The Mediterranean diet is a diet typical of the Mediterranean area countries, which many studies have associated with countless benefits for health, especially in terms of the prevention of cancer. Cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Which is 2010, UNESCO declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is a lifestyle more than a simple way of eating, much more than a food scheme but, rather, a set of knowledge, social habits. Cultural traditions have historically been handed down by the populations bordering the Mediterranean, starting from the immediate postwar period.
Mediterranean diet: principles and foods
What are the cornerstones of the Mediterranean diet? And what are the foods that characterize it? Here are the principles on which it is based:
- the abundance of foods of plant origin (vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, legumes, bread, pasta, and other cereals, preferably wholemeal);
- use of extra virgin olive oil, preferably raw and in moderate quantities, as the main source of fat ;
- moderate consumption of meat (with a preference for white meat ), fish, and eggs;
- regular use of aromatic herbs to flavor by reducing the use of salt and fatty seasonings ;
- moderate intake of wine with meals;
- reduced consumption of sweets.
Mediterranean diet: nutritional characteristics
Following the Mediterranean diet means ensuring a balanced intake of the various macronutrients (carbohydrates or carbohydrates, proteins and lipids or fats), divided as follows:
- 45-60% carbohydrates, most complex (such as cereal starches)
- 10-12% protein
- 20–35% fat with a percentage of saturated fat (found in almost all animal products except fish) of less than 10%.
More specifically, this dietary scheme guarantees our body:
- proteins in moderate quantities and mainly of vegetable origin ;
- low index carbohydrates and glycemic load, with almost absent simple sugars ;
- high monounsaturated/saturated fatty acid ratio;
- antioxidant substances (beta-carotene, tocopherols, vitamins C and E, polyphenols) in large quantities;
- plenty of calcium, magnesium, and potassium, low amounts of sodium.
Mediterranean diet: history
The first observational study elaborated on the concept of the “Mediterranean diet” and its benefits. Which became famous as the “study of the seven countries,” was conducted by the American biologist and physiologist Ancel Keys in the 1940s.
Keys, who was in Crete following allied troops, noted that cardiovascular disease incidence on the island was much lower than in the United States. A few years later, in 1944, in Paestum, he made the same observation about Cilento’s population and realized that the low incidence of heart disease could have a link with food.
He moved to Pioppi, a village in Cilento. He could better observe the local population’s diet: he noticed that the peasants of the small villages of Southern Italy had a diet low in the fat of animal origin and composed mainly of bread and pasta or soups. Often consumed with legumes, seasonal fruit, and vegetables from their gardens, extra virgin olive oil, cheese, dried fruit, and wine. Habits that, both for the peasants of Cilento and the inhabitants of the island of Crete. It resulted in greater longevity and a lower incidence of cardiovascular diseases than those observed in Northern Europe and the United States.
The Seven Countries Study
Keys thus decided to deepen this relationship with the famous “Seven Countries Study,” an epidemiological study that involved seven countries (Finland, Japan, Greece, Italy, Holland, United States, and Yugoslavia) and which compared the lifestyle and diets adopted by the respective populations.
The results confirmed the link between diet and the incidence of some diseases, especially cardiovascular ones. Among the populations of the Mediterranean basin, who ate mainly pasta. Fruit and vegetables. Moderate quantities of fish and almost exclusively used olive oil as a condiment. The mortality rate from ischemic heart disease was much lower than in countries such as Finland and the United States. There were many saturated fats of animal origin (butter, lard, milk, cheese, red meat).
Keys sang the Mediterranean diet praises in his 1975 book “Eat well and stay well: the Mediterranean way,” calling it the best “lifestyle” to live better and longer.
Mediterranean diet: the benefits
Much scientific research has shown that the Mediterranean diet plays an important role in preventing cardiovascular diseases and other diseases such as cancer. Obesity, diabetes, o osteoporosis, and cognitive problems. The beneficial effects of this diet are linked to many factors. Such as the richness of low-calorie foods (vegetables, fruit, cereals, and legumes). Which helps maintain a healthy weight and ensure a supply of fiber that protects against onset. Of many chronic diseases. A low-fat content, mostly unsaturated, also characterizes the Mediterranean diet and a high intake of antioxidants, which counteracts the harmful effects of free radicals: the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil and lycopene in tomatoes.
Most of the studies done on the Mediterranean diet have shown its effectiveness in maintaining a good general state of health. It has been widely demonstrated that the Mediterranean diet reduces the incidence of:
- colon cancer
- breast neoplasm
- heart attack
- digestive diseases
- inhibits the metabolic syndrome – which is one of the main causes of the appearance of cardiovascular diseases.
Mediterranean diet and tumors
The Mediterranean diet protects against the onset of many types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, prostate, stomach, and liver cancers. The merit is the richness of antioxidants, which counteract cellular degeneration caused by free radicals. The low-fat content (mostly unsaturated, such as the omega-3 benefits with anti-inflammatory action). This adds the high content of fibers, which by improving intestinal transit, ensures that potentially dangerous substances do not remain in contact with the intestine walls for too long (a risk factor for colorectal cancer). Then there are substances with a specific antitumor action present in some vegetables. Among these. The glucosinolates of crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower) and the sulfur compounds in which onions are rich.
The beneficial effects on cancer prevention are also linked to the ability of the Mediterranean diet to keep the microbiota healthy. That is the complex of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa) that normally colonize our entire body. The most studied microbiota is the intestinal one. A healthy microbiota is essential for our well-being and is also fundamental for the prevention of tumors. Variations in its composition are, in fact, associated with the development of many diseases, including cancer. The Mediterranean diet, rich in cereals, fruit, and vegetables with high antioxidants and fibers content. It creates the ideal “climate” to favor the proliferation of “good” bacteria and keep the microbiota healthy.
Many studies associate the Mediterranean diet with a reduced risk of the onset of cardiovascular diseases. Positive effects deriving from a set of characteristics of this diet. Among the many:
low content of saturated fat
the abundance of unsaturated fats, such as omega-3 from fish and dried fruit and oleic acid in extra virgin olive oil
the reduced consumption of salt to the advantage of spices and aromas.
All elements contributing to keeping cholesterol and triglyceride values under control benefit from heart health and prevent diseases such as hypertension. For the same reasons, the Mediterranean diet also proves to be an ally against the metabolic syndrome, that is, the set of conditions (obesity, diabetes, arterial hypertension, dyslipidemia) that expose you to high cardiovascular risk.
Mediterranean diet against overweight and obesity
The Mediterranean diet represents a complete and balanced diet ideal for those who want to lose weight or maintain weight: it is low in fats, mostly unsaturated, rich in foods with low-calorie density, provides many fibers that promote satiety, therefore – with quantity tailored to your needs – it is also perfect for regaining shape. It is also a varied diet, never monotonous, full of tasty dishes, three important elements for those who follow a low-calorie diet to lose weight.
The Mediterranean diet in pregnancy
The Mediterranean diet is healthy, also recommended during pregnancy. In fact, it helps to contain weight gain, protecting the expectant mother from the risk of metabolic complications. These include gestational diabetes, which can have serious consequences for both your health and that of your baby.
The steps of the food pyramid
At the base of the food pyramid, we find a physical activity, conviviality – which should never be given up – and the indication to consume local and seasonal products. It is also important to drink plenty of water to ensure proper hydration. These are 4 assumptions that cannot be ignored if you want to adopt the Mediterranean diet’s lifestyle and dietary model.
- First step
In the first step, we find bread, pasta, rice, couscous, and other cereals, preferably whole, which are an important source of carbohydrates. And then, fruit and vegetables, which provide vitamins, minerals, water, fiber. We recommend 5 portions a day, during the day, preferably in season.
- Second step
On the second step, there are milk and its derivatives and olive oil. It is advisable to consume 2-3 servings of milk and dairy products per day, but better if low in fat. Oil must be the main source of fat.
- Third step
We fin dried fruit , seeds, herbs, and spices instead of salt, consumed every day on the third step.
At the top of the pyramid, we find red meat, cold cuts, and sweets. The advice is to consume these foods in moderation and at most a couple of times a week.
Index of adherence to the Mediterranean diet
How can you tell if you are following the Mediterranean diet principles, and to what extent? To this end, indices for evaluating adherence to the Mediterranean diet have been developed, which measure how closely a given diet is close to the Mediterranean model. Among these, bread, pasta, fruit, vegetables, fish, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, wine, meat, in what quantity and how often.
There are many indicators of adequacy to the Mediterranean diet. Among the most used are:
the ” MEDIATE ” with an adherence index between 0 and 14;
the “ Mediterranean Diet Serving Score ” (MDSS) has a score from 0 to 24 for an adult and 0 to 23 for a teenager.
These indices allow evaluating, through a questionnaire, the consumption habits of the Mediterranean diet’s typical foods, assigning a score for each answer. The higher the total score, the greater the adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
Examples of the Mediterranean diet: a menu template
We offer you a diet plan, which we have developed with the advice of Dr. Lorenzo Traversetti, a nutrition biologist, to help you build your daily menu inspired by the Mediterranean diet. For each of the main meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks), we have indicated 3 alternatives to choose from.
This guide helps you understand how to combine, throughout the day, the various food groups (cereals, vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, legumes) and to what extent to include them in your diet. Follow this model to build your menus as you like. Remember to vary the foods you bring to the table as much as possible and always prefer seasonal fruit and vegetables, ensuring you get the most of their nutrients.
Also Read: What Is a Plant-Based Diet
Does the Mediterranean diet have any contraindications?
The Mediterranean diet is a diet for everyone and all ages. Benefits that make a series of criticisms leveled against it groundless. Among many, that of not being suitable for those with diabetes is rich in carbohydrates, which can alter their functionality or those with gastritis problems due to the abundance of foods, such as tomatoes, which can give acidity.
Is the Mediterranean diet out of date?
This is another criticism that often accompanies considerations on the Mediterranean diet. It is certain that, compared to when Keys theorized the existence and benefits of this diet, much has changed. Globalization, the increase in the supply of products. So, the increasingly developed distribution networks, modern preservation technologies ensure that consumers can easily orient themselves towards different food choices. Guided by the market and more disconnected from seasonality and tradition. Even the change in lifestyle, from the post-war period to today, has impacted a move away from the Mediterranean diet: among the new variables at stake—the increasingly widespread habit of eating meals outside the home, the use of ready-made foods.
Decline and rediscovery
Added to this is a problem linked to the costs of shopping, which in the USA. According to Coldiretti, it has seen a cut in the Mediterranean diet’s basic products for almost a decade. For some years now, the trend has reversed. This is thanks to ever-increasing attention to the quality of nutrition and an even stronger awareness of the close relationship between diet and well-being. This has led again to favoring healthy foods, for example, by increasing the cost of fruit and vegetables, which had fallen sharply.
So, in terms of benefits, the Mediterranean diet does not seem to be the only one to ensure a better life expectancy and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Recent studies have highlighted the health and wellness potential of the Japanese diet. But the fact that it is no longer the only diet on the podium of health does not question its beneficial effects and validity.
Also Read: How to lose weight quickly.