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Over the past 20 years the Mediterranean Diet has spread worldwide mainly due to its association with longer life and lower rates of disease. The birth of modern civilization was around the Mediterranean Sea. The diet that was developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans still exists today. The main source of fat for the ancient Greeks was the oil produced from olives. Animal fat was consumed by the “barbarians” and was considered unhealthy.
Barbarians lived mainly in Northern Europe and since they were nomadic they could not grow olive trees or crops. They obtained most of their food by hunting or by products from their herds such as milk or cheese.
Interest in researching the Mediterranean Diet began after it was found in the 1950’s that Cretans (people who lived in the island of Crete) presented higher than average longevity and had lower rates of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer . Moreover, a number of studies showed that the incidence of heart disease was much less for people throughout the Mediterranean region.
Mediterranean Diet and Longer Life
Many studies have been conducted to determine the relationship between the Mediterranean Diet (MD) and longevity.
These studies have found that those who follow the MD have a greater life span. Specifically, one study on elderly European people revealed that there was a 23% reduction in yearly death risk .
Recently an analysis of 12 studies, showed that sticking strictly to the MD lessens the risk of early death from all causes by 9%, death from heart disease by 9%, death from cancer by 6% and death from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases by 13% . These studies tracked 1.5 million people’s eating habits and health for 3-18 years.
Mediterranean Diet Lowers the Risk of Metabolic Syndrome
The incidence of Metabolic Syndrome (METS) has been linked to higher heart attack risk, atherosclerosis (build up of plaque in arteries) and Type 2 Diabetes.
As you grow older the risk of METS increases. This group of medical disorders appears more often in women than in men. Consuming fruits, vegetables, fish and legumes, which are part of the MD, was linked to a lower incidence of METS by a study conducted in Greece . This study also showed that eating meat and drinking alcohol increased the occurrence of this disease.
Mediterranean Diet Reduces Hypertension
The incidence of hypertension or high blood pressure has been linked to nutrition habits. By reducing the intake of fat and cholesterol and increasing the ingestion of fruits and vegetables, high blood pressure can be lowered significantly. This helps with weight loss as well, which by itself reduces hypertension.
The MD, especially consumption of olive oil, has been
shown to reduce high blood pressure. Eating fruits, vegetables and olive
oil (the basics of the MD) were inversely linked to blood pressure [5,
6]. Eating cereals, meat products and drinking alcohol were positively
linked to arterial blood pressure.
The Mediterranean Diet Can Help Reduce Cardiovascular Disease
While cardiovascular disease (CVD) has been linked to genetic factors, it can be entirely the result of poor diet and lifestyle.
Iqbal et al, examined the link between diet and acute myocardial infarction in the INTERHEART study, which included people from 52 countries . Three types of diet were compared: Oriental which was high in soy derivatives and sauces; Western, which was high in fried foods, salty snacks, eggs and meat; and Prudent, which included large amounts of fruit and vegetables. This last diet is similar to the MD. An inverse association was observed between the prudent diet and myocardial infarction, with more fruit and vegetables being protective. The oriental diet showed no link with myocardial infarction, while the Western diet increased the incidence of this disorder by 30% in comparison to a diet full of fruit and vegetables.
Help Improve Your Body Weight with the Mediterranean Diet
Obesity and being overweight is closely associated with many health issues such as heart problems, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer and stroke. Obesity has increased greatly in industrialised communities, with figures from 30-50% amongst the population.
As we age, it is more likely that we gain weight. The relationship between the MD and body weight gain has been the purpose of 21 studies. Thirteen of them showed that adhering to the Mediterranean Diet was linked with lower than average weight gain.
Combat Cancer with the Mediterranean Diet
The foods consumed in the Mediterranean Diet – vegetables, tomatoes, fruit, fish and olive oil – have dietary parts that could lessen the risk of cancer. Lycopene, a major component in tomatoes has potent anti-carcinogenic activity and protects the human skin from photo-damage . Lycopene is present in other red fruits and vegetables, too. Other studies have shown that the consumption of fish related to reduced risk of cancer.
Eating large amounts of wholegrain foods has also been found to reduce the risk of cancers, as has the consumption of fruit and vegetables.
The incidence of endometrial cancer has been linked to higher body weight, greater total energy intake and more frequent eating of red meats, fats and sugar. This type of cancer has been inversely linked with a higher intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrain breads and pasta – the main components of the Mediterranean Diet.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Kept at Bay by Mediterranean Diet
Increased consumption of fruit and grains, from 3.6 to 9.5, reported by Prynne et al, showed a reduction in calcium loss in the body thereby lessening the risk of bone breakdown . It has also been shown amongst the Asian population that phytoestrogens that are present in soy products help reduce the incidence of bone fructures. Although soy is not a part of the MD, other legumes high in phytoestrogens, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans are, and help protect the bones.
As far as the effect of the MD on rheumatoid arthritis goes, this is limited to observational studies. Eating olive oil and fish were inversely linked to rheumatoid arthritis. It was shown that an increase in the intake of olive oil lessened the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
What Exactly is the Mediterranean Diet?
There is no single Mediterranean Diet. There are more than 20 countries, which have a border on the Mediterranean Sea, and each of them has their own particular version of the MD. However, there are similarities in each of these versions. The MD stresses the consumption of fruits, cooked vegetables and legumes, whole grains, the occasional intake of wine, nuts fish and dairy products – mainly yoghurt and cheese. Also, olive oil is a large part of MD. Lifestyle plays a key role – different social, political and economic ways of life contribute to the MD.
It has long been documented that people who live in the Mediterranean area tend to live longer than others. Scientists have tried to identify what parts of the MD contribute to its “longevity” effect.
Olive oil, one of the main ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet, has been found to provide benefits to heart health, help control cholesterol levels, reduce blood pressure, improve diabetes and lessen the risk of thrombosis.
The Mediterranean Diet is rich is fruit and vegetables. Consumption of fruit and vegetables has been shown to lessen the risk of both heart disease and cancer. This is mainly due to the fact that they are rich in antioxidants. Tomatoes play a very large part in the MD. The antioxidants present in tomatoes have been shown to reduce high blood pressure and heart disease.
Fish, particularly oily fish such as sardines and anchovies, show significant health benefits. Oily fish contain omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, which have heart benefits.
One cannot talk about the Mediterranean Diet without mentioning wine. It is drunk mainly with meals throughout the Mediterranean. It is believed that moderate drinkers of red wine are not as prone to heart attacks as those who do not drink or are heavy drinkers.
An aspect of the Mediterranean lifestyle not associated with diet but may contribute to a healthier life is the habit of having a siesta in the afternoon. Research has shown that a sleep of 40 minutes in the afternoon results in a 34% improvement in performance and 100% increase in alertness.
Following the MD, regardless of age, weight or gender, has been shown to lower by 20% the risk of dying over a 10 year period . How exactly the MD affects the life expectancy is not yet known, but it is believed that it is the overall lifestyle and diet pattern that reduces the risk of cardiovascular events, the metabolic syndrome, diabetes cancer and other chronic diseases.
The good news is that it is not essential nowadays, due to globalization, to have to live in the Mediterranean region in order to be able to follow the MD. Most of the components of the MD are available in a typical grocery store.
1. Keys, A. Aravanis C, Blackburn HW et al. Epidemiological
studies related to coronary heart disease: characteristics of men aged
40-59 in seven countries. Acta Med Scand suppl 1966; 460: 1-392.
2. Knoops KT, de Groot LC, Kromhout D, et al. Mediterranean
diet, lifestyle factors, and 10-year mortality in elderly European men
and women: the HALE project. JAMA 2004; 292: 1433–9.
3. Sofi F, Cesari F, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A.
Adherence to Mediterranean diet and health status: meta-analysis. BMJ
2008; 337: a1344.
4. Panagiotakos DB, Pitsavos C, Skoumas Y, Stefanadis
C. The association between food patterns and the metabolic syndrome using
principal components analysis: the ATTICA study. J Am Diet Assoc 2007;
5. Estruch R, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Corell D, et al.
Effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on cardiovascular risk factors:
a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med 2006; 145: 1-11.
6. Psaltopoulou T, Naska A, Orfanos P, Trichopoulos
D, Mountokalakis T, Trichopoulou A. Olive oil, the Mediterranean diet,
and arterial blood pressure: the Greek European Prospective Investigation
into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Am J Clin Nutr 2004; 80: 1012–8.
7. Iqbal R, Anand S, Ounpuu S, et al. Dietary patterns
and the risk of acute myocardial infarction in 52 countries: results
of the INTERHEART study. Circulation 2008; 118: 1929–37.
8. Karppi J, Kurl S, Nurmi T, Rissanen TH, Pukkala E,
Nyyssönen K. Serum lycopene and the risk of cancer: the Kuopio Ischaemic
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Matt Papa was born in Greece and has experienced the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet from its original source. Being a biologist by profession, he enjoys sharing scientific findings on diets and nutrition. In his website, he reports on obesity research news and publishes reviews for weight loss diets. He also offers a Medifast coupon discount and an eDiet coupon code – two medically approved weight loss programs.
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