The Mediterranean Diet: It doesn’t have to be Greek to you

Who doesn’t love the Mediterranean? The sights, the sounds, the climate, the cultures. And the cuisine…oh, the cuisine!

For decades, the health community has looked for an explanation for the heart health of the people of this region. What about Mediterranean life is so different from the rest of the world?

It must be the low-stress lifestyle. How can someone be stressed with that much vacation and vino, right?

Wait…that’s it! It must be the wine. Many of the Mediterranean region’s countries rank high on the list of wine consumed per capita. But surely the key to aging like a fine wine is more complex than well, drinking fine wine.

No, now I’ve got it. It’s the food! As an RD, I’m admittedly biased toward food. Mediterranean diets have been studied over and over again with consistently proven positive results on health. Whether you’re seeking a healthy heart or just aiming for a chic demeanor, here are a few things to remember:

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The Mediterranean diet isn’t a “diet.”

The Mediterranean diet refers to the traditional food culture of the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. It’s not the dreaded, rules-based “diet” that many of us in the US have come to know and loathe—especially with New Year’s coming.

Traditionally, the Mediterranean diet is more of a lifestyle, including being physically active, social gathering at meals, moderate consumption of wine, and a diverse roster of food offerings. Food offerings usually include: dairy (mostly yogurt and cheese), a variety of proteins (primarily fish and poultry, with smaller amounts of red meat and eggs), and an emphasis on plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy oils like olive oil).

Because there is no single set of rules that make up the Mediterranean diet, research on the healthfulness of the "Mediterranean diet" is conducted on diets that emphasize these foods in varying proportions.

 

It doesn’t have to be Greek to you.

While we’d all probably enjoy living in the Greek Isles, the foods that make up the Mediterranean diet are grown and available around the world. Consistently including these types of foods in your diet that can improve health. So whether you live in Athens, Greece or Athens, Ohio, you can still get your grub on, Mediterranean style.

 

The Benefits are Bountiful

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Numerous studies have shown the benefits to eating a Mediterranean-style diet. A new study (using data on US women from the Nurses’ Health Study) published in British Medical Journal, even suggests that adherence to the diet may be associated with longer leukocyte telomeres— a fancy way of saying the diet may positively affect our DNA by protecting cells from aging.

Another recent study conducted by a group of researchers in Spain adds significant evidence that the Mediterranean diet can support a healthful lifestyle. The Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet (PREDIMED) study published results last year in the New England Journal of Medicine after tracking more than 7,000 participants over the age of 55 with no cardiovascular disease, but a history of health risk factors. The subjects were randomly assigned to one of three groups—two adhering to the Mediterranean diet (one supplemented with olive oil and the other with nuts—walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts) and one control. Diets for all three groups were not calorie controlled. After nearly 5 years of follow up, the results were tabulated. The intervention groups receiving (free) olive oil and nuts “resulted in an absolute risk reduction of approximately 3 major cardiovascular events per 1000 person-years, for a relative risk reduction of approximately 30%, among high-risk persons who were initially free of cardiovascular disease.”

 

Practitioner’s Perspective

I spoke with Dr. Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine for his real-world application to research on Mediterranean-style diets.

“I love studies that show the true power of food, especially when they show that small changes can make a big difference,” he said.  “My patients often feel overwhelmed and think they have to make radical changes in their lifestyles, but the PREDIMED study showed just the opposite—that small changes really matter if they're the right ones.  And eating some nuts and changing your salad or cooking oil are small enough changes that everyone can make them.” 

Excellent advice, Dr. Ayoob.

Of course, the key to good health is more than just food—it’s a combination of factors. But if you’re looking for a kick start for your heart in the New Year, incorporating some of the principles of the Mediterranean diet (and lifestyle!) is a good place to start.