What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet health benefits are so many, that a huge number of studies have been conducted through the years, to find the reasons why.
The Mediterranean diet followed by people in Italy, Greece, and Spain some decades ago. People in these countries used to eat fresh locally grown seasonal products.
A Mediterranean diet incorporates the traditional healthy living habits of people, including the highly active lifestyle, except food habits. People were very physically active, as many were farmers or had manual jobs, needing high-calorie intake.
Many studies have been conducted to find the correlation between the Mediterranean diet and weight loss, good overall health, high life expectancy, and heart health.
What do you eat on the Mediterranean diet?
On the Mediterranean diet, people used to eat:
- high amounts of vegetables, herbs, legumes, fruits, whole-grains, and olive oil.
- moderate amounts of fish, dairy, nuts, seeds, and wine
- low amounts of meat
- none of trans-fats, refined grains, oils other than olive oil, added sugar, processed meat or other highly processed foods.
Mediterranean diet health benefits
The Mediterranean diet is considered by many the best diet you can follow for health reasons. The Mediterranean diet health benefits are recognized worldwide.
In 2013, the Mediterranean diet was inscribed by UNESCO in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans included the Mediterranean diet as a healthy dietary pattern.
Many researches have shown that traditional dietary habits and lifestyle unique to the Mediterranean region lower the incidence of chronic diseases and improve longevity (1).
Contrary, many western countries, have increased incidents of chronic diseases. Maybe we should reconsider the effect of a standard American diet.
The Mediterranean diet reduce disease risks
Cardiovascular diseases. The Mediterranean Diet is one of the best dietary patterns analyzed in relation to cardiovascular risk and other health outcomes. Scientists say that the available evidence is large, strong, and consistent: the traditional Mediterranean Diet is associated with better cardiovascular health outcomes, including clinically meaningful reductions in rates of coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, ischemic stroke, and total cardiovascular disease (2,3,7).
Maybe the low consumption of saturated fat (fat from meat, and dairy), moderate intake of wine, and the high consumption of antioxidants from plants play a role in heart health.
Cancer. A meta-analysis confirms an important effect of the Meditarreane diet on cancer mortality and reduction of risk of several cancer types, especially colorectal cancer and digestive tract cancers (4,6). Scientists concluded that higher intakes of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains mainly fight cancer (4).
Additionally, the Mediterranean diet was associated with a reduced breast cancer risk (5).
Diabetes. The Meditarreane diet has strong anti-inflammatory effects. That may improve insulin sensitivity and may help to prevent type 2 diabetes (7).
Neurodegenerative diseases. Many epidemiologic studies report a protective association between the Mediterranean diet to brain health. Clinical trials support these observational findings. The Mediterranean diet may be protective for Parkinson’s disease risk, due to the abundance of polyphenols in fruits, vegetables, and whole-cereals (8).
List of the most common foods
People in the Mediterranean area used to eat fruit, vegetables, and grains that were locally produced.
Likely we’re blessed to have a much greater variety of foods, that fight diseases:
Fruits on Mediterranean Diet (MD): Apples, oranges, lemons, nectarines, pears, strawberries, dates, figs, melons, watermelons, peaches, grapes and many more.
Fruits on a modern plant-based diet: every fruit. People in the Mediterranean area didn’t consume fruits like bananas, avocado, blackberries, blueberries, papayas, mango, etc. You can eat every fruit you want. We advise to select topically grown foods, to minimize the environmental input. Transportation of food causes great harm to the environment. Whenever possible prefer seasonal foods as well.
Vegetables and legumes on MD: tomatoes, onion, scallions, garlic, cucumbers, peppers, broccoli, potatoes, artichoke, arugula, beetroot, turnips, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, carrots, celery, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, pumpkin, mushrooms, radishes, fava beans, lentils, peas, corn, etc.
Vegetables and legumes on a modern plant-based diet: every vegetable or bean is healthful. Eat as much as you want. Collard greens, mustard greens, dandelion greens, kale, daikon, soy, sweet potatoes, chicory to name a few.
Herbs on MD: Oregon, basil, parsley, dill, fennel, marjoram, mint, thyme, rosemary, dictamnus, Olympus mountain Tea (or Sideritis tea), sage, chamomile, fliskouni (a mountain mint), summer savory, achillea (or yarrow), stinging nettle, and many many more.
Cretan Diet is especially rich in wild herbs and vegetables
Crete is a Greek island in the Mediterranean sea that’s a paradise for herbalists. It has many unique plants and herbs. Many of them are edibles and locals have incorporated them in their diet.
Cretan diet is known for the use of many wild herbs. To mention a few:
Purslane (or andrakla) is added to fresh summer salads. Purslane is a good source of potassium (494 mg/100 g), magnesium (68 mg/100 g), calcium (65 mg/100 g). Most importantly, purslane can be used as a vegetable source of omega-3 fatty acids. It is the richest in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid (LNA) (4 mg/g fresh weight) of any green leafy vegetable. Scientists said that purslane has tremendous nutritional potential (9).
Radiki are called many wild greens in the chicory and dandelion family. Usually, it is served cooked in salads or pies. Locals say that its bitter taste combines with abundant olive oil and lemon juice. It is considered helpful for the treatment of liver or bile conditions.
Wild Malotira is a very popular medicinal tea mostly known as Cretan Mountain Tea. It has endless beneficial properties.
Dittany (or Diktamos) is also an endemic herb of Crete known as stomach herb. It is known since ancient times and was used in the cure of stomach ache and the healing of wounds.
Kafkalithra (or bud chervil) is used in herb pies or boiled in salads. It is believed to rejuvenates the nervous system and acts against melancholy.
Stamnagathi is a wild variety of the radish family. Beyond its bitter unique taste, it has grown its popularity for its health properties.
Avronies is wild asparagus. It’s one of the most prized of all greens. They are eaten boiled in a salad.
Sorrel (or Lapato) is a bitter wild green and mostly it is used along with other greens in pies.
Brighteye (or galatsida) belongs to the dandelion family. It is eaten in boiled salads.
Golden thistle (or askolymbri) is another famous wild green vegetable of Crete, eaten in salads.
Volvoi is considered a very healthful food, as it has many antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.
Mallow (or Molocha) is boiled with other herbs, and used in soups or pies.
More herb and spices for better health
The spices and herbs are found to be the most antioxidant-rich products analyzed in a study (12). Wherever you live, there are wild herbs you can include in your diet. Common herbs and spices are equally healthful.
The most common antioxidant-rich herbs and spices are the: clove, peppermint, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron, estragon, oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil, chives, dill, and parsley (12).
What to avoid in a Mediterranean diet meal plan?
The Mediterranean diet includes dairy, meat, and fats. The Mediterranean diet health benefits are so many, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeking more…
If you don’t want to become vegan, you should at least consider minimizing the consumption of red meat. The World Health Organisation has classified the red meat as Group 2A, meaning red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans. Even worse effect on humans has processed red meat. It is classified as Group 1, meaning it is carcinogenic to humans (10).
In addition, the World Health Organisation informs us that diets high in red meat, dairy products and animal fat have frequently been implicated in the development of prostate cancer, although the data are not entirely consistent (11).
We believe a whole plant-based diet is the better tool we have to encounter diseases. If you don’t want to follow a vegan diet, at least minimize all animal foods, especially red meat.
Can you lose weight eating this way?
The Mediterranean diet is a plant-based diet, researched by many studies for its health effects. This diet can help you lose weight and most importantly, stay slim.
Is the Mediterranean diet low in calories?
Keep in mind that following the Mediterranean diet doesn’t mean necessarily that you’ll lose weight. It isn’t a low-calorie diet. Contrary, it can be a diet very high to calories. The main reason for this is the high amounts of olive oil, presence in almost every meal.
Olive oil is 100% fat and contains 120 calories per tablespoon. Olive oil contains the same number of calories as other vegetable or animal fats.
If you want to lose weight consider limiting the amount of olive oil you consume.
High consumption of oils is a common mistake, that many overweight vegans do, preventing them from having optimal weight.
Also, limit to minimum other vegetable oils and completely remove animal fats, as they are rich in saturated fats. Saturated fasts, along with the trans fats (fats mainly in processed foods) are the worst type of dietary fat you can eat. Avoid them completely.
the Mediterranean lifestyle was very calorie demanding. People were mostly farmers, working endless hours to fields. Their need for calories was much higher than the average everyday man or woman.
The Mediterranean diet paradox – Crete example
The Mediterranean diet health benefits are many, despite the high fat intake. Why is that?
Although the overall fat intake in Crete (Greek island) was similar to that of other populations, the Crete population had an approximately 30-fold lower rate of coronary heart disease.
The people in Crete, following the Mediterranean diet, used to consume about 36% of fats of their total energy intake.
People in Finland used to consume 39% of fats of the total calorie intake.
Why Cretes had such a lower risk for heart problems?
That’s because of the quality of dietary fats. People in Finland were eating many saturated fats (mainly animal fat), while people in Crete were consuming much less (24% to 8% respectively).
People in Crete consumed many monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Monounsaturated fatty acids are found in olive oil, while polyunsaturated fatty acids are found in fish.
Apparently, the type of fat is of huge importance.
Additionally, in the Mediterranean diet, the intake of dairy and meat is much lower than in the modern western diet.
Also, animal fats are mainly from goats and sheep. Fats from these animals are less atherogenic than cows’ fat (1).
Furthermore, the main form of dairy consumption to the Mediterranean diet is cheese or yogurt, not milk or butter. Cheese aging increases free medium-chain fatty acids several-fold. Higher content of medium-chain fatty acids mean is less atherogenic (1).
For this reason, as they contain higher content of medium-chain fatty acids prefer:
- yogurt or cheese over milk
- goat or sheep dairy products than cow’s.
Scientists suggest that both the quantity and type of fat should be taken into consideration when assessing the nutritional benefits of the Mediterranean diet eating pattern.
Perhaps, you better limit all oils from your diet. Even limit olive oil, as it is a processed calorie-dense food, missing fibers.
Other healthier alternatives for fat intake are nuts and seeds.
It is preferred to consume food in its natural form, with minimum processing.
Start today enjoying the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits
To summary, practically:
- Limit oil intake. Even the healthiest olive oil if you want to lose weight.
- Fat is important to any diet though. Better eat seeds and nuts in your salad.
- Eat many vegetables, fruits, and legumes
- Prefer whole-grain, not refined products.
- Limit your sugar intake. Beverages and sauces contain many.
- Whenever possible, buy organic, seasonal, local food.
- Try to eat many vitamin C-rich foods, in order to avoid supplements
If you aren’t vegan:
- prefer cheese and yogurt over milk
- prefer dairy products from sheep and goat, over cows.
- limit the amount of no-vegan food.
- prefer fish over red meat
- and…. become vegan. It isn’t that hard. Start by limiting no-vegan foods.
The journey starts now…The Mediterranean diet health benefits can show you the way…
- NCBI– PMC: Mediterranean Diet and Prevention of Chronic Diseases
- NCBI – Pubmed.gov: Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: What Do We Know?
- NCBI – Pubmed.gov: The Mediterranean Diet and Cardiovascular Health.
- NCBI- PMC: Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and Risk of Cancer: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- NCBI- PMC: Mediterranean Diet and Breast Cancer Risk
- NCBI- PMC: Impact of Mediterranean Diet on Cancer: Focused Literature Review
- NCBI – Pubmed.gov: Mediterranean diet for type 2 diabetes: cardiometabolic benefits.
- NCBI – Pubmed.gov: Mediterranean Diet in Preventing Neurodegenerative Diseases.
- NCBI- PMC: Purslane Weed (Portulaca oleracea): A Prospective Plant Source of Nutrition, Omega-3 Fatty Acid, and Antioxidant Attributes
- World Health Organisation (WHO): Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat
- World Health Organisation (WHO): Recommendations for preventing cancer
- NCBI – Bookshelf– Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition.