Fresh fruits and hardy vegetables, wholesome whole grains, the plentiful, rich goodness of olive oil and the bountiful fruits of the sea endow the people of the Mediterranean coastlines of Italy, Spain and Greece with one of the healthiest diets in the world. A pattern of eating whose benefits were first studied and advocated in 1945, the Mediterranean diet is today strongly touted for its ability to lower the risk of heart disease as well as for its positive effects on weight loss and common diet-related diseases.
Just what is the Mediterranean diet? It involves the daily consumption of whole grain foods, fruits, vegetables, yogurt and olive oil. It is high in fiber, low in sugar and high in beneficial fats, like olive oil and Omega-3. It features moderate consumption of fish or poultry with red meat nearly absent from the diet or eaten infrequently.
Mediterranean Food Pyramid vs. USDA Version
If you were to compare the Mediterranean food pyramid, to our own USDA-recommended food pyramid, you’d notice a few glaring differences. One is the heavy emphasis on the consumption of olive oil. While it forms the base of the Mediterranean pyramid, fats and oils in the U.S. retain only a small spot at the top of the pyramid with sparing use advised. The U.S. food pyramid makes no distinction between unsaturated or saturated oils and fats.
Another difference is seen in the daily consumption of meats. In the Mediterranean diet, red meat would be eaten at most once a week, with fish a more frequent contributor to daily diet. Dairy, while included as a daily dietary component on both pyramids, is consumed as yogurt or cheese made of sheep’s or goat’s milk in Spain, Italy and Greece, while, here in the U.S., dairy consumption is recommended by the glassful.
Another big difference is wine consumption. In the Mediterranean diet, a daily glass of wine is seen as beneficial because of its potent antioxidant qualities.
Healthful Benefits of Mediterranean Diet
Studies have shown that eating a daily diet of unrefined cereals and grains, beans, legumes, nuts, vegetables, fruits, olive oil and yogurt or cheese with moderate alcohol consumption is associated with longevity and reduced numbers of deaths from coronary artery disease and from cancer. Further, adding even low-intensity exercise, like walking, to the daily routine has been shown to help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and keep the aging mind sharp.
According to a release from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “The Mediterranean diet has been associated with a lower risk for several diseases and risk factors, including cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, problems with processing glucose that may lead to diabetes, coronary heart diseases…”
Furthermore, American diets that are heavy in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates increase the risk of gallstones, while studies have shown that eating more unsaturated fats, like olive oil, significantly lower this risk.
How the Mediterranean Diet Boosts Health
Individuals who follow a Mediterranean-style diet, that is rich in vegetables and fruit, and low in saturated fats, generally have a lower incidence of heart disease and cancer. Fish, olive oil and nuts supply good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), while the fruits, grains and vegetables provide an excellent source of fiber and antioxidants. Here at a glance are the benefits:
- An abundance of plant-based foods: fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds provide beneficial fiber and antioxidants that protect against heart disease and cancer and reduce risk of stroke
- Use of olive oil in cooking: adds a rich source of monounsaturated fat, that effectively lowers LDL “bad cholesterol” and increases HDL “good cholesterol” while providing a good source of antioxidants and vitamin E
- Moderate amounts of dairy: yogurt and cheese provide beneficial calcium and are low in fat
- More fish and poultry, less red meat – having fish several times a week, especially “oily fish” like salmon which is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat, can help lower cholesterol
- Eggs up to four times per week: provide a good source of protein
- A glass a day of wine or 100% grape juice (no sugar added): supplies an excellent source of flavonoid phenolics – powerhouse antioxidants that increase HDL “good cholesterol” and prevent blood clotting
In addition, staying hydrated with 6 glasses of water each day and a developing a good program of regular exercise and walking will give you the whole health package.
There are quite a number of cookbooks featuring delicious Mediterranean diet recipes. Check them out at an online store or look in your local bookstore. They will lend you a guiding hand in learning to prepare and enjoy a wide variety of Mediterranean-style meals.
If you don’t have the time to prepare these nutritious meals each day, then you might want to consider a service that delivers a full day’s organic Mediterranean-style meals to your doorstep. So, whether you cook it up yourself or bring it in, you’ll be putting yourself on the path toward better health for today and tomorrow.