What You Need to Know about the Mediterranean Diet
By Julia Liber, Registered Dietitian
As a Registered Dietitian, both clients as well as friends are interested in my opinion on various topics in nutrition. Many people ask me for my opinion on popular diets, such as the keto diet, vegan diet, intermittent fasting, you name it. Today, there is one diet I would like to share with you all, the Mediterranean diet. You may have noticed from my posts that I am not a fan of diets. So why this one? The difference is that this is more of a dietary pattern rather than a weight loss diet; it advocates for health rather than weight loss. As a health care professional, the main thing which I promote is health!
Before we talk about the details of this diet, I would like to contrast it with two diets: the low-fat diet and low carb diet, otherwise known as the keto diet. Many people are simply unsure on whether they should be buying skim milk and looking for low-fat health claims on food labels, or going the other extreme and following a keto diet, where fat doesn’t matter and carbs are the villain (see my previous post on my opinion on carbs). Yet, from the perspective of the Mediterranean diet, the total daily fat intake is not taken into account. Rather, it mentions the type of fat we should consume. This diet focuses on the quality of fat rather than quantity, which is one reason why I particularly like this diet. So many people are fixated on numbers, how many calories a day should they be consuming? How many grams of carbs? Grams of fat? This dietary pattern does not mention anything about keeping track of any of those numbers.
Where did this diet come from?
As the name suggests, the diet originated in Mediterranean countries including Greece and Italy. In the 1950s, researchers observed that were fewer heart-related deaths in Italy compared to the United States. A major study, The Seven Countries Study was conducted, in which dietary and lifestyle patterns were compared between different regions. The dietary patterns of each region were studied, in order to determine if dietary factors are associated with the development of heart disease. It was found that the dietary patterns in the 50s and 60s of Greece and Italy, what we call “The Mediterranean Diet”, were associated with lower rates of heart diseases as well as all-cause mortality. The study was the first one to link diet and heart disease, and it had a major impact on the science and nutrition world as we know it today.
The Mediterranean diet encourages the regular intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, olive oil, and fish. Poultry, dairy products, eggs, and red wine are consumed in moderation. Finally, the intake of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods and sweets, high-fat dairy products should be limited.
What are its benefits?
As mentioned, The Seven Countries Studies linked lower heart disease related deaths with this diet. Furthermore, a long-term study which started in 2003, the PREDIMED study, was conducted in Spain, its participants being middle-aged adults who were at high risk of heart disease. In this study, the researchers were trying to test the long-term effects of following a Mediterranean diet, compared to following a low-fat diet. It was found that there were fewer incidences of heart attacks and strokes from the groups following the Mediterranean diet compared to the group following a low-fat diet.
Furthermore, additional studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can help in the prevention of other chronic diseases including Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Why does it work?
There are no clear-cut answers, but there are some proposed reasons. Researchers have identified that this diet works due to a combination of compounds present in the foods, which when taking in combination, reduces damage to our cells, inflammation, as well as the clogging of the arteries.
What does this all mean?
The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce one’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and Metabolic syndrome. For those who are at risk of heart disease, this diet may be able to help to reduce the likelihood of a heart attack, stroke, or death. Furthermore, it can provide protection against depression.
Another takeaway message from this article is that to stay healthy, counting calories is not a must. Counting calories and being in an energy deficit are not components of the Mediterranean Diet. I find that this is promising since the results of the studies show that in many cases, it is possible to improve health outcomes without counting calories.
Curious to learn more about the diet? Want to know if the diet would be a good option for you? To find out more, get in touch today.
Alberta Health Services. (2017). Mediterranean Style of Eating [Brochure]. Edmonton, Alberta.
Estruch et al., (2018). Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts. New England Journal of Medicine, 378(25). doi:10.1056/nejmoa1800389
Fitó et el., (2016). Nutritional Genomics and the Mediterranean Diet’s Effects on Human Cardiovascular Health. Nutrients, 8(4), 218. doi:10.3390/nu8040218
The Seven Countries Study - The first epidemiological nutrition study, since 1958. (2020, February 11). Retrieved November 17, 2020, from https://www.sevencountriesstudy.com/
Werstuck et al., (2020, February). Mediterranean Diet Toolkit: Supporting Patients to Reduce CVD Risk and Improve Mental Health [PPT]. Ontario: Dietitians of Canada.
The information presented in this article is intended for informational purposes only. They are not intended to treat, diagnose, or give specific medical advice. The information in this article is not intended as medical advice, medical nutrition therapy, or individualized nutrition. No content on this should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical or nutritional advice from your doctor or Registered Dietitian.