Understanding The Mediterranean Diet

Copyright 2006 Kristy Haugen

The Mediterranean Diet is not a diet per se but a loose term referring to the dietary practices of the people in the Mediterranean region. Each country that borders the Mediterranean Sea offers a variant to the Mediterranean Diet. Differences in ethnic background, culture, agricultural production, and religion between the Mediterranean countries creates the variation in each countrys diet. However, each diet offers a number of characteristics that are common to all of the Mediterranean countries.

The Mediterranean Diet has a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, bread, and other cereals. Traditionally, fruits and vegetables are locally grown in the Mediterranean Diet. Fruits and vegetables often are consumed raw or minimally processed. Fruits and vegetables contain many essential vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants that are crucial for good health.

The Mediterranean Diets primary source of fat is in the form of a monounsaturated fat. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat that is a rich source of antioxidants including vitamin E. Olive oil is used instead of butter, margarine, and other fats. In fact, butter and cream are only used on special occasions. Olive oil in the Mediterranean Diet is used to prepare tomato sauces, vegetable dishes, salads, and to fry fish.

The Mediterranean Diet encourages moderate intake of fish but little to no intake of meat. Red meat and poultry are consumed only sparingly. Fish is the meat of choice. About 5-15 oz. of oily fish, in particular are consumed weekly. Oily fish includes tuna, mackerel, salmon, trout, herring, and sardines. Oily fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.

Dairy products are consumed in low to moderate amounts. Dairy products from a variety of animals such as goats, sheep, buffalo, cows, and camels are primarily consumed in the form of low fat cheese and yogurt. Very little fresh milk is consumed. Meals are usually accompanied by wine or water.

The Mediterranean Diet encourages low to moderate consumption of wine. Wine is usually consumed with a meal. The type of wine consumed is usually red wine which contains a rich source of phytonutrients. Among the phytonutrients, polyphenols especially are powerful antioxidants. Studies have shown that men and women who have a light to moderate consumption of alcohol live longer than nondrinkers. One alcoholic drink (1.5 oz. distilled spirits, 5 oz. wine, 12 oz. beer) daily for women and two alcoholic drinks daily for men is considered moderate intake of alcohol.

If you are looking to incorporate the Mediterranean Diet into your life, here are a few suggestions. Fruits and vegetables should be of a wide variety. You should try for at least 7-10 servings of whole fruits and vegetables daily. You should avoid any vegetables that are prepared in butter or cream sauces. High fiber breads, cereals, and pasta are consumed daily. This includes brown rice, bran, whole grain bread and cereal. You should avoid sweets, white bread, biscuits, breadsticks, and any refined carbohydrates.

Protein intake is low in saturated fat. Protein intake from red meat is of lean cuts, poultry without the skin, and low fat dairy foods (skim milk, yogurt). You should avoid bacon, sausage, and other processed or high fat meat. You should also avoid milk or cheese that is not low fat.

Intake of fish is 1-2 times weekly from oily fish, flaxseed, walnuts, and spinach. Healthy oils (extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, flaxseed oil) are used for cooking, salad dressings, and other uses. You should avoid omega-6 oils such as corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean, and peanut. Your diet should also include peas, beans, soybeans, lentils, tree nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, Brazil nuts), and legumes. You should avoid heavily salted or honey roasted nuts.

A moderate intake of alcohol with the evening meal is optional. The Mediterranean Diet emphasizes whole natural foods. This means avoiding fast food, fried food, margarine, chips, crackers, baked goods, doughnuts, or any processed foods that contain trans fatty acids.

The Mediterranean style diets are very close to the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association. Diets of the Mediterranean people contain a relatively high percentage of fat calories, about 40%. The American Heart Association endorses a diet that contains about 30% fat intake. However, the average Mediterranean Diet has less saturated fat than the average American diet.

Researchers are now trying to deduce the components of the Mediterranean Diet that are responsible for the Mediterranean populations longer life expectancy compared to other European populations. However, the combined effects of different ingredients such as a relaxed eating attitude, plenty of sunshine, and more physical activity are likely to be contributing to the overall healthy lifestyle of the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean Diet has a lower incidence of heart disease and cancer, which makes the Mediterranean Diet an overall good choice in health.