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Mediterranean Diet - Healthier Heart and Longer Life

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Updated April 09, 2014

According to the Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, the Mediterranean Diet was introduced in 1993 by Oldways, Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization. It's based on the traditional foods eaten by people living in the Mediterranean region, especially Greece.

The diet includes:

  • Olives and olive oil
  • Whole grains, mostly in bread and cereal rather than pasta
  • Very little red meat
  • Fish and seafood
  • Some cheese, but less milk
  • Lots of vegetables and fruit
  • Plenty of legumes and nuts
  • A little red wine - regular or dealcoholized wine is fine

People who live in this region tend to eat a diet high in fat, but they also have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and cancer than people in other parts of the world. This is unusual, since most high-fat diets are correlated with a higher incidence of disease and death.

The Mediterranean diet is high in fiber and antioxidants from vegetables, legumes and nuts -- much higher than the typical Western diet -- and low in saturated fat. Very little red meat is eaten in this region, and milk consumption is limited as well, except for some cheese and yogurt.

Oldways designed a Mediterranean Diet Food Pyramid to help you see which foods are best.

The base of the pyramid is made up of foods like whole grain breads, cereals, pasta, potatoes and rice. Fruits, legumes, nuts and vegetables make up another large share of your daily diet, along with smaller amounts of cheese, yogurt and olive oil. Poultry, fish and eggs are eaten weekly and red meats are only eaten about once per month.

Oldways also suggests you drink six glasses of water every day, along with moderate consumption of red wine for some people. The Mediterranean pyramid even allows for one sweet treat every week.

Follow the Mediterranean Diet

Replace the fat you use now with olive oil. You probably don't want to add more calories to you diet so use olive oil in place of butter, margarine and other salad dressing oils. Olive oil is good for cooking too.

Eat vegetables -- lots of vegetables. This just can't be stressed enough. Every healthy diet includes lots of vegetables. Many people in the Mediterranean eat a pound of vegetables every day. Green and colorful vegetables are low in calories and high in antioxidants. Prepare Greek vegetarian dishes several times each week.

Enjoy a little starch. Choose more whole grains because whole grains are higher in fiber. Potatoes and polenta, which is made from corn meal, are also commonly used as starches in the Mediterranean.

Eat poultry and fish. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids that are good for your heart and your brain. Plus, fish is low in total fat and calories. Poultry and eggs are also acceptable protein sources. Bake or broil your fish or chicken, don't deep fry it. Breaded and deep fried foods don't fit this diet at all.

Limit red meat consumption. Red meat has a lot of saturated fat that's bad for your heart, so there isn't much room for steaks and hamburgers in this diet (only about one meal per month). Instead of a greasy burger from a burger joint, make your own ground turkey burger on a whole grain bun instead. Add lettuce, a slice of avocado and tomato, and you won't miss the red meat.

Discover legumes and nuts. Legumes have lots of fiber, protein and nutrients and can be used in a main dish. Choose fava beans and other dry beans. Nuts such as almonds, walnuts and cashews make a delicious and healthy snack.

Enjoy fresh fruits as dessert. Avoid sugary pastries, cakes and cookies. Fruit is lower in calories and high in fiber and nutrients.

Yogurt and cheese are sources of calcium. Choose some low fat yogurt and cheese every day. You could make a yogurt dressing or try a healthy salad with tomatoes and feta cheese. Keep it light. 

Drink water and wine. The Mediterranean pyramid includes six glasses of water every day and a glass or two of red wine. Water is good for everybody, but don't drink red wine if you are pregnant, under-age or if drinking alcohol puts you or others at risk.

Switching from a typical western diet to a Mediterranean diet seem difficult if you're not used to olive oil, fish and some of the vegetables and seasonings often associated with this region. Here are some tips and ideas to get your started:

Sources:

Simopoulos AP. "Free Full Text The Mediterranean diets: What is so special about the diet of Greece? The scientific evidence." J Nutr. 2001 Nov;131(11 Suppl):3065S-73S.

Estruch R, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Corella D, Salas-Salvado J, Ruiz-Gutierrez V, Covas MI, Fiol M, Gomez-Gracia E, Lopez-Sabater MC, Vinyoles E, Aros F, Conde M, Lahoz C, Lapetra J, Saez G, Ros E; PREDIMED Study Investigators. "Effects of a Mediterranean-style diet on cardiovascular risk factors: a randomized trial." Ann Intern Med. 2006 Jul 4;145(1):1-11.

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