The Mediterranean diet, which is primarily a plant-based eating pattern, comes with many health benefits, including protection against cardiovascular and metabolic disorders and cognitive deficits.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
The Mediterranean diet is composed of traditional foods of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, such as Greece, Southern Italy, and Crete. In 1993, Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust in association with the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Health Organization has introduced the Mediterranean diet pyramid to effectively depict the components of the diet.
According to the Mediterranean diet pyramid, primary components of the Mediterranean diet include:
- Daily intake of a high amount of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, herbs and spices, and healthy fats (olive oil)
- Consumption of fish, seafood, egg, and poultry twice a week
- Frequent consumption of a moderate amount of dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt
- Very limited consumption of red meat and sweets
- Drinking of water and red wine as typical beverages
In addition, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes on doing regular physical activities and sharing foods and drinks with family and friends.
What are the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?
According to scientific studies, the Mediterranean diet comes with many health benefits. For example, it helps prevent cardiovascular diseases probably by limiting the intake of refined bread, processed foods, and red meat.
A study conducted on 26,000 women over 12 years has found that consumption of the Mediterranean diet can reduce the chance of developing cardiovascular disease by 25%. This may be due to a reduction in systemic inflammation, blood glucose level, and body mass index.
The fat sources in the Mediterranean diet include olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish, which are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids (omega-3 fatty acids). These healthy fats help reduce the level of total cholesterol, low-density lipoproteins, triglycerides, as well as preventing systemic inflammation.
It has been found that people consuming Mediterranean diet supplemented with healthy fat sources are 30% less likely to die from stroke, even if they take a substantial amount of fat daily (about 40% of total calorie intake/day). These people are also at lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
The high fiber content in the Mediterranean diet helps control the blood glucose level by reducing its rate of absorption. This in turn reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Moreover, a high fiber-rich diet takes a longer time to digest, and thus, gives a sense of satiety, which altogether helps maintain healthy body weight.
Since vegetables, fruits, and nuts are rich sources of antioxidants, consuming the Mediterranean diet can protect the body from oxidative stress-induced damages, which are associated with aging and age-related disorders.
For example, antioxidants by reducing oxidative stress-induced damage to telomeres can prevent the shortening of telomere, which is a hallmark of aging. It has been found that people who consume a Mediterranean diet have longer telomere length, which is an important predictor of increased life expectancy.
Moreover, studies have found that people who consume Mediterranean diet at midlife are 46% more likely to live longer than 70 years without any health-related adversities, such as chronic illnesses (diabetes, cardiovascular and pulmonary disorders, kidney problems, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer) or impaired physical and mental health status and cognitive functions.
The increased longevity without any health adversity may be due to a high intake of plant-based foods, moderate intake of alcohol, and low intake of red meat and processed foods.
Specifically, age-related decline in lung functions can be prevented by a Mediterranean diet. Certain components of the Mediterranean diet including whole grains, dairy products, and fish are linked with improved lung capacity indicated by higher peak expiratory flow rate. Moreover, people who most closely follow the Mediterranean diet are 23 – 28% less likely to develop mid-range sound frequency hearing loss.
Due to the presence of a high amount of beneficial nutrients, consumption of the Mediterranean diet helps protect the muscle from damage, leading to increased muscular strength and higher agility. Also, the Mediterranean diet has been found to improve brain functions, leading to improved memory and learning, thinking abilities, and concentration power.
Interestingly, studies have found that people with heart diseases who do not consume the Mediterranean diet have a higher chance of developing visual-spatial abnormalities and cognitive decline. Moreover, consumption of the Mediterranean diet significantly reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
The Mediterranean diet is associated with better disease-specific quality of life. For example, consumption of the Mediterranean diet is known to reduce the risk of kidney dysfunction and graft failure by 32% and graft loss by 26% in kidney transplant patients.
In the case of inflammatory bowel diseases, it has been found that people who follow the Mediterranean diet for more than 15 years are 58% less susceptible to develop Crohn’s disease.