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?May 24, 2021 10:45 am 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.
Keeping us young and gorgeous
The Mediterranean has long been the home of some of our most glamorous movie stars. From Sophia Loren to Isabella Rossellini, Javier Bardem to Antonio Banderas, the Med could easily be called the realm of beautiful people.
And perhaps they owe their perfect skin, glossy hair and seemingly ageless appearance to their regional diet?
Researchers have observed that a Mediterranean diet has benefits for the skin, thanks to its anti-inflammatory effects. There is also evidence that a diet which is lower in sugar, such as the Mediterranean diet, may help protect against skin ageing.(5)
If you suffer from acne, it’s also worth considering that a Western-style diet, which contains high GI foods such as sugar and white bread, is linked to a higher risk of the skin condition.(5)
What’s more, one ingredient which is vital to the Mediterranean diet has its own special benefits for your skin. You can read all about it in our article: ‘Is olive oil good for your skin?’
Protecting against cancer
Cancer is an awful disease which will affect many of us over our lifetimes. However, while anyone can get cancer, it does seem that what we eat and how we live our lives has an effect on our chances of developing the disease.
Cancer prevalence is associated with a number of lifestyle factors, including our diets.
One study claims that estimates from epidemiological studies show the astonishing impact of switching to a Mediterranean diet.
According to the authors, up to around 25% of colorectal cancer cases, 15% of breast cancer cases and 10% of prostate, pancreas and endometrial cancer cases could be prevented by swapping from a Western diet to a Mediterranean diet.(6)
Another study notes that key components of the Mediterranean diet have their own health effects. For example, the diet features plenty of cereals, fresh fruit and vegetables.
The researchers observed that the incidence of colorectal cancer went down when people ate more fruit and vegetables and more total fibre.(7)
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"A study of over 2000 Italian adults found a linear correlation between sticking to a Mediterranean diet and better overall quality of life."(10)
Improving and safeguarding your mental health
You might not think that what you eat affects your mood. But anyone who has reached for a chocolate bar after a tough day can testify that our emotions are closely linked to the foods we crave!
Luckily, many scientists are now investigating the links between mental health and diet. Here, the Mediterranean diet shines once again.
A fascinating Italian study conducted in 2020 found that this type of diet may have a positive impact on the mental health of the elderly.
It also seemed to protect them from developing depressive symptoms when they were also suffering from two or more long-term health conditions (formally called ‘multimorbidity’).(8)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, another study looked at the effects of the diet in the adolescent population. Researchers found that it seemed to protect against inflammation caused by stress. They suggested that this could protect the teenagers from developing mental health problems in the future.(9)
Keeping our gut healthy
Meanwhile, following the Mediterranean diet pattern seems to also have benefits for our digestive system.
This is particularly true when it comes to Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), a condition which affects around 1.6 million Americans. It is more common in Western industrialised countries such as the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, than in Mediterranean countries.(7)
According to several studies, phenolic compounds found in extra-virgin olive oil seem to reduce inflammatory markers which are linked with an increased risk of IBD.(7)
More generally, a meta-analysis of 17 randomised controlled trials found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet reduced inflammatory markers as well.(7)
There’s also good news for those of us who enjoy a glass of red wine now and again. Moderate consumption appears to increase the population of ‘good’ gut bacteria, such as the Enterococcus, Bacteroidetes and Bifidobacterium species, while reducing numbers of potentially harmful types such as Clostridium.(7)
Improving our overall quality of life
Perhaps the most compelling argument for the Mediterranean diet is simply that it seems to improve our quality of life.
A study of over 2000 Italian adults found a linear correlation between sticking to this type of diet and better overall quality of life.(10)
(Curiously, and in the interests of full disclosure: all the measures of quality of life seemed to improve for the participants except self-rated mental health. This contradicts slightly the studies cited above for mental wellbeing.)
Meanwhile, in addition to helping to protect against breast cancer, it appears that the diet can also help survivors of the disease.
One study found that breast cancer survivors following the diet reported better quality of life, and specifically better sleep, lower pain and better physical functioning.(11)
Why isn’t everyone doing it?
Surprisingly, for a diet which scientists seem to almost unanimously agree is very good for us, the traditional Mediterranean diet is actually in decline.
People living in the Mediterranean region are moving more towards a Western diet, featuring more processed foods and less healthy options.
Some scientists attribute this to the force of globalisation and successful marketing drives from manufacturers of processed food products. It may also be due to the decline of traditional ways of preparing and eating food in the region.(1)
Outside of the Med, it may also be difficult to get hold of fresh, good quality produce, and may be more expensive than following a Western diet.
As a result, health professionals now seem to be recommending the Mediterranean diet as a healthcare intervention to the very people who invented it in the first place!
This goes to show just how easy it is to slip into unhealthy eating patterns when we’re surrounded by readily-available, cheap, mass-produced foods.
That said, with a little bit of effort, it’s very easy to switch to a more Mediterranean-inspired diet. And, with a bit of forward thinking, it doesn’t have to be expensive.
How to switch to a Mediterranean diet
When switching to the diet, you should try and decrease your consumption of processed foods. These include white bread, white rice, refined grains, pre-made meals and sugary or fatty snacks.
At the same time, try to increase the amount of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains you eat. Eating fish is a vital part of the Mediterranean diet, but if you are vegan you can still follow the principles of the diet but could consider adding in omega-3 from elsewhere (such as walnut or hemp seed oils).
The main source of added fat in your diet should be extra-virgin olive oil.
To give a more specific idea, one review of scientific literature on the diet found that people tended to eat three to nine servings of vegetables, up to two servings of fruit, between one and thirteen servings of cereals, and up to eight servings of olive oil per day.(1)
But what might that look like in real life?
An example Mediterranean diet
Why not try a few of our suggestions below? You’ll soon see how easy it is to gradually move towards a Mediterranean diet by incorporating a few of these foods.
- Whole grain toast with a preserve, or half an avocado, or a poached egg
- An omelette with grilled or roasted tomatoes, asparagus or spinach
- Greek yoghurt with berries or homemade fruit salad
- Porridge with fruit
- Hummus with raw vegetables to dip, and a wholegrain pitta
- Salad with whole grains such as pearl barley, bulgur wheat or wholegrain rice
- Couscous with roasted Mediterranean vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and courgettes
- Whole grain pasta salad with tomatoes, olives, feta cheese and olive oil
- Lentil stew with crusty bread
- Grilled fish with potatoes and vegetables
- Baked eggs in a tomato sauce with wholegrain bread
- Greek salad with cucumber, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
- Classic Italian minestrone
- Fruit such as peaches, grapes etc
- An apple with peanut or almond butter
- Nuts and seeds
- Roasted crispy chickpeas
Of course, a simple Google search will provide you with hundreds more recipe ideas.
Give it a try
Remember, there are basically no downsides to trying a Mediterranean diet. The only thing you may need to watch out for is your vitamin D intake. This can be easily remedied by adding mushrooms, hemp seed oil or oily fish to your daily rotation.
Why not try swapping a few of your normal meals for Mediterranean-style ones? Then you can gradually begin to swap more of your meals and snacks over, as you feel ready.
Many people anecdotally report that this type of diet leaves you feeling better in yourself, and is easy and rewarding to stick to.
So, do your body a favour: set yourself up with a few high quality ingredients and start your adventure into the sun-soaked world of Mediterranean eating!
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