Quick – what comes to mind when you hear “Mediterranean diet”? For most people, this conjures up an image of olive oil and hummus, or a feta cheese and cucumber salad. These foods are part of the Mediterranean Diet – but if you ask a nutrition expert familiar with the research into this healthful diet and way of life, you’ll hear about more than just dishes you might order at a Mediterranean restaurant.
This diet, which in scientific terms is modeled after the traditional diet and lifestyle of mostly poor rural villagers from the island of Crete during the 1950s and ‘60s, is proven like no other to prevent the kinds of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s that are so troubling to the modern world.
After decades of research, the essential components of the Mediterranean Diet are understood, so you don’t have to eat exclusively Greek food, or even love falafel, to reap the benefits. There are 12 essential qualities of a Mediterranean diet:
- Vegetables are eaten several times per day, raw and cooked, and potatoes don’t count.
- Fruit is also eaten multiple times per day.
- Legumes, including soy, beans, and peas are a daily staple.
- Whole grains are another daily staple (including whole wheat bread).
- Nuts are a regular item, several times per week.
- Olive oil is the main cooking and culinary oil.*
- Fish is eaten more than once per week.
- Saturated fat from butter, meat and eggs is rarely eaten.
- Red meat is rarely eaten.
- Deli, luncheon and cured meats are almost never eaten.
- Refined sugars and sweets are rarely eaten and reserved for special occasions.
- Alcohol is enjoyed in moderation (1-2 drinks per day).
You don’t have to follow every one of these principles, and you don’t have to follow them perfectly. What is important is to do them more often than not: most of the time. The more you follow them, the better it is for your health.
You may notice some items that are conspicuously absent from the list above: fried foods, fast food, junk food, and packaged and manufactured foods. Dairy is not considered an essential part of the diet, but when included it is generally in the low-fat or non-fat form. The overall picture is one of high quality, wholesome foods.
A couple of points deserve special mention: First, this is not a low-fat diet. The Cretans ate plenty of fat, nearly all of it from extra-virgin olive oil, but very little saturated fat. Second, the villagers didn’t have TVs or computers, and most of them got around by walking, often for miles in hilly country, with donkeys in tow. So, the Mediterranean lifestyle is the exact opposite of sedentary. Since the calories in their diet were in balance with their exercise, they weren’t overweight or obese. Finally, a big part of their lifestyle was enjoyment of life, of family, and of community. So they felt socially connected to their community, and, though they worked hard, play was an integral part of their lives.
We could learn a lot from what, at the time, appeared to be a “backwards” way of life, and what now is probably a nearly extinct way of life. But by preserving the best of that diet and lifestyle in our own lives, we will have received a wonderful gift of health from the Mediterranean.
*Studies in Northern Europe, where people use vegetable oils other than olive oil, found that other vegetable oils had similar benefits to olive oil. The main thing appeared to be the avoidance of saturated fat, as found in butter and shortening.