Mediterranean food and diet, characterized by abundant portions of fruits and vegetables, fish and poultry, olive oil, and spices for seasoning, can improve health and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, only people with higher incomes or more education, or a combination of the two, experience this benefit.

The reason for this has to do with quality.

“Let’s give that two persons follow the same diet, that is equal amounts of vegetables, fruits, fish, olive oil etc. every day so that they report the same adherence score to Mediterranean diet,” says Marialaura Bonaccio, lead author of the new study and a researcher at IRCCS Istituto Neurologico Mediterraneo Neuromed, an Italian Clinical Research Institute. “It might be that, beyond quantity, differences in quality may exist. For example, in olive oil.”

Recent studies also show that older adults who incorporate Mediterranean food, inspired by the coastal cuisine of countries such as Greece, Italy, and southern France, reduce their risk of dementia. In a group of 923 seniors, those who followed the diet strictly lowered their risk by 53 percent, while those who followed moderately only decreased their risk by 35 percent.

Additionally, the International Journal of Cancer published a study suggesting that regular consumption of Mediterranean food reduced post-menopausal estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer by 40 percent.

No one can deny that eating smarter and healthier choices is the greatest component in keeping the body disease free in running optimally. Every bite has an impact on our health! And remember that diet is highly personalized.

I Reminisce…

When I look back at the summer of 2015, I’ll remember daily dips in the azure sea in Kiveri, a small village situated on the bay of Argos in the Peloponnese. My daily ritual involved a swim followed by simple but succulent meals: fresh grilled sardines accompanied by a Greek salad of local tomatoes, red onions, green olives, peppers, and cucumbers, drizzled in real olive oil, sometimes with a side of “horta” (boiled rapini-like wild greens excellent for digestion). The freshness was tangible. Before traveling to Greece, I had been taking critical food studies classes at Gustolab International Institute (GLI) in Rome, Italy where I often ate sautéed chicory and grilled squid for both lunch and dinner.

While I usually maintain a very healthy eating regime (organic whenever possible, superfoods, and I steer clear  of gluten, dairy, and sugar cane), I vowed to adopt a Mediterranean diet once back in the United States. I say “adopt” because the Mediterranean diet is not a diet in the traditional sense at all, but more of a lifestyle.

Atmosphere and mindset are equally important. People enjoy long relaxed meals instead of fast food, warm climate, a sea breeze full of negative ions, and blue skies full of potential with stupendous clouds, worthy of Instagram. The pace of life in the region differs considerably from the “western world.”

As Marion Nestle Ph.D, M.P.H, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health has remarked that diet is only one of the great many behavioral factors that influences health.

“What Western-style eating patterns often fail to acknowledge, is that how we are eating is equally as important as what we are eating,” adds Elise Truman, a registered dietitian working with Barilla.

Slow down. Take the time to really taste your food and share mealtime with people you care about. Laugh. Stay active. Find balance and realize that all things in life (desserts included) are about moderation and enjoyment. Because like Julia Child said, ‘That’s what human life is all about — enjoying things!’

4 Things T0 Know About Mediterranean Food And Diet

1. From The Vineyards of Crete To The Forests of Finland

In reality there is no “one” Mediterranean Diet, which in 2010 was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

More than 20 countries border the Mediterranean Sea and each has its own unique culture and cuisine. The “Mediterranean diet” encompasses all of them — it’s not one size fits all.

The first systemic attempt to investigate dietary intake in the Mediterranean region took place shortly after the end of WWII by an epidemiologist named Leland Allbaugh, who visited the island of Crete to conduct a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Yet the health implications of the Mediterranean diet more commonly begins with the work of American biologist and physiologist, Ancel Keys, and his wife and collaborator chemist, Margaret Keys, who coined the term “Mediterranean diet” in 1957.  Back in 1952, when Keys learned about the impressive low rates of heart disease in the region, he initiated a series of investigations of dietary and other coronary risk factors. Key measured skinfolds and meticulously collected physiological data on the health and eating habits of 10,000 individuals across three continents and seven nations. The scientist and author of the bestselling Eat Well and Stay Well, traipsed the world, visiting vineyards of Crete, the mountains of Dalmatia, the forests of Finland, along wth those on the University of Minnesota campus where he worked. His findings later became known as the Seven Countries Study.

Long before such ideas became common place, Keys pinpointed how the typical American diet, rich in meat and dairy fats had higher concentrations of blood cholesterol and therefore an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

With all this said, Keys also shamelessly erased or left out data he didn’t like. His eventual role in demonizing saturated fats (while glorifying polyunsaturated fats) has led us down an unfortunate road. Research actually shows that low carb diets are significantly more effective than low fat diets.

2. Long Life, Strong Heart, And Optimal Health  

Adults living in certain regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea display rates of chronic diseases that are among the lowest in the world and life expectancies that are among the highest. Case in point, while visiting Agios Ioannis, a mountain village of less than 1000 inhabitants, near the Argolic Gulf in the northeast of Peloponnese, Greece, I saw several yayas and papous (grandmothers and grandfathers) in their 90s, walking down a hill to the nearby church with relative ease.

“The Mediterranean diet has been shown to increase longevity and reduce incidence of chronic illnesses, especially major cardiovascular diseases,” adds Mauro Serafini, who leads Gustolab Institute’s nutrition class.

The positive findings have been plentiful:

  • A mostly plant-based Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts may counteract age-related cognitive decline in older adults, according to a report published online May 11 by JAMA Internal Medicine.
  • A 2010 meta-analysis published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the Mediterranean diet conferred a significant benefit with regard to the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.
  • In 2014, two meta-analyses found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Another 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of cancer mortality.
  • Due to the emphasis on fish and healthy fats which are needed for prostaglandin formation, the Mediterranean diet is beneficial for decreasing inflammation in the body.
  • The biggest impact of Mediterranean is on lowering incidences of diabetes
  • The Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of cancer incidence

3. Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Environmental Impact

The Mediterranean diet has many virtues – on our health and on our planet as well. Not only can it add about a decade to your life, it can also prevent massive environmental damage.

According to a recent study by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, the Mediterranean diet slashes greenhouse gas emissions and saves the habitat of endangered species.

To confirm the connection between diet and planet health, the researchers gathered all published life-cycle assessments covering “cradle to farm gate” greenhouse gas emissions  (greenhouse gases are: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and similar) for production systems of food crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture — some 500 studies. They also gathered 50 years of data for 100 of the world’s more populous nations to see the way food consumption patterns were changing.

“If Mediterranean, pescatarian or vegetarian diets were widely adopted, they would not only prevent diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases, but also reduce the environmental impact on agriculture,” says Tilman.

“The Mediterranean diet is an outstanding resource for sustainable development, as it contributes to promote local production and consumption of food, encourages sustainable agriculture, and safeguards the environment. In addition, this dietary shift would prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannahs of an area half as large as the United States.”

Interestingly, this study made no distinction between an organic Mediterranean diet and a conventional one. According to Tilman, there wasn’t enough data to ask that question.

4. Degradation: Mediterranean Diet Vanishing Into The Sea

The Mediterranean diet’s origins lie in the Cilento National Park area in Italy. It was at Pioppi that Ancel Keys settled down to develop the guidelines of this now world famous nutritional model. But ironically, the diet “hardly exists” where it originated. Globalization, food marketing, tourism, urban development, depletion of natural resources, rise in prices of food, and a loss of traditional knowledge has altered the menu for the worst.

Products today are increasingly being sourced from outside the region. Only 10 percent of the traditional local crop varieties are still grown today, which affects not only local food producers but also the environment. Ancient vineyards, orchards, and olive groves have been uprooted to make way for large-scale fruit or olive plantations. Mixed rotational farming has been replaced by intensive monocultures, just like in America. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that to satisfy the needs of a growing and richer population globally, food production will have to increase by 60 per cent towards 2050.

Changes in food supply and consumption negatively impacts not only wildlife habitats, water supply, and small-scale farmers who once depended on these systems for their livelihoods. More than 36 percent of Italian children are either overweight or obese by the age of eight, making Italy the country with the second highest obesity rates among children in Europe after Greece!

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Check out this short film segment, which was produced by students studying Food Filmmaking, titled Fat Italy: The Fate of Italian Youth that addresses this very subject.

Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are being replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Mediterranean is one of the major regions of the world where global warming will threaten the environment and human activities.

“Given the importance of food consumption, urgent steps must be taken in the Mediterranean region, as well in other regions, to promote dietary patterns which can drive food production towards more sustainable patterns,” says Serafini.

Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.

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