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Eat as the Romans Eat: The Mediterranean Diet

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Welcome to the Mediterranean Diet.

Or as they call it in southern Italy, Greece and Spain: Food. (Just kidding.)

The Mediterranean Diet isn’t merely Mediterranean-style cuisine, but a whole dietary regimen inspired by the health benefits of olive oil, fish, wine, nuts and vegetables common to the region.

A diet style that evokes lounging on a veranda while enjoying the balmy breezes of the Adriatic, it’s gained a lot of popularity in the last decade. But the Mediterranean Diet has been around since at least the 1970s, and in 2010 UNESCO placed it on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for several nations of the region.

So what’s so special about Mediterranean grub?

Heart health, brain health, and longevity

In 1975, Ancel Keys published How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way which espoused a number of health benefits to a diet based around legumes, fish, olive oil, red wine and other staples of the region.

His system didn’t gain much traction until the ’90s and ’00s, when nutritional science began to back up some of these notions. Several meta-analyses, including a 2017 review published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggested a negative correlation between the Mediterranean Diet and cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, neurodegeneration and early mortality. A 2018 meta-analysis in the European Journal of Public Health suggests that the Mediterranean Diet leads to overall better health across most areas and lowers overall healthcare costs.

Why is it so healthy? The Mediterranean Diet Foundation claims it has to do with things such as a careful balance of unsaturated fats from fish, olive oil and nuts, high fibre from whole grains, fruits and veggies, and also the specific, time-tested preparation methods honed throughout the centuries.

What does the diet call for?

The Mediterranean Diet Foundation’s website reads:

Among the many health benefits this dietary pattern has to offer, we can highlight its characteristic type of fat (olive oil, fish and nuts), the proportion of macronutrients that can be found in its recipes (such as grains and vegetable base with meat or similar as a “garnish”) and rich in micronutrients thanks to the use of seasonal vegetables, herbs and spices.

Although there are several versions of the diet, they generally include lots of:

  • whole grains
  • oil
  • legumes
  • nuts
  • fruits and veggies
  • fish
  • poultry

There is very little red meat in the picture, with most animal protein coming from fish, poultry and eggs. The diet is also big on red wine and herbs and spices native to the region. Oil is the main source of added fat.

Here are some resources for a more specific daily regimen:

The Mediterranean Diet Foundation’s 10 pillars

The Greek Ministry of Health and Welfare also published its own dietary guidelines that follow similar principles.

Likewise, nutritional nonprofit Oldways also has a good guide for eating like a Mediterranean.

How is this different than other diets?

The flavours of the Mediterranean go beyond falafel, pita and lentil soup. They tend to be milder than their Middle Eastern neighbours, with salads, soups, stews and sauces that rely on the subtler aromas of nuts, vinegar, legumes and olive oil.

Nutritionally, the first thing to understand is that the Mediterranean Diet aims for comprehensive, whole body health, so don’t reach for it if you want a targeted weight loss program like Atkins or keto. Although a healthy weight is one of its goals, it is more interested in things like a higher metabolism, healthy heart and a stronger immune system.

Thus, it does not target specific macronutrients in the same way, say, a low carb diet would. This diet is all about the sources of nutrients. While it calls for carbohydrates, these should come from whole grains with as little processing as possible. While it calls for protein, it should be lighter, leaner fish and poultry rather than heavy beef, pork and lamb (even though traditionally Greeks adore pork and lamb!). It aims for plenty of vitamins and fibre, and the fats – from oils, nuts and fish – are unsaturated and rich in Omega 3s.

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