By Kathy McManus, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Diets consumed by people living in Mediterranean countries have been a subject of interest since antiquity, with more recent investigations focused on their health benefits. Greece and southern Italy are just two examples of regions where eating patterns tend to follow a "traditional Mediterranean diet." People residing in the countries along the Mediterranean Sea have lower rates of coronary heart disease and certain types of cancer even though their diets contain a relatively high percentage of fat.
Although there are many countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, offering different cultures, food availability and lifestyles, there are broad characteristics that make up the foundation of this healthy diet:
The traditional Mediterranean diet is low in saturated fat (less than 8% of total calories), with total fat ranging from 28% to more than 40% of total calories. In addition, the diet includes modest amounts of foods from animal sources. In fact, as in many traditional diets, plant foods make up the core of the daily intake. This balance increases the amount of vitamin B12 and iron available in the diet, and at the same time, keeps the amount of saturated fat low.
In 1994, the Lyon Heart Study evaluated the effect of a Mediterranean diet on heart disease. More than 600 patients who had a heart attack were randomly selected to eat either a traditional American Heart Association diet or a Mediterranean-style diet. The Mediterranean-style diet used fish and poultry as the major sources of protein and was high in plant foods including fruits, vegetables, beans, bread, olive oil and nuts. The diet guidelines called for less meat, butter and cream. The study used a specially prepared spread that contained alpha linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).
After only four years, the results of the Lyon Heart Study showed a significant difference in coronary events (heart attacks and stroke) in the groups who ate the Mediterranean diet versus the American Heart Association diet. The rate of coronary events was reduced by 73%, and total deaths were reduced by 70% in the Mediterranean-style group.
More recently, a study was published examining more than 22,000 adults in Greece and their adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet. The data showed that the Greeks who had a higher degree of adherence to the diet had a significantly lower total death rate, and fewer deaths from heart disease and cancer.
Mix daily exercise with weight control and a traditional Mediterranean diet and you have a terrific recipe for healthier living. There are other healthy diets that can do just as well, but the most convincing argument for going Mediterranean is the taste!
Kathy McManus, M.S., R.D., L.D., is the director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital and director of nutrition and behavioral modification program for the Program for Weight Management at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science from Simmons College and received a Master of Science degree in nutrition from Framingham State College.