What You Need to Know About the Mediterranean Diet
In 1950, an ongoing study began to examine the diet and lifestyle of 12,763 men in four different regions around the world. These regions included the countries of the United States of America, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, Greece, former Yugoslavia (now Croatia and Serbia), and Japan.
The goal was to investigate the health risk factors associated with different cultural traditions of eating and lifestyle habits, especially in relation to cardiovascular health. This study was very important to our understanding of modern health and nutrition, because it provided evidence for the foundation of what is now considered common knowledge: that cardiovascular disease is preventable, the main risk factors of cardiovascular health (such as diabetes, smoking, cholesterol and blood pressure) are universal, a healthy lifestyle can encourage different aspects of health, and whole populations can differ in health or sickness.
That last point is an important one because by examining the thousands of participants in the study, the researchers were able to determine that some regions with certain traditions in their diet and lifestyle had the least risk of cardiovascular disease and other health issues. The two main regions with the healthiest diet and lifestyle traditions at that time were Greece and Italy (since these countries have become more “Westernized” in modern times with a change to a less healthy diet and more sedentary lifestyle, these benefits have begun to decline). The people living by the Mediterranean Sea were undeniably healthier, less prone to disease, and lived longer. Researchers dubbed these people’s traditional diet “The Mediterranean Diet”, although the concept is much more than a diet as it includes lifestyle habits such as exercise, and thus should be considered more of a way of living than a simple diet.
The many, proven, and long-lasting benefits of this diet have guaranteed its longevity in a world where flash foods and fad diets often disappear after a few months or years. The Mediterranean Diet has been recommended by nutrition, health, and medical professionals for over 50 years for good reason. A more recent study by the American College of Cardiology found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle were 47% less likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease over a 10 year period. The health benefits also include lowering cholesterol, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, helping to relieve muscle and joint pain, promoting sustainable energy levels, lowering insulin sensitivity, lengthening your lifespan, and decreasing the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
The Mediterranean diet puts an emphasis on healthy foods and healthy living. However, unlike other dietary regimes, there are no severe restrictions. It’s more of a gradual change in your lifestyle pattern without the harsh limitation of many modern diets, and therefore seems like an easier and more sustainable “switch” to make. The focus is on eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, vegetable oils, some dairy products, fish and poultry, limiting sweets, and… a moderate amount of wine (it’s not all work and no play!). The important thing is that the staple foods are all nutrient dense, rich in Omega-3s, Omega-6s, and essential vitamins and minerals. It’s a diet geared for optimal function of your brain and body, unlike the typical Western diet that is full of processed and refined foods, an excess of red meat and saturated fat, and a lot of sugar. The diet is only part of the lifestyle, though. To receive the full health rewards, the other essential part is being active at least a little bit every day – for example by taking a walk every afternoon.
Simplified, the main points of the Mediterranean Diet are pretty easy to follow. Just pretend you are on the shores of the Mediterranean sea in Greece or Italy – where the focus is on fresh, delicious foods from the land and sea. You don’t have to restrict yourself to eating all veggies – there are many kinds of seafood, chicken and whole grain dishes that are both healthy and tasty. You don’t have to restrict yourself to a no or low-fat diet – you can eat vegetable oils, yogurt, and some cheeses at will, with a little milk or butter thrown in occasionally.
The Mediterranean Diet & Lifestyle
- The main staple foods are plant-based. This includes vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts.
- The diet promotes using monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and canola oil in place of less healthy fats such as margarine, lard, or butter.
- A crucial aspect of this nutritional regime is limiting red meat intake to no more than several times a month, and instead of eating poultry or seafood a few times a week. Some will say that this is not enough protein, but the truth is that a sufficient amount of protein for both athletes and non-athletes is easily maintained with this diet.
- Instead of flavoring everything with salt and sugar which is pretty typical in the Western diet, the Mediterranean diet encourages flavoring foods with herbs and spices.
- The use of sugar is limited, but eating fresh fruits as your “sweets” is encouraged.
- Drinking red wine in moderation is acceptable.
- Last, but definitely not least – you must exercise, at least a little bit, every day.