Shortly after World War II, Ancel Keys, a researcher from the Mayo Foundation, studied the health and nutrition habits of 13,000 middle-aged men from the US, Japan, the Mediterranean region (including Greece and Crete), Yugoslavia, Finland and the Netherlands. The results showed the men from Crete had the best heart health, much better than their American counterparts.
The people in Crete and other Mediterranean countries also had high life expectancy and few chronic diseases, even though most residents were poor and didn’t have access to the latest medical treatment. Why? Researchers believe it has to do with the cuisine’s emphasis on plant-based foods. Fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs, nuts, seeds and olive oil are included in daily menus. Fresh fish, poultry and dairy are consumed in moderation. Hard liquor, red meat and processed foods aren’t consumed much, if at all, in the Mediterranean region.
The health and longevity of the Greek people (and people in other regions who follow the Mediterranean diet), is due to more than eating well. Residents of rural Crete, Greece and other parts of the Mediterranean are physically active well into their senior years. They work and play outdoors, and enjoy leisurely dinners with family and friends.
The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid is modeled after common meals in southern Italy, Crete and Greece around 1960. By following the simple but healthy diet enjoyed by the Mediterranean people, you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and other health problems. Here are 12 benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Fights Alzheimer’s and Dementia
Eating a Mediterranean diet helps reduce the risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. The prevalence of inflammation-fighting antioxidants in fruits, vegetables and olive oil may protect brain cells from damage, reducing the chance of memory loss. The antioxidant-rich foods in the Mediterranean diet improve blood vessel health. This keeps the flow of blood to the brain (and the rest of the body) unrestricted as we age.
Contributes to Heart Health
Adults eating a Mediterranean-style diet reduced their chances of developing heart disease by 47%. A study conducted at Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, monitored 2,500 adults from the ages of 18 to 89 for a period of ten years. People who adhered most closely to the Mediterranean diet were 47% less likely to have heart problems. Even if participants were older, smoked or had a history of hypertension or diabetes, eating a Mediterranean diet reduced their chance of heart disease.
Most people know about the heart-healthy attributes of fruits, vegetables and fish, but the Mediterranean diet has another secret weapon - olive oil. Olive oil contains monounsatured fats and wine has resveratrol, which have been shown to lower cholesterol in studies.
It’s one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, and if you grew up in a Greek or Italian household you’re probably well-acquainted with it. Olive oil is high in antioxidants called phenols, which fight inflammation. Olive oil is also high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which have proven beneficial for heart health. Salmon, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds and trout are other sources of Omega 3’s. Notice anything these foods have in common besides containing Omega 3 fatty acids? They’re all featured prominently in the Mediterranean diet. The FDA allows olive oil manufacturers to include labels on their products describing the food’s health benefits. Olive oil is one of the few foods receiving qualified claim status from the FDA.
Enjoying a glass of red wine with dinner is good for your heart. Drinking more than two glasses a day has the opposite effect – it can damage your cardiovascular system.
A study of 4,676 middle-aged women in good health showed that the participants who ate a Mediterranean diet had longer telomeres on the end of their chromosomes. People with short telomeres are more likely to age poorly, die younger or develop atherosclerosis or cancer.
All the major foods in the Mediterranean diet contain antioxidants, monounsaturated fats and other anti-inflammatory agents. These substances reduce the occurrence of free radicals, which contribute to the formation of cancer cells. (A diet high in monounsatured fats has been shown to reduce the risk of breast cancer.)
Eating more monounsaturated “good” fats, like those in olive oil, instead of saturated “bad” fats, found in animal products, can cut your cancer risk by 12%, according to an article in the British Journal of Cancer. Consuming lentils, peas and beans in place of red meat can also reduce your chance of developing cancer. The more closely people followed the Mediterranean diet, the better the chances their chances of avoiding cancer.
Reduces the Chance of Developing Parkinson's Disease
The Mediterranean Diet has also been shown to prevent muscle weakness in seniors. A study conducted in Tuscany, Italy showed that 70% of elderly subjects who ate a healthy Mediterranean diet were less likely to develop exhaustion, weak muscles or a slow walking pace than subjects who ate a different diet. Weakness and exhaustion often cause seniors to fall and suffer fractures or broken bones. A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, olive oil and other Mediterranean foods helps keep seniors vital and energetic well into their golden years.
Aids in Weight Loss
Any diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and legumes will cut calories and help you maintain your current weight or lose weight. The Mediterranean diet focuses on eating certain foods, not counting calories. You’ll need to eliminate processed foods, red meats (including hot dogs and other processed meats), trans-fats, refined grains and sugary snacks from your diet. The Mediterranean diet consists of whole, unprocessed foods, so get used to visiting your local Farmer’s Market and the produce section of your supermarket. Drink water, unsweetened tea and a limited amount of red wine with meals, but avoid sugary sodas, beer and hard liquor. Sample Mediterranean dishes include yogurt with sliced fruits and nuts for breakfast, a tuna sandwich on whole grain bread with vegetables for lunch, and broiled salmon with brown rice and vegetables for dinner.
Basics of the Mediterranean Diet
- Eat mostly home-cooked meals
- Enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables daily. Snack on fruits, nuts and seeds instead of pre-packaged chips or candy
- Prepare dishes with spices, herbs and olive oil.
- Eat salmon, tuna, sardines and other fish with Omega 3 fatty acids twice a week
- Consume moderate amounts of poultry and dairy
- Eat little red meat, and consume four or fewer eggs per week
- Occasionally drink red wine with dinner, up to a glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men
More Brain Power
A Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil and nuts may boost cognitive function in seniors better than a typical low-fat American diet, according to a Spanish study. A group of 522 men and women from 55 to 80 years old participated in the study. They didn’t have cardiovascular disease, but were high risk because of diabetes or other factors. After 6.5 years, the subjects who adhered to the Mediterranean diet showed higher cognitive function than the participants on the low-fat diet.
A Longer Life
It’s no surprise that the Mediterranean diet increases longevity. These healthy food choices reduce the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, depression and improve brain function. With a lower chance of serious illness, people who regularly follow the Mediterranean diet are prime candidates for a longer life.
Researchers interviewed 19 centenarians (people age 100 or older) in a village in central Sicily, and found that these elderly people were still physically active, lived with their families, and followed the traditional Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, olive oil and nuts.
Protection Against Diabetes 2
The American Diabetes Association suggests trying a Mediterranean diet if you’re at risk for prediabetes or diabetes. Due to its emphasis on fruits, vegetables and nuts, the Mediterranean diet is perfect for weight loss. Overweight and obese individuals are more likely to develop diabetes. A fiber-rich Mediterranean diet aids digestion and controls blood sugar to reduce the risk of a high blood glucose level, which leads to diabetes. Your blood glucose level indicates the amount of sugar (glucose) in your blood during the day.
A study published in the journal Diabetologia found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet had a lower chance of developing diabetes, and eating a Mediterranean diet that also had a low GL (glycemic load) offered an even better chance of avoiding the disease. Most fruits, vegetables and whole grains that have a low GL are part of a traditional Mediterranean diet.
Low GL foods include:
- Oat Bran
- Whole Wheat Bread
Check out one of our previous blogs to learn more about how to prevent or reduce diabetes with healthy living.
Reduced Risk of Asthma
Asthma rates have soared in the U.S. over the past few decades. Studies have focused on a variety of causes, from airborne pollution to over-sanitizing a child’s environment (“The Hygiene Hypothesis”). The change in children’s diets, from home-cooked foods to fast-food and processed foods, may play a part in causing asthma, and eating certain foods makes asthma worse for most sufferers. The Mayo Clinic advises people with asthma to eat fruits and vegetables, avoid foods containing sulfites (including pickles, dried fruit, frozen shrimp) and maintain their weight.
Children in Crete, who are raised on the Mediterranean diet, rarely experience asthma or wheezing, according to a study published in the April 2007 edition of Thorax. Their diet includes lots of locally-grown grapes, tomatoes, oranges and apples. Nuts also figure prominently in their diet.
Lower Risk of Depression
Research shows people who eat fruits, veggies, nuts and olive oil tend to be happier than individuals who eat mostly red meat and processed foods. The mood-boosting properties of the Mediterranean diet may be due to its ability to stabilize the protein BNDF, which oversees certain brain functions. Eating salmon, nuts and other foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids may stabilize BNDF in the brain. Researchers found that people who suffered from depression experienced a greater level of BNDF in their brains when they followed the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet helps you feel happier, but it also helps you handle life’s everyday stressors better. We can’t always avoid stress, and reacting to life’s twists and turns in a calm way is essential for a better life. The Omega 3 fatty acids in fish, seeds, olive oil and nuts help reduce anxiety. A study conducted on alcoholic patients showed that increased anxiety was a primary cause of relapse. Patients who received eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) Omega’s 3s, experienced reduced anxiety when compared with patients who only received a placebo. (EPA Omega 3s are found in fish and shellfish.)
It’s Easier than You Think to Switch to the Mediterranean Diet
You probably already eat most of the foods included in the Mediterranean diet from time to time. Slowly adding more of those foods to your everyday diet is the key to a smooth transition. Instead of eating sweets for dessert, have a fruit salad. Drink smoothies instead of soda, and eat salmon or trout as a main course instead of red meat a few times a week.
If you’ve been using sunflower oil, canola oil or other heat-processed oils for cooking, replace them with extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil (and peanut oil) are cold-pressed, meaning heat and chemicals aren’t used during the extraction process. Industrially processed cooking oil may reduce the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids in the oil and turn them into unhealthy trans fats.
Eat a moderate amount of plain and Greek yogurt, natural cheese and drink whole milk. Full-fat dairy products fill you up fast and prevent you from overeating the rest of the day. Consume organic milk, cheese and yogurt when possible. Drinking skim milk occasionally is fine – it just won’t fill you up as fast.
Introduce Greek yogurt, fruit and oatmeal to your breakfast menu. These foods will fill you up for hours and they lack the calories and fat of the typical “Big American Breakfast.”
Get physically active, if you’re not already. People in rural Crete and Greece are fit because of their diet and because they move around as part of their lifestyle. Exercise isn’t relegated to the health club or yoga class, like it is with most Americans. Walk or bike instead of drive, do your own gardening or yard work, and take frequent breaks from computer work to move around.
Some of the lesser-known foods on the Mediterranean diet include chickpeas and eggplant. Learning how to prepare dishes with these ingredients (and other staples of the Mediterranean diet) will improve your chances of living a long, healthy life!