I always wondered why the Mediterranean diet has been cited as one of the healthiest diets in the world. Observing the amount of bread, pasta and pastries being consumed by people in Italy, Greece or across the French Riviera you could easily be fooled into thinking the diet may even be unhealthy, so what is it exactly that makes this diet so good for us?
While our travels are frustratingly put on hold due to COVID-19 perhaps adding some fond food memories to our diet could put a smile on our face and get our heart beating healthy for the months ahead!
The Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional type of foods which were eaten in countries like Italy and Greece in the 1960s. This way of eating consists of a good portion of fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, tubers, bread, herbs, fish and seafood and good fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and extra virgin olive oil consumed daily with an infrequent consumption of red meat.
Contrary to the western diet the consumption of processed meats (such as processed sausages, salami, hot dogs), highly processed foods (such as ‘low fat’ products or factory manufactured biscuits), and trans fats such as margarine, is infrequent in the Mediterranean diet.
Although the Mediterranean specialities include bread and pasta they are mostly made from unrefined whole grain wheat and raising agents are typically based on the natural style of fermentation. For those who enjoy the odd drink – regular but moderate consumption of alcohol such as one glass of red wine (rich in antioxidant polyphenols1) is also acceptable on the Mediterranean diet.
Researchers discovered that the Mediterranean diet can be very effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. A study on 26,000 women found that after following the Mediterranean diet there was 25% less chance of developing cardiovascular disease over a period of 12 years2.
The Mediterranean diet dispels the myth that people with a high risk of heart disease need to follow a low fat diet. A study including thousands of people with risk factors for heart disease or diabetes discovered that the rate of death from a stroke was reduced by 30% in people who followed the Mediterranean diet enriched with extra virgin olive oil and nuts with no calorie restrictions3. There are about 30 polyphenols with antioxidant properties found in hight quality cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, which are believed to help reduce inflammation, prevent cardiovascular disease and cognitive ageing.
The dietary fats used in this study were mostly healthy fats found in fatty fish, olive oil and nuts and the total fat intake was at 39-42% of total daily calorie intake (much higher than guidelines stated by the Institute of Medicine). Interestingly the risk of type 2 diabetes was also decreased in this trial.
Further findings suggest that the mediterranean diet can also effect our ageing and cognitive function. According to the Nurses’ Health Study – 4,676 healthy middle-aged women who followed the Mediterranean diet had longer telomere length (a specific part of DNA) which can predict the risk of developing age related diseases and increase the life expectancy.
Age related diseases caused by cell damage (triggered by stress and inflammation) can deteriorate the length of telomeres which increase the risk of developing disease. Telomeres with long lengths have protective properties against chronic disease and earlier death4. Following the antioxidant rich Mediterranean diet (found in fruits, vegetables, wholegrain and nuts) can help to combat stress and protect telomere length.
The Mediterranean diet has also been associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment in older adults. A study involving 5,907 older adults showed that people on the Mediterranean diet had a 35% reduction in scoring poorly on cognitive tests. The study also found that people who ate just a moderate Mediterranean style diet had approximately 15% reduction at scoring poorly in cognitive testing5.
And so to answer the point raised at the beginning of this article, it appears that the overall combination of foods in the Mediterranean diet (and not individual nutrients or foods such as occasional treats and bread) have protective properties against disease. Therefore it is important not to focus on single food groups but to incorporate the diet holistically.
Magdalena Marvell is a Nutritional Practitioner and Founder of the Persea Clinic which helps support clients who want to optimise their health in areas such as gut health, hormonal balance, skin conditions, weight management, family nutrition. To find out more about her work please visit www.persea.clinic.