Well, to begin with, there isn’t really any one Mediterranean Diet! There’s a whole swag of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The basic Mediterranean Diet has common characteristics even if the sourrounding countries differ in culture, language and recipes to some extent.
* an extensive intake of fruits, vegetables, bread and cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds
* olive oil is a source of mono-unsaturated fat – common to the Mediterranean area
* some dairy products, fish and even poultry are consumed in sparing to moderate amounts, and some red meat(not much)
* eggs are consumed in low to moderate amount say 1 to 4 eggs a week
* fortunately wine is acceptable but in low quantities ie. 1 – 3 glasses per day
A good question to ask is – Does a Mediterranean-style diet follow American Heart Association dietary guidelines?
Mediterranean-style diets are often close to US dietary guidelines, but not exactly.
People who follow the average Mediterranean diet eat less saturated fat than those who eat the average American diet. In fact, saturated fat consumption is well within US dietary guidelines. More than half the fat calories in a Mediterranean diet come from mono-unsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil). Mono-unsaturated fat doesn’t raise blood cholesterol levels the way saturated fat does.
The incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries is lower than in the United States. Death rates are lower, too.
However there are some who feel this may not be entirely due to the diet. Lifestyle factors (ie. more physical activity and extended social family support structures) may also play a part. At this stage this is just a theory. However the research tells all – the diet has existed for umpteen years.
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“Olive oil plays a central role, but it is not alone,” says Dimitrios Trichopoulos, MD, PhD, of Harvard School of Public Health.
“It’s among the divine mix of several factors that, when used in combination, help provide strong evidence of something that is very important — eating the proper diet can significantly reduce your risk of early death.”
He and researchers from Greece studied some 22,000 adults, aged 20 to 86, from all regions of that country; most previous studies tracked only older people who were more likely to die during the study. The participants answered detailed questionnaires about their eating habits throughout the four-year study. Then they were rated on how closely they followed the key principles of the Mediterranean diet.
Sticking to the Mediterranean diet cut the risk of death from both heart disease and cancer. For every two points higher on this 0-to-9 scale — with top numbers going to those most closely following the Mediterranean diet — the death rate dropped by 25%.
The findings by Trichopoulos may also help explain why Asians, who typically use these other cooking oils, also have lower disease and death rates. Although they rarely use olive oil, they traditionally follow other principles of the Mediterranean diet — lots of produce, legumes, nuts, and minimally processed grains, with little saturated fat.
“The message remains the same, and is consistent with other findings: A diet lower in saturated fats and higher in monounsaturated fats, and potentially, polyunsaturates, will result in better health outcomes,” says Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, of Tufts University and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.
“If the main message that Americans get is to just increase their olive or canola oil consumption, that’s unfortunate because they will increase their caloric intake and they are already getting too many calories. What they need to do is eat more fruits, vegetables, and legumes and fewer foods rich in saturated fats.”
Some of this information has been referenced from The New England Journal of Medicine, June 26, 2003. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, MD, PhD, professor of epidemiology, Vincent L. Gregory Professor of Cancer Prevention, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, senior scientist and director, Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Researcher Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston; spokeswoman, American Heart Association.
So in a nutshell, there is sound evidence that the Mediterranean Diet can help reduce heart disease, cancer, weight gain and of course reduce the risk of early death. However, it would be a mistake to think this outcome is based on the use of Olive Oil alone. The diet is diverse and allows for taste and creativity which is often lacking in most other diets. This alone warrants further investigation from those who seek a healthy, easy diet that has flavour and is fullfilling. Remember too that just as in all worthwhile diets, moderate level exercise should not be overlooked.