The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet

Information Resources

By Evelyn Cunico, M.A., M.S.

Posted November 30, 2013

“Never eat more than you can lift.”
 — Miss Piggy (Jim Henson), saying

Brief History

The Mediterranean Diet is a plant-based eating pattern followed by 21 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea in the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Many factors contributed to the development of the Mediterranean Diet. One reason for consumption of plant-based foods is the fertile land of the Mediterranean region, conducive to growing vegetables and fruits. Another reason is the scarcity of grazing land for animals. Still another factor points to the economic status of a population that, historically, has largely included peasants working the land for family and neighbors.

Although Mediterranean peoples have eaten a plant-based diet since antiquity (before the Middle Ages), modern scientists do not document evidence linking a low incidence of chronic disease with a plant-based diet until well into the 20th century.

In the 1950s, Ancel Keys, a University of Minnesota physiologist, and his colleagues conducted the Seven Countries Study, in which researchers observed the eating and exercise patterns of 12,700 men in Crete (part of Greece), Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, and Yugoslavia.

The Seven Countries Study found that although the Mediterranean region had limited medical resources, life expectancy was high, relative to that of other countries. Researchers asked themselves what the Mediterranean countries held in common, and began studying the shared plant-based eating pattern.

Worldwide Studies

Medical scientists throughout the world have conducted many studies that associate a plant-based diet, combined with exercise, with lower levels of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and other chronic diseases. The plant-based Mediterranean Diet is the original prototype for current Dietary Guidelines in the United States.

The Mediterranean Diet is popular because it encourages weight loss, while offering a variety of foods with distinct flavors.

Many studies speak of the Mediterranean Diet as a protective approach to cardiovascular diseases and types of cancer. In addition, although not specifically targeted to the Mediterranean Diet, the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) Project, which is the most extensive study of diet and health ever undertaken, has found that a diet high in plant fiber and low in red meat reduces the risk of some types of cancer.

Mediterranean Diet Lifestyle

There is no one Mediterranean diet. Each country adapts the diet pattern to its own culture and land resources. Much diet research has been conducted in Greece and Italy, so these two countries are often used as examples of cultures with a Mediterranean diet.

A Mediterranean Diet food pyramid is a visual way to remember key diet and lifestyle components.

The Mayo Clinic cites the copyright source of this Mediterranean Diet Pyramid as the Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust.

Read the pyramid, from bottom to top, starting at the broadest part of the pyramid, with foods that should be eaten the most often and in the greatest quantities.

  • Vegetables, whole fresh fruits, and whole grains

  • Herbs and spices, instead of salt, to flavor foods

  • Dietary fats, such as, olive oil, for cooking and salad dressing

  • Nuts (such as, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts), seeds (such as, sesame or sunflower seeds), and legumes (such as, beans, lentils, peas)

  • Fish or shellfish (such as, salmon, sardines, tuna, clams, shrimp)

  • Poultry (such as, chicken or duck)

  • Eggs, cheese, and yogurt

  • Small portions of red meat (such as, beef, lamb, pork, veal)

  • Red wine in small portions, if appropriate

  • Daily physical activity including strenuous exercise, such as running and aerobics, and leisurely activities, such as walking

  • If possible, eating with family or friends, and, when alone, eating slowly and with pleasure

In addition, water is very important for hydration and digestion. The Mayo Clinic website includes a separate item titled, “Water After Meals: Does It Disturb Digestion?” In fact, drinking water during or after a meal aids digestion.

The Mayo Clinic website also presents a slide show describing “Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.”

Mediterranean Diet Recipes are categorized by main dishes, salads, and healthy desserts, also on the website of the Mayo Clinic.

The Oldways website, titled, “Traditional Mediterranean Diet: Characteristics of the Mediterranean Diet,” includes food pyramids that are adapted to a variety of eating patterns, such as, African, Asian, Latino, Vegan, and Vegetarian.

Finally, Oldways reminds us that, “Moderation is a wise approach. A balanced and healthy diet accommodates most foods and drinks, so long as moderation and wise choices are the key characteristics.”

A disclaimer: the information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your physician. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your physician or other health care provider.