Health Benefits of a Mediterranean Diet

Why is the Mediterranean diet good for health?

The region around the Mediterranean basin is sunny, fertile and grows delicious food. The style of cooking and eating are thought to hold the key to good health. But what is it that makes the Mediterranean diet so good for us?

What is the Mediterranean diet?

A Mediterranean diet incorporates the traditional healthy living habits of people from countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Greece, Italy and Spain. It is a diet based on a rural life where people in these countries eat what they grow. Meals are based on vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereal grains, olive oil and fish with smaller amounts of meat and foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar. It also contains moderate amounts of alcohol; usually red wine drunk with meals.

Who came up with the idea behind this diet?

In the mid 1970’s Ancel and Margaret Keys, an American husband-and-wife team, first reported on the Mediterranean diet’s health benefits. Since then, the diet has become well known for its effect on cardiovascular health. Research since the 1970’s has shown other benefits of eating a healthy Mediterranean diet such as improvements in brain health, reduced risk of diabetes and cancer. This way of eating is one of the most researched diets in the world.

Diet or lifestyle?

There are many lifestyle factors associated with the traditional Mediterranean diet such as eating with friends and family and leading an active lifestyle in a warm climate. This active lifestyle also promotes good health.

What key features explain why the Mediterranean diet is healthy?

Oils and fats

One key aspect of the diet is the inclusion of healthy fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and oily fish. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats. Nuts seeds and oily fish contain polyunsaturated fats. These fats have a positive effect on blood cholesterol levels, which in turn reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fruit, vegetables and dietary fibre

Another advantage of the diet is it is plant based which means it is high in dietary fibre and contains a range of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components. These help to prevent damage to cells in the body and reduce the risk of some cancers.

Red wine and health

New research from Kings College, London supports the idea that a small glass of red wine a day might be beneficial to your health – specifically to your gut bacteria. Red wine contains polyphenols that provide a food source for beneficial bacteria in the gut to thrive. These gut bacteria then have a positive effect on both mental and physical health.

Diet and mental health

Diet can influence mental health by causing damage to the brain. Blood vessels can be damaged by diets too high in saturated fats and salt leading to poor blood flow. Diet can also affect the formation of neurones - nerve cells in the brain - particularly in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is associated with mood regulation. A diet rich in anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant components, commonly found in fruit, vegetables, nuts and a little wine, can directly affect the brain by protecting it from oxidative stress and inflammation. This way of eating may help to prevent depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Prevent type 2 diabetes

A Mediterranean style eating pattern may also help to prevent type 2 diabetes. Again, it is thought that polyphenols found in the Mediterranean diet have a beneficial effect on the pancreas by reducing the effect of inflammation on pancreatic cells that causes insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

How can I make my diet more Mediterranean?

The best way of moving your diet towards a more Mediterranean way of eating is to:

  • eat plenty of wholegrain foods, such as oats, brown bread and whole wheat pasta
  • use olive oil for cooking and salad dressings
  • include as many different naturally coloured fruit and vegetables in your diet as you can
  • eat plenty of nuts, seeds and pulses
  • include fish in your diet
  • eat less meat and processed meat products
  • consume moderate amounts of wine with meals
  • include regular exercise in your daily routine

Signing up to an inspiring cookery course can also help hone your cookery skills and inspire you to cook in a more Mediterranean way.

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