Warm air, golden sunshine and the sparkle of light on an azure blue sea: there’s plenty to love about the Mediterranean. For many years, scientists have also been extolling the virtues of the diet which its inhabitants follow. But what are the scientifically-proven benefits of a Mediterranean diet, and should you be following it?April 28, 2022 5:24 pm May 27, 2021 10:44 am
What is a Mediterranean diet?
Put simply, a Mediterranean diet is the typical way of eating enjoyed by people who live in the area around the Mediterranean Sea. This includes the inhabitants of Greece, Italy, Spain and Southern France.
The climate of the region attracts thousands of sun-seeking holiday-makers every year. But it also enables the people who live there to enjoy a diet which is fairly unique.
However, there are variations from place to place. The Italian diet, of course, includes a lot of pasta, while the Spanish diet features a relatively higher consumption of fish. The Greeks consume more dietary fat than the Italians, and so on.(1)
That said, all Mediterranean diets are centred around a similar set of principles. Firstly, they’re mostly plant-based and include lots of fresh vegetables, legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas), fruit and whole grains. Extra-virgin olive oil is the main source of additional fat and is often used in cooking, sauces and dressings.
Fish and seafood play an important role, too, and red wine is enjoyed in moderation.
On the other hand, the Mediterranean diet includes very little red meat and dairy.
The health benefits of the Mediterranean diet were noted by an American scientist named Ancel Keys. He has a rather fascinating backstory of his own.
Keys was born in 1904 and lived through both World Wars. He trained as a physiologist, and during World War II the War Department requested his help in developing a calorie-dense, non-perishable meal which could fit inside a paratrooper’s pocket. The rations were to be used in case of emergency.
The story goes that Keys went down to the local grocery store, rummaged around and picked out high-calorie items which would provide plenty of energy without going off, such as biscuits and chocolate.(2)
The idea was refined, a few comfort items such as cigarettes and chewing gum were added to gain the approval of the paratroopers, and: volià! The K-ration, named in Keys’s honour, was born. The little box containing three ‘meal units’ would go on to feed thousands of US soldiers over the course of the war.
Meanwhile, Keys was already working on his next project, widely known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.(3) A team of 36 volunteers, who were conscientious objectors and wanted to serve their country in a different way than being on the battlefield, went through a starvation diet.
From this, Keys and his team were able to gain vital information about the body’s physiological response to starvation, and develop a method for recovery. This was invaluable considering the many thousands of people facing hunger in the wake of the conflict.
But it was after the war that the Mediterranean diet would catch Keys’s attention.
The Mediterranean diet and heart disease
As the world emerged from the Second World War, statistical information began to become available once more. Keys turned his eagle eye to the relationship between coronary heart disease and declining food supplies. He found that, in fact, fewer people were dying from heart disease.
He launched the famous Seven Countries Study, which surveyed over 12,000 men in the US, Finland, Yugoslavia, Japan, Greece, the Netherlands and Italy.
Keys observed that comparatively far fewer people were dying of heart disease in Mediterranean nations like Greece and Italy. Meanwhile, the picture was much bleaker in the United States and Finland.
He discovered that the countries with higher rates of heart disease also consumed more saturated fats. As a result, he suggested that saturates might be linked with an increased risk of heart disease.(1)(4)
Meanwhile, he had started to recognise that following a Mediterranean diet seemed to have a protective effect against heart disease, and began to follow it himself.
If his own life is anything to go by, he was correct! He lived to the venerable age of 100 and influenced the thinking of dieticians around the world.(4)
Luckily, since Keys’s seminal work, other scientists have taken up the mantle and found even more benefits to the Mediterranean diet.