The Mediterranean diet describes the eating habits observed within the olive growing regions located around the Mediterranean. The diet has been extensively studied after researchers noted that the habitants of the Mediterranean region displayed a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease. This is despite the high-fat content of the diet (Colomer & Menéndez, 2006). The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high monounsaturated fat content, consumption of plenty of fruits and vegetables, the moderate consumption of poultry and dairy products, a very low consumption of meat, and the ethical consumption of wine (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013).
The scientific community has acclaimed the Mediterranean diet for its benefit to cardiovascular health, and there is also growing evidence that the diet may assist in the prevention of some forms of cancer. In this regard, the nutritional composition of the Mediterranean diet will be examined to underscore its contribution to better cardiovascular health in the region (Scoditti, Capurso, Capurso, & Massaro, 2014).
Olive oil is the main source of fat and a significant amount of calories in the diet. For thousands of years, olives have formed a critical part of the Greek diet with numerous nutritional properties and healing properties. It has been proven to lower the level of low-density lipoprotein in the blood. Olives have a high content of beneficial polyphenolic compounds and monounsaturated fatty acids (Trichopoulou, 2010). Researchers have also shown that the oil increases the level of HDL cholesterol when used as an alternative to vegetable and animal fats. The U.S. dietary guidelines recommend the consumption of two servings of fish every ten days to provide the body with omega-3 fatty acids.
Despite having a high fat content, the Mediterranean diet is known to influence significantly cardiovascular health. The general medical consensus on the role of fats in diets has been shifting in light of the Mediterranean diet. In the past, medical guidelines recommended that some total fats in the diet should be significantly lowered. The Mediterranean diet depends on fats to provide up to 40% of the total calorie intake (Webb & Whitney, 2013).
According to Trichopoulou (2010) the medical community is now in accord that monounsaturated fats should be used in place of saturated and trans-fats which have been linked to numerous health complications including cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that adherence to Mediterranean diet results in lower incidence of coronary heart disease and general mortality. Some researchers suggest that there the diet also lowers the mortality to particular types of cancer.
As a case in point, the fat content of the Mediterranean diet was compared with that of other countries across the world. It was noted that the communities around Crete and Finland all consumed diets that were composed of 40% fat. However, the incidence of cardiovascular disease was much lower in Crete than Finland (Berry, 2008). Monounsaturated fatty acids such as those found in olive oil improve cardiovascular health, unlike saturated fats.
Fish is one of the essential sources of protein in the diet. The type of fish consumed in the region is full of omega-3 acids with very little saturated fatty acids. This has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, and to lower the level of blood triglycerides which are thought to be a key risk factor for heart disease. Poultry is a popular alternative to red meat. Protein rich diets tend to promote cell regeneration and proper circulatory health (Noah & Truswell, 2006).
A key aspect of the Mediterranean diet is the consumption of very little red meat (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013). Apart from fish, the only other key source of animal protein is poultry. It is important to note that poultry is only consumed in very moderate amounts. Red meat, in particular, has been identified as a contributor a high incidence of cardiovascular disease. The consumption of red meat even in moderate amounts has been linked to a high incidence of coronary heart disease. Fish and poultry should however only be consumed as substitutes to red meat and not as a dietary supplement (Webb & Whitney, 2013).
Whole grains provide both carbohydrates and proteins in the Mediterranean diet. Legumes such as beans contain proteins and antioxidants that have also been linked to improved cardiovascular health. Beans have very high levels of antioxidants and are thought to have compounds that give them satiating capabilities. These capabilities lower a number of calories consumed; playing a role in maintaining general body health (Sofi, Macchi, Abbate, Gensini, & Casini, 2013).
The Mediterranean diet relies on the significant amount of vegetables and fruits for carbohydrates. Vegetables contain phenolic compounds which improve cardiovascular health especially if consumed over an extended period. Communities that consume more vegetables also tend to live longer and with better cardiovascular health. Vegetables are significantly low in calories and fat. There is no cholesterol in vegetables unless introduced during the preparation process. Vegetables are rich in Vitamins, potassium, and fiber (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013).
Diets rich in vegetables assist in the regulation of blood pressure, the reduction of the cholesterol levels in the blood, and the management of coronary health. Folic acids which are found in vegetables are important in the formation of red blood cells. Diets that are fiber-rich have been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, and obesity. Fruits and vegetables provide very few calories per serving as opposed to other carbohydrates. The overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugar has been recently identified as the key dietary factors that contribute to obesity (Noah & Truswell, 2006). Vegetables can be used to regulate some calories consumed.
Fruits are also an important source of carbohydrates in the Mediterranean diet. In addition to vitamin C, Bread, and other wheat products are prepared using whole grains as opposed to processed wheat and sugar. The amount of eggs consumed in the Mediterranean diet is considerably low at about one to four eggs per week (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013). This also includes the eggs used in baking. This explains the low level of LDL cholesterol in the blood of people who conform to a Mediterranean diet. Suffice it to say that diets which are rich in fruits and vegetables contribute to a lower cancer risk and incidence of heart disease (Noah & Truswell, 2006).
Wine is also a key part of the Mediterranean diet (Noah & Truswell, 2006), serving as a staple drink in most Mediterranean countries. One of the key compounds of wine is phytochemical compounds that hold cardiovascular health benefits. Phytochemicals are antioxidants which protect against heart disease by preventing artery damage. Red wine, in particular, is high in these compounds. In the region, red wine is also used in cooking certain foods along with olive oil. However, alcohol should be taken in moderation; Berry (2008) highlights the link between the moderate consumption of alcohol and a high breast cancer risk.
In addition to dietary patterns, the communities of the Mediterranean region have been historically very active. The Mediterranean diet also takes into account lifestyle factors such as the inclusion of at least 3 hours of physical activity per week, no smoking, and moderate consumption of alcohol. The moderate consumption can be described as the drinking of an average of 2 glasses and one glass of wine per day for men and women respectively. The importance of conviviality and adequate rest should not be discounted. The biodiversity of the meals and culinary activities of the region is also thought to have an effect on the general health of communities (Colomer & Menéndez, 2006).
Research is continuously tracing a link between the implementation of a wholesome dietary approach that includes all the major elements simultaneously as opposed to individual changes. It is thought that dietary changes to coincide with the Mediterranean diet prove ineffective when a key aspect is sacrificed. This might include the overconsumption of carbohydrates in the form of wheat or insufficient physical activity (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013).
In summary, the Mediterranean diet is the dietary pattern displayed by the communities around the Mediterranean Sea. The diet is characterized by the consumption of a lot of monounsaturated fats from olive oil, fruits, and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, moderate consumption of poultry, dairy products, and eggs. Red meat is rarely consumed, and alcohol is also moderately consumed (Sofi, Macchi, Abbate, Gensini, & Casini, 2013).
Fats provide up to 40% of the total calorie requirements of the Mediterranean diet. The key source of fats in this diet is olive oil which is supplemented by nuts and whole grain. Olive oil is mainly composed of healthy monounsaturated fatty acids which have been linked to numerous health benefits. It is highly recommended that healthy fats such as monounsaturated fatty acids be used as an alternative to trans-fats and saturated fats. It is important to note that fats provide more energy per gram than proteins and carbohydrates and thus should be moderated (Noah & Truswell, 2006).
In addition to fats, other key sources of energy include carbohydrates including fruits and vegetables. The Mediterranean diet is mainly plant based which has been shown to improve cardiovascular health and to lower the incidence of certain cancers. Vegetables have very few calories, no cholesterol and are full of antioxidants and beneficial compounds. Red meat and alcohol are consumed in moderation (Preedy, Hunter, & Patel, 2013). Also, the communities in the region are historically very physically active and promote habits that influence the preference of a healthy lifestyle (Sofi, Macchi, Abbate, Gensini, & Casini, 2013).
Berry, E. (2008). Cardiovascular Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. Nutrition Today, 43(3), 121-122. http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/01.nt.0000303330.29932.0c
Colomer, R. & Menéndez, J. (2006). Mediterranean diet, olive oil and cancer. Clin Transl Oncol, 8(1), 15-21. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12094-006-0090-0
Noah, A. & Truswell, A. (2006). Changes in food supply in Mediterranean countries from 1961 to 2001. Public Health Nutrition, 9(05). http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/phn2006961
Preedy, V., Hunter, L., & Patel, V. (2013). Diet quality. New York, NY: Humana Press.
Scoditti, E., Capurso, C., Capurso, A., & Massaro, M. (2014). Vascular effects of the Mediterranean diet—Part II: Role of omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil polyphenols. Vascular Pharmacology, 63(3), 127-134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.vph.2014.07.001
Sofi, F., Macchi, C., Abbate, R., Gensini, G., & Casini, A. (2013). Mediterranean diet and health. Biofactors, 39(4), 335-342. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/biof.1096
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Webb, F. & Whitney, E. (2013). Nutrition. [Belmont, Calif.]: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.