We have known for decades that the Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of heart attack and other conditions – now we are starting to understand how certain components of the diet work their magic.
When it comes to healthier diets, one of them has always had a have-your-cake-and-eat-it feel. For decades, we have been told that the secret to staying well is to indulge in the delicious fresh foods of the Mediterranean. Adding more tomatoes, focaccia and olive oil to your dinner plate – and washing it down with a glass of chianti – is claimed to be a great way to reduce your odds of having a heart attack or developing type 2 diabetes.
Most surprising of all, this isn’t just overhyped nonsense. Evidence has been mounting for over 50 years that the Mediterranean diet really can improve your health in many ways. “We have long-term, large clinical trials with hard clinical events as the outcomes,” says Miguel Martínez-González at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.
And not many diets get a UNESCO listing. A decade ago, this United Nations body added the Mediterranean diet to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.1
So what is it that makes the Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) so good for us? Comprising three continents and 23 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, all varying greatly in culture and geography, what makes this region so healthy? It’s more than just adding olive oil and red wine to your meals. It is a lifestyle and I love the word coined by Amanda Archibald – conviviality.
Let’s look at the food
One common factor of foods consumed regardless of whether coastal or inland, is a high intake of fresh vegetables daily. These include fresh salads, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, cabbage, rocket, radishes, garlic, onions, lettuce and spinach. Legumes include chickpeas, lentils and beans.
Fruit is also eaten daily and includes citrus, in particular oranges, with pomegranates, berries, figs, grapes featuring highly along with stone fruits like peaches, apricots, nectarines, and melons.
Nuts include pistachios, almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and walnuts which are often incorporated in meals as well as sweets.
Coastal regions enjoy a wide array of seafood from sardines, mackerel, salmon, sea bass, tuna to mussels, oysters, prawns, octopus and squid. Inland regions source their animal protein mainly from poultry, sheep and goats.
And, of course, locally produced extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).
It must also be stated that the vast majority of these foods have been grown, cultivated and raised without the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, feed-lots or antibiotics, and there is also a glaring absence of genetic modification.
Why are these foods so nutritious?
Yes, it is about the freshness and the nutrients, but it is also about HOW these nutrients communicate with the cells in our body. Foods initiate genetic and cellular “conversations” that equate with the health outcomes traditionally associated with the MedDiet – this form of biochemical communication is known as nutrigenomics.
Nutrigenomics drives the molecular mechanisms that directly affect how our body functions. The beneficial effects of the MedDiet include:
- reducing blood lipids (cholesterol)
- reducing inflammation and oxidative stress
- improving insulin sensitivity
- enhancing endothelial function (lining of blood vessels) and having an anti-thrombotic (blood clot) action
- supporting healthy aging
The key components that have been identified in the foods listed above and attributed to these health benefits include polyphenols, mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids and fibre.
While the foods you eat are important, HOW you eat plays a big role in the benefit you get from your meals. There is a big difference between sitting around a table with friends and family while enjoying a meal prepared from freshly prepared ingredients to wolfing down a sandwich in front of a computer screen. The respect given to foods around the Mediterranean region is reflected in its preparation as well as consumption – time to prepare and then to enjoy the meal. This is at odds with attitude that prevails in Australia (and other industrialised nations) that eating intrudes on our time and should be quick – fast ‘foods’, drive-through, take-aways, pre-made microwaved (in plastic) are at the forefront of food advertising. The need to snack – whether on sweets, chocolate or protein bars, crackers – becomes unnecessary when consuming three nutritious meals.
Conviviality3 = enjoying meals with family and friends whether in a café, restaurant or at home enjoying a meal that has been prepared with love and made with locally grown fresh produce.
There is no pill that can replace a healthy diet and lifestyle so perhaps we need to rethink what and how we eat so that we, too, can achieve the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
- New Scientist
- Tosti V, Bertozzi B, Fontana L. Health Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet: Metabolic and Molecular Mechanisms. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2018 Mar 2;73(3):318-326. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glx227. PMID: 29244059; PMCID: PMC7190876.
- Amanda Archibald, BA(Hons), BHSc, RD, author of The Genomic Kitchen