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Mediterranean for Dummies: Understanding A Diet’s Baffling Benefits

It really doesn’t matter whether you are focused on heart health, cancer prevention, weight loss, or just maintaining good health. You can’t ignore the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. Just when we think the research-backed rationale for going Mediterranean is old news, something puts it back on the radar. It’s just a fact of healthy life: making the eating habits of many of the 16 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea the basis of your nutritional goals is a smart move.

The Benefits

  • It helps prevent diabetes. Recently, a large study published by the renown British Medical Journal showed that healthy people who followed a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • It contributes to weight loss. Another recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that a restricted-calorie Mediterranean diet could be even more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet.
  • It’s never too late. Late adoption of the Mediterranean lifestyle can increase longevity and reduce the risk of chronic disease for the elderly as well as other segments of the population.
  • It has been linked to stroke prevention.
  • It offers huge heart health benefits. The diet provides thousands of micronutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including the essential elements that go to work on preventing heart disease.
  • It’s more than a two-fer. The diet has also been found to help protect against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and the risk of Parkinson’s, among other conditions.
  • It cannot be replaced by a supplement.
  • It can offset bad genes.
  • It can increase your lifespan. On the Greek island of Crete, Cretans live longer than any other populations in the world. In studies of those closer to home, longevity was a byproduct for those on the diet in addition to disease prevention.

The X Factor

There are mounting health benefits to going Mediterranean, but there’s also something mysterious about this diet. There’s an X factor involved in the diets of those living overseas that we can’t seem to replicate by simply eating olive oil, or consuming lots of fruits and veggies. Making those efforts is a great start, of course, but it doesn’t mean automatic health.

For example, The New England Journal of Medicine has shown that it may not be the olive oil itself, but the interaction or synergy between all the foods that leads to the health benefits. When foods interact, they can provide benefits that are more than the sum of their parts, and that could be part of the Mediterranean mystique.

Also, eating in Mediterranean countries seems to be synonymous with leisurely dining, taking pleasure in the experience of eating, and savoring meals – another factor that defies quantifying. The residents of these countries generally enjoy food; it is at the center of conviviality. Ever had a meal with a table full of French diners? Prepare to stay a while, sample many dishes, and when you do finally leave the table, don’t be surprised if there is food left behind on the plates.

Finally, another baffling feature of this diet is that “diet” is really a misnomer. There is no real Mediterranean diet, after all – the diet itself is a dietary pattern that includes eating less animal protein, eating few saturated fats, having lots of fruits and vegetables, and integrating the keystones listed below.

Clearly, those who live in proximity to this famed sea are not just eating the right foods, they are also living a different lifestyle than many Americans. Is it that they are less sedentary? Probably. Is it that they have a different relationship with food? Perhaps. The point is, we cannot seem to fully replicate the phenomenon of the magical region of the Mediterranean in other geographical areas.

Nevertheless, following the keystones of this diet has a clear health benefit.

The Keystones

  • Monounsaturated fats. The most popular MS is olive oil (which does double duty by replacing butter), but other unsung heroes of monounsaturated fats are avocado, fish, and canola oils. They are anti-inflammatory, fight disease at the cellular level, and have been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol and oxidative stress. But be warned: no two-handed pouring a la the TV chefs. Passion for EVOO does not mean losing the measuring spoon.
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods.
  • Limiting red meat. Mediterranean dieters max out on red meat at just a few times a month.  Fish and poultry makes an appearance at least twice a week, but even these proteins are eaten in moderation in favor of things like veggies, grains and legumes.
  • Drinking red wine. Much has been made of the red wine element of this diet as well as red wine’s benefit for the heart, but wine consumption may be part of the X factor. It is generally done in moderation – 5 ounces a day for women and no more than 10 ounces for men – as part of enjoying a meal and may be part of the synergy that is a feature of Mediterranean meals.
  • Fruits and vegetables. Plants are the cornerstone of this diet. Consider that Greeks eat an average of nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. If you are not Greek (or you are Greek but live in, say, Altoona) shoot for at least 10 – and yes, they can be small.
  • Nuts. While nuts are high in calories (and restraint is difficult), in moderation they provide good fats, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and are fantastic for heart health. They are not, incidentally, honey-roasted, dry roasted, salted or covered in chocolate or sugar. Natural peanut butter and tahini are great options, too.
  • Replacing refined flour products with whole grain bread, cereal, and pasta.
  • Minimally processed, fresh, and preferably local foods. A hallmark of the Mediterranean lifestyle is by sticking by these three tenants. Sure, calorie for calorie and nutrient for nutrient, setting off to the Farmer’s Market can seem trivial, but it contributes to a lifestyle that values real food and its origins, and the rest will follow.

Get Smart

The jury is in on the benefits of Mediterranean. It’s true that no one can replicate the diet’s inscrutable power when it comes to good health and longevity, but experts and nutritionists agree, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Here’s some fun ways to get in the game from WebMD:

Fig Kebabs on Mixed Greens

Mediterranean Magic Popcorn

Lentil Bulgur Pilaf With Squash

Caramelized Onion and White Bean Flatbread

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