of them are published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. Most of the participants are people who already have health problems such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome, or are at a high risk of heart disease.
The majority of the studies looked at common health markers like weight, heart disease risk factors and markers of diabetes. The larger and longer-term studies also looked at hard end points like heart attacks and death. Read more on the 5 studies here.
Getting started on a Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthy way to eat. Many people who switch to this style of eating say they’ll never eat any other way. Here are some specific steps to get you started:
- Eat your veggies and fruits and switch to whole grains.
An abundance and variety of plant foods should make up the majority of your meals. Strive for seven to 10 servings a day of veggies and fruits. Switch to whole-grain bread and cereal, and begin to eat more whole-grain rice and pasta products.
- Go nuts
Keep almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural peanut butter, rather than the kind with hydrogenated fat added. Try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or spread for bread.
- Pass on the butter
Try olive or canola oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Use it in cooking. Dip bread in flavoured olive oil or lightly spread it on whole-grain bread for a tasty alternative to butter. Or try tahini as a dip or spread.
- Spice it up
Herbs and spices make food tasty and are also rich in health-promoting substances. Season your meals with herbs and spices rather than salt.
- Go fish
Eat fish once or twice a week. Fresh or water-packed tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring are healthy choices. Grilled fish tastes good and requires little clean-up. Avoid fried fish, unless it’s sautéed in a small amount of canola oil.
- Rein in the red meat
Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. When eaten, make sure it’s lean and keep portions small (about the size of a deck of cards). Also avoid sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats.
- Choose low-fat dairy
Limit higher fat dairy products such as whole or 2 percent milk, cheese and ice cream. Switch to skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese.
- Raise a glass to healthy eating
If it’s OK with your doctor, have a glass of wine at dinner. If you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t need to start. Drinking purple grape juice may be an alternative to wine.
Mediterranean diet pyramid
Quick start to a Mediterranean diet
The easiest way to make the change to a Mediterranean diet is to start with small steps. You can do this by:
- Sautéing food in olive oil instead of vegetable oil.
- Eating more fruits and vegetables by enjoying salad as a starter or side dish, snacking on fruit, and adding veggies to other dishes.
- Choosing whole grains instead of refined breads, rice, and pasta.
- Substituting fish for red meat twice per week.
- Enjoying dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt.
For more on healthy Mediterranean snacks, Mediterranean shopping list guides, or a Mediterranean sample menu for 1 week and more, read this great article by Kris Gunnars of Authority Nutrition.
It seems clear from looking at the evidence that the Mediterranean diet is very healthy and may help prevent some of the world’s leading killers. It is obviously a much better option than the standard low-fat diet that is still being recommended all around the world.
Watch video – Yotam Ottolenghi visits Crete and explores its rich and complex culinary history
This video shows some of the dietary habits in Crete, the Greek island that inspired the researchers that first noted the exceptional health benefits of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Mediterranean diet recipes to get you started
- Health.com – 22 Mediterranean diet recipes to improve your health. Visit website
- at Well – Heart-Healthy Mediterranean Diet Recipes. Visit website
- BBC Good Food – 25 Mediterranean recipes. Visit website
- Authority Nutrition – Mediterranean Diet 101: A Meal Plan and Beginner’s Guide. Visit website.
Read more on the importance of staying healthy over 60 in volume 2.
Volume two: Looking after your health and well-being after 60
– Dr. Axe. 8 Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. Read article
– Clinical and investigative medicine. The Mediterranean diet in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. 29 June 2006. de Lorgeril M, Salen P. Read article
– The Cochrane database and systematic reviews. ‘Mediterranean’ dietary pattern for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. 12 August 2003. Rees K, Hartley L, Flowers N, Clarke A, Hooper L, Thorogood M, Stranges S. Read article
– European Journal of Cancer Prevention (ECP). Cancer prevention in Europe: the Mediterranean diet as a protective choice. 22 January 2012. Giacosa A, Barale R, Bavaresco L, Gatenby P, Gerbi V, Janssens J, Johnston B, Kas K, La Vecchia C, Mainguet P, Morazzoni P, Negri E, Pelucchi C, Pezzotti M, Rondanelli M. Read article
– Public Health Nutrition. Mediterranean diet and metabolic syndrome: the evidence. 12 September 2009. Babio N, Bulló M, Salas-Salvadó J. Read article
– Annals of Neurology. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. June 2006. Scarmeas N, Stern Y, Tang MX, Mayeux R, Luchsinger JA. Read article
– Final Report of the Lyon Diet Heart Study. Mediterranean Diet, Traditional Risk Factors, and the Rate of Cardiovascular Complications After Myocardial Infarction. 1999. de Lorgeril, M; Salen, P; Martin, J-L; Monjaud, I; Delaye, J; Mamelle, N. Read article
– The Guardian. What actually is the Mediterranean diet – and does it work? 3 September, 2016. By Sarah Boseley. Read article
– Mayo Clinic. Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan. Read article
– Authority Nutrition. 5 Studies on The Mediterranean Diet – Does it Really Work? Gunnars, K. Read article
– Authority Nutrition. Mediterranean Diet 101: A Meal Plan and Beginner’s Guide. By Kris Gunnars. Read article
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