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All about the Mediterranean Diet

When we think of the Mediterranean region, we think about the beautiful scenery, culture, people and of course, the food. The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world and while you think (or hope) it might include consuming copious amounts of pizza, pasta, bread and bottles of wine, the true Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional produce of the regions.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The Mediterranean diet consists of a variety of minimally processed wholegrains and legumes as the staple, plenty and diverse range of fresh vegetables and fruit are consumed daily, honey consumed only during celebratory occasions. Extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds are the principal source of fat, low-fat dairy products (mainly local cheese and yoghurt) are consumed in low amounts and butter, cream and milk never used, except for milk in coffee and for infants. Red and processed meats are not consumed often (once every week) whereas fish is moderately consumed 3-4 times per week. Wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts and is the main drink accompanied with meals.  

What are the health benefits?

Many people who consume the Mediterranean diet tend to experience many health benefits. The proposed benefits of the Mediterranean diet 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 which plays a significant role in reducing our heart disease risk. This has been shown due to the diet being low in saturated fat from the minimal consumption of meat and butter, high amount of fibre 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 from the Mediterranean diet 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 due to the diet 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%).

The Mediterranean diet has also 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. Researchers are unable to determine the exact components of the diet which produce this positive effect. Some researchers have found the moderate consumption of extra virgin olive oil can improve memory function and the abundance of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables 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 diet has also anti-inflammatory properties which has been proposed to help control or prevent osteoporosis and arthritis. The anti-inflammatory effect may be due to the diet 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!

Adopting the Mediterranean Diet in Australia- can it be done?

It would make sense to 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 getting people to cook and become familiar with the foods, recipes and methods of cooking can be particularly challenging. Cost may be another factor impacting from adopting the diet however, the SMILES trial found that a modified Mediterranean diet 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.

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