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Mediterranean Eating: A Myriad of Benefits
Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on January 16, 2013
By Linda Antinoro, R.D., L.D.N., J.D., C.D.E.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
The Mediterranean Diet refers to the traditional eating habits of individuals who live in countries around the Mediterranean Sea Italy, Greece and Spain to name a few. This eating style emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans), fish, nuts, olive oil and wine (in moderation). It goes beyond a diet, however, by encouraging daily physical activity and embracing an attitude about food and eating that fosters pleasure.
The Mediterranean style of eating is often cited as a way to protect against a number of ailments and boost health from infancy through old age. Research presented at the recent 15th International Conference on the Mediterranean Diet seems to bear this out. Here are some highlights of the health benefits of this "gold standard" way of eating. Hopefully they will inspire you to adopt a Mediterranean eating style.
1. Reduced risk of dying prematurely
This is largely due to the diet's impact on cancer and cardiovascular disease. In one study, a high degree of adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 17% reduction in total mortality. In another study, individuals over age 60 with a previous history of heart attack lowered overall mortality by 18% when adopting such an eating pattern.
2. Lower diabetes risk
Diabetes rates are skyrocketing. So it's great news that eating "Mediterranean" lowers diabetes risk. Researchers in Spain assessed the diets and tracked the health of over 13,000 men and women for more than four years. They found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet most closely were 83% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared with those individuals whose diets were least like the Mediterranean diet.
3. Weight loss
Researchers from Israel and Harvard University assigned 322 obese individuals to one of three diets: Mediterranean, low-fat or low-carbohydrate. When women alone were evaluated, the Mediterranean diet came out on top for weight loss. A greater percentage of participants assigned to the Mediterranean diet group were able to adhere to the diet for the full two-year study. This suggests that it is an easier eating style to maintain.
4. Brain protection
Research from Columbia University looked at the eating habits of 2,258 older adults. They found that individuals whose eating habits closely matched the traditional Mediterranean diet were 40% less likely to get Alzheimer's disease than those whose diets were least like the Mediterranean style of eating. Harvard researchers have seen links between this diet and protection from Parkinson's. Other researchers have found a connection between the Mediterranean diet and protection against cognitive decline as well.
5. Fewer lung diseases
Add improved breathing to the benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet. Research has shown a reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and wheezing. Especially notable is the research showing how maternal and child adherence to this eating style benefits children. In fact, children born to mothers who closely followed the diet while pregnant were 88% less likely to experience persistent wheeze. In another study, when researchers studied the eating patterns of nearly 1,500 children, they found a 40% decrease in the risk of asthma among children who adhered to the Mediterranean diet most closely.
6. Arthritis relief
Following the Mediterranean diet helps reduce pain and stiffness associated with rheumatoid arthritis. The presence of extra-virgin olive oil, in particular, has anti-inflammatory properties. A substance called oleocanthal in this type of olive oil actually acts much like ibuprofen does.
7. Lower food costs
The Mediterranean diet is a cost-saver in today's economy. The crux of the diet is budget-friendly foods, such as beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables and eggs. Using more nuts, beans and lentils to extend or substitute for more costly meat in meals saves money. Choosing in-season produce, farmers' markets, co-ops and local farms often translates into savings for fruits and vegetables as well.
Practicing the Mediterranean Mindset
Here's how to take advantage of the numerous benefits that this eating style offers. You can also check out the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.
- Plan your meals around plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa and bulger).
- Add herbs and spices to dishes. Not only do they impart flavor and can help you cut back on salt, but new research shows that many spices have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.
- Use olive oil, especially extra-virgin olive oil, more often than other oils.
- Aim for at least two servings of fish per week.
- Eat red meat sparingly or limit to three-ounce portions. Choose leaner protein sources more often, such as beans, skinless poultry, eggs and low-fat dairy.
- Drink water regularly, instead of less healthy beverages like soda and sweetened drinks. If you choose to drink wine, have no more than two (5-ounce) glasses if male and one glass if female.
- Look for items with the Med Mark logo on the packaging when available. Note: Not all items that may qualify necessarily have the logo so it is only a guide.
- Engage in some type of physical activity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week.
- Enjoy food. Eat slowly to appreciate foods' flavors and textures.
Frequent trips to the 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea may not be in your near future. Fortunately you can include the eating principles from this region in your life every day and keep a number of illnesses at bay.
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Linda Antinoro, R.D., L.D.N., J.D., C.D.E. is a senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She is also a certified diabetes educator. Ms. Antinoro counsels patients at the Nutrition Consultation Service.