A rugged coastline speckled with sandy beaches, combined with a moderate climate makes the Mediterranean a popular holiday destination. Yet researchers and health enthusiasts are beginning to appreciate this region of the world for an entirely different reason - its diet. The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional eating patterns of some of the countries in the region, and is particularly rich in plant-based foods, including fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and olive oil.
The Mediterranean diet first made headlines nearly 20 years ago when scientists discovered that people living on the Greek island of Crete and in southern Italy had some of the lowest rates of chronic disease in the world, combined with a particularly high life expectancy rate. Today, studies continue to show the extent of its many health benefits. Read on to find out how you can benefit too.
Studies show the Mediterranean diet can protect against type 2 diabetes. A major study published in the British Medical Journal followed more than 13,000 university graduates and found people who followed a Mediterranean diet the closest had a staggering 83 per cent reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, compared to people who didn't follow the diet.
Research has also shown that a Mediterranean diet may be effective at controlling diabetes. In one study, researchers assigned 215 newly diagnosed, overweight type 2 diabetics to a Mediterranean diet or low-fat diet. After four years, only 44 per cent of people on the Mediterranean diet required medication to control their diabetes, compared to 70 per cent in the low-fat group.
The Mediterranean diet, which is high in fibre and antioxidants, has also been shown to protect against some forms of cancer, including breast and stomach cancer. In fact, one study found that adopting just a couple of key elements of the diet could lower the risk of cancer. Researchers found that study participants who simply used more olive oil cut their risk of cancer by nine per cent. When study participants ate less red meat, and more beans and lentils, a typical eating pattern of the Mediterranean diet, they lowered their risk of cancer by up to 12 per cent.
Research has shown that a Mediterranean diet is effective at reducing the risk of heart disease, including heart attack and strokes. One of the largest studies to date on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet was released two years ago by Spanish researchers. After studying more than 40,000 Spanish adults for ten years, researchers found those who most closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet were up to 40 per cent less likely to develop heart disease, compared to adults who didn't follow a Mediterranean diet.
Research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet can protect the brain from age-related cognitive decline, including dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. One study from US researchers found that elderly people whose eating habits most closely resembled the Mediterranean diet had a 40 per cent lower risk of Alzheimer's disease compared to people with a traditional Western-style diet. What's more, researchers found that people following a Mediterranean diet who were the most physically active lowered their risk of the disease by over 60 per cent.
A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine comparing popular weight loss diets found a Mediterranean diet to be more effective than a low-fat diet at weight loss. Researchers found study participants following a Mediterranean diet lost an average of 4.4kg, while those following a low-fat diet lost 2.9kg. What's more, researchers found that people following a Mediterranean diet had a higher fibre intake and the added benefit of improved health, including more favourable fasting blood glucose and insulin levels.
The Mediterranean diet is so much more than just food; it also includes healthy lifestyle habits, including daily exercise. Traditionally people in the Mediterranean region have relied on exercise incorporated into their daily activities to stay fit, such as walking and cycling instead of driving, and taking the stairs instead of the escalator or lift. The Mediterranean diet also emphasises portion control, especially of higher fat foods such as nuts and seeds, and recognises the importance of sharing meal times with family and friends. So don't just change what you eat - change how you eat too, by enjoying each meal and savouring a variety of tastes.
Make the change
While the word ‘diet' makes many people think of deprivation and food that is off-limits, the Mediterranean diet is the complete opposite. Instead of focusing on food that is forbidden, the Mediterranean diet emphasises food you can eat. In fact, the Mediterranean diet is much more than a ‘diet'; instead it is an overall healthy lifestyle approach. And unlike many fad diets that someone might go on and come off, the Mediterranean diet is a healthy eating style that can be adopted for life.
6 key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet
1. Eat your fruit and veg
The Mediterranean diet is based around plant foods, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fresh fruit and vegetables play a starring role in nearly every meal on the Mediterranean diet and are valued for their exceptional nutrient content, including vitamins, minerals, fibre and disease-fighting antioxidants.
Make the change: Opt for fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables that are minimally processed for the most health benefits. Some of the most common fruit and vegetables found in the Mediterranean region include tomatoes, leafy greens, bell peppers, eggplant, onions, cabbages and melons - all of which happen to be an exceptional source of antioxidants and nutrients.
2. Say yes to wholegrains
Unlike the low carbohydrate diets that were popular in the past decade, the Mediterranean diet includes plenty of carbohydrates in the form of wholegrains. Wholegrains are renowned for their vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content. What's more, wholegrains are an exceptional source of fibre, which can help lower the risk of cancer, heart disease, assist with weight control and the management of type 2 diabetes.
Make the change: Boost your intake of wholegrains by switching to wholegrainbread and pasta, and brown rice. Check the ingredient list of products, such as bread, cereals, pasta, and crackers and make sure a wholegrain is listed as the first ingredient, such as wholegrain wholewheat, whole rye, whole oats or oatmeal, whole corn, whole barley, etc. Also look at the nutrient facts box, and choose products with at least four grams of fibre per serving. Try adding unprocessed wholegrains to your diet, such as quinoa, oatmeal, rye and corn.
3. Go nuts
Nuts are another staple of the Mediterranean diet. Most nuts contain monounsaturated fat, the same type of heart healthy fat found in olive oil. Nuts are one of the best plant sources of protein, and also contain considerable amounts of fibre, and antioxidants, such as selenium and vitamin E.
Make the change: Nuts are calorie dense, so instead of just adding them to your diet, it's best to eat them in place of other foods that are high in calories and saturated fats. Nuts offer the most health benefits when they're enjoyed in moderation. Keep portion sizes to a minimum and limit your intake of nuts to no more than to 30 to 60 grams per day - about as many as will fit in the palm of your hand. To reap the most health benefits, choose nuts that are raw, or dry roasted, and avoid those that are covered in salty seasoning, chocolate, or oil-roasted.
4. Love those legumes
Beans and legumes, such as lentils, play an important role in the Mediterranean diet because they are a healthy alternative to red meat and provide both energy and a source of good quality protein. What's more, beans and legumes are an excellent source of fibre and have a low glycemic index, which means they are slowly digested and provide a gradual rise and fall in blood sugar levels.
Make the change: Canned beans and lentils often have salt added to them, so be sure to rinse them well before eating. Alternatively, use dried beans and lentils, which don't have any added preservatives and are a fraction of the cost. Boost your intake of beans and legumes by adding chickpeas, kidney beans, broad beans or lentils to soups, stews, salads and chilli.
5. Stock up on olive oil
Olive oil is a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. In fact, unlike many other diets, the Mediterranean diet stands alone in that it doesn't limit fat, instead it promotes the intake of healthy fats and oils. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat, a healthy type of fat that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is the principal source of dietary fat in the Mediterranean diet and is generously used for cooking, baking, and for dressing salads and vegetables.
Make the change: Instead of serving butter, fill a small condiment dish with extra virgin olive oil for use on breads, rolls, potatoes or vegetables. While all types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, extra-virgin olive oil is the least processed, and the most heart healthy.
6. More fish, less red meat
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the Mediterranean diet and the typical Western diet is that the Mediterranean diet includes minimal red meat and poultry, and plenty of fish and shellfish. Fish which are rich in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, herring and sardines are plentiful in the Mediterranean diet.
Make the change: Take a cue from the Mediterranean diet and avoid fish that is fried or battered, instead enjoy fish that is grilled, steamed or baked. Aim to eat fish at least twice a week for the most health benefits.
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