When it comes to healthy eating, the Mediterranean diet reigns supreme. This well-known eating style focuses on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, oils, and limits processed foods high in sugar to help extend your lifespan and prevent chronic disease. Continue reading to learn more about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.
Imagine enjoying a day filled with delicious foods like a fresh caprese salad with extra virgin olive oil, juicy pan-seared salmon, creamy hummus, and rice pasta with garlic, olives, and artichoke hearts. Now imagine you could eat these foods while boosting your health. Does it sound too good to be true? Thankfully, there’s no need to worry, as all of these foods all fit into the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that can prevent the onset of many different chronic diseases (such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes).
But what is this diet, what can you eat with it, and why do people endorse this eating style for overall health and wellness? Before we cover dietary recommendations, let’s first discuss what makes this diet so healthy.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest ways of eating around the world. In the 1960’s, scientist Ancel Keys noted that the diet that he observed in Greece and Southern Italy was low in saturated fats and rich in vegetable oil . Back in this time, those who resided in Southern Italy reported that they only ate meat once per week; milk was only used in coffee or for infants; sugar and white potatoes were eaten in small quantities; and fats (like butter or cream) were rarely used. Instead, extra virgin olive oil, fruits, small amounts of local cheeses and red wine were included in the diet . In later studies, it was proven that those who ate in this pattern had a reduced risk of coronary heart disease compared to those who lived in northern Europe or the United States . This paved the way for further studies and the evolution of the Mediterranean diet to what it has become today.
So, what is it about the Mediterranean diet that makes it so healthy? The foods eaten within the Mediterranean diet have nutrients (such as polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, fiber, vitamin C, and folate) along with other antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that are found abundantly in fresh fruits and vegetables . These nutrients provide benefits for the body, as they have a lipid lowering effect, protect against oxidative stress, inflammation, and platelet aggregation, modify hormones and growth factors that are involved with the onset of cancer, extend the length of life with moderate protein restriction, and positively influence the gut microbiota .
But how else can the Mediterranean diet positively impact your body? Here are some additional health benefits that come from this way of eating.
Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
While genetics and environments are factors, your diet can either protect you or make you more vulnerable to developing cancer . The foods eaten with the Mediterranean diet contain flavonoids, vitamins, and carotenoids, which are antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients . These foods contribute to several mechanisms that can reduce tumor growth, have chemoprotective effects, and inhibit tumor development .
Hypertension & cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death around the world, so eating a heart-friendly diet is beneficial for reducing any risk factors (such as hypercholesterolemia, high LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) levels, and low HDL (the “good” cholesterol) levels) . Diets that are high in saturated fats lead to an increase in serum cholesterol levels, but when these saturated fats are replaced by polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, plasma cholesterol levels decrease. In fact, the risk of cardiovascular disease lowers by 30% and the risk of heart attacks lowers by 90%, which is comparable to the effects that certain medications (like statins) have . This risk could be lowered even further if a healthy diet (like the Mediterranean diet) was followed long term to prevent the formation of plaque .
Additionally, the Mediterranean diet aids in the prevention of cardiovascular disease through its high fiber content. The typical Mediterranean diet provides 14g of fiber per 1,000 calories, and studies have found for each additional gram of fiber above this, the plasma LDL cholesterol levels can be lowered by 1.12 mg/L .
Foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains all contain fiber, and it’s been found that those who follow the Mediterranean diet consume more than 2 times the fiber compared to those who consume the standard Western diet . Fiber promotes the growth of beneficial gut microbiota which can produce short chain fatty acids in your gut . These short chain fatty acids can reduce inflammatory, autoimmune, and allergic diseases, and over time, consuming these high fiber foods leads to a thriving and highly diverse gut microbiota . In comparison, the standard western diet inhibits the growth of beneficial gut microbiota and promotes the growth of certain microbes that can increase your risk of developing metabolic, inflammatory, allergic, and autoimmune diseases .
Type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is highly prevalent amongst Western countries (with over 425 million adults suffering from it) and can lower your life expectancy by about six years . This is partially because having type 2 diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, renal disease, and cognitive impairment . One of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is so great for those who are prediabetic or who have type 2 diabetes is that it can help to improve Hemoglobin A1C levels, fasting insulin, and insulin resistance . Moreover, there is research showing that a diet rich in monounsaturated fats can improve fasting blood glucose levels .
The Mediterranean diet is associated with improvement in several markers of type 2 diabetes and obesity, both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease . The anti-inflammatory properties that are found within the foods of the Mediterranean diet can result in a lower expression and production of pro-inflammatory cytokines . Studies have shown that increased adherence to the Mediterranean diet results in improved cognitive performance, slower cognitive decline, and reduced risk of cognitive impairment, all of which are factors that can influence the development of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s .
What should I eat to follow the Mediterranean diet?
Wondering what you can eat to reap the benefits of this eating style? Here are some tasty foods to include in your diet:
Include abundantly (every day):
- Olive oil (extra virgin is best)
- Vegetables: tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, onions, cucumbers, potatoes, & cauliflower
- Fruits: blueberries, melons, oranges, strawberries, grapes, apples, & pears
- Whole grains: oats, brown rice, quinoa
- Legumes: beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, & chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds: walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, sunflower seeds & pumpkin seeds
Include often (2-3 times per week):
- Fish & seafood: salmon, tuna, sardines, shrimp, crab, mussels, oysters & clams
- Poultry: chicken & turkey
- Dairy: cheese, milk, & yogurt
Include sometimes (less than twice per week):
- Red meat
From its numerous health benefits to delicious foods, there are many reasons to love the Mediterranean diet. Research shows that this eating style is one of the best ways to extend your life and prevent chronic disease (such as Alzheimer’s, hypertension, and cancer). Additionally, there are many delicious foods to enjoy that will not only satisfy your taste buds, but also boost your health.
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