Eat like the Greeks, Spaniards, French and Italians, and you could live to a ripe old age.

Every now and then, a new diet craze forces us to scrutinise the way we eat. Fad diets come and go, but the one thing that remains is the Mediterranean diet – a way of eating that has, time and again, proved to be our best chance against heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and, yes, overweight and obesity.

Research into the positive effects of the Mediterranean diet has continued unabated since the 1970s, when scientists first recognised that this diet can play an important role in preventing a variety of so-called "diseases of lifestyle".

The Mediterranean diet traditionally includes the following foods:

    • Pasta made from durum wheat (low-GI), bread, rice, couscous, polenta (yellow, unsifted maize meal), and other wholegrains and potatoes.

    • Fresh vegetables in large quantities. These contain protective antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamin C.

    • Fresh fruit in moderate quantities that also provide the above-mentioned protective nutrients.

    • Legumes (dry, canned or cooked peas, beans, chickpeas, lentils) rich in dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals.

    • Plenty of fish, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and only small quantities of lean meat and eggs.

    • Milk and dairy products, especially fermented milk products such as plain yoghurt, and cheese like Parmesan and ricotta.

    • Plenty of monounsaturated fatty acids in the form of olive oil, olives and nuts.

    • Red wine, which contains antioxidants (polyphenols) to protect the heart.

    • Plenty of allium-containing foods such as fresh garlic, onions, shallots and leeks.



Why is this diet so important?
The Mediterranean diet is so beneficial that the OldWays Organisation has included the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid on its website to promote better health worldwide.

Research from the Mediterranean region clearly indicates that people living around the Mediterranean Sea have the lowest recorded rates of chronic diseases and the highest adult life expectancy compared to the rest of Europe and other western countries.

A 2009 edition of the Arbor Clinical Nutrition Updates also focused our attention on the Mediterranean Diet and its beneficial effects on one of the most common diseases of lifestyle, namely type 2 diabetes.

The Mediterranean diet and diabetes
The Arbor team reviewed research results from Spain and concluded that this diet is good news in terms of glucose handling and diabetes prevention. In one of the Spanish studies, people who adhered strictly to a Mediterranean diet for four years were five times less likely to develop diabetes than people who didn't stick to the diet.

In another study, 63 people with metabolic syndrome (already suffering from pre-diabetes/insulin resistance and pre-hypertension) followed a Mediterranean diet for six months. The researchers found that glucose tolerance and blood pressure improved significantly with the diet.

go-mediterranean

In comparison to measurements at the start of the study, the waist circumference measurements of the participating folks decreased after six months. The latter improvement indicates that abdominal obesity, one of the most dangerous aspects of the metabolic syndrome, can be reversed. The third study produced similar results, with a shift in fat distribution from the belly (abdomen) to other areas of the body, and improved insulin sensitivity.

Finally, a large study with 1,224 older people, who either followed a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean diet using either virgin olive oil (1 litre a week) or eating nuts (30g per day of almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts) for one year, demonstrated that the people who followed the Mediterranean diet plus nuts were more likely to change from having metabolic syndrome to not having metabolic syndrome.

This change was also linked to less fat around the abdominal area, as well as a reduced risk for high blood pressure and high triglyceride levels in the blood.

The Mediterranean Diet and heart disease
Importantly, the Mediterranean Diet is also linked to a dramatic decrease in heart disease.

Results obtained with the Nurses’ Health Study in the USA showed that women who followed the Mediterranean diet had a 30% reduction in the risk of developing heart disease over a period of 20 years, compared to people who followed a traditional western diet high in saturated fat.

Why is the Mediterranean Diet so protective?
Scientists are still trying to pinpoint which aspects of the Mediterranean diet contribute to its health effects.

At the moment, experts agree that certain characteristics of the Mediterranean diet, such as the high vegetable and fruit intake, the greater use of wholegrains, the emphasis on monounsaturated fats in the form of olive oil, olives and nuts, regular fish intake and drinking moderate quantities of wine with meals, seem to confer special benefits.

Researchers also point out that this eating pattern automatically results in a lower intake of energy and saturated fat, while boosting intakes of monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fibre and antioxidants (including polyphenols from wine and lycopene from tomatoes).

All these changes are good in terms of health and longevity.

Take-home message
Although we're not 100% sure which aspects of the Mediterranean diet confer the greatest benefit, we do know that the Mediterranean diet is very healthy and that it protects us against many diseases of lifestyle. Start making changes to your diet to make it more Mediterranean – and reap the rewards now and in years to come.

For an example of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, visit the Oldways’ site at: http://www.oldwayspt.org/med_pyramid.html.

References:
Arbor (2009). Mediterranean diet & diabetes. Arbor Clinical Updates, Issue 307, May 2009, 14; Oldways (2008) Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, http//www.oldwayspt.org/ med_pyramid.html.

Images via Thinkstock




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