It is a common claim that people in the Mediterranean live longer and are stronger and healthier. Is it true or is it a claim to help sale olive oil?
The Mediterranean dietary pattern has been linked with weight loss and positive health outcomes. Studies seem to be supportive of following a Mediterranean dietary pattern as a solution for weight loss and obesity.
We already nominated the Mediterranean diet as the best diet in our previous post 5 best weight loss programs for women and we have seen how to lose weight with the combination diet, a diet based on the Mediterranean dietary pattern.
In this article we have gathered a summary of some of the real benefits of the Mediterranean diet which go beyond weight loss.
The Mediterranean diet defined
The Mediterranean diet derives from the countries based in the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. The differences in dietary habits, cooking style ethnic and religious customs make it impossible to give one single definition of what the Mediterranean diet is.
Much of the scientific research originally looked at the benefits of the Cretan diet in Greece. Later studies looked and compared diets in the rest of Greece and Northen Italy. There are common components shared in the dietary patterns in all the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea however, at the same time there is a large diversity.
Therefore, it may be more accurate to refer to a Mediterranean dietary pattern or style rather than a ‘Mediterranean diet’.
Health benefits – cardiovascular disease
One of the main elements of the Mediterranean dietary pattern is the high consumption of foods deriving from plant origin such as fruit and vegetables. Why is this beneficial?
Plant foods are rich in fibre, vitamins minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols, factors which can lead to a number of health benefits. Studies indicate that such elements can have a protective role from cancer and CHD (coronary heart disease). A lot of the characteristic of the plant-derived foods consumed in a Mediterranean dietary pattern such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, garlic, herbs, and red wine contain a large amount of bioactive compounds. These can collectively provide significant health benefits. For example, nuts, are rich in phenols, flavonoids, and phytosterols, fruits and vegetables contain flavonoids, carotenoids, folic acid, and fibre, all of which are important in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Health benefits – cancer and other conditions
The protective benefits of the Mediterranean dietary pattern, against disease, don’t stop only with cardiovascular conditions. Some of the food elements which are part of the Mediterranean dietary pattern, such as aromatic herbs and wild greens, contain antioxidants and other compounds which may have a protective role against cancer and other diseases.
In addition, according to some studies this style of eating has been associated with positive outcomes for insulin resistance (improving insulin sensitivity) and lowering the risk of developing diabetes, inflammation and other conditions.
Drinking wine is a good thing
It is not often you hear the health experts and scientist saying that having alcohol is good. Some of the protective against disease elements of the Mediterranean diet are awarded to the moderate consumption of wine.
The moderate consumption of red wine in particular (1-2 small glasses per day for men and 1 glass per day for women) is suggested to help in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Alcohol contained in the wine is believed to favourably change the balance of fats in the blood which results in production of the HDL (high density lipoprotein) or what people tend to refer to as ‘good cholesterol’. Another benefit of consuming alcohol but in moderate amounts is that alcohol tends to stop the blood from clotting together. Finally, wine can contain antioxidants as resveratrol, quercitin and epicatechin which can have a protective role in the blood vessels.
Some studies argue that in the case of women wine consumption can increase the risk of breast cancer. Although these links are not always clear cut, in general it advised that women don’t consume wine and alcohol in large amounts.
Beneficial for mental health
Some studies have also looked into the benefits of following a Mediterranean dietary pattern in terms of mental health. Although scientific evidence are not as clear studies support there is a link between following a Mediterranean dietary style and reduced risk of developing some mental health conditions. For example some studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterranean dietary pattern show decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have shown that people who follow Mediterranean dietary patterns tend to live longer. It is not just an olive oil advert, but it is a scientific fact. I guess it kind of makes sense that if you have fewer diseases you will live longer. Yes that may be one reason why the Mediterranean dietary pattern has been connected with longevity. However, apart from keeping away from diseases which could kill you sooner, elements of the Mediterranean dietary pattern have been suggested to promote longevity.
Variability in the menu
With more than 18 countries based in the Mediterranean region there is plenty to choose from. Each country has its own recipes, customs and styles which can provide the Mediterranean menu with huge variability. Variations are also found within regions of every country so one kind of food may have hundreds of ways by which it can be cooked.
One could argue that you will never feel bored and you can always find something to like in such a huge menu.
Apart from being spoilt for choice the menu can quite palatable dishes. In the Mediterranean regions recipes use plethora of aromatic herbs and spices, wine, and other taste enhancing elements.
The use of such herbs and spices is not only good for the taste but also for health. A lot of these aromatic herbs have protective effects on health. For example rosemary and sage are antioxidants possibly due to the components (such as polyphenols or isoprenoids) they contain.
The Mediterranean dietary pattern has also been praised for helping in weight loss. Mediterranean style diets are believed to offer a healthy balanced option which can be low in calories.
Obviously a dietary style/pattern is what you make of it. For example, vegetables are, in general, low in calories and can contain vitamins and minerals. However, depending on how they are processed and cooked they may provide a meal with high calorific content and very little nutritional value.
The French paradox
Traditionally the French diet is rich in saturated fats, animal products such as cream, meats and they consume high amounts of wine. However, despite following such a diet they used to have low rates of cardiovascular disease and cholesterol and in majority they were very slim.
These statistics have changed in more recent times in which the French follow more westernized diets. A lot of scientists have tried to give different explanations for what they call the “French Paradox” but in general they believe that drinking wine and consuming large amounts of fruit and veg. are some of the main reasons for this phenomenon.
Similarly the Cretan diet can consist of a lot of red meat in some regions, however, the Cretan diet is considered as one of the healthiest.