A diet with a name that conjures up memories of suppers in the sunshine, the Mediterranean diet plan celebrates the fresh, colourful produce of a region that boasts an enviable life expectancy. Hence why it has been heralded as one of the world’s best diets – but what makes Med cuisine so healthy?
What is a Mediterranean diet?
The diet plan consists mostly of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, pasta, rice and olive oil, with a moderate amount of cheese, wine, yogurt, nuts, fish, eggs, poultry and pulses, and meat thrown in.
Unlike our diet in the UK, which tends to be very high in saturated fats (pies, pastries, meats, pizza and take away foods like kebabs and burgers), the Mediterranean diet includes more monounsaturated fats, such as plant oils, nuts, seeds and oily fish.
This promotes a better balance of fats, reducing inflammation around the heart and thus improving heart health.
What are the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet?
Heart and circulatory health
Following extensive medical research, there is strong evidence that the Mediterranean diet can improve heart and circulatory health.
The correlation between improved heart health and the Mediterranean diet is based on the higher intake of monounsaturated fats that are found in olive oil, nuts, and oily fish.
Followers of the Mediterranean diet plan swap saturated fats (pastry, animal fat, biscuits which increase the amount of LDL (or bad) cholesterol) for monounsaturated fats which help maintain healthy cholesterol levels by lowering the amount of bad cholesterol in the body.
This is positive because too much cholesterol can cause blocked arteries which lead to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.
A four year study of 7447 people at high cardiovascular risk by The New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of death from cardiovascular disease was reduced by a Mediterranean diet.
Dr Frankie Phillips, registered dietitian and nutritionist and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), praises the diet plan for encouraging people to up their intake of fruit and vegetables, and so increasing the amount of fibre in their diet.
“Adding more fibre is particularly important as last year’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey showed that, as a nation, we are eating half as much fibre as we should be.”
Fibre is essential for healthy digestion. “Increase fibre slowly with a spoonful of beans or an extra portion of vegetables each week,” says Dr Phillips. “If your diet is fibre-poor and you increase your intake too quickly, you may experience discomfort in your gut.”
Industry experts conclude there is not enough evidence to support the link between a Mediterranean diet and improved cognitive function.
According to Alzheimers.org, the correlation is loosely based on the fact that inflammation in the brain is associated with dementia risk, and the Mediterranean diet reduces signs of this inflammation.
Cutting out processed foods to favour fruit, vegetables and pulses can lead to weight loss if portions are controlled. A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at 322 obese individuals, found that a Mediterranean diet is more effective for weight loss and improving symptoms of diabetes, when compared to a low-fat diet.
Prevention and management of Type 2 Diabetes
Given that obesity stands as one of the most common causes of Type 2 Diabetes, following a well-balanced Mediterranean diet can help prevent the condition by stopping weight gain.
A study in 2011 by the Human Nutrition Unit at Hospital Universitari de Sant Joan, Barcelona looked at 418 non-diabetic participants over four years.
Researchers found that a Mediterranean diet with calorie restriction can be effective in preventing the development of Type 2 Diabetes.
If diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, eating a high fibre diet – like the Mediterranean diet plan – is advised as it helps keep blood sugars steady.
A study by the University of Naples on newly diagnosed Type 2 Diabetes sufferers showed that a low-carb Mediterranean diet may delay or prevent the need for drug therapy in patients.
Tips for following a Mediterranean diet
“The Mediterranean diet can be easily incorporated into the daily lives of anyone looking to eat healthy and varied meals,” says dietitian and author of The Mediterranean Diet Plan Susan Zogheib .
In her book, she offers 10 helpful tips on sustaining the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle.
- Always eat breakfast. Keep yogurt and fruit stocked in your refrigerator to eat on the go.
- When dining out, divide your meal in half. Do this the moment the plate hits the table and pack it up as leftovers.
- Keep a supply of chopped vegetables. Celery, bell peppers, carrots, and cucumbers are perfect for dipping in hummus.
- Visit your local farmers’ market. This will keep your refrigerator stocked with locally grown, seasonal vegetables.
- Snack on a handful of nuts or seeds. Almonds, walnuts, or sunflower seeds are better choices in place of chips, cookies, or other processed foods.
- Enjoy fruit for dessert. You can even add a little sweetness with a drizzle of honey or sprinkle of brown sugar on top. Keep fresh fruit around the house and at work so you have a healthy snack on hand when your stomach begins to growl.
- Savor your bites. Avoid eating in front of the television or while you’re answering email. Cherish your time with family and friends at the dinner table.
- Get your family involved. Ask children to help with food preparation. It allows you to spend quality time with one another.
- Avoid processed and refined foods. Minimize, or better yet, eliminate your consumption of packaged foods and sweets.
- Switch to whole grains. Minimally processed grains, such as barley, bulgur, couscous, faro, millet, oats rice, and, polenta, are a central part of the Mediterranean diet.