Mediterranean Diet

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What is a Mediterranean Diet?

The classical Medite­rranean diet, known in today's termin­ology, refers to the eating habits found in Greece, particularly in Crete, and southern Italy, mainly in Naples. Its core principle emphasizes consuming seasonal foods with high nutri­tional value and minimal indus­trial process.

This diet primarily relies on vegetable fats, fish, seafood, and vegeta­bles. A Mediterranean Diet Pyramid has been created, which specifies the intake of a particular group of products for an adult. However, physical activity is at the pyramid's base, which was also high in Mediterranean people.

Effectiveness

People may eat differently depending on where they live. Geographical conditions determine the availability of local products, although nowadays, thanks to well-developed infrastructure, delivering high-quality food to different places on earth is possible. Therefore, the Mediterranean diet gained great popularity when people from other parts of the world noticed the benefits of the ways of eating of Italians and Greeks.

Inspired by the traditions of the Mediterranean countries, UNESCOTrusted Source staff included the Mediterranean diet on the Heritage of Humanity list in 2010. The concept of the Mediterranean diet has been introduced and studied by many nutritionists and specialists. Studies conducted have shown that the Mediterranean diet can have beneficial effects on health.

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Why is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

The principles of this diet refer to a dietary model inspired by a diet typical mainly of the people of Italy and Greece in the 1960sTrusted Source. The choice of this geographical area and historical period is based on scientific and epidemiological arguments. Back then, it was observed in those areas that life expectancy was one of the highest in the world.

The incidence of various diseases was lower than in other parts of the world. Interestingly, these health statistics persisted despite the high percentage of smokers in those regions, the low level of socioeconomic development, and the poor state of health care.

Countries in the Mediterranean have access to local food, so it has been assumed that it is the diet that has such a beneficial effect on the health of these residents. The Mediterranean diet has many variations. Significant differences depend on the region. The diet and gastronomic traditions of the countries bordering the Mediterranean vary significantly due to cultural, religious, and economic differences.

Food

Like any other dietary approach, the Mediterranean diet is based on certain principles about which foods to consume regularly and which to avoid. However, it's not just about food choices – non-nutritional factors inherent in the Italian and Greek way of life are also significant. By adopting the Mediterranean lifestyle, we embrace their eating habits and imitate their overall way of living.

What Can I Eat?

The Mediterranean diet is based on the following types of food:

Vegetables and Fruits

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Veget­ables and fruits are vital compo­nents of the Medite­rranean diet, highly recommended by nutriti­onists. They offer a wide range of essential minerals and vitamins, providing the body with nouri­shment in every meal. Medite­rranean cuisine often includes salads featuring various veget­ables as their nutri­tious base.

This diversity allows for many meal options, including tomatoes, garlic, olives, zucchini, and aspar­agus. Additionally, fruits are commonly enjoyed fresh instead of traditional desserts. Avocados, oranges, apricots, cherries, and many other fruits contribute to the healthful benefits provided by this diet.

Cereal Products

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

The Medite­rranean diet centers around various plant-based foods, focusing on incorp­orating cereal products. These products serve as the foundation or accomp­animent to dishes like salads. Cereal products provide essential carboh­ydrates for susta­ining energy and vital minerals, vitamins, and fiber.

This category includes whole-grain bread, low-pr­ocessed flour pasta, brown rice, and a variety of groats that can add diversity to the Medite­rranean diet. However, it is advised to avoid highly processed grain products such as wheat bread and white rice in this dietary approach.

Legumes

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Legumes are commonly found in the Medite­rranean diet, serving as versatile side dishes or ingred­ients. Lentils, chick­peas, beans, and peas offer abundant protein, carbohy­drates, dietary fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. These legumes can be effort­lessly subst­ituted for meat in various dishes like cutlets or spreads to accompany bread. The essence of the Medite­rranean diet lies in incorp­orating fruits, veget­ables, and grains into every meal along with protein sources like legum­es.

Dairy Products

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

In the Medite­rranean diet, dairy products serve as another source of protein. They offer complete protein, easily diges­tible calcium, and phosp­horus. A well-liked option is thick natural yogurt, commonly used in desserts or salads. Italian and Greek cuisines particularly showcase cheeses like mozza­rella or feta.

However, it is advised to limit saturated fatty acids in eggs and dairy to plant-based fats instead. Therefore, excessive consumption of dairy products should be avoided. Opting for low-fat dairy products is also recommended.

Vegetable Fats

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

The Medite­rranean diet gives excellent importance to vegetable fatsTrusted Source. These fats can be found in various forms, such as olive oil, nuts, almonds, and seeds. Olive oil is widely used by Medite­rranean people for cooking meat, fish, and veget­ables. It not only provides antiox­idants that help prevent cancer but also contains monouns­aturated and polyuns­aturated fatty acids, which are beneficial for lowering chole­sterol levels.

Avocados, walnuts, hazel­nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, almonds, and different types of seeds added to salads are excellent sources of monouns­aturated fatty acids and vitamin E. However, consuming these products in moder­ation is essential due to their high caloric content. Olive oil is the most commonly used type among all the choices of vegetable fats in the Medite­rranean diet.

Fish and Meat

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

In the Medite­rranean diet, it is advised to consume animal fats in smaller quant­ities compared to vegetable fats. The main emphasis should be on fish and occasi­onally lean meat and poultry. Fish, particularly fatty fish, contain omega-3 fatty acids, which offer various health benefits.

Seafood is also included in the diet. Instead of dairy or legumes, meat can serve as a source of protein, but it should be low in saturated fats that contr­ibute to atherosc­lerosis. However, meat and eggs are not considered the core compo­nents of the Medite­rranean diet; they are rather consumed as side dishes.

Herbs

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Herbs play a crucial role in Medite­rranean cuisine, infusing it with enticing flavors. These aromatic condi­ments, such as garlic, marjoram, basil, thyme, nutmeg, tarragon, oregano, cumin, rosemary, and sage, not only enhance taste but also possess antiox­idants that exhibit anti-cancer effects. Opting for these herbs instead of excessive salt can be beneficial for maintaining a healthy diet. Moreover, dishes seasoned with spices are known to promote easy digest­ion.

What Foods to Avoid?

In the Medite­rranean diet, you won't find any forbidden foods. However, certain foods should be consumed very rarely. These include:

Red Meat

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

In the Mediterranean diet, meat is only a supplement, not the base of the diet. Red meatTrusted Source, on the other hand, should be especially avoided. It has adverse effects on health. Statistics confirm that people who eat high amounts of pork and beef are more likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and cancer. Although red meat is a good source of vitamins and minerals, it should be eaten infrequently due to the dangers of regular consumption. Such meats include beef or pork, among others.

Highly Processed Products

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

This group of products includes white pasta, white rice, and white bread, among others. Whole-grain types of these foods are recommended instead. Excessive consumption of white bread, rice, or pasta contributes to weight gain, insulin resistance, and many chronic diseases, including osteoporosis.

These foods have a lot of calories, so it is recommended to avoid them, especially if you want to lose weight. Highly processed foods include instant meals, bought in markets and ready to reheat in the microwave. Instead of such dishes, it is better to prepare wholesome meals. Also, limit salty snacks such as crackers and chips, which are highly processed foods.

Salt

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

In the Medite­rranean diet, it is crucial to limit salt intake as excess consumption can harm our health. Overl­oading the kidneys, salt is believed by scien­tists to contr­ibute to stomach cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, strokes, and nervous system irrita­bility.

Additionally, it extracts calcium from the body and maybe a contri­buting factor to osteop­orosis. While table salt enhances the taste of prepared foods, caution should be exerc­ised. The Medite­rranean diet offers various spices such as herbsTrusted Source, oils, and nuts that add flavor to meals.

Sweets

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

In the Medite­rranean diet, desserts can be enjoyed occasi­onally. Italian and Greek cuisine often includes fresh fruit as a healthier dessert option that promotes well-being. Additionally, honey, nuts, and yogurt are commonly used in Greek desserts, offering additional nutrients alongside the natural sugars.

However, excessive consumption of sweets can contribute to weight gain and obesity due to their high energy content. In addition, eating sweets such as candy bars and cookies causes tooth decay, increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis, and raises cholesterol levels.

Basic Principles

The Mediterranean diet is a healthy dietary model. Many scientific studies have shown its numerous health benefits. The main nutritional principles of the Mediterranean diet are:

  1. Consumption of unprocessed foods.
  2. A large amount of plant-based products.
  3. A large amount of vegetables and fruits in the diet.
  4. A moderate amount of dairy and meat in the diet.
  5. Vegetable fats are the primary source of fats.
  6. Fruits are consumed as desserts.
  7. Whole grains instead of white flour products.
  8. Avoidance of salt.
  9. Release of deep frying.
  10. Regular physical activity.
  11. Satisfactory social life.

Nutrition is based mainly on vegetables, including legumes, fruits, herbs, nuts, whole grains, and healthy fats – primarily olive oilTrusted Source. The Medite­rranean diet mainly revolves around the consumption of fish and seafood, with occas­ional inclusion of poultry, eggs, or cheese. However, it is advised to prior­itize fermented dairy products like yogurt. Red meat and sweets should be limited in the diet.

Veget­ables and fruits sourced locally are key compo­nents of every meal in the Medite­rranean diet. Instead of relying on salt for flavo­ring, natural herbs are preferred during meal prepar­ation. Cooking methods such as steaming, baking in foil, and grilling are recommended, while deep frying is avoided.

In addition to nutri­tion, non-nut­ritional factors like physical activity and positive social relationships play a significant role in promoting health within the context of the Medite­rranean diet.

What Can I Drink?

The Mediterranean eating style requires frequent drinking of pure water and herbal teas. The basis, therefore, is to drink plain water or with the addition of lemon or mint. Other drinks are also allowed, as the Mediterranean diet is not strict. However, be aware that juices and sodas contain large amounts of sugar.

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Alcohol?

However, when it comes to alcohol, it is allowed in the Mediterranean diet. Alcohol should also be consumed in moderation. A popular choice for Italians and Greeks is to drink a glass of wine with a meal. In addition to its taste, red wineTrusted Source also has health benefits.

Red wine has ten times the polyphenol content of white wine, and this difference is the result of the fermentation of red wine grape must. Higher polyphenol content is associated with more substantial health-promoting properties.

The antioxidants in red wine slow down free radicals, which are responsible for accelerating the aging process in the body. Red wine also has a positive effect on the human circulatory system. In addition, drinking red wine with a meal facilitates digestion.

Calories

The Mediterranean diet does not have restrictive calorie rules. It is recommended to adjust to a calorie that suits individual needs. According to the general calorie criteria, the calories consumed are 2500 kcal for men and 2000 kcal for women. In summary, the amount of calories resulting from the meals consumed should be, at most, the metabolic demand resulting from the scale of physical activity practiced.

Additional Factors

The Mediterranean diet is ideal for people who care about improving their well-being, health, and long life. It is based on healthy eating habits and a satisfying lifestyle. Not related to food, the principles of the Mediterranean diet also include regular physical activity and healthy social relationships.

Physical Activity

Research affirms that adhering to the principles of the Medite­rranean diet and engaging in regular physical activity can effectively mean of maintaining a healthy body weight. Furthermore, when combined with the Medite­rranean diet, physical activity confers positive benefits on the cardiov­ascular system, guarding against cardiov­ascular diseaseTrusted Source.

Moreover, regular physical activity enhances immune function and overall fitness while acting as a preve­ntive measure or delay tactic against various health conditions. It is crucial to tailor physical activity according to individual requirements. For health, moderate physical activity is more beneficial. Aerobic workouts like slow jogging, marching, or yoga stimulate the body to do extra work but do not strain it.

Social Life

The Mediterranean diet pyramid also maintains social relationshipsTrusted Source at its base. The people of the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea ate meals with family and friends and spent their free time doing physical activity together. It has been repeatedly proven that satisfying social contacts promotes mental and physical health.

This is because they protect us from loneliness and stress, give us a sense of competence and belonging, bring joy, and encourage movement. So, they are worth taking care of at every stage of life. Contact with other people is one of the basic human needs and affects overall health. Therefore, good relationships with family and friends can be a factor in supporting diet's health benefits.

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Health Benefits

The Mediterranean diet can be confidently categorized as a model diet to base your eating habits. Following the recommendations of the Mediterranean diet and getting surprisingly positive results from the change in diet results from a diet low in saturated fats and sugar and rich in plant products and fish, including oils high in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The health advantages of the Mediterranean diet are as follows:

Help with weight loss – A high probability of short-term weight loss and long-term maintenance also characterizes this type of diet. The Mediterranean diet is not a standard diet to weight loss, while it is possible to lose weight on this diet if you follow a negative caloric balance. The low intake of animal fats in the Mediterranean diet helps you lose weight. In addition, regular exercise is another factor that causes weight reduction.

Regulation of blood sugar The American Diabetes Assoc­iationTrusted Source recom­mends the Medite­rranean diet for both preve­nting and treating diabetes. Studies have shown that this diet improves glycemic control in diabetic patients. People with diabetes should incorporate complex carboh­ydrates into their meals, such as whole grains and veget­ables while avoiding sweets and white bread. Dieti­tians often endorse this approach to manage or prevent diabe­tes.

Positive effects on the cardiovascular system – The researc­h-backed Medite­rranean Diet offers positive effects on the cardiov­ascular system, making it a practical approach to prevent and treat cardiov­ascular disease. Combining this diet with regular exercise further reduces the risk of such conditions. Moreover, a proper diet plays a crucial role in addressing issues related to poor blood circul­ation. Insuff­icient intake of necessary nutrients leads to inade­quate oxygen supply to the body's cells, resulting in compr­omised blood circula­tion.

Stronger immune system – A stronger immune system is vital for optimal health. It relies on a well-b­alanced and nutri­tious diet, such as the Medite­rranean diet. This diet offers a variety of nutrients, including carbohy­drates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. By following the Medite­rranean diet, individuals can ensure they obtain these essential nutrients that contribute to improved immunityTrusted Source. Moreover, this dietary approach helps protect against infec­tions and diseases by bolst­ering the immune system.

Support for the digestive system – Suppo­rting digestive health involves following a diet low in fat and fiber. By excluding fatty foods found in the Medite­rranean diet, such as meat, one can posit­ively impact their digestive system. Conve­rsely, incorp­orating veget­ables into the diet provides ample fiber content, which aids in proper stomach funct­ion.

Support for brain function – A Medite­rranean diet, abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, has been found to enhance brain function. Specif­ically, it improves memoryTrusted Source, learning abili­ties, and the excita­bility of neuronal membr­anes. These essential fatty acids also facilitate the growth of nerve cells in the hippo­campus and increase receptors and neurotran­smitters. Additi­onally, incorp­orating nuts, veget­ables, and vegetable fats into one's diet posit­ively impacts brain function.

Provision of nutrients – The Medite­rranean diet, when followed corre­ctly, can provide all the necessary minerals and vitamins for proper bodily functions. This is achieved through a significant intake of veget­ables containing essential nutri­ents. Additionally, the healthy properties of vegetable fats contr­ibute posit­ively to overall health.

Mediterranean Diet: What is, Effectiveness, Food, and Calories

Indications

Following the Mediterranean diet model is recommended for people with various health problems. Due to certain health benefits, the Mediterranean diet is recommended for the following groups:

The Mediterranean diet is recommended for people who want to care for their health with a varied and balanced menu. First, this diet, in a non-rigorous way, helps people struggling with excessive body weight and, with the help of balanced nutrition, want to shed excess weight and reduce body fat.

Also, people with abnormal fasting glucose levels, insulin resistance, or type 2 diabetes can follow the Mediterranean diet. Then, the menu should include only whole-grain cereal products while excluding refined ones, which are acceptable in the traditional diet model.

Also, patients who have elevated levels of total blood cholesterol and the so-called bad LDL cholesterol or have a diagnosed or high risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, i.e., atherosclerosis, hypertension, and coronary artery disease, can benefit from the Mediterranean diet.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The Mediterranean diet, like any diet, has its advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, before changing your diet, it is worth considering the following penalties:

Availability of food products – In some regions, the availa­bility of food products may pose a challenge for adhering to the Medite­rranean diet. This diet heavily relies on fresh veget­ables, fruits, and other locally sourced items, which might be limited in certain parts of the world. It's important to consider that these specific products could have higher prices when scarce, requiring adequate financial provi­sion. In such instances, it becomes crucial to shift our focus towards utilizing the foods that are readily accessible within our respe­ctive areas.

High fiber in the diet – High fiber has its conside­rations. While it benefits many, confident individuals, such as those recov­ering from acute pancre­atitis, should be cautious. Special pancr­eatic diets with lower fiber and fat content are recommended.

On the other hand, the advantages of the Mediterranean diet include:

Easy to follow – The diet is a diet that is easy to implement. Products are usually widely available, or you can use substitute local products. It is also not a restrictive diet, so it can be carried out quickly over time without requiring unpleasant sacrifices. In addition, the meals of the Mediterranean diet are delicious, which positively affects the perception of this diet.

Low risk of complications – The Medite­rranean diet poses a low risk of complic­ations. It is quickly followed, reducing the chances of improper adherence and potential deteri­oration of health. Import­antly, this diet is not assoc­iated with the risk of inade­quate nutri­tional status or defici­encies in specific nutrients like minerals and vitamins. Hence, it is widely appre­ciated for its safety.

Summary

The concept of the Medite­rranean diet has garnered attention from numerous nutrit­ionists and specia­lists, who have exten­sively studied its effects on health. Research indicates that following a Medite­rranean diet can yield various health benefits. The dietary principles of this approach are inspired by traditional eating habits predom­inantly observed in Italy and Greece during the 1960s.

At its core, the Medite­rranean diet emphasizes consuming seasonal, minimally processed foods with optimal nutri­tional value. The main compo­nents include vegetable fats, fish, seafood, and veget­ables. A Medite­rranean Diet Pyramid has been devised to guide adults on specific food group intake. However, physical activity forms the foundation of this pyramid as it was also an integral part of Medite­rranean lifes­tyles.

The predo­minant protein sources in a Medite­rranean diet encompass fish, seafood, and infreq­uently poultry or cheese. Fermented dairy products like yogurt are encou­raged, while red meat and sweets should be consumed spari­ngly. Fresh veget­ables and fruits play an indisp­ensable role in every meal within this diet, and they are often sourced locally.

Preparing meals incorp­orates minimal salt usage in favor of natural herbs, while cooking techniques such as steaming, foil baking, or grilling are preferred over deep frying practices to enhance health benefits. Besides nutritio­n-related factors, elements like physical activity and positive social relationships signif­icantly contr­ibute to overall well-being within the context of a Medite­rranean lifestyle.

Research supports the effect­iveness of the Medite­rranean diet for preve­nting and treating cardiov­ascular diseases—an ideal choice for indiv­iduals focusing on improving their well-being and longevity through dietary choices charac­terized by balance variety.

Moreover, this regimen offers parti­cular assis­tance to people looking to manage excessive body weight or reduce body fat through balanced nutrition instead of strict restri­ctions severe measures. Likewise, those grappling with abnormal fasting glucose levels and insulin resis­tance can find adopting the principles embodying characteristics inherent to following patterns beneficial and impactful.

Sources

September 13, 2023
19 minutes read
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