The term Mediterranean diet refers to the type of diet that was traditionally consumed by most citizens of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This has largely changed in recent decades, but was the case up to the 1960s. Various studies have observed that this type of diet seems to have many health benefits. In fact, the Mediterranean region still has some of the longest living people in the world.
In this article, we will look at what constitutes the Mediterranean diet and the various benefits associated with it.
What is the Mediterranean Diet?
There isn’t a single definition to describe the Mediterranean diet. However, the diet is composed of high amounts of different vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds and olive oil. Additionally, the Mediterranean diet includes other food items like fish, eggs, poultry, dairy products and red meats in relatively lower frequency.
They also accompanied their meals with small amounts of wine. It is also noteworthy that the people in the Mediterranean region traditionally shared their meals with family members and friends and were physically active.
What Gives the Mediterranean Diet its Health Benefits?
The food components of the Mediterranean diet are largely plant-based and wholesome. They are also diversified so that the diet provides a healthy mix of carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber, besides fat from the healthier olive oil. Regular but less frequent intake of animal-based foods such as poultry, eggs, fish, dairy and red meats provides moderate amounts of animal protein, fat, minerals and vitamins, besides omega-3 from fish.
And while too much alcohol is not good for health, one or two drinks cannot hurt, and may in fact have some benefit due to the antioxidant compound resveratrol. The diet also contains other antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
This combination provides the body with healthy amounts of nutrients responsible for overall good health.
Protects the Heart
The Mediterranean diet is friendly to the heart and the circulatory system in general. This has been documented by reviewing various studies. A five-year study published in 2013, and involving following up 7000 men and women who either had diabetes type 2 or were at a high risk of developing cardiovascular illnesses found that those on the Mediterranean diet without calorie restriction had 30 percent less likely to suffer from heart disease.1)
Prevents Cognitive Decline
The Mediterranean diet may also help protect against decline in cognitive functions which leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. This is partly a result of the circulation supporting properties of the diet. It is worth noting that the brain consumes a significant amount of energy and oxygen used by the body. Nutrients and oxygen are both transported by blood. Circulatory problems increase the risk of cognitive decline besides other problems.
A review of studies published in 2016 by the Frontiers in Nutrition journal, concluded that following a Mediterranean diet improves cognition, thereby reducing the risk of decline and development of Alzheimer’s disease.2)
Prevents Premature Aging
Because the Mediterranean diet offers some protection against circulatory issues and cancer among others, it increases the chances of leading a long healthy life. Additionally, this diet plays a key role in protecting the telomeres – which are located at the ends of strands of chromosomes. Telomeres protect chromosomes from fraying. They are aging biomarkers whose lengths are linked to life expectancy.
Research studies carried out particularly at Harvard University are suggestive that adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with longer telomeres, and therefore longer life.3)
Reduces the Risk of Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is condition in which an individual has motor problems. It is linked to chronic oxidative stress. Adherence to the Mediterranean diet provides the body with high amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds which are believed to lower chronic oxidation in the body. Studies have indicated that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.4)
Protects Against Diabetes Mellitus Type 2
The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables which are low in sugar content. This means that regular intake of this type of diet helps keep blood sugar level under control. This is good news for those with diabetes type 2 and those at risk of developing it.
A study conducted on 418 individuals without diabetes, and varying in age between 55 and 80 years, found that subjects who followed the Mediterranean diet were 52 percent less likely to develop diabetes type 2. The study followed up the subjects for a period of four years.5)
Reduces the Risk of Stroke
Stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks blood supply to a part of the brain. It follows that poor blood circulation can lead to dangerous blood clots and stroke among other issues. Because the Mediterranean diet promotes good blood circulation, it reduces the risk of stroke and other circulation problems such as high blood pressure.6)
May Reduce the Effects of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system erroneously attacks tissues in the joints. This leads to inflammation, swelling and pain. Studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet may ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. This is probably because the diet is rich in anti-inflammatory plant chemicals and omega-3 fatty acids. Regular intake of the diet helps to reduce the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis.7)
Reduces the Risk of Cancer
There is evidence that the Mediterranean diet may help reduce the risk of cancer. This may be attributed to the low intake of animal protein especially red meats, and high intake of vegetables and fruits which are high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals. A 2017 review of more than 80 research studies established that people on the Mediterranean diet which includes olive oil, were less likely to get colorectal and breast cancers than people on low-fat diet.8)
May Help Ease Depression
According to a review of several studies, practicing the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of depression by 33 percent compared to a conventional western diet. Observational studies have also found that depression is less common in people on the Mediterranean diet. This suggests that besides prevention, adopting the Mediterranean diet could help ease depression for people who are suffering from it.9)
May Help in Weight Management
The Mediterranean diet is relatively lower in calories. It is also high in fiber. These factors mean that if you follow the diet, you keeping feeling full for longer and therefore less likely to keep snacking unnecessarily. This means that you end up eating less food. Additionally, because the food items in the Mediterranean diet are wholesome, the body is better able to digest them for use so that little is stored as body fat. This helps to achieve and maintain healthy weight.10)