9 Major Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
January 7, 2019
Original article and page source found here.
Not only is the Mediterranean diet a tasty way to eat, drink and live, but it’s also a realistic and sustainable way to reduce disease-causing inflammation and to lose weight, too (or to maintain a healthy weight). In fact, in January 2019 when U.S. News evaluated 41 of the most popular diets they identified the Mediterranean Diet as being the “#1 Best Overall Diet.”
The Mediterranean diet has long been one of the healthiest diets known to man. The history and tradition of the Mediterranean diet come from the historic eating and social patterns of the regions around southern Italy, Greece, Turkey and Spain.
Therefore, the Mediterranean diet is really not even a “diet” in the way we usually think of them, more like a life-long way of eating and living. For thousands of years people living along the Mediterranean coast have indulged in a high-fiber diet of fruits and vegetables, also including quality fats and proteins in moderation, and sometimes a glass of locally made wine to complete a meal, too.
Meanwhile, this eatin pattern has gotten a reputation for disease prevention, mood-enhancement, and even “enjoyable” weight manageable. That’s right, studies show the same diet that can help you shed excess weight, and keep it off too, can also reduce your risk for depression, cardiovascular disease and more.
Starting in Italy thousands of years ago and spreading to Greece, Spain and other areas around the Mediterranean, this diet is now successful all over the world for promoting health and longevity. While it’s always existed, even before books and studies were dedicated to it, the diet really began to take hold around the world in the 1990s, when a Harvard University doctor showcased it as a diet useful for improving heart health, losing weight and clearing up other health issues.
Is the Mediterranean Diet Still Good for You?
In 2013, a landmark study of more than 7,000 people in Spain was published. The study’s subjects were split into three groups: those receiving advice about following a Mediterranean diet and getting extra-virgin olive oil delivered to their home; receiving advice about following the Mediterranean diet and getting nuts delivered to their home; and, in the control group, receiving advice about following a low-fat diet.
The study found that those people eating a Mediterranean diet that was supplemented with the olive oil deliveries were 30 percent less likely to die of heart attack, disease, stroke or death from cardiovascular causes than those eating a low-fat diet. (1) In fact, the study finished earlier than planned, because the results were drastic enough that it was considered unethical to continue conducting it. For those of us who advocate eating a Mediterranean diet, this study was a welcome validation.
But in June 2018, the authors took the rare step of retracting the original study in the New England Journal of Medicine based on flaws in how the original study was conducted. It turns out that about 15 percent of the people in the study weren’t actually placed in a particular group randomly — people with a family member also participating were placed in the same group; one clinic assigned everyone to the same group; and another study site didn’t properly use the randomization table.
The study’s authors have said that after excluding the non-randomized people from the study and reexamining the data, the results still hold true. But because the study wasn’t truly random, it can no longer claim that the health benefits are directly caused by the Mediterranean diet and olive oil.
Instead, a revised version of the study was released on June 13, 2018. (2a) This updated study made statistical adjustments to the data, accounting for the fact that it wasn’t 100 percent random. The language is softer, too — instead of saying that the Mediterranean diet was the direct cause of the reduced rate of cardiovascular diseases and death, it simply says that people following the diet had fewer instances of it.
So is the Mediterranean diet still healthy? Absolutely. While this one study may have been flawed, it doesn’t change the fact that fresh fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, fish and healthy fats like olive oil (along with the occasional glass of wine!) are all foods that are proven to be good for you on their own. Together, they comprise a diet that can be terrific for your health — study or no study.
And as Allan S. Brett, MD, Editor-in-Chief of NEJM Journal Watch says, “After reanalysis of the data, the original results are essentially unchanged.” (2b)
What Are the Health Benefits?
Considered by many nutrition experts to be one of the most heart-healthy ways of eating there is, the base of the Mediterranean diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods and built upon plant-based foods and healthy fats.
Based on much research, this particular diet can protect against the development of heart disease, metabolic complications, depression, cancer, type-2 diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The best part is, even with all of these benefits, it still provides the opportunity for people to “eat, drink and be merry.”
Ever wonder why people from the Mediterranean region seem so happy and full of life? It’s tempting to attribute their good health and positive moods to one single factor alone — like their diet, for example — but the truth is that it’s a combination of their lifestyle factors and their unprocessed diets that has promoted their longevity and low rates of disease for centuries.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health,”Together with regular physical activity and not smoking, our analyses suggests that over 80 percent of coronary heart disease, 70 percent of stroke, and 90 percent of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.” (3)
Related: The Okinawa Diet: Foods + Habits that Boost Longevity
What Foods Are Included?
The Mediterranean way of eating promotes foods including:
fresh fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens like spinach and kale and non-starchy veggies like eggplant, cauliflower, artichokes, tomatoes and fennel)
nuts and seeds (like almonds and sesame seeds used to make tahini)
legumes and beans (especially lentils and chickpeas used to make hummus)
herbs and spices (like oregano, rosemary and parsley)
eating wild-caught fish and seafood at least twice a week
high quality pasture-raised poultry, eggs, cheese, goat milk, and probiotic-rich kefir or yogurt consumed in moderation
red meat consumed on special occasions or about once weekly
plenty of fresh water and some coffee or tea
oftentimes a daily glass of red wine
Related: The Complete Mediterranean Diet Food List
The Importance of Olive Oil
Nearly every nutritional researcher attributes at least some of the legendary health benefits of the Mediterranean diet to the copious amounts of olive oil included in almost every meal. Olives themselves are an ancient food, and olive trees have been growing around the Mediterranean region since about 3,000 B.C.
Olive oil joins foods containing omega-3 fats, like salmon and walnuts, for example, as an elite category of healthy fatty acids. Olive oil has a ton of research backing its health benefits — in fact, it’s so backed by research that the FDA even permits labels on olive oil bottles containing a specific health claim (to date this is only allowed on olive oil, omega-3 fats and walnuts). That claim?
Limited and not conclusive scientific evidence suggests that eating about 2 tablespoons (23 grams) of olive oil daily may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease due to the monounsaturated fat in olive oil. To achieve this possible benefit, olive oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the total number of calories you eat in a day. (4)
So what is it about olive oil that makes it so good for you?
To start, olive oil is very high in compounds called phenols, which are potent antioxidants capable of lowering inflammation and fighting free radical damage. Olive oil is mainly made up of monounsaturated fatty acids, the most important of which is called oleic acid. Oleic acid is known to be extremely heart-healthy in numerous ways, especially when compared to many other refined vegetable oils, trans-fats or hydrogenated fats.
Olive oil even has a step up in terms of heart health benefits compared to most grain-based carbohydrates — for example, high monounsaturated fat diets lower LDL cholesterol, raise HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides better than carb-heavy diets do, according to some some studies. (5)
How much olive oil should you consume daily? While recommendations differ depending on your specific calorie needs and diet, anywhere from one to four tablespoons seems to be beneficial. Estimates show that those in the Mediterranean region probably consume between three to four tablespoons a day, and this is the amount that some health practitioners recommend to their heart disease patients.
Just remember that all olive oil is not created equally. Unfortunately, most commercial manufacturers that are trying to ride the health hype on olive oil have rushed to the market with all kinds of fake olive oils, which are imitations and inferior products. The problem is these oils aren’t always harvested or processed properly, which can kill many of their delicate nutrients and turn some of their fatty acids rancid or toxic.
Here’s what really makes a big difference: Look for labels that indicate your oil is “extra-virgin” and ideally cold-pressed. Olive oil is almost unique among oils in that you can consume it in its crude form without any processing needed (for example, you could literally press olives and enjoy their natural oils).
While it’s delicate and not necessarily the best oil for cooking, cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oil hasn’t been refined so it holds all of its natural vitamins, essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other nutrients better. While unrefined oil is separated without high heat, hot water, solvents and left unfiltered, on the flip side some oils are heated to a high degree, which reduces their benefits.
9 Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
1. Low in Processed Foods and Sugar
The diet primarily consists of foods and ingredients that are very close to nature, including olive oil, legumes like peas and beans, fruits, vegetables, unrefined cereal products, and small portions of animal products (that are always “organic” and locally produced). In contrast to the typical American diet, it’s very low in sugar and practically free of all GMOs or artificial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and flavor enhancers. For something sweet, people in the Mediterranean enjoy fruit or small quantities of homemade desserts made with natural sweeteners like honey.
Beyond plant foods, another major staple of the diet is locally caught fish and a moderate consumption of cow, goat or sheep cheeses and yogurts that are included as a way to receive healthy fats and cholesterol. Fish like sardines and anchovies are a central part of the diet, which usually is traditionally lower in meat products than many Western diets today.
While most people in the Mediterranean aren’t vegetarians, the diet promotes only a small consumption on meats and heavier meals — instead going for the lighter and healthier fish options across the board. This can be beneficial for those looking to lose weight and improve things such as their cholesterol, heart health and omega-3 fatty acid intake.
2. Helps You Lose Weight in a Healthy Way
If you’re looking to lose weight without being hungry and maintain that weight in a realistic way that can last a lifetime, this might be the plan for you. The diet is both sustainable and worthwhile, and has been undertaken by many people all around the world with great success related to weight loss and more, as it works to help manage weight and reduce fat intake naturally and easily due to eating many nutrient-dense foods.
There’s room for interpretation in the Mediterranean diet, whether you prefer to eat lower carb, lower protein or somewhere in between. The diet focuses on consumption of healthy fats while keeping carbohydrates relatively low and improving a person’s intake of high-quality protein foods. If you refer protein over legumes and grains, you have the option to lose weight in a healthy, no-deprivation-kind-of-way with a high amount of seafood and quality dairy products (that simultaneously provide other benefits like omega-3s and often probiotics).