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The benefits of a Mediterranean diet

Oodles of research suggests a Mediterranean diet is the way to go.

MediterraneanFood Photo/Thinkstock

We have a lot to thank the ancient Greeks and Romans for. They gave us democracy, the alphabet, the calendar and the basis for our legal system. And now we should be thanking today’s Greeks and Italians for something else: their diet.

If the rest of the world followed their lead and ate a Mediterranean diet, we’d probably be a whole lot healthier than we are. Study after study into the benefits of the staple foods eaten in Greece, southern Italy and Spain comes to the same conclusion: a Mediterranean diet can cut your risk of developing a serious illness and may help you live longer.

The diet is centred around plant-based foods such as fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Red meat is generally eaten only a few times a month; fish and poultry are eaten at least twice a week. Herbs and spices are used to flavour food instead of salt, and butter is replaced with olive oil. Red wine is drunk in moderation.
This way of eating has been shown to be particularly good for heart health, and many advocates of the diet believe the use of olive oil is one of the key reasons for that. The oil contains omega-3 fatty acids that decrease blood clotting, improve the health of blood vessels and keep blood pressure under control, all of which help to reduce the chance of a heart attack. Combine the benefits of olive oil with a reduction in foods high in saturated fats, trans fats and sugar and the addition of the nutrients you get from fruit and vegetables, and the Mediterranean diet ticks virtually all the boxes for a healthy eating plan.

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The eating habits of people in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea have been investigated since the 1960s, but the benefits weren’t widely publicised until the mid-1970s when American biologist Ancel Keys wrote about them. But it was another American, Harvard University’s Dr Walter Willett, who put the Mediterranean diet in the spotlight the 90s when he wrote papers with catchy titles like “Health Implications of Mediterranean Diets in Light of Contemporary Knowledge”. He also published books on the subject that saw the diet increase in popularity. But it’s still not embraced widely enough, according to experts, who are stumped as to why more households around the globe aren’t following this eating plan when it’s continually shown to be so good for us.

“Because the Mediterranean diet is based on food groups that are quite common and easy to find, people around the world could easily adopt this dietary pattern and help protect themselves against heart disease at very little cost,” Ekavi Georgousopoulou, author of a study into the impact of Mediterranean diets on heart disease, told Forbes magazine.

That study found that the risk of developing heart disease for people who stuck closely to the diet was half that of people who didn’t. These results still held true even when variables such as age, gender, family history, education, body mass index, blood pressure, smoking and high cholesterol were taken into account. A similar study found that the diet could be more effective in protecting against heart disease than exercise.

In 2011, Swedish scientists analysed the results of 40 years of research into the health of 70-year-olds living in the Gothenburg area. They compared those who ate a Mediterranean diet with those who ate more meat and animal products, and found that those on the Mediterranean diet had a 20% chance of living longer.

Other research has found that the Mediterranean diet may also reduce the chances of developing chronic kidney disease, peripheral artery disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, memory loss and prostate cancer. An Italian study published last month found that women who followed at least seven of the key recommendations of the Mediterranean diet lowered their risk of womb cancer by 57%.

Improved heart health still seems to be the big bonus when it comes to switching to a Mediterranean diet. Numerous studies have reported positive results, including one investigation involving twins that showed that even if they had genes that put them at higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease, they could cut their chances of having a heart attack by adopting the diet favoured by Greeks, Italians and Spaniards.

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