Mediterranean Diet may be what you need to fill your daily platter with. After all, the kind of diet we consume is intimately linked with our health. Recent research has indicated that plant-fiber-rich foods are good for health and western-style diets rich in sugars, processed foods, high-fat dairy products and meat especially red meat is rather harmful for the body. Many types of food are known in the literature: Mediterranean, ketogenic (keto), paleo, and flexitarian diet etc.
Today, let’s get an overview of the Mediterranean diet and its positive health effects.
What is a Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is the kind of food consumed by people living in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy. Interest in this diet was triggered in the 1950s when it was observed that heart disease was not as common in Mediterranean countries as it was in the US, where people ate Western pattern diet (WPD) or Standard American Diet (SAD), containing high amounts of processed foods, red meat, high-fat dairy products, high-sugar foods, and pre-packaged foods.
Major Components of Mediterranean diet
Mediterranean diet is rich in plant-based foods such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, legumes, fruits, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices. Fish, seafood, dairy and poultry may be included in moderation. Olive oil is used as the staple cooking oil. Red meat and sweets may be consumed only occasionally.
Alcoholic beverages are not part of this diet; however, red wine may be consumed in moderation (among the alcohols, only red wine has been shown by scientific research to be beneficial to health, when taken occasionally and in moderation).
Vegetables and Fruits
Consumption of plenty of vegetables may help prevent heart disease, as per an article in the journal Nutrients (2017). A diet rich in vegetables and fruits can also prevent some types of cancers (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1996).
Legumes and Whole Grains
Legumes (beans and lentils) help regulate blood sugar levels and may exert anti-cancer effects. Whole grains (e.g., oatmeal) are rich in fiber and lower the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (Journal of Nutrition, 2011).
Olive Oil and Nuts
As olive oil contains unsaturated fat, it has the potential to reduce the risk stroke and heart attack and lower blood pressure. Nuts (e.g., walnut) are rich in unsaturated fat, protein, fiber, and B vitamins as well as omega-3 fatty acid. They may help regulate blood pressure, and blood sugar and keep bones strong and help reduce risk of coronary heart disease.
For maintaining good health, as per the Mediterranean diet regimen, fish is much preferred over meat especially red meat. All kinds of seafood contain some amount of a good fatty acid called omega-3 fatty acid. Mackerel, sardine, herring, tuna, salmon and tilapia are all rich in such good fats.
Red Wine and Dairy
Some reports exist about the beneficial effects of red wine, which is rich in phytonutrients, on heart health. There are no reports about the positive effects of all other kinds of alcohols. MD encourages consumption of moderate amounts of dairy products e.g., eggs, yogurt, and cheese.
Sweets and Meat
According to the MD regimen, sweets and meat must be taken sparingly. Junk food is highly discouraged in MD. Packaged foods (e.g., Uncle chips or Lays) and other high-sugar/fat/salt foods must be avoided.
Diet and Gut Microbiome
There is a community of microbes in our gut called the gut microbiome. In the eubiotic condition, the good bacteria predominate over the bad bacteria. Plant-fiber-rich diets such as MD promote good bacteria in our gut whereas WPD (rich in meat, sugar, saturated fat, processed/packaged foods and dairy products but poor in plant-based foods) may stimulate the levels of bad bacteria, leading to gut dysbiosis which may be implicated in intestinal disorders e.g. IBD or even neurological diseases such as AD, PD and autism etc.
Top Seven Benefits of Mediterranean diet
1. Lowering obesity and Type 2 diabetes (T2D), both of which may precipitate heart disease and stroke.
2. Improving gut health, leading to healthier aging, extending lifespan and improving cognition.
3. Lowering the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.
4. Reducing the risk of common cancers e.g., colorectal, breast, and prostate cancer.
5. Lowering high blood pressure.
6. Ameliorating T2D and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) etc.
7. Alleviating the symptoms of depression.
We shall look at some other kinds of foods e.g., paleo, keto and flexitarian diets in future columns.
Many of us may not be in a position to shift to MD in the near future. However, we may take steps to lower the intake of meat esp. red meat. On the other hand, we must increase consumption of plant-based foods esp. those rich in fiber e.g., whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables etc. Junk, processed foods, high-sugar foods and high-fat dairy products and saturated fats are bad for gut health and promote the growth of bad bacteria in our gut microbiome.
We may also increase consumption of fish esp. those rich in omega-3 fatty acids, while reducing the intake of meat. Plant fibers nurture the growth of good bacteria in our gut. Regular consumption of all kinds of alcohols is bad for health. There is some scientific evidence indicating that intake of red wine in moderation may be beneficial. Even red wine, if consumed too frequently and in large amounts may ultimately be harmful for our health. For food preparation, even at the risk of losing good taste, we might consider using olive oil instead of mustard or other cooking oils, at regular intervals.
It's high time to at least partially shift from the Western-pattern diet to the Mediterranean diet!
- Tang, G.Y. et al. (2017). Nutrients, 9: 857.
- Steinmetz, K.A. et al. (1996). Journal of American Dietetic Association. 10: 1027-39.
- Jonnalagadda, S.S. et al (2011). Journal of Nutrition. 141: 1011S-1022S.
Also Read: What is a Healthy Menu?