Food

Why The Mediterranean Diet Is One Of The Healthiest

A recent survey conducted for the US News & Health Report found the Mediterranean diet to be the top in a number of categories. A panel of experts selected by the magazine voted it best in the following: Best diet overall; best diabetes diet; best for healthy eating, best for heart health, best plant-based diet and easiest diet to follow. As May has been designated International Mediterranean Diet Month by food alliance non-profit group Oldways, we thought it time to bring you up to date on the diet, outline what it consists of, why it is consistently rated as one of the world’s healthiest and find out exactly how good it is for us.

Mediterranean Diet Lifestyle

Simply put, the Mediterranean diet follows the cuisine and lifestyle of those cultures that surround the Mediterranean region. This diet has been popularised in our country via the waves of immigration from those countries to Australia and this popularity shows no signs of abating, particularly as nutrition experts and its fans note its health benefits, not to mention its superb taste!

The health benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

The health benefits of following a Mediterranean diet are great. According to 2006 research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health: “...together with regular physical activity and not smoking, our analyses suggest that over 80 per cent of coronary heart disease, 70 per cent of stroke, and 90 per cent of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.”

Other research has suggested the diet may help in the fight against depression and improve gut health. The high fibre features of the diet make it conducive to excellent gut health, according to recent studies, with the foods helping to produce important, health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut.

What you eat on a Mediterranean Diet

The true Mediterranean diet will, of course, differ from region to region however it can be generally described as being more plant-based than the standard Western diet, with fruits, salads and vegetables, supplemented with fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds, unrefined cereals and legumes. All of which play a vital part. There are no strict guidelines to follow  — another of its strengths — however, the general guidance is to make sure your plate is covered with plant-based products. This doesn’t mean you need to stop eating red meat, just reduce it to a smaller part of your meals, roughly one-quarter of your plate will suffice, or have it fewer times per month.

Mediterranean Diet

A recent study, published in the journal Obesity, points to why this diet works to reduce weight and therefore reduce the incidence of obesity-related diseases, now endemic in our Western society. The research, conducted at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, is the first controlled study to measure the effects of long-term consumption of a Western versus Mediterranean diet on obesity-related diseases. Those surveyed were divided into people who consumed a Western-style diet and the rest a Mediterranean diet over a thirty-eight month controlled period. Intriguingly, there were no controls on the quantity of food consumed. 

"What we found was that the group on the Mediterranean diet actually ate fewer calories, had lower body weight and had less body fat than those on the Western diet," said Carol A. Shively, Ph.D., professor of pathology at Wake Forest School of Medicine and the study’s chief investigator.

The study summary concluded it found the “...first experimental evidence that a Mediterranean diet protected against increases in consumption, obesity and prediabetes compared to a Western diet.”

It's about more than a 'diet' 

Indeed, one of the features of the diet may be the wholesome and wonderful flavours it offers. As one who married into a Lebanese family, without having had any previous experience of Lebanese food, I can confirm that the unique flavours and textures of the cuisine are extraordinary. Anecdotal evidence (my own experience) would suggest the Mediterranean diet is the easiest to follow because of these flavours and the variety of foods it offers.

Another key benefit of the diet — and one that makes it easier to follow than other diets — is that it tends to “fill you up”. Leaving you with that satisfied feeling you get when you’ve eaten a full and proper meal. One of the reasons for this is the diet’s concentration on pulses such as lentils and chickpeas as a core part of the diet. The legumes, nuts, seeds and olive oil provide the required fibre giving you that “full” and satisfied feeling.

As with all diets and lifestyle changes, it is very much an individual thing. Some will jump into the diet, relishing the flavour changes and reaping the wellness goodness. Others may not find the Mediterranean tastes as interesting and therefore find it less pleasurable. And that’s the key. If we enjoy the food we’re eating and find it easy to prepare, we are more likely to stick to the diet. If you’re interested in trying out the diet, voted the healthiest in the world, but are not sure how you or your family will react, try adding Mediterranean-style dishes once or twice a week. As you become more aware of the taste sensation of (for example) Greek or Lebanese food, add more dishes!

It’s important also to understand that much of the literature written concerning the diet mentions the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle. This includes vigorous outdoor exercise and eschewing of all processed (read Western-style) foods. Natural and raw foods are a characteristic of the Mediterranean diet, as is (a little) wine with meals.

How to sample the Mediterranean Diet (and recipes!)

Why not try the Mediterranean diet as part of International Mediterranean Diet Month in May?

Here's a look at some delicious Mediterranean Diet recipe ideas to get you started.

We’d love to hear your experiences if you’ve made the change, either fully or partially, to the Mediterranean diet. Leave a comment below, or share some of your own favourite recipes.

Rich Bowden

Article by Rich Bowden

Rich Bowden is a freelance writer and podcaster. Based in NSW's Central West, he loves family life; reading, thinking outside the square and writes and podcasts about natural food, the environment, renewables and the organic movement in general. You can check out The Real Food Chain podcast, at http://realfoodchain.libsyn.com/website.

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