What’s So Special About The Mediterranean Diet?
Health researchers have known for a while now that the peoples who live around the Mediterranean – the Arabic, French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish – all have very low rates of heart disease, certain cancers like breast and prostate, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Why is this? Well, seems the most important thing these people have in common is their diet – high in fish and poultry, olive oil, red wine, high-antioxidant vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and very little red meat and refined sugars. In fact, Greek people typically eat 9 servings of high-antioxidant value vegetables and fruits a day – nearly twice the amount (5) recommended by the USDA’s food pyramid. In addition, high antioxidant spices, like oregano, rosemary, garlic are typically used to flavor foods instead of blood pressure-spiking salt.
All the foods noted above have recently been research-proven to provide significant health benefits as follows:
- Heart, eyes, brain protective Omega-3 fats from fish and olive oil
- Monounsaturated fats from nuts and canola oil contain linolenic acid (another Omega-3 fat) which reduces blood clotting and lowers triglycerides
- Prostate protective lycopene from cooked tomatoes
- Eye and lung protective lutein from multicolor peppers, zucchini, etc
- Cholesterol and blood fats dissolving garlic
- Immunity/life expectancy, heart health boosting resveratrol from red wine
- Whole grain breads and pasta dipped or mixed with olive oil containing no trans-fats and beneficial fiber that reduces the risk of colon cancer
How To Reap The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
As many of my patients ask me to detail the “how-to’s” of a Mediterranean diet, here are the general recommendations:
- Increase fruits and vegetable intake. However, if you’re trying to lose some weight, stick to lower sugar/carb containing types like raspberries, blackberries, avocados. Get a good sugar/carb counter to help you.
- Add nuts. Try eating ¼ cup of mixed, unsalted, or lightly salted, nuts a day. These should contain almonds, macadamias, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans for optimal health benefits.
- Add legumes. Foods like lentils, white and red kidney beans, chick peas (garbanzo beans), all add beneficial fibers, low carbs, high protein, low-to-no-sugar per serving. These foods also contain beneficial plant “phytonutrients” that fight cancer and heart disease.
- Switch to olive oil. Trade your margarine/butter on your vegetables, pasta, etc for extra virgin olive oil.
- Fish, 3 times a week. Oily, high Omega-3 containing fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna (water packed canned), lowers your risk for heart and brain disease almost 100%.
- Whole grains. Stick to high fiber whole wheat pastas and breads that do not contain trans-fats. If you’re trying to lose weight, perhaps stick to one smaller serving of these higher carbohydrate foods, once or twice a week.
- Limit red meat. There’s a lot of controversy about how much red meat to eat – some researchers say more is better, some say less. Mediterranean peoples, however, eat very little red meat – a small amount (4-6 ounces) once, maybe twice a week. Saturated fats like these make up no more than 8% of the Mediterranean diet.
- Use spices more. My patients are always amazed when I tell them how high the antioxidant value of many spices are, specifically those used in Mediterranean cooking like oregano and rosemary. Research studies have proven the value of these spices to be beneficial in fighting cancer and heart disease.
- Add a little wine. The Mediterranean peoples, especially Italian, French and Greek are noted for their fondness of red wine. Go for 1-2, 4 ounce glasses, 3-4 times a week. If you have problems with alcohol, unsweetened grape juice also contains the resveratrol compounds that wine has.
- Lower-fat dairy. Cheese is part of Mediterranean diets, mostly Mozzarella, Parmesan, Romano and Feta, which are lower saturated fat cheeses. Yogurt, a soured dairy high in beneficial lactobacillus cultures, is also low in fat. Milk drinking, however, is typically not part of the Mediterranean diet. Make yours lowfat or skim to include it.
- Exercise. You don’t have to train like an athlete to reap the health benefits of exercise. Aerobic exercise 30-60 minutes a day in the form of walking, bicycling, swimming, 3-4 times a week. Weight training 3 times a week helps maintain/build muscle mass that typically starts to decline a little each year past the age of 40.
- Stay connected to family/friends. Other than a shared diet, another important thing Mediterranean cultures have in common is staying closely connected to their family and friends and share at least one meal a day with them. Research has shown that people with closer family/friend relationships are happier and healthier with reduced stress levels and less risk for heart disease and cancer. The DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center boils it down to the 4 “F”s: family, friends, food and fitness.
From the coast of Italy to the sands of Morocco, the Mediterranean Diet is nothing new. Modern science, however, has just recently been proving what Mediterranean peoples have known for centuries – their diet is one of the tastiest, most natural health boosting strategies out there.