What is the Mediterranean Diet?

What does the Mediterranean Diet consist of? Why is it important? Is it the diet or is it the climate? Are there any adverse side effects?

The Mediterranean Diet describes a combination of foods traditionally eaten in countries around the Mediterranean. Diet here is used in its original sense i.e. the kind of food a person or community normally eats, rather than restricting what you eat to lose weight.

Typically the Mediterranean Diet would feature:

  • Plenty of fruit, vegetables, cereals, pulses, nuts, seeds, herbs and olive oil.
  • Moderate consumption of fish (twice or more a week), cheese, poultry, eggs and red wine.
  • Only small amounts of red meat and saturated animal fats.
  • The oils and fats would be mainly the healthy unsaturated fats found in olive oil and nuts. For example bread would be eaten plain or dipped in olive oil, not with butter or margarine. 

This food would generally be fresh rather than processed. ‘Moderate’ alcohol consumption in the Mediterranean Diet is likely to mean several small glasses of wine (125ml) with food. One study suggests that this is an important element in providing health benefits. 

The Mediterranean diet doesn’t include burgers, pies, pasties, chips, sandwiches, takeaways and the like.

The term is a useful rough guide, not a precise definition. That’s because the specific ingredients vary locally. This means the studies quoted here will sometimes show detail variations in their results. However, they usually agree that the Mediterranean Diet seems to provide health benefits.

Why is the Mediterranean Diet important?

Research suggests that the Mediterranean Diet can probably help:

A 2008 systematic review analysed 12 studies, involving 574,299 people, for periods ranging from three years to 18 years. It concluded that a Mediterranean Diet can reduce death from cardiovascular diseases (by 9%) and from cancer (by 6%) and reduce the incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (by 13%).

You can find a fuller assessment of the evidence for health benefits here.

Is it the Diet or the Climate? 

How do we know it is the Mediterranean Diet which is making the difference? Might it just be that people in the Mediterranean get more sun and that the climate is more conducive to fresh air and exercise? 

We know that regular modest exposure to the sun provides the body with Vitamin D, which is believed to have a range of health benefits, although quite how wide a range is still being debated. So the sun could be a health factor in its own right. 

However the value of the Mediterranean Diet has been demonstrated by studies which show people following the diet in countries many miles from the Mediterranean. For instance a study of 380,296 people in the USA, reported in 2007, found, The Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced all-cause and cause-specific mortality.’ More recently, a study of 23,902 people in East Anglia in the UK reported, in 2016, that the more people followed a Mediterranean Diet the lower the rate of cardiovascular disease and death appeared to be. 

Does a Mediterranean Diet have any adverse side effects? 

Our review has found no adverse effects mentioned in the research, with one possible exception. It has been found that sufferers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome often benefit from a low FODMAP diet. 

Unfortunately some otherwise healthy fruit, vegetables and other food sources contain FODMAPS. This doesn’t mean people with IBS should abandon a Mediterranean Diet. However, they may need to be selective as to which particular fruit, vegetables and other foods they eat. The IBS Group have produced a useful chart showing which foods to include and which foods to limit or exclude. 

Conclusions 

  • One advantage of the Mediterranean Diet is that it is effectively a whole diet - it contains a balanced mix of healthy ingredients, based on natural produce people have been eating for many years (rather than a short term fad or fashion). 
  • Further research would be helpful, as would an agreed and consistent definition of what the Mediterranean Diet contains (what foods, in what proportions and amounts). 
  • However the good news is that most studies so far suggest a positive association between following a Mediterranean Diet and health benefits. It appears likely to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of some cancers, manage weight and reduce the risk of obesity, manage type 2 diabetes, slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

So following a Mediterranean Diet is likely to help us lead longer, healthier lives.  

  • To act on the research findings, eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, cereals, pulses, nuts, seeds, herbs and olive oil – and consume a moderate amount of fish, cheese, poultry, eggs and red wine but only small amounts of red meat and saturated fats.

Published September 2014. Reviewed and updated by Natnaree Kaewhin, March 2017.  Next review date February 2020.

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