The great proven health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

The word ‘diet’ can often instill fear in many people as it conjures up ideas of food restriction, bland menus, hunger and missing out on favourite foods. I’m sure most people over the years have heard of diets such as the Cabbage soup diet, Miami beach diet, Zone diet and the Atkins diet, all of which claim to work through different methods with varying degrees of scientific basis. However if you haven’t heard of these diets before, then one you will almost certainly have heard of, or at least heard reference too, is the Mediterranean diet, which is not really a diet in the way we usually think of them, more just a specific way of eating, which tends to have more enjoyment associated with it than usual ‘diets’.

So what is the Mediterranean diet and why should we be using this as the template to base our own diets on? Well the simple answer is because it’s classed as the healthiest diet in the world and not only is it fantastically tasty and abundant in flavours, but it has also been proven many times over to provide a variety of excellent health benefits too. So knowing that, the better question to ask is why WOULDN’T you want to follow the Mediterranean diet? Let’s explore what the specific advantages are of eating this way and what foods make up this way of eating.

Many people are currently a Mediterranean holiday, and whilst there, will usually be eating typical foods from that region, potentially blissfully unaware of the fact that what they are eating is likely to be, in most cases, some of the healthiest foods in the world. The countries which make up the Mediterranean regions are those countries that border the Mediterranean sea such as Italy, Spain, France and Greece, and it is the traditional healthy living and eating habits of the people from these countries that make up the basis for the Mediterranean diet. These countries however all have their own slight differences when it comes to diet and the regional foods they eat, so the Mediterranean diet can have multiple definitions, however in general this ‘diet’ has some specific things in common.

The general description of the Mediterranean diet is that it incorporates an abundance of plant based foods, has a high olive oil consumption and limited intake of red meat, promoting fish and white meat consumption instead. Red wine, in moderation, is also a usual component of this diet too, which I’m sure will make many people happy to hear. So what exactly are the health benefits of these specific types of foods?

Weight Loss

For those people who wish to lose weight, the Mediterranean diet has many positives, specifically if you are looking for weight management over the longer term and not just a quick fix, which is often very easily reversed. Studies have shown that risk of obesity significantly decreases with a higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet in both females and males. When compared to low fat diets and low carbohydrate diets (two of the most popular diets for weight loss), the Mediterranean diet showed better weight loss compared to the low fat diet and equal weight loss when compared to the low carbohydrate diet, although over the long term, weight loss was still better in people who followed the Mediterranean diet compared to a low carb diet and the adherence to the diet was also far better (probably helped by the cheese and wine, which is still allowed!!).

So how does the Mediterranean diet help you lose weight? There are multiple answers to this question, one being that the Mediterranean diet is high in mono-unsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), found in foods such as nuts, olives and avocadoes, which are eaten in far higher amounts than saturated fats (those from animal fats and meats). An increased intake of MUFAs, at the expense of saturated fats, has been shown to aid weight loss. The Mediterranean diet is also very high in plant based foods such as fruit and vegetables, which means this diet is high in both soluble and insoluble fibre. Fibre helps keep us fuller for longer, so we tend to eat less calories, and has also been shown to have a specific effect on certain hormones that can help regulate body weight.

So if you are on a mission to lose weight it’s definitely worth exploring all the offerings of the Mediterranean diet.

Healthy Heart

Three specific foods which are eaten in high amounts in the Mediterranean are tomatoes, olive oil and nuts all of which have proven health benefits for a healthy heart and cardiovascular system.

Tomatoes contain a variety of nutrients including lycopene, beta-carotene, potassium, vitamin C, folate, flavonoids, and vitamin E, all of which have proven health benefits and this includes benefits for the heart too! Lycopene has been shown to increase blood flow, which is an indication of improved blood vessel function. Improved blood vessel function means a healthier cardiovascular system, which then reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. Blood platelet function (platelets are the part of your blood involved in the clotting process) has also been shown to improve with lycopene consumption.  Some researchers suggest that one of the reasons that cardiovascular disease is low in the Mediterranean is because of the high consumption of tomatoes there.

Nuts, in all their varieties, are an abundant part of the Mediterranean menu and are a great heart friendly food. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition stated that eating just 13g of nuts daily could cut your risk of a heart attack by 30% due to the high content of Omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts. Nuts can be easily consumed as a snack, in breakfast cereals and sprinkled on salads.

Olive oil is an excellent source of mono-unsaturated fats and its consumption has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. It has also been shown to have a very positive effect on cholesterol levels too with studies showing olive oil can have a positive effect on HDL (good cholesterol) levels.

Improved Mental Health

Studies have shown that consuming a Mediterranean based diet helps support optimal mental health by reducing the risk of low mood and depression. The Mediterranean diet is high in Omega 3 fatty acids (found in oily fish, nuts, seeds and some beans) and other nutrients that are often not consumed in the same amounts in our Western diet. A deficit of Omega 3 fatty acids in the body is associated with depression and according to some studies, you are more likely to suffer with persistent low mood and depression if you are not a fish eater, as your Omega 3 fatty acids are generally lower if you are not consuming it through fish. 

The Mediterranean is also the land of the olive and is the place synonymous with olive oil, which is consumed regularly and widely in the Mediterranean. Olive oil has huge health benefits including helping to reduce depressive symptoms, so don’t be afraid to drizzle a little on salads, soups and bread to get a taste of the Mediterranean here in the UK. 

Alzheimer Risk

Alzheimer's disease is the most common neurodegenerative condition in the world and is also one of the most distressing too for those both caring for the person and also the person suffering from it. As people are now living longer, the risk of Alzheimer’s is an ever present threat. However the good news is that much evidence has shown that a diet that is rich in fruit, vegetables and grains and low in red meat and sugar can help reduce dementia and Alzheimer’s risk and as these are all components of the Mediterranean diet it again further shows the advantages of eating in this way.

One of the key features of Alzheimer’s disease is a build-up of plaques, called beta-amyloid plaques, inside the brain cells.  Some research has shown that consumption of olive oil can maybe help remove these plaques, although more research is needed on this before a proper conclusion can be made here. Other evidence has also shown that eating a Mediterranean diet can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by about 3.5 years compared to those people who follow Western style diets. So for healthy brain aging the Mediterranean diet is a winning choice.

Type 2 Diabetes

Studies have shown that an adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes, with one study showing a huge reduction in risk by 40% if the eating patterns of the Mediterranean diet were adhered too. One of the main components of the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, which has been shown to offer beneficial effects on blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. The high content of certain vegetables in the Mediterranean diet such as olives, aubergines, peppers, tomatoes, onions and rocket are all helpful in maintaining healthy blood glucose levels too as well as being very versatile and tasty!

The Foods of the Mediterranean Diet

So as a little summary, the foods that are found in abundance in the Mediterranean diet include, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans and pulses, potatoes, whole grains, seafood, chicken, extra virgin olive oil, spices and herbs. Foods which are still part of the Mediterranean diet and can, and should still be eaten, but in some moderation, include red wine, cheese, eggs and yogurt. No processed foods are part of this diet.

When it comes to cheese, many of the traditional Mediterranean cheeses come from sheep or goats’ milk and not cows. In most regions this is still the case now, where cheese made from goat and sheep milks are eaten regularly as part of the healthy Mediterranean diet including Halloumi, feta, Manchego and ricotta. Luckily for us here in the UK we have Delamere Dairy to provide us with some delicious sheep and goats’ cheeses of both hard and soft varieties, perfect to crumble on salads, pasta and make delicious cheese sauces with to give a real taste of the Mediterranean.  

What you may not know is that the Mediterranean diet is very similar to the UK government Guidelines that are published and provides healthy eating advice. This so called ‘Eat well Guide’, details what constitutes a healthy balanced diet and how much of certain food groups we should all be eating. The beauty of the Mediterranean diet is that it comprises of a huge range of foods with a great taste factor, so you won’t even feel like you are on a diet at all. With the added health benefits you gain from it also, it is definitely a change worth making.

References:

  • Adherence to Mediterranean diet and risk of developing diabetes: prospective cohort study, 2008. British Medical Journal.
  • Reduction in the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes with the Mediterranean Diet, 2011. Diabetes Care
  • Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. British Medical Journal.
  • Mediterranean diet pyramid: a cultural model for health eating, 1995. American society for clinical nutrition
  • Protective Mechanisms of the Mediterranean diet in obesity and type 2 diabetes, 2007. Journal of nutritional biochemistry
  • Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer's disease, 2006. Annals of Neurology

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