The Mediterranean is a vast area that consists of many countries and regions from Southern France, Italy, Spain and Greece to Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.
For most people, the Mediterranean conjures up images of beautiful beaches, stunning colours, hot sunshine and a laid-back approach to life.
When we speak of ‘The Mediterranean-style diet’ we are actually referring to the more traditional ways of eating and lifestyle factors from these countries bordering the Med.
It is well known by now that research shows the Mediterranean diet to be one of the healthiest eating and lifestyle plans around. Why is that? This post will examine some of the research and reasons behind the claim.
The Mediterranean diet Pyramid
Research studies clearly show that the traditional Mediterranean diet is an extremely healthy eating and lifestyle plan. Possibly, this is due to the food pyramid that is at the base of the Mediterranean dietary pattern. In addition, foods on the pyramid are good for both health and waist alike.
Lifestyle and Exercise: At the base of the Mediterranean food pyramid are lifestyle factors.
Although the meals can last for hours, physical activity and an outside lifestyle with plenty of sunshine add to the health benefits of this way of life. In addition, emphasis is placed on adequate sleep and rest with many countries still partaking in the traditional afternoon siesta.
Combine these factors with the social aspect of preparing and eating food together and it is a recipe for long-term health.
As we have seen, the Mediterranean style of life is NOT just about diet.
Although not all of us are lucky enough to be able to constantly enjoy an outside lifestyle full of sunshine and exercise, the basic principles are the same. Try to spend as much time as possible outside in natural light, get plenty of rest and throw in some exercise.
What foods to eat for a Mediterranean Type diet
Plenty of water:
There is rarely a Mediterranean table without jugs of fresh water and bowls of delicious bread.
Numerous research studies show that drinking adequate amounts of water aids health and well-being as well as promoting weight loss.
In addition, the dinner table will include a selection of bread including whole grain varieties. The bread is usually eaten plain or dipped in olive oil rather than eaten with fattening margarine or butter.
Every main meal:
Fresh fruit and Vegetables:
Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables are a part of every daily meal. Forget your ‘5 a day’. Indeed, the Mediterranean diet often has over 5 fruit vegetable per meal!!
In addition, a large salad or vegetable dish is served as a starter and at least two or three vegetable dishes accompany the main course.
Furthermore, desserts are often local and seasonal fresh fruits, from freshly picked white peaches to a bowl of deep red cherries.
Even better, the true, traditional, Mediterranean diet involves foods that are in season and organically grown into the bargain. This means that eating fresh seasonal foods helps you avoid unhealthy preservatives and additives.
On a hot summer’s evening, there is nothing quite like a plate of tomato, mozzarella and basil salad laced with extra-virgin olive oil.
Interestingly, some starchy foods, such as bread, pasta, rice and couscous are part of the Mediterranean diet.
Furthermore, these staples are served with most meals. However, they are served as a small side dish with plenty of plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables and salads.
Ideally, if you are thinking of adopting a more Mediterranean style of eating then it is best to choose whole grain or cereal mixed carbs.
Most of the main meals contain lavish servings of olive oil. Whether food is cooked in it or salads are dressed with it, olive oil is a staple.
Interestingly, consumption of olive oil and the traditional Mediterranean-style diet has been associated with an increased lifespan and huge health benefits.
Indeed, one research study suggests that it is the high content of oleic acid found in olive oil that is thought to provide the health benefits associated with it.
- Anti-oxidant properties
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Anti-microbial effects
Apparently the scientific evidence surrounding the use of olive oil is sturdy enough to allow health claims to be put on the bottle labels. So swap that hydrogenated vegetable oil and fancy processed salad dressing for some pure extra virgin olive oil.
Herb and Spice:
The Mediterranean diet is low in sodium because food is flavoured with a whole array of herbs and spices.
Examples of typical herbs and Spices include basil, caraway seeds, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, oregano and lashings of garlic and onion.
Furthermore, some spices also have weight loss properties. These cheeky spices include chilli peppers, cumin, paprika and ginger.
Olives, nuts and seeds:
Recently, olive oil has grabbed a lot of the limelight regarding it’s amazing health benefits.
But where does olive oil come from? Yes, the humble olive is nutrient-rich too. Whether you prefer green or black olives, there is rarely a meal on the Mediterranean whereby olives are not served on arrival with a nice glass of wine.
Furthermore, scientific studies have also clarified that whole olives also have many health benefits. So, olives have antioxidant anti-inflammatory properties.
Nuts are also an important element of the Mediterranean diet. Great examples of nuts are peanuts, almonds, pecans, walnuts and pine nuts.
Although nuts are high in calories due to their fat content they are high in monounsaturated fat (the healthy fats) and low in saturated fat.
In addition, an important omega fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is also found in nuts and seeds.
All types of seeds are eaten in abundance too. Some examples of seeds include; poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
As well as being very tastym seeds are are also nutrient-dense foods full of protein and vitamins.
Indeed, packets of seeds are widely available in local shops and children will often buy a pack after school as a tasty, healthy, treat.
You will rarely see a dinner table in the Mediterranean region without a bottle or jug of red wine. Luckily for us wine lovers, red wine is part of the Mediterranean diet and has some proven health benefits.
Firstly, the Mediterranean diet, with moderate amounts of red wine, has beneficiary effects on haemostatic cardiovascular risk factors (HCVRF).
Secondly, another research study has demonstrated that those who enjoy a glass of red wine in the evening, or with a meal, have a lower mortality, especially cardiovascular mortality.
In conclusion, the key word here is moderate intake. Moderate intake means one, or maybe two, glasses of wine with a meal and plenty of water.
However, wine is calorie-laden. Furthermore, if moderate limits of wine are exceeded, than not only does it become detrimental to health and well being, but also to the waistline.
For a more detailed look at the relationship between weight and alcohol click HERE.
Whilst on the Mediterranean eating plan, dairy products are eaten every day.
Cheese is a key ingredient in sauces and salads. Think lovely, fresh goats cheese salad or Moussaka. Cheese is also served as a stand alone dish in place of a dessert.
Although dairy products have had a bad press in recent years, nevertheless they contain a powerful cocktail of healthy nutrients.
Essential and beneficial nutrients found in dairy are protein, calcium, Vitamins A, D, B2, B12 zinc and potassium.
Currently, medical specialists continue to disagree about whether or not saturated fat contributes to heart disease and therefore a low-fat diet is healthier.
However, a recent research analysis published in the European Journal of Nutrition indicates that this may NOT be the case. Furthermore other studies are suggesting that eating full fat dairy products is related to lower rates of diabetes and heart disease.
Again, dairy products appear to be a healthy part of the Mediterranean diet because they are eaten in moderation.
Fish and poultry products:
A large part of the Mediterranean eating plan is based on eating more fish and poultry than red meat. Obviously, fish and seafood products are found in abundance because these regions border the Mediterranean sea.
The health benefits of eating fish at least twice weekly are immense. Fish is high in protein and essential vitamins and minerals and is also one of the richest sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acid has been scientifically proven to reduce the risk of many diseases (including cardiovascular disease and cancer) and plays an important role in the health of the body and brain. Fish that are particularly rich in Omega-3 include tuna, mackerel, salmon, sardines and trout.
More rarely – once or twice a month
Red meat is eaten less often than dairy or fish in the Mediterranean diet.
A very controversial area in the field of nutrition is indeed the health benefits of red meat. It is true that red meat has been linked with various diseases including cancer, particularly bowel cancer according to a report from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
However, health risks are mainly related to processed meat and factory raised animals. These animals are fed on grain and may also be given hormones and antibiotics that are not natural for them.
Organic grass-fed animals that are free to roam do not have the same negative health implications. Thus, the general advice is to reduce your consumption of red meat and substitute it for both poultry and fish and vegetarian meals containing healthy legumes such as lentils, pulses, kidney beans and chick peas.
Health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
A research study by Willet found that for over 50 years people of the Mediterranean region had very low rates of coronary heart disease.
This was surprising at the time because the Mediterranean diet is traditionally high in fats. However, it is the type of fat that is important in health and one of the main fat sources for the Mediterranean diet is the healthy olive oil.
Conversely, trans-fatty acid that is derived from hydrogenated vegetable oil and found in a lot of processed food is directly associated with an increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
Not surprisingly then, trans fats are mainly absent from the traditional Mediterranean diet which is rich in fish, poultry, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts. The research study concluded that
- 80% of coronary heart disease
- 70% of strokes
- 90% of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome
can be avoided by adopting a Mediterranean style diet.
My Mediterranean Memories:
Why is the Mediterranean Diet one of the Healthiest eating plans in the 21st Century?
I spent most of my life in the southern part of France and I have enjoyed the mediterranean-type diet for some years now.
The time tested philosophy of Mediterranean food is quite simply:-
food is to be enjoyed, much like life.
I always look back with a quite a bit of nostalgia at my Mediterranean days.
Why am I saying this? When I turned 20, I weighed 197 lbs and had a very large waist circumference into the bargain. I felt like an inflated ball in front of other people.
However, after moving to France and switching to the Mediterranean diet, I lost over 40 pounds within 24 months. I have now maintained my current weight at 150 lbs.
In comparison to the Mediterranean countries of France, North Africa, Spain, Greece and Southern France we eat, and indeed, often overeat, as a basic need.
In addition, looking back at the Mediterranean cuisine, I found it fresh, tasty and fun. Furthermore, this includes the way in which food is prepared, served, shared and enjoyed which is very different to the US and Western philosophy.
How is the Mediterranean Diet eaten?
Because the major ingredients of the Mediterranean diet are fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, poultry, fiber, whole grains, red wine and lashings of olive oil, there is NO debate that it is a heart healthy eating plan.
But what is also important, and often overlooked, are the cultural benefits of eating and the amount of time spent preparing and enjoying the experience.
I have almost never encountered a rushed meal around a Mediterranean dinner table. Meals linger, sometimes for hours, as delightful fresh food is eaten at a slow pace.
Why is the Mediterranean Diet so Healthy?
What I like the most about a mediterranean-style diet is that it helps ward off heart disease. Indeed, along with the Dash diet, the Mediterranean diet is medically acclaimed as heart healthy.
In the past, I was mind-boggled by the tremendous array of weight-loss diet plans, weight loss pills and supplements, programs and aids on the market.
In fact, it seems impossible for me to choose a heart-healthy diet that would meet my needs, both now and in the future. As you move forward and begin looking at what type of diet plan or regimen is healthy to your heart, you will want to take a look at the benefits I got from my wonder cuisine.
The Mediterranean-type diet is a very healthy substitute to crash regimens and intense exercise routines. I like this diet because it was simple to incorporate into my youthful life. All I needed to do was eat from the Mediterranean food pyramid, and recommit myself to transforming my philosophy regarding food.
What did I like most about the Mediterranean Diet?
Immediately, after I started to eat Mediterranean style the health benefits became obvious.
The initial weight loss of around 10 pounds, in the first few weeks, was the most noteworthy at the time. In addition, I found that I felt a lot happier in my mood. Also, I had a lot more energy.
My only regret is that I didn’t start earlier but as my literature teacher said, ‘It is better late than never’. I have a marvellous mediterranean diet cookbook with a whole host of healthy, quick easy recipes.
Another important aspect of the Mediterranean diet is the freshness of the food. I found that people who stick to this diet use natural, fresh ingredients and a healthy meal plan is easy to put together.
This food is neither packaged nor processed. The food is always natural, fresh and tasty and I would guess there would be few who do not like it.
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- Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A. (2004) Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis.BMJ 2008;337:a1344 (Retrieved June 14th 2016)
- Willett WC (2006) The Mediterranean diet: science and practice. Public Health Nutr. 2006 Feb;9(1A):105-10. (Retrieved June 10th 2016)