The Mediterranean diet: Scientific Data
It isn’t a secret that our dietary habits influence our health, which can affect our weight, blood pressure, blood test results, inflammation levels, etc. Some relatively recent nutritional research articles about the Mediterranean diet have surfaced recently, saying that adopting a “Mediterranean diet” is the best to ensure a longer and healthier life, versus the low-fat diet that is encouraged in western civilization. The benefits include, among others, a substantial decrease in the risk of developing heart disease (heart attack, stroke & death from cardiovascular problems). The meta-analysis articles discussed below date between 2013 and 2017.
The PREDIMED (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet) study was published in 2013, and concluded that those at high risk of heart disease who adopt the Mediterranean diet (as compared to those who eat a low-fat diet) have 39% fewer chances of stroke. The test subjects were asked to not reduce their total calorie intake nor to increase the amount of exercise they do for this study, but only to modify their current diet. In this case, the dietary modification consisted of substituting extra virgin olive oil for other fats (like margarine or butter, for example) and adding nuts into their normal diet.
Adopting the Mediterranean diet also revealed healthier levels of blood pressure and oxidized LDL (“bad” cholesterol that builds up deposits in your arteries and is harmful to vessel walls) and less inflammation in the body (measured by C-reactive protein and IL-6 during a blood test).
It is important to note that an increased level of C-reactive protein doesn’t always necessarily indicate heart disease (it will increase due to any sort of inflammation), but it can be one of the symptoms detected in a blood test.
Furthermore, adopting a Mediterranean diet has proven (with a level ”B” of evidence) to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and better control of blood sugar levels. In fact, only 10-11% of those with the Mediterranean diet (without calorie restriction) became diabetic, as compared to 17,9% of those with the low-fat diet.
Studies have also proven that those who adopt a similar dietary pattern show a more significant decrease in body weight (in kg) and remission of metabolic syndrome (it was partially cured)!
In fact, they’ve lost approximately 4.0 kg, whereas those on a low-fat diet have lost 1.2 kg in the first year. Weight loss for those who have adopted the diet vs those who haven’t after 12 months seems to be similar in both cases. However, take note that exercise levels have not increased in both cases, and the total caloric consumption hasn’t been voluntarily decreased. These approaches would have increased the total fat loss among this population.
In addition, the study started with participants who all had metabolic syndrome. Only 44% of participants who adopted the Mediterranean diet still had the syndrome after the study, versus 86% of people who did not adopt the diet.
Other than this, longitudinal studies indicate that this diet may be protective against certain cognitive diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It is however unsure if it is only the diet that is preventive, or the general lifestyle of the Mediterranean people, as discussed below.
What does the Mediterranean diet consist of?
The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, Crete and Italy (mainly southern Italy).
It is abundant in:
- Plant-based food (fruits, vegetables, legumes, etc);
- Cereal products that are rich in whole grains;
- The use of non-saturated fats, mainly olive oil, in cooking or otherwise;
- Reduced consumption of red meat (including processed meat) and moderate consumption of lean proteins (fish, chicken);
- Use of fresh herbs in dishes;
- Some wine (mainly red wine) in moderation, usually with meals.
Other than the food, the habits include eating in a social setting (with people), taking time for leisure activities, physical exercise and better sleep.
Tip: How to find these sources of unsaturated fat? Use oils that are of liquid consistency at room temperature (or even in the fridge at about 4 degrees Celsius). These include olive oil, walnut oil, canola oil and peanut oil. Unsaturated fats are also found in nuts and avocados! Yum!
The benefits of red wine might be unknown to some. Just as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”, a little bit of red wine a day may also keep the cardiologist away (I might have to trademark that one). According to some research, a moderate amount of red wine a day can help ease depression (and reduce its risk), prevent colon and breast cancer, prevent dementia, sunburn, blinding diseases and so much more! Not to mention its anti-ageing properties. So based on scientific data, I’d suggest we all hop on the wine train (only if you are of age though), for our health! Again, don’t forget, moderation is key.
In conclusion, as a nutritionist, I would highly recommend adopting most, if not all, characteristics of the Mediterranean diet, especially if you are genetically prone to developing heart disease. The benefits seem to be endless. It is the only diet thus far that has proven to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease, in addition to physical exercise, stress control, and making time for social interactions. Pretty crazy how our diet can affect so much, eh?
Don’t hesitate to send in your questions or comments!
Esposito, K. et al (2017). Mediterranean diet for type 2 diabetes: cardiometabolic benefits. Endocrine journal 56(1):27-32. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27395419 (last consulted June 27, 2019)
Gunnars, C. (2013), “5 Studies on The Mediterranean Diet- Does it Really Work?”, https://authoritynutrition.com/5-studies-on-the-mediterranean-diet/
Mancini JG. et al (2016). Systematic Review of the Mediterranean Diet for Long-Term Weight Loss. AM J MED 129(3): 407-415. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26721635 (last consulted June 27, 2019)
Yannakoulia, M. (2015). Cognitive Health and Mediterranean Diet: Just Diet or Lifestyle Pattern? Ageing Res Rev 20:74-8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25461244 (last consulted June 27, 2019).
Harvard Medical School Health Publications (2005, updated 2015). Making Sense of Cholesterol Tests. http://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/making-sense-of-cholesterol-tests (last consulted June 27, 2019)
United States Department of Agriculture (2016, updated 2018). Saturated, Unsaturated and Trans Fats. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/saturated-unsaturated-and-trans-fats (last consulted June 27, 2019)