Commentary: What’s up with the Mediterranean Diet?

Special to Western News

Unlike most diets, the Mediterranean diet is a lifestyle approach to eating better, not just a formal diet plan. The name ‘Mediterranean diet’ originated in the 1950s, when a landmark study called Seven Countries identified that individuals living in the Mediterranean region enjoyed reduced rates of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular mortality. Individuals in those regions followed a diet that consisted of high intakes of vegetables and fruits, nuts, monounsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil) and grain products. They also consumed moderate amounts of poultry, fish and dairy products; red meat was consumed rarely, if ever.

There are numerous benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet, the main one being improved cardiovascular health. It is heart-healthy because, like our Canadian Food Guide, it recommends plenty of vegetables, fruits and high-fibre foods. In contrast to Canada’s Food Guide, which recommends small amounts of fat, the Mediterranean diet recommends a higher proportion of fat, ranging from 35-40 per cent of total caloric intake. It is important to note the type of fat consumed in this diet comes from unsaturated fats, such as fish oil, olive oil and certain nuts or seeds. These oils have been shown to have a protective effect on the heart.

Furthermore, it is associated with a decreased prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, as well as better glucose control in individuals already diagnosed with diabetes. It is believed that the long-term weight loss associated with the Mediterranean diet, combined with increased consumption of antioxidants and fibre, are the main contributors to the prevention of Type 2 diabetes. The high content of omega-3 fats has been associated with increased and maintained cognitive function and the prevention of dementia in seniors.

Other benefits include up to a 50 per cent reduction in developing metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors that increase the risk for heart disease and other health problems) and reduced risk of mortality due to illness. The diet is also associated with greater weight loss than a low-fat diet, and allows individuals to maintain weight loss for a greater period of time.

It is important to note, however, the numerous benefits associated with this are only evident in the presence of physical activity.

The Mediterranean diet has been used for centuries by many countries in that region. There are many benefits associated with the diet, mainly because it promotes the consumption of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes/beans, unsaturated fat and adequate physical activity.

Erica Bennett is the president of FRESH (Food Resources and Education for Student Health).