You may have heard about the purported benefits of the Mediterranean diet (MD). Media outlets, which may sensationalize scientific studies, often report the benefits of such a dietary pattern. From the perspective of a scientist, are these reports accurate? Have studies that examined the Mediterranean dietary pattern been in agreement on the health benefits? Where did this idea originate? Let’s take a closer look at these issues.
It was first reported in the 1940s in the landmark Seven Countries study that men living on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea, which is part of Greece, had long life spans and low rates of heart disease. This observation piqued the interest of nutritional science researchers, who proceeded to analyze the lifestyles and dietary patterns of these individuals. It was noted that the indigenous people of Crete lived lives that were low in stress that included daily exercise, often in the form of walking. Moreover, their diets were high in olive oil and nuts, which contain abundant mono- and polyunsaturated fat, and in carbohydrates. They also consumed fish often and regularly had wine with meals.
Over the past several decades, these observations have morphed into what we now refer to as the “Mediterranean diet”, which only partially reflects the dietary patterns of the people of Crete at that time. The modern MD is high in beans, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, fish and nuts, and low in red and processed meats, added sugars and saturated fats with moderate alcohol consumption. Studies have consistently shown that this dietary pattern is associated with a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and may also decrease the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.
What is it about the MD that offers these health benefits? What are the beneficial nutrients in the MD that promote good health? For starters, higher mono- and polyunsaturated fat intake, which typifies the MD, has been associated with decreased risk of CVD. The MD also contains high potassium and low sodium, supporting blood pressure control. Fruits, vegetables and nuts are high in fiber and also contain abundant phytochemicals, some of which are known to have positive health benefits. High fiber intake is associated with reduced risk of some cancers (e.g. colon cancer) and it also decreases blood cholesterol levels. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Moreover, the MD limits red and processed meats, which are typically high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. Moderate alcohol consumption has also been linked to a lower incidence of CVD, particularly red wine, which contains a powerful antioxidant phytochemical.
The MD diet thus promotes good health. If this dietary pattern is combined with regular exercise and one works at decreasing daily stress, it can certainly reduce risk for developing a host of chronic diseases. Can you think of other health benefits of the MD? How can you alter your diet so it more closely reflects this dietary pattern? Why might the MD be more beneficial than the typical American diet?