The Mediterranean Diet has been lauded as ‘the’ healthy diet, and chances are you may have been recommended it by your doctor or nutritionist if you have a chronic condition like high blood pressure or heart disease. It is a popular dietary suggestion for many chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, depression and even dementia.
The Mediterranean Diet is a way of eating based on traditional eating patterns seen in areas of Crete, Greece and southern Italy which, during the middle of the twentieth century, showed better life expectancy and lower rates of chronic health conditions than other areas with the same levels of healthcare. In 1993, the World Health Organisation, along with some other organisations, brought in the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid to help people recognise the balance of food they might try eating to mimic the traditional diets seen in these areas of longevity. It included plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts, pulses, legumes and wholegrains, fish and lots of olive oil and other healthy fats, drinking plenty of fresh water, with smaller amounts of dairy, red wine and low red meat. It also proposed that fresh air, socialising and regular movement should be part of the daily plan and way of life as well.
But apart from the association between those areas and their traditional diets and longer living, where is the evidence that the Mediterranean Diet is good for us? How can we be certain that these dietary changes are beneficial to us?
Research shows that the Mediterranean Diet (MD) may be effective in reducing the risk of heart diseases and overall mortality. A women’s health study found that those following the MD had 25% less chance of heart disease over the 12-year study, and surmised that changes in levels of inflammation, blood sugar and obesity levels may have contributed to this.
In terms of aging and cognitive benefits, research shows that a diet high in antioxidants, such as the MD with its emphasis on fruits and vegetables and whole foods, may be protective against age-related diseases. In fact, an American study on Nurses’ Health found that women following the MD were 46% more likely to age healthily.
Finally, research into the MD has helped to dispel the myth that fat is bad for you and that we need to eat a low-fat diet to be healthy. The MD positively encourages consumption of extra virgin olive oil, oily fish and nuts, and other sources of healthy fats. One study that looked at a large group of people with diabetes and other heart disease risk factors found that following the MD with added extra virgin olive oil or nuts reduced the rates of deaths from stroke by almost 30%. Check out my newsletter later this month for information on healthy fats and how to incorporate them into our diets.
Some things to bear in mind, however, when incorporating the MD into our lives. It’s still important to think about the balance of foods and how we put together our plates to ensure that we are getting everything we need – BANT’s Healthy Eating Puzzle is a great place to start here.
Plus, it’s the eating pattern, variety and lifestyle considerations that may support the health benefits of the MD. Just eating extra nuts or more olive oil won’t cut the mustard. We need to think of this as an overhaul of the way we live – food, movement, sleep and stress reduction – and that way we can really reap the rewards.
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