Mediterranean Diet Protects Body from Head to Toe
The Mediterranean Diet isn’t a new fad or a best-selling diet book. It is the traditional way of eating in the countries that surround the Mediterranean Sea. Foods that are included are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. Fish and shellfish are the primary protein sources. While dairy foods such as cheese and yogurt are eaten regularly, their portion sizes are controlled. Red meat and poultry are eaten in small portions only, with cuts being very lean. Sweets are also limited.
But when speaking of the Mediterranean Diet, the lifestyle doesn’t end with the food consumed. Also important are habits such as daily activity and meals in the company of others. The lifestyle is grounded on the principles of enjoyment and pleasure – but also moderation.
The lifestyle of the people in the Mediterranean regions of the world has been well-studied as being one of the healthiest in the world. Some areas, such as in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy, is known for being a “blue zone,” or a place where the population appears to live longer than those in other countries. At least 220 of Sardinia’s current residents are known to have reached 100 – twice the average of the rest of the word and 20 times as many as the US.
So how does the Mediterranean diet (abbreviated as MeDi in the clinical realm) protect health? It starts in the brain.
Most recently, researchers with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine evaluated data from over 900 participants in the Northern Manhattan Study. The subjects completed a food frequency questionnaire to assess their typical dietary patterns over the previous year. Then their brains were examined for volume of white matter using MRI.
Those who most closely followed MeDi were also those who reported more physical activity and typically had lower BMI’s (body mass index, an evaluation of ideal weight according to height.) They also had less small vessel damage in the brain which is protective against eventual dementia and reduces the risk of having a stroke.
This study adds to others that have found that the Mediterranean diet can potentially reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Of course, because blood vessels feed both the brain and the heart, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be beneficial to cardiovascular health as well. A 2007 study found that American men and women who adopted a MeDi lifestyle lowered their risk of death from heart disease by 20%. Followers tend to have lower cholesterol levels, and adding herbs and spices to food instead of salt is a positive change for those with high blood pressure.
The diet may also be protective against cancer, with men showing the most benefit is this particular analysis sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the AARP.
For those who only associate the word “diet” with weight loss, it’s good to know also that the foods consumed (and those avoided) by following the Mediterranean diet are a positive influence on the waistline. Dr. Mehmet Oz is particularly a fan of this style of living, and says that the best “flat belly” foods are olives, almonds, walnuts, red peppers and yogurts – all of which are components of MeDi.
So how can you start making changes to more closely follow the Mediterranean diet?
First, if you choose to eat red meat and poultry, choose leaner cuts and remove any obvious fat sources, including taking the skin off of the chicken. But consider eating more fish. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which is found to be positive for the health of your brain, eyes, heart – and even fertility! Aim for two servings a week. It is definitely best to avoid fried fish, but if you must, consider frying only in olive or sunflower oil. A recent study in the British Medical Journal finds that these oils are less likely to contribute to heart disease.
The NY Times today has a wonderful recipe for a Fish Chowder that also includes plenty of healthful vegetables including kale. At only 280 calories per serving – and only 6 grams of fat – it would be the perfect addition to a heart-healthy meal.
Next, focus on making more of your grains whole. Switch out the white rice, white flour and plain pasta. Choose brown or wild rice, or try a new grain such as barley or quinoa. Bump up your fruit and vegetable intake so you are eating at least 5 servings per day. Remember to spice up your foods with herbs such as parsley or basil to increase your antioxidant intake while lowering sodium by avoiding the salt shaker.
We all know that the Mediterranean people enjoy wine with meals. Red wine is an excellent source of antioxidants and has been shown to be a powerful health promoter – when consumed in moderation. Remember that the Mediterranean people still limit alcohol intake to one glass a day, and is often only consumed with the meal.
Last, but certainly not least, remember to fit in daily physical activity. It is absolutely key to ensuring the Mediterranean lifestyle is working to promote health.
Archives of Neurology
British Medical Journal
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons