The Mediterranean diet comes in many different shapes and forms. In fact, there are around 18 different countries lying on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea so it is not surprising that there may be variation. These diets are all tied together with the same common component, olive oil. The traditional Mediterranean diet embraces olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes/beans, nuts (walnuts, pecans, and almonds), whole grains, seafood, yoghurt and feta cheese.
On average people eating a Mediterranean diet consume four times as much plant based food compared to meat. This is very different from the Western style diet which has an average plant to meat ratio of 2:1. The plant based foods found in a Mediterranean diet (e.g. leafy greens, tomatoes) are good sources of antioxidants which help to protect our body cells. This along with the healthy oils found in oily fish, nuts and olive oil are some of the reasons the Mediterranean diet has been shown to protect cardiovascular health. This was first observed by Ancel Keys in the Seven Countries study and more recently the PREDIMED study reporting a 30% decreased risk of cardiovascular events in those consuming a Mediterranean style diet.
Further studies have also suggested that a Mediterranean diet may lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and its complications. There are numerous reasons this could be the case. Increased dietary fibre and decreased saturated fat intake along with weight loss and increased physical activity have been shown to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 58%. The Mediterranean diet has many of these dietary aspects including high levels of antioxidants, lower saturated fat intake and high fibre content. A Melbourne cross-sectional study has also reported a link between those eating a Mediterranean style diet and a reduction in diabetes complication cases such as retinopathy.
While the Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of some chronic diseases it is still necessary to watch your portion size if weight loss is one of your goals. Large amounts of oils and fats in the diet may provide excess kilojoules and contribute to weight gain. Therefore, to improve overall health and reduce the risk of complications it is important to be physically active, consume a variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups and eat according to your energy needs. For more information please consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD).
Where to now?
Why not try and make some healthy changes of your own and achieve some of the benefits of a Mediterranean style diet?
Consume 5-6 serves of vegetables each day (try eating vegetables at every meal)
Replace butter and other fats with healthier plant based oils such as olive oil
Replace a meat portion with legumes e.g. beans in Bolognese, lentils in curry or chickpeas in stir-fry
Aim to eat oily fish at least twice a week, e.g. salmon, tuna, mackerel or herring
Enjoy 2 serves of fruit each day
Replace white bread with wholegrain varieties
Choose reduced fat yoghurt as a healthy snack
Add a small handful of unsalted nuts as a snack or to salad, yoghurt or cereal (be careful not to overeat as they are high in kilojoules)