Giacomo Castelvetro has first described healthy eating Mediterranean style in 1614. As an exiled Italian living in England, he tried to convince the English to eat a wider variety of fruit and vegetables and to prepare them in the same way he had eaten them in Italy. His attempt was a failure, however the same book has since been translated into English and published in 1989. In the meantime The Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys in the 1950’s showed that the population of Crete in Greece had very low rates of heart disease, of certain cancers and a very long life expectancy, despite generous consumption of fat in the form of olive oil.
Despite a wide variation between all the 15 countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, there are common characteristics: an abundance of vegetables and fruit are consumed, along with nuts and legumes. Cereal products are largely whole grain. Olive oil is the principal fat source, and fish, seafoods and poultry are eaten in moderation. Red meat is consumed rarely. Cheese and yogurt may be eaten, depending on the region.
The first clinical evidence supporting the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet came from the Lyon Heart Study. Patients who had suffered a heart attack were either assigned the diet designed by the American Heart Association or a Mediterranean style diet. After a follow-up of 27 months, the group eating the Mediterranean diet had a reduction of heart attacks by 73 % and a decreased mortality by 70% compared to the other group.
When the various foods of the Mediterranean diet are analyzed, the reasons for the health benefits become very clear. The fats, which are consumed, are heart-healthy monounsaturated fats like olive oil or fats that contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fish (tuna, salmon, trout, sardines) or from plant sources (walnuts and other tree nuts and flax seed).
As there is an emphasis on natural foods, the diet is extremely low in trans fatty acids (hydrogenated fats), which are known to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. As more than 300g of vegetables per capita are consumed daily, the contents of antioxidants and other beneficial plant chemicals is much higher when compared to Western diets. There are many individual components of the Mediterranean diet that contribute to the reduction of disease and in particular of heart disease. It also is apparent, that it is not one single food or nutrient, but all the interactive effects of all the nutrients that are responsible for the health benefits.
The practical application does not mean deprivation and starvation, but a move away from processed fats (margarine), baked goods (donuts, muffins, pastries), and high saturated fat snacks and trans fats (chips, crackers, cookies, pies). Food choices move towards those of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, fish, and olive oil. Portions or servings have to be adequate to maintain a healthy weight.
Mediterranean food is not the heaping plate of pasta with an afterthought of vegetables nor the super-size fast food pizza with pepperoni and cheese, but foods that incorporate the fresh food rather than the fast food. It entails a shift from large portions of red meat to smaller portions of fish, a transition from highly processed foods to ample helpings of dark green vegetables with a dose of olive oil. Low amounts of alcohol, especially red wine can make a meal enjoyable, which means one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men. And after dinner go for a walk! What Castelvetro tried to teach us in his writings back in 1614 is still true today.
More info on Mediterranean diet: http://nethealthbook.com/news/mediterranean-diet-benefits-us-workers/
Reference: Patient Care Canada, September 2004, Vol.15, No.9
Last edited October 27, 2014