Science of the Mediterranean Diet

By Marco Di Buono, PhD, Director of Research, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canada

Posted on | By Marco Di Buono, PhD

The word Mediterranean reminds me of my roots, and conjures images of sun-drenched coasts, delicious meals prepared from local harvests, and a stress-free lifestyle. It’s not surprising so many people equate the Mediterranean diet with health.

Diet is one of the most important risk factors within our control, accounting for almost 30% of the population risk for heart disease and 20% of the risk for stroke; and the Mediterranean diet is one of the most widely studied dietary patterns in modern history.

Our collective obsession with the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle began in the late 1950s when scientists noticed that Spain, Italy, Southern France, Greece and Turkey experienced far fewer deaths from heart disease than most other countries in the world. They eventually determined that low intakes of saturated fat were one of the diet’s features that protected the hearts of people in the region.

Although the Mediterranean diet is traditionally low in saturated fat, it is by no means a low-fat diet. The typical diet is made up of large amounts of healthy fats from nuts, fish and vegetable oils; an abundance of vegetables, fruits and legumes; and whole grain breads and cereals. I grew up watching my grandmother, or nonna, prepare delicious meals using ingredients like these all year round. Moderate consumption of wine and alcohol, low levels of stress, and active lifestyles also define the traditional Mediterranean way of life.

Healthy fats like mono- and polyunsaturates have several health benefits. For one, they lower blood cholesterol levels. Research spanning several decades suggests that healthy fats may also promote heart health by preventing the formation of blood clots in our arteries and preventing abnormal heart rhythms. And the benefits of the healthy fats, vegetables, fruit and whole grains in traditional Mediterranean diets extend beyond heart health. A 2008 study of more than 380,000 American men and women found that those who followed the Mediterranean-style diet closely, versus those who did not, had a 20% reduced risk of death from any cause.

Ironically the major benefactors of the research that has been done on Mediterranean diets have not been the Mediterranean countries. Today, diets in the region are much higher in saturated fats and refined starches, and virtually absent in vegetables, fruit and whole grains. The greater availability and affordability of processed foods and fast food chains throughout much of Europe is one of the reasons we have witnessed a change in the habits of the region.

However, we are experiencing the beginnings of a renaissance in traditional Mediterranean cooking and eating throughout Europe and parts of North America, as celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali and David Rocco, to name a few, help us rediscover the simplicity and the healthfulness of Mediterranean cuisine.

You don’t have to be a gourmet chef to eat healthy. There are simple ways to incorporate the principles of Mediterranean eating into our own meals, every day:

  • Eat at least 5 servings of vegetables and fruits, and plenty of legumes and nuts. Fruits and vegetables are a main source of vitamins, minerals and fiber in our diets, and they also provide antioxidants that may prevent a number of diseases, including cancer and heart disease. While fresh is best, canned and frozen vegetables or fruit that have been minimally processed are an excellent alternative. Legumes and nuts are an excellent source of fiber.
  • Choose whole grain breads, rice and pastas as often as possible. Whole grains are a very good source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help fight disease, and unlike refined starches and grains, they tend to have a lower glycemic index.
  • Replace butters and spreads that are high in saturated and trans fats with healthy oils like olive oil. Remember to always use oils and spreads sparingly.
  • Be physically active every day. Being active doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym. Skating at a rink with your kids, or walking to work with your neighbor are equally good options.

Visit the Heart & Stroke Foundation to find more information on being active and eating healthy, the Mediterranean way.

Article written by Marco Di Buono, PhD
Director of Research, Heart and Stroke Foundation, Canada