centuries, diets of the Mediterranean region have
been touted has having special health benefits. Historically,
people of countries that surround the Mediterranean
seemed to live longer and suffer from less chronic
disease. Of course, that was before the shift toward
more modern western diets. Eating patterns of many
people in the region began to change significantly
in the 1960's.
emerging scientific data seems to indicate that the
Traditional Mediterranean Diet does indeed have heart
protective benefits. While the specific foods may
have differed a bit depending on the country, the
Traditional Mediterranean Diet emphasizes whole grains,
fresh fruits and vegetables. The primary source of
dietary fat is olive oil. Fish, poultry, eggs and
red meat are only eaten occasionally. Below is a summary
of food selection guidelines for those who wish adopt
a Traditional Mediterranean Diet. In addition to this
eating style, the area's Traditional Mediterranean
Lifestyle was likely a significant contributor to
The Traditional Mediterranean Diet includes the native
cuisines of Northern Africa, Southern Italy, Greece,
Southern France, Spain, Portugal, parts of the Middle
East and Turkey. Naturally, there are many differences
between the countries making it difficult to clearly
define the "Mediterranean Diet". But, certain
characteristics are common to each.
of the Mediterranean are largely plant based. Historically,
food was locally grown and prepared with little processing.
There was abundant use of whole grains, fresh fruits
and vegetables. Nuts, seeds, and dairy were diet staples
with occasional use of fish and poultry. Red meat
consumption was rare. Olive oil was universally used
and was the primary source of fat in these diets.
Wine, usually mixed with water, was taken in moderate
amounts by non-Muslim groups.
Traditional Mediterranean Diet was abundant in the
nutrients that we associate with heart health: fiber,
antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
While calories from fat may be greater than is currently
recommended, the type of fat was rich in "heart
healthy" monounsaturated fatty acids.
Saturated fat intake was low.
of the diet comes from plant sources, including
whole grains, breads, pasta, polenta (from corn),
bulgur and couscous (from wheat), rice, potatoes,
fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils),
seeds, and nuts.
Fruits and vegetables are eaten in large quantities.
They are usually fresh, unprocessed, grown locally,
and consumed in season.
oil is used generously, and is the main source
of fat in the diet as well as the principal cooking
oil. The total fat intake accounts for up to 35%
of calories. Saturated fats, however, make up
only 8% of calories or less, which restricts meat
and dairy intake.
products are consumed in small amounts daily,
mainly as cheese and yogurt (1 oz of cheese and
1 cup of yogurt daily).
and poultry are consumed only one to three times
per week (less than 1 lb per week combined), with
fish preferred over poultry.
eaten only a few times a week, sometimes as part
of breads or baked goods.
is the principle sweetener, and sweets are eaten
only a few times per week.
meat is consumed only a few times per month (less
than 1 lb per month total).
is consumed in moderate amounts with meals. (One
to two glasses daily).
before the 1960's, the Mediterranean lifestyle differed
significantly from today's modern western one. Because
the activities of daily living required physical labor,
the people easily achieved far higher levels of exercise
than we do today. Their lives may have been less stressed.
Family and community ties were quite strong. People
came together for unhurried meals and took mid-afternoon
rests before returning to the physical labors required
to earn a living. This isn't to say that life was
easy, just that priorities and demands were different.
Current research indicates that exercise, stress
reduction, and strong social support are of benefit
in reducing heart disease risks. The Traditional
Mediterranean Lifestyle combined all these elements
and probably contributed significantly to the good
health of the region.