For the last three years since I began food blogging, I’ve featured dozens of delicious recipes that nourish and heal. That’s the power of food – to satisfy our desires for taste and to live long healthy lives. All along I’ve quietly been teaching you about the Mediterranean diet with it’s abundance and life-giving properties. Let’s get specific and more direct.
The benefits of the Mediterranean Diet are well known. For centuries, people living in this region (Italy, Spain, Turkey and Greece) tout astounding health statistics and long healthy lives. It’s a very tasty and realistic way of eating and living. To be fair, it’s probably not just their healthy diet that makes the difference, but a combination of healthful foods and a more active lifestyle that add up to a positive overall picture. But let’s focus on the diet and recipes that make up this very healthy way of eating.
Study after study connects the Mediterranean diet to lowered risks for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. According to a 2006 statement by the Harvard School of Public Health,”Together with regular physical activity and not smoking, our analyses suggests that over 80% of coronary heart disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.”
Let’s look at the Top Five Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
1. Weight Loss in a Healthy Way
The Mediterranean diet primarily consists of whole, natural foods in their unprocessed forms. You don’t see boxed crackers, cookies, cakes, chips or even refined cereal in the Mediterranean cupboard (all the dreaded C’s). The diet avoids added sugars especially high fructose corn syrups (can you say soda?). It relies on satisfying doses of fresh vegetables and fruits, fish and daily doses of fermented products like kefir or yogurt and whole grains like lentils, beans, quinoa and wheat along with olive oil, nuts and seeds. Study the pyramid below.
Cutting down on refined foods is key because they offer so little nutritional value leaving you feeling like you need to eat more to be satisfied. Eating unrefined foods takes up more space. Fresh, whole foods are nutrient dense, leaving you feeling much more satisfied on fewer calories overall.
Does it surprise you that fish, poultry and eggs should be eaten less often, just once or twice a week? It’s more about the plants, healthful oils and whole grains with small portions of protein.
2. Improves Heart Health
Diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids (avocados, nuts, salmon, olive oil) as well as other phytonutrients like lycopene (tomatoes), resveratol (purple grapes) and anti-oxidants like vitamin A and C (oranges, carrots) are associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality, especially heart disease.
The most striking element of the Mediterranean diet is extra virgin olive oil. Loaded with monounsaturated fats olive oil has been found to lower total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Perhaps just as compelling is that olive oil has been shown to raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels, offering protective properties as HDL helps clear bad cholesterol from the body. Obviously olive oil is high in calories so adding too much of a good thing turns into a bad thing.
Not all olive oil is created equal. Always look for extra virgin, cold pressed unrefined olive oil. It is not the best cooking oil because it does not heat to high temperatures without destroying some of its health benefits. Use it in salad dressings, pasta toppings and drizzle over vegetables roasted at moderate temperatures.
3. Prevents or Treats Diabetes
Perhaps the greatest health problem of our century is Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is associated with obesity resulting in added demands on insulin levels. One reason the Mediterranean diet might be so beneficial for preventing diabetes is because it controls excess insulin, a hormone that controls blood sugar levels, makes us gain weight and keeps the weight packed on despite us dieting.
The Mediterranean diet with it’s whole foods naturally low in sugar balanced with quality sources of protein and high fiber foods provides a way to keep blood sugar in check. Try Berries and Nuts Spinach Salad with Poppyseed Dressing, Pesto Fish Roll-Ups or Black and White Bean Greek Salad
4. Helps Fight Cancer
Plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which fight cancer in nearly every way — providing antioxidants, protecting DNA from damage, stopping cell mutation, lowering inflammation and delaying tumor growth.
Many studies point to the fact that olive oil might also be a natural cancer cure and decrease the risk of colon and bowel cancers. It might have a protective effect on the development of cancer cells due to lowered inflammation and reduced oxidative stress, plus its tendency to promote balanced blood sugar and a healthier weight.
5. Improves Longevity
People living in the Mediterranean regions live longer. Numerous studies suggest that a) a low-calorie diet combined with b) daily doses of high anti-inflammatory rich foods (fruit/veggies/olive oil/nuts) and c) a managed stress lifestyle provide the combination for a long healthy life.
Over and over, studies show that monounsaturated fat is associated with lower levels of heart disease, cancer, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory diseases, and more.
Two studies of note: The first trial published in the Journal of Neurology, Neuroscience & Psychiatry, 2013, selected 552 participants with cardiovascular disease to conduct a 5 year trial with a mean follow-up of 6.5 years. Participants were randomized to a low-fat diet or a Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) supplemented with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or mixed nuts. The MedDiet group had significantly higher global cognitive scores compared to the low-fat group.
The second trial, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, 2015, selected 447 participants with high cardiovascular risk who were randomly allocated to either a MedDiet supplemented with EVOO; MedDiet supplemented with mixed nuts; or a control low-fat diet. Participants were required to undergo a series of cognitive tests 4.1 years after the intervention. Overall the MedDiet+EVOO scored significantly higher for two of the tests compared to both groups. The MedDiet+EVOO group and MedDiet+mixed nuts saw significant respective changes from baseline in memory, frontal (attention and executive functions), and global function compared to the control group.
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