The benefits and the principles of the Mediterranean diet

There are many definitions of what a Mediterranean diet is or what it should look like. The overall concept was developed to represent the typical dietary patterns that inhabitants of the countries around the Mediterranean sea, most of all Crete, Greece and the South of Italy, used to have in the early 1960s. The ‘Mediterranean diet’ actually embodies the concept of an economical diet that was followed by poor rural societies. 

 

Over the course of the last 40 years, the Mediterranean diet has been broadly and largely studied. Numerous studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can help with weight loss and the prevention of strokes, heart attacks, type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, some types of cancer, and premature death.  

 

The principles of the Mediterranean diet, as shown in the picture below, recommend an eating pattern rich in whole grain unprocessed products, all types of fruit, vegetables, nuts and legumes, lean protein sources like eggs, fish, meat and dairy products and generous consumption of extra virgin olive oil. Nutritionally, this leads to a diet high in fibre, omega-3 polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats intake which may help to reduce inflammation and improve lipid profile. 

The 10 main principles of the Mediterranean diet:

 

1- Use Olive Oil as the main source of added fat

Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet. It provides a rich source of vitamin E, beta-carotenes, polyphenols and unsaturated fatty acids. For this reason, it helps to prevent cardiovascular diseases. It is important to note that extra virgin olive oil is best enjoyed cold and not heated up for the most benefit. Through the centuries, olive oil has represented a real treasure in the Mediterranean Diet and it continues to do so owing to its unique taste and aroma and nutritional benefits.

2- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts

Fruit and vegetables are rich in all kinds of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibres. They also provide us with a large amount of water. Thanks to their elevated content of antioxidants, they can contribute to preventing cardiovascular disease and certain cancers. The traditional Mediterranean diet emphasises seasonal fruit and vegetables, preferably fresh from the land. Common fruits in the Mediterranean diet include oranges and pomegranates, berries, figs, grapes and orange-coloured fruits such as apricots, peaches, nectarines and melons. Common vegetables include different types of lettuce, tomato, eggplant, cucumber, radish, garlic, onion and spinach. 

 

With regards to legumes and nuts, they are an important source of protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals, trace elements and unsaturated fatty acids. Common legumes in the Mediterranean diet are chickpeas, lentils and beans. The most common nuts are pistachio, almond, peanuts, hazelnuts and walnuts.

 

3- Grain products should be a part of your everyday diet 

Daily consumption of pasta, rice and whole grain products guarantees an adequate intake of carbohydrates and, consequently, an important amount of energy for daily activities. This mainly concerns whole grains products. They are a source of fibre, iron, zinc, manganese, magnesium, copper, vitamin B1, vitamin B6, selenium and riboflavin. 

4- Locally sourced fresh foods that have undergone minimal processing are best.

The Mediterranean diet takes seasonality into consideration due to the higher nutrient content and improved flavour of in-season foods. In general – the fresher the produce, the better it is in terms of flavour and nutritional benefits.

 

5- Consume dairy products on a daily basis.  

Daily consumption of dairy products – especially yoghurt and cheese – is important for a good intake of proteins, minerals and vitamins. Furthermore, fermented dairy products, thanks to their content of live microorganisms, are associated with improved balance and health of the intestinal microflora.

6- Consume red meat in moderation and ideally as part of stews and other recipes.

Meat is a source of proteins and iron. However, its content of animal fat, although variable according to the type of meat, is considerable. Since an excessive intake of animal fat is not healthy, red and processed meat should be consumed as little as possible and, if possible, as a part of other dishes. Lean meat should be preferred and whenever possible consumed as part of a meal based on grains and vegetables. 

 

7- Consume fish abundantly and eggs in moderation

Fish, especially fatty (dark meat) fish, is a good source of long-chain unsaturated fatty acids, which are known to protect against cardiovascular disease. It is recommended to consume fatty fish at least once or twice a week. Typical examples include sardines, mackerel, mussels, octopus, oysters, salmon, sea bass, shrimp and tuna. Similarly, eggs are an important source of high quality proteins, fat and many vitamins and minerals. Eggs are considered a very complete food item and consuming them 3-4 times a week provides a good vegetarian alternative to fish and meat.

 

8- Fresh fruit should be your everyday dessert – sweets, cakes and dairy desserts should only be consumed occasionally. 

Fresh fruit should be consumed over sweets, cakes, pastries, cookies and candies both for snacks and desserts. Sweets and cakes should be consumed only occasionally because of their high content of sugar and saturated fats. Fruit is a much more nutritious alternative that brings unique colours and flavours to our diet.

 

9- Water is the best choice of beverage in the Mediterranean Diet.

Water is fundamental for good hydration and therefore it has been placed among the basis of the Mediterranean Pyramid. Fresh water and herbal infusions without added sugar should be consumed daily. Red wine is a traditional element of the Mediterranean Diet, however, it is important to include this only in moderation and as part of a meal in a balanced diet.

 

10- Be physically active every day. 

Being physically active is just as important as eating well. Regular physical activity, adequate rest and conviviality are the three key elements from which to start building a balanced and healthy lifestyle.

 

Swapmeals offers many recipes that are in line with the Mediterranean diet, you can find them all here.

 

References:

  1. Trichopoulou, A. Martínez-González, M. A. Tong, T. Y. Forouhi, N. G. Khandelwal, S. Prabhakaran, D. Mozaffarian, D. & de Lorgeril, M. (2014). Definitions and potential health benefits of the Mediterranean diet: views from experts around the world. BMC medicine, 12, 112. https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-12-112  
  2. Davis, C. Bryan, J. Hodgson, J. & Murphy, K. (2015). Definition of the Mediterranean Diet; a Literature Review. Nutrients, 7(11), 9139–9153. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu7115459
  3. Schwingshackl, L.  Morze, J. Hoffmann, G. (2020). Mediterranean diet and health status: active ingredients and pharmacological mechanisms. British Journal of Pharmacology. 177:1241 –1257
  4. Mediterranean Diet Foundation (n.d.) Consulted on 20 May 2021, from:

https://dietamediterranea.com/en/nutrition/ –