Happy National Mediterranean Diet Month!
I know that your enthusiasm cannot be contained and that all have been celebrating with friends and family. Wait, no? You had no idea, nor are you sure that you should even care?
But the Mediterranean Diet has been given accolades since the 1960s, and has been increasing in popularity since the 1990s.
Why should anyone consider it?
Studies* show that people who eat a Mediterranean Diet have lower rates of heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity, and Alzheimer's disease as well as lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, following the Mediterranean Diet may even help you live longer – it is associated with lower all-cause mortality (dying for any reason at all).
Is it really a diet?
If you associate “diet” with “hungry and deprived” than NO, it’s not a diet. If you consider that “diet” means “way of eating” than YES :) It really is a lifestyle approach to eating, featuring fruits and vegetables, fish, beans, nuts and whole grains. Olive oil and wine are also major components.
Why is it called “Mediterranean?”
A big distinction that I want to make is that The Mediterranean Diet ≠ Mediterranean Cuisine.
The diet is based on the way of eating typical in the region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. It's a composite of these cultures, not taking anything completely from one area. The countries that we're talking about here are Spain, France, Italy, Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Malta, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria, Albania, Greece, Israel, Croatia, Libya and Lebanon.
The focus is on the coastal communities, and the healthiest options are often the “poor man’s” versions. Many of the recipes we typically associate with Mediterranean countries come from regions farther to the north.
One of the reasons I want to emphasize that this isn't just Mediterranean cuisine is because Mediterranean people have some of the worst diets in Europe. About 75% of the population of Greece is overweight, and more than half of Italy, Portugal and Spain are overweight. Additionally, the regional differences are significant. For instance, some countries use lard and butter in cooking more commonly than olive oil. The Muslim population in Northern Africa avoids wine, while countries like France and Italy enjoy liberally.
What IS the diet, then?
The pattern of eating is shown in the pyramid below.
As I said above, the diet has a heavy focus on a plant-based diet. Fruits and vegetables, lentils, beans and whole grains are major components. Low fat dairy and lean meat and seafood are encouraged. Healthy fats are a major focus, like nuts and seeds, olive oil, and avocados.
To get started, here are a few resources:
*There are TONS of studies that have been done that highlight the health benefits. A few for your viewing pleasure, to prove I didn't make this stuff up:
Lois M, García-Andrade C, Walther L, Núñez-Cortés J. The Mediterranean Diet: A Combination of Beneficial Elements for Cardiovascular Disease. Current Nutrition & Food Science. May 2010;6(2):105-108.
Mitrou P, Kipnis V, Schatzkin A, et al. Mediterranean Dietary Pattern and Prediction of All-Cause Mortality in a US Population: Results from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Archives Of Internal Medicine [serial online]. December 10, 2007;167(22):2461-2468.
Nordmann A, Suter-Zimmermann K, Briel M, et al. Meta-Analysis Comparing Mediterranean to Low-Fat Diets for Modification of Cardiovascular Risk Factors. American Journal Of Medicine [serial online]. September 2011;124(9):841-851.e2.
Solfrizzi V, Frisardi V, Panza F, et al. Mediterranean Diet in Predementia and Dementia Syndromes. Current Alzheimer Research [serial online]. August 2011;8(5):520-542.
Trichopoulou A, Bamia C, Trichopoulos D. Anatomy of health effects of Mediterranean diet: Greek EPIC prospective cohort study. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Overseas & Retired Doctors Edition). July 4, 2009;338(7710):26-29.