When we think of the Mediterranean region, we think beautiful scenery, culture, people and of course, the food. Fun fact, the Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest eating patterns in the world.
While you might think (or hope) it means consuming copious amounts of pizza, pasta, bread and wine, the true Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional produce of the regions.
So, What is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet consists of primarily:
- Minimally processed wholegrains and legumes as the staple
- Plenty and diverse range of fresh vegetables and fruit (daily)
- Honey consumed only during celebratory occasions
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Nuts and seeds are the principal source of fat
- Fish (3-4 times per week)
- Low amounts of low-fat, local dairy products (cheese and yoghurt)
There is little to no consumption of:
- Butter, cream and dairy (except for milk in coffee and for infants)
- Red and processed meats (once every week)
- Wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts (mainly with meals)
What are the Health Benefits?
In many cases, people who consume the Mediterranean diet experience a number of incredible health benefits. This can include:
- Reduced risk of Heart Disease
- Protective effect against Type 2 Diabetes
- Protective effect against Cancer
- Protective effect against Alzheimer’s Disease
- Reduced risk of Depression
- Anti-inflammatory effect
- Increased overall health
The Mediterranean diet has a lipid lowering effect that plays a significant role in reducing our heart disease risk. This has been concluded as the diet is low in saturated fat due to minimal consumption of meat and butter. Likewise, the diet sports a high fibre intake from wholegrains, beans and fruit (which can remove excess cholesterol from the body).
In addition, the high amount of unsaturated (good) fat from of extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds can also help increase our ‘good’ cholesterol.
Researchers from Athens (Greece) found there was a 27% decrease risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and angina. The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to have a protective effect against Type 2 Diabetes. This is due to being rich in low GI carbohydrates, omega 3 fatty acids and high in fibre from wholegrains, fruits and vegetables which are known to control sugar levels and reduce the risk of insulin resistance.
The Mediterranean population also have lower incidences of cancers including breast, prostate, lung and GI cancers. Many studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can play a significant role in protecting us against cancer. The high consumption of fibre, wholegrains and short chain fatty acids in the traditional diet can help decrease the activity of hormones that can cause cancer growth and can also assist in excreting cancerous substances from the body. Researchers have found higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with a 14% lower all-cause cancer risk and reduced risk of specific cancers such as colorectal (18%), breast (22%), gastric cancer (28%) and prostate cancer (4%).
If that’s not enough for you, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce Alzheimer’s risk AND slow down the progression of the disease.
Researchers from New York found that higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet resulted in a 40% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are unable to determine the exact components of the diet which produce this positive effect, however, they have been able to prove two things. The consumption of extra virgin olive oil can improve memory function and the abundance of antioxidants can help reduce oxidative damage to brain tissue. The diet is also linked to lower levels of cholesterol, which some researchers suggest can be associated with memory and thinking problems.
Lastly, the Mediterranean diet has also anti-inflammatory properties, which has been proposed to help control and/or prevent osteoporosis and arthritis. The anti-inflammatory effect may be due to being rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, polyphenols and selenium from high consumption of fruit, vegetables and wholegrains. Researchers have found extra virgin olive oil acts through the same anti-inflammatory pathway as ibuprofen!
Can this be adopted in Australia?
It makes sense that we adopt this healthful diet in the Australian population, so what is actually stopping us from doing so?
Some of the potential barriers Australia faces adopting this dietary pattern is our multi-cultural society. As we live in a multi ethnic society, it might be difficult to adopt these patterns and turn away from traditional cuisines. In addition, some of the foods are not readily available in Australia and learning to cook with unfamiliar foods, recipes and methods can be particularly challenging. Cost may be another factor impacting the diet however, the SMILES trial found that a modified Mediterranean diet did in fact, cost less than the participants traditional diets.
Putting It All Together – What can I do to adopt these changes?
The Mediterranean diet is a delicious and healthful way of eating which reaps so many positive benefits for our health. If you are interested in adopting the eating pattern, here are some specific tips to get you started which reflect the Mediterranean diets main principles.
- Eat your veggies and fruits and whole grains. An abundance and variety of plant foods should make up the majority of your meals. Choose whole-grain bread and cereals and whole-grain rice and pasta products.
- Go nuts. Keep nuts such as almonds, cashews, pistachios and walnuts on hand for a quick snack. Choose natural peanut butter and you could also try tahini (blended sesame seeds) as a dip or spread for bread.
- Hand over the butter. Try extra virgin olive oil as a healthy replacement for butter or margarine. Use it in cooking, as a dressing, dips for bread, it is really quite versatile!
- Go fish. Eat fish regularly throughout the week. Enjoy fish grilled or baked with extra virgin olive oil and try to limit deep fried fish.
- Rein in the red meat. Substitute fish and poultry for red meat. When eaten, make sure it’s lean and keep portions small (about the size of your palm). Reduce consumption of processed meats like sausage, bacon and other high-fat meats.
- Choose low-fat dairy. Limit higher fat dairy products and switch to low fat options such as skim milk, low fat yogurt and low fat cheese.
- Raise a glass.If it’s OK with your doctor, have a glass of wine at dinner. If you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t need to start.