The salient feature of the Mediterranean Diet is olive oil. Perhaps it should actually be called the Olive Oil diet, which would probably be a wise marketing label. If I were told to go on the Olive Oil diet, I would first think of the oil, itself; but my mind would jump to Popeye’s skinny girlfriend and the recommendation would be immediately reinforced.
Beside olive oil, the Mediterranean Diet is characterized by the consumption of a great many legumes, fruits, vegetables, and unrefined cereals. Fruit is often chucked by anyone wanting to lose weight because of its high sugar content. And the gluten intolerant and celiac crowd would want to exclude modern wheat, barley, and rye. Vegetables should not be overcooked, otherwise a German or English element is thereby added and nutrition subtracted.
If you like fish, this diet’s your fare. Beef and pork are minimal. Poultry is a permissible substitute for fish. Lamb is just beneath poultry on the list.
Dairy products (cheese and yogurt) are given a “moderate” rating for daily intake, as is wine consumption.
You might suppose from the diet’s name that all peoples living around the Mediterranean Sea ate the same thing. Of course, this is not the case. What in North America we have come to call the Mediterranean Diet is actually a version of the dietary patterns of Italy, Greece, and Spain – and not of the whole of those countries, either. The farther away from the Mediterranean Sea you go, the less Mediterranean the food becomes. For example, in northern Italy, lard and butter are used in cooking and olive oil reserved for dressing salads and cooked veggies. In Muslim countries, wine would not be drunk, where in Greece, Italy, and Spain it is customary. And in the Middle East, sheep’s tail fat and rendered (fermented?) butter are favorites. And I would suspect that goat is a significant protein source in many regions.
The simple abstract for the Mediterranean Diet’s benefit is that it is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat because of the olive oil and the fish. Red wine contains antioxidants and flavonoids. The fruits and veggies provide fiber and are rich in essential nutrients.
It should be noted that the Mediterranean Diet is high in salt. Salt inevitably comes with the olives, salt-cured cheeses, anchovies, capers, fish roe, and salad dressings made with olive oil.
As olive oil is the star player in this diet, it must be stated that there is a body of research that indicates that monounsaturated fats such as olive oil are not as atheroprotective as diets rich in polyunsaturated fats or even saturated fats (kettle potato chips?).
But maybe it’s not the Mediterranean Diet that is beneficial after all. Recently the theory has emerged that the higher exposure to solar ultraviolet rays enjoyed by Mediterranean people compared to the denizens of more northerly climes accounts for the better cardiovascular health enjoyed by the Mediterraneans. The hypothesized mechanism for this is the increased UV synthesis of Vitamin D in the oils of the skin, which has been interpreted as a factor in the reduction of coronary heart disease. Counter intuitively, the incidence of melanoma in Mediterranean countries is lower than it is in Northern Europe,which leads us back to the suspicion that there may be some components of the Mediterranean Diet that protect against skin cancer.
Diet is only part of the reason for the health enjoyed by certain Mediterranean cultures. A healthy lifestyle ( physically active lifestyle, labor) plays a big part. Environment may be involved. The influence of genetics appears to be rather minimal, though: slowly changing habits of Mediterranean populations from a healthy active lifestyle and Mediterranean diet to a less physically active lifestyle and a diet influenced by American eating habits has significantly increased their risk factors for heart disease.Still, there remains an inverse association between adherence to the Mediterranean diet and the incidence heart disease in middle aged adults in the Mediterranean region.