In the 1950s, researchers found that the adult life expectancy for people living in the Mediterranean regions (Crete, part of Greece, Southern Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea) were among the highest in the world. They also found that rates of coronary artery disease (CAD), certain cancers, and some other diet-related chronic diseases in this region were among the lowest in the world.
The health of the Mediterranean people did not appear to be due to existing medical services, which were limited at that time. However, the researchers found that the Mediterranean people had something in common that might be contributing to their good health—their dietary patterns. These dietary patterns share characteristics that have been associated with low rates of chronic diseases and long life expectancies in many studies conducted throughout the world.
There is no 1 typical Mediterranean diet. Many countries border the Mediterranean Sea and variations in the Mediterranean diet exist between these countries. However, according to the American Heart Association, traditional Mediterranean diets have the following characteristics in common:
The American diet is characterized by:
Unlike the typical American diet, the traditional Mediterranean diet is high in fiber and low in saturated fat. However, the Mediterranean diet is not necessarily low in total fat. But, the types of fats emphasized in the Mediterranean diet are "healthy" monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, which do not raise cholesterol levels.
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been illustrated in a Mediterranean diet pyramid developed by researchers at Harvard University and Oldways, a nonprofit education organization that promotes alternatives to unhealthy eating styles of industrialized countries. The pyramid is arranged in the following way:
Alongside the pyramid, water and wine are featured. Stay hydrated throughout the day with water, and drink wine in moderation (2 drinks per day for men, and 1 drink per day for women).
There has been a lot of research on the potential health benefits of following the Mediterranean diet. According to studies, this diet may offer these benefits:
It is important to remember, though, that other factors can affect these benefits. For example, people who follow the Mediterranean diet may have a lower risk of cancer because of other lifestyle factors or their environment.
How can you eat more authentically Mediterranean? Here are some tips from the Oldways website:
Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet is a healthful and pleasing alternative to the American diet. However, will the diet alone significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and increase your longevity? Researchers point out that the low incidence of heart disease and low death rate in the Mediterranean countries may be due, in part, to other lifestyle factors, such as more physical activity and extended social support systems.
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
Dietitians of Canada
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Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 5/8/2014