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SALT LAKE CITY — What comes to mind with the word Mediterranean? Blue sparkling waters? Warm and friendly people? While a common association is the region’s popular travel destinations, the traditional eating patterns from this area of the world have also been long recognized for health benefits and enjoyable flavor profiles.
Think of a mouth-watering tomato sauce made with vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh herbs harvested from the garden, for example! The good news is that wherever individuals live and no matter the season, there are ways to follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern while accommodating a variety of food and taste preferences.
So where does this eating approach originate? The Mediterranean region is comprised of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Specific countries where the Mediterranean eating pattern has been recognized as part of cultural heritage include Italy, Morocco, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia.
Given its regional origin, the Mediterranean eating style is not so much a single “diet” but more of an eating “pattern” varying based on location and availability of local foods. The eating pattern does, however, share some common characteristics including:
- Abundant consumption of plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
- Olive oil as the primary source of dietary fat with about 25 percent – 35 percent or slightly more of daily calories coming from healthy unsaturated fats sources and saturated fats comprising < 7 - 8 percent of daily calories.
- Low-fat dairy products, eggs, fish, and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts.
- Very limited consumption of red meats and sweets.
- Moderate alcohol consumption, typically red wine consumed at meals.
The research related to the Mediterranean Diet’s health benefits has been building over the years starting with early studies published in the 1950s such as the Seven Countries Study. Research evidence today is plentiful. For example, a recent meta-analysis concluded that improved adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with significant improvement in health status, as shown by a reduction in overall mortality, mortality from cardiovascular diseases, incidence of or mortality from cancer, and incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, the evidence for the Mediterranean eating pattern as prevention for major chronic diseases is strong enough that it’s been recommended along with several other healthy eating patterns for Americans in the most recent 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
Yet, there is still much to understand regarding the mechanisms behind the health benefits of a Mediterranean eating pattern. One area of interest is impact on reducing chronic inflammation given its association with some chronic diseases. In the PREDIMED study, researchers found that Mediterranean diet interventions promoted reduction in markers of inflammation within the study population. However, some complicating factors in the PREDIMED study design make its results harder to draw conclusions from.
Given the complexity of identifying cause and effect relationships in nutrition-focused studies, it’s likely researchers will continue to explore the components of the Mediterranean eating pattern for some time. However, the eating pattern as a whole has enough evidence to support its wide adoption on a population basis.
Lastly, there are other aspects that contribute to health benefits of a Mediterranean lifestyle including regular physical activity and social engagement (like shared meals). Ultimately the takeaway is that it appears that its the combination of healthy lifestyle habits that are enjoyable and sustainable that contributes to the benefits of the Mediterranean eating style.
Some easy and enjoyable eating tips to include more Mediterranean flair:
- Fats provide smooth texture and flavor to many foods. Moderate portions and swap the types of fats in your diet to include more monounsaturated fats such as from olive oil, nuts or avocado and omega-3 fats from fish like salmon. Reduce saturated fats by limiting or avoiding high-fat meats, whole-fat dairy products and lard. Try nuts as the flavorful base for pie crust instead of shortening, for example.
- Cook vegetarian at least one night a week and experiment with new herbs and spices as seasoning. Even better if the meal is shared with friends or family! In general, consider protein foods like meats, fish/seafood and poultry more as a side dish rather than the primary focus of the meal. Enjoy more fish (aim for at least two servings a week) as it’s a healthy protein source.
- Reduce sources of added sugar such as sweets and sugary beverages and enjoy naturally sweet nutrient-rich foods like fruits instead. Or try a yogurt beverage like kefir.
- If consuming alcohol, moderate portions and consider phytochemical rich red wine.
- For those of legal drinking age, limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. And for individuals that don’t drink, there’s no reason to start.