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What are the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet?

To prove the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, researchers from the University of Athens put forth a study that showed how people who ate this way had a 33 percent reduction in the risk death from heart disease.  They also showed a 24 percent reduction in the cancer death rate compared to those who ate Western-style diets.

More recently, medical researchers from the Netherlands and Italy have published results that even further support the positive effects of a Mediterranean diet, finding that it worked better than a low-fat diet to combat metabolic syndrome.  Metabolic syndrome affects thousands of Americans with a combination of obesity, high blood sugar and hypertension.  According to the Italian study, 50 to 90 percent of patients who ate a Mediterranean diet for two years no longer had the syndrome, while only 12 to 90 percent of patients who followed the low-fat diet were successful.

The results of the Netherlands’ study were even more impressive.  Among a group of more than 1500 healthy male and female participants, those who maintained a Mediterranean diet reduced their death rate by 23 percent.  In addition to changing the foods they ate, those participants who consumed only moderate amounts of alcohol, got regular exercise and did not smoke reduced their risk of death by 65 percent during the 10 year duration of the study.

What are the key elements of a Mediterranean diet?

The quantities of each may depend on which diet book you pick up, but the Mediterranean diet consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, unrefined cereals, olive oil, legumes, yogurt, natural cheese and fresh fish.  While it doesn’t completely eliminate red meat, the diet limits consumption of it to one meal per month.   Poultry, eggs and sugary sweets are permitted about once per week, and moderate amounts of wine are also a part of the diet.  Some people find that they are already eating this way without really trying, which illustrates how easy this diet is to follow.

If you are considering the Mediterranean diet, remember that it is also part of a “cultural package,” which includes strong social/family bonds, shared meals, and plenty of physical activity.

Many of us consider the Mediterranean diet to be the closest thing known to an ideal meal plan, rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, cereals, fish, olive oil and, yes, a bit of red wine with meals. Compared to traditional American menu — high in red meat and in butter and other dairy products — the Mediterranean diet is lower in saturated fat, more varied and often more satisfying.

It should be called a “lifestyle”; not just a diet

Different diets abound, many even promoted by physicians. But it’s a mistake to think of a diet as a temporary measure; instead, it is a lifetime commitment to healthy choices.  People who are in a rush to lose weight often don’t succeed because crash diets only set us up for “yo-yo” weight loss and quick regain.  Followers of the Mediterranean diet can take comfort in knowing that even modest changes in the diet can significantly lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Many doctors believe that the greatest strength of the Mediterranean diet is its sustainability over the long term.  If you can stick to a diet, year over year, it eventually becomes your lifestyle.

How quickly can a change in diet affect your health?

We’ve all seen the studies showing the positive impact of a Mediterranean diet over time, but what about what happens in reverse?  As researchers learned more about the foods that are really eaten in Greece, Italy, Morocco and Spain, they sadly learned that the culture that invented this diet has all but abandoned its principles.

Fast food and Western-style menus have been proliferating across the Mediterranean region for decades, and they threaten to spread an American-style obesity epidemic.  In Greece, for example, 75 percent of the adult population is now overweight and at increasing risk for heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.  Rather than turning their backs on the principles of their traditional diet, it is incumbent upon the people of this region to embrace it once again.

Image Courtesy of m_bartosch/ http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/