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As one of the best-studied diets for cardiovascular health, the Mediterranean diet gets its own month (May). It’s even been named the best and easiest to follow diet in 2019. Modeled after the foods, cooking techniques, and lifestyles of those close to the Mediterranean Sea, the diet emphasizes plants and healthy fats. In terms of foods, the Mediterranean diet (MedDiet) consists of fish, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains/legumes, and moderate (optional) alcohol consumption. However, unlike most diets, it’s more than just eating. Because it includes a fairly wide range of foods and encourages other healthy habits, this tried-and-true diet can readily become a lifestyle. If you choose to try out the MedDiet, you decrease your risk of more than seven diseases, while still enjoying the occasional indulgence and living a balanced life.
What does the Mediterranean Diet include?
Cooking techniques & trends
- Olive oil is essential and everywhere: Cooking, sauteing, seasoning, marinating, preserving, dipping, or drizzling on bread
- Flavors are fresh, robust, and clear: This means no heavy, buttery sauces
- Heavy on the herbs and spices, light on the salt
- Primary role of fresh vegetables
- Heavy use of tomatoes
- Intensive use of salads
- Lemon juice is used to marinate row meats and fish
- Fish, lamb, and goat remain at the core of the cooking heritage are often grilled
- Cheeses are usually used as a condiment in salads or prepared in a sandwich
- Pasta is always boiled “al dente”, giving it a lower glycemic index
Another important facet of the Mediterranean diet is eating in the presence of friends and family. While this may seem like an unnecessary add on, it is an essential piece of the healthy eating puzzle. While it’s probably unrealistic to expect to share every meal with others, making it happen even once a day will bring benefits. Why?
When we eat with others we tend to…
- Eat more slowly
- Feel more connected and less lonely
- Eat more healthfully
- Hydrate more
- Decrease screen time
[For another culturally-grounded eating style, check out the Japanese concept of hara hachi bu]
Another facet of the diet is red wine (in moderation). How much is “in moderation”? About one 4-ounce glass daily for women or two 4-ounce glasses daily for men. Whether or not wine is actively good for your health has been under debate for years, so adding it to your routine isn’t necessary. The benefits from both grapes and wine likely come from the antioxidant flavonoids (especially resveratrol) found in grape skin. As a result, you can get similar brain and cardiovascular benefits from eating grapes or drinking grape juice. If you do regularly drink alcohol, choosing red wine may have positive health effects. Wines with higher levels of antioxidants and without added sugar are best.
Leading an active lifestyle is another important part of the Mediterranean living and eating model. Walking, gardening, biking…really anything will do. Shoot for at least 2.5 hours of active time per week.
[Learn how to hack your brain and upgrade or build your exercise habits]
7+ Diseases the Mediterranean diet protects against [according to research]
Evidence suggests that following the Mediterranean diet can prevent and combat various chronic diseases and conditions.
There is robust evidence that following the MedDiet can improve cardiovascular health. One large study of ~26,000 U.S. women found that this eating style resulted in a 25% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the course of 12 years. The study also found that the diet’s success was largely due to its effect on inflammation, blood sugar, and body mass index.
Another study investigated the diet’s effects in individuals who were already at high risk for heart disease. In it, individuals with diabetes or other risk factors for heart disease followed a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or nuts for five years. Even without any fat or calorie restrictions, the diet reduced the rates of stroke-caused death by ~30%.
The hugely beneficial effects of the MedDiet have also been confirmed when the results of multiple studies are looked at together (a meta-analysis). This meta-analysis found the diet resulted in a 10% reduction from death and/or incidence of cardio- and cerebrovascular diseases.
[If you’re interested in managing your cardiovascular health through food, be sure to check out Step One Foods as well!]
One study that followed >25,000 Greek men and women over ~8 years found a 12% reduction in cancer risk in those that followed the diet. The more strictly people followed the diet, the more protective its effect.
While researchers are unsure of exactly why the MedDiet has neuroprotective effects, it may be a result of its high levels of healthy fats and plant antioxidants. Eating in this style may also slow development of Alzhiemer’s disease (find out more from the NIH here). Beyond brain health, the diet may even protect against Parkinson disease and Huntington disease.
One study done in 40 year old asthmatics suggested that people on the MedDiet were more likely to achieve asthma control. This means MedDiet individuals showed better lung function, fewer symptoms, and lower levels of nitric oxide in their breath. Another, in children, found that adhering to the MedDiet had a positive effect on asthma prevalence.
One study found people with chronic kidney disease experienced improved kidney function on the diet. When taken together with the results of other studies in a literature review, researchers confirmed these results and expanded upon them.
Diabetes and Dyslipideamia
A large meta-analysis of 50 studies found that following the MedDiet resulted in a decreased risk of abdominal obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia and diabetes mellitus. Another study found that even in cases where body weight and physical activity didn’t significantly change, the MedDiet resulted in an over 50% reduction in diabetes risk.
In combination with all of these impressive, disease-combating traits, the diet appears to have anti-aging effects. What’s not to love?