This is no fad diet! The Mediterranean diet has been around for decades and is one of the most researched diets out there.
Dr. Ancel Keys is credited with being the first to research the Mediterranean diet. As early as the 1940s, Dr. Keys began to establish a link between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease (CVD). This discovery led him to conduct the famous “Seven Countries Study” which analyzed the dietary patterns of 12,000 men in seven different countries. Through this study, “Keys and his colleagues were able to determine that in societies where fat was a major component of every meal (i.e., the US and Finland), both the blood cholesterol levels and the heart-attack death rates were highest. Conversely, in cultures where diets were based on fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, pasta, and plenty of olive oil (i.e., the Mediterranean region) blood cholesterol was low and heart attacks were rare. The report published in 1970 had a decisive impact on CVD prevention, as it described one of the first studies to clearly show that dietary saturated fat leads to CVD, and that the relationship is mediated by serum cholesterol.” (1)
Since that time, the food supply has changed a great deal, and interpretations of “healthy, low-fat diets” have varied widely. Remember the fat-free food/Snackwells craze of the 90s? Not exactly the plant-based, balanced diet that we are recommending today. Unfortunately, even the Mediterranean countries of today have seen a major increase in convenience foods, processed food and fast food.
The Mediterranean diet that we want to emulate is plant-based, with traditional, wholesome foods. “In its classic, most studied form, the Mediterranean diet is how people in the olive-growing areas of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy ate in the late 1950s and early 1960s … this is the time period after the region overcame the economic difficulties following World War II and the people had enough to eat, but before socioeconomic changes introduced more meat, processed foods, and vegetable oils.” 2
Here are the key elements of a healthy Mediterranean diet:
- Lots of natural fruits and veggies: Meals are loaded with a variety of colorful, local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Foods are natural and minimally processed. Fruits and vegetables are the snack foods – not chips and pretzels. This means lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber!
- Beans, legumes, nuts and seeds abound: These are all excellent sources of protein, fiber and antioxidants. A typical meal might consist of legumes and vegetables cooked in olive oil.
- Grains are whole and unprocessed or minimally processed. This means more fiber and prebiotics, less sugar.
- Saturated fat intake is low: Meat is generally eaten in moderation, especially red meat. High-fat dairy is also consumed in moderation. Olive oil is generally used in place of butter and other animal fats. Dairy is often fermented — such as yogurt and feta — providing healthy probiotics.
- Heart-healthy fats are embraced: The Mediterranean diet is definitely not low in fat. In fact, it typically contains about 30-40% calories from fat. But, almost all of the fat is in the form of heart-healthy fats — from nuts, seeds, fish, olives and olive oil.
- Seafood (especially fatty fish) is eaten several times a week, giving you more heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory, omega-3 fats.
- Herbs and spices are used for seasoning: Herbs such as basil, parsley and oregano are regularly added to dishes. These fresh seasonings have beneficial antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and often replace or reduce sodium in the diet.
- Moderate alcohol – You don’t have to be a teetotaller on this balanced diet. Generally, red wine is the drink of choice on the Mediterranean, which is a great source of antioxidants such as resveratrol.
The studies did not stop in the seventies. Current research continues to show that people with Mediterranean eating habits live longer and healthier lives. The Mediterranean diet is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and certain cancers, including breast cancer. (2,3,4,5)
Links to Healthy Mediterranean Recipes
1-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan. Eating Well.
Healthy Mediterranean Recipes. Eating Well.
Mediterranean Diet Recipes. Food Network.
Mediterranean Diet Recipes. Mayo Clinic.
- Andrade, J, Mohamed, A, Fohlich, J, Ignaszewski, A. Ancel Keys and the lipid hypothesis: From early breakthroughs to current management of dyslipidemia. BCMJ. 2009; 51(2): 66-72.
- Dennett, C. Key Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet — The Nutritious Sum of Delicious Parts. Today’s Dietitian. 2016; 18(5): 28.
- Mediterranean diet: A heart-healthy eating plan. Mayo Clinic.
- Adopt a Mediterranean diet now for better health later. Harvard Health Blog. Accessed March 15, 2017.
- 5 Studies on the Mediterranean Diet – Does It Really Work?. Authority Nutrition. Accessed March 15, 2017.