The Mediterranean Diet

People residing in countries along the Mediterranean sea have lower rates of heart disease and certain types of cancer even though their diets contain a relatively high percentage of calories from fat. Several broad characteristics make up the foundation of the diet:

-an abundance of plant foods which are minimally processed
-olive oil as the principle source of fat
-cheese and yogurt consumed in low to moderate amounts
-fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts
-red meat consumed in small amounts and used more as a sauce and to season food than as the main ingredient
-fresh fruit as a typical daily dessert, with sweets eaten only a few times per week
-wine consumed in low to moderate amounts, usually with meals

The traditional diet is low in saturated fat (~8%) with total fat ranging from 28% to more than 40% of total calories. Additionally, the diet includes only modest amounts of foods from animal sources. In fact, plant foods make up the core of the daily intake. Contrary to the low-carb craze, the Mediterranean diet allows ample amounts of carbohydrates. Whole grain breads, pastas, rice and beans, along with plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables are the essential components. We are still uncovering the many benefits of the multitude of phytochemicals and antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating produce of varying colors ensures the benefit of the broad spectrum of phytochemicals associated with their pigment. There is no doubt that these phytochemicals fight aging, cancer and heart disease.

Two well-designed studies have indicated that the rate of coronary events and total deaths were both reduced in populations who consumed Mediterranean-style diet (see the Journal of the American Medical Association, June 2004: the HALE study, and Esposito et al). It is a regimen that can be easy to follow because of the high nutrient-density and wonderful taste of many of the foods that are consumed. Many report feeling well and satisfied with their meals rather than feeling weak, hungry or deprived. These factors make the program appealing and easy to follow as a lifestyle.

We need not turn a blind eye to patients who follow fad diets with the idea that as long as they lose weight, the end justifies the means. The Mediterranean diet shows that we don’t have to sacrifice a healthy diet for one that promotes weight loss while undermining the dietary recommendations that promote health and longevity. I owe it to my patients to provide them with dietary recommendations that rely on sound scientific research. The Mediterranean approach helps to pull it all together.

Sources: Kathy McManus, MS, RD, LD; Rebecca Blake, RD, LD