The Mediterranean Diet and Good Health
In the 1950s, researchers found that the adult life expectancy for people living in the Mediterranean regions (Crete, part of Greece, Southern Italy, and other countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea) were among the highest in the world. They also found that rates of coronary artery disease (CAD), certain cancers, and some other diet-related chronic diseases in this region were among the lowest in the world.
The health of the Mediterranean people did not appear to be due to existing medical services, which were limited at that time. However, the researchers found that the Mediterranean people had something in common that might be contributing to their good health—their dietary patterns. These dietary patterns share characteristics that have been associated with low rates of chronic diseases and long life expectancies in many studies conducted throughout the world.
There is no one typical Mediterranean diet. Many countries border the Mediterranean Sea and variations in the Mediterranean diet exist between these countries. However, according to the American Heart Association, traditional Mediterranean diets have the following characteristics in common:
An abundance of plant foods:
- Breads and cereals
- Beans, nuts, and seeds
- Olive oil used as a common monounsaturated fat source
- Low-to-moderate amounts of fish and poultry
- Small amounts of red meat
- Low-to-moderate amounts of dairy products (mostly cheese and yogurt)
- Low-to-moderate amounts of eggs (0-4 times per week)
- Low-to-moderate amounts of wine (1-2 glasses of wine per day), normally consumed with meals
Comparison With the American Diet
The American diet is characterized by:
- Animal products daily, as main source of protein
- White starches, predominantly
- Moderate to low in fruits and vegetables
- High in saturated and trans fats
Unlike the typical American diet, the traditional Mediterranean diet is high in fiber and low in saturated fat. However, the Mediterranean diet is not necessarily low in total fat. But, the types of fats emphasized in the Mediterranean diet are "healthy" monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, which do not raise cholesterol levels.
Mediterranean Diet Pyramid
The traditional Mediterranean diet has been illustrated in a Mediterranean diet pyramid developed by researchers at Harvard University and Oldways, a nonprofit education organization that promotes alternatives to unhealthy eating styles of industrialized countries. The pyramid is arranged in the following way:
- Along the base is daily physical activity, as well as a reminder to eat meals with friends and family.
- The next layer is food that should be eaten daily. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes and seeds, and herbs and spices.
- The layer above that features fish and seafood. Eat these more often (at least 2 times per week).
- The second layer from the top includes poultry and eggs. Eat these every 2 days or once per week. Cheese and yogurt is also in this layer, which should be eaten daily to weekly.
- The final layer has meats and sweets, which should be eaten less often.
Alongside the pyramid, water and wine are featured. Stay hydrated throughout the day with water, and drink wine in moderation (2 drinks per day for men, and 1 drink per day for women).
Last reviewedMay 2014by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.