The Mediterranean Diet
In the mid-1990s, Dr Walter Willett of the School of Public Health at Harvard University presented what is commonly understood to be “The Mediterranean Diet”. Rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains and fish, the diet is based on “food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s.”While not typical of all Mediterranean cuisine, this diet recommends fresh fruit as a daily dessert and Olive Oil as the principal source of fat. It also recommends that dairy products and meat be consumed in low to moderate amounts.Studies have shown that combining this diet with regular physical activity can result in a number of health benefits. Adherents to the diet have shown a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and even depression. One of the often cited reasons for this is that the diet is high in fibre and monounsaturated fats, while low in saturated fats.A paper circulated in 1970, entitled, “Coronary Heart Disease in Seven Countries”, showed that despite having a moderate to high fat intake, Cretan men have exceptionally low mortality from heart disease. Obviously there are other factors to be taken into account, such as genetics and physical activity, but there is evidence to suggest that their diet was a significant factor in the findings. It was made up mainly of Olive Oil, bread, plenty of fruit and vegetables, fish, and dairy products and wine in moderation.Olive oil is a big part of the Mediterranean diet. Not only does it add flavour to food, but also it contains exceptionally high levels of mono-unsaturated fats, such as Oleic acid, which is considered to be responsible for its hypotensive (blood-pressure reducing) properties.Between 1999 and 2005, the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, and the Clinic of the University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, carried out a study of 10,094 healthy Spanish participants. These participants filled out an initial questionnaire, and then completed a regular food-frequency questionnaire to report their dietary intake over a four-year period.The results of this study revealed that those who adhered to the Mediterranean diet were 30% less likely to suffer from depression. The reasons why are unclear, and there are other factors involved, such as the fact that those who most adhered to the Mediterranean diet tended to be more physically active, which itself is known to beat depression. However, it does warrant further research.Those who strongly adhered to the diet tended to be men, ex-smokers, married and older people. They were also physically active and showed a greater total energy intake. This may suggest a lifestyle in combination with the diet which produces the documented benefits.One of the study’s authors, Professor Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez of the University of Navarra, said that the results would have to be confirmed with more extensive trials. However, he did insist that they had found a strong inverse association between the Mediterranean diet and depression.“Thirty percent is a large reduction in the risk,” he said. “This could be very important considering the large burden of disease represented by depression.”Professor Martinez is the Co-ordinator of the thirteen centres in the PREDIMED network, which continues to carry out trials to assess the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.Another study, carried out by researchers at Harvard University, found that just taking on a couple of the elements of this diet can reduce the risk of cancer by 12%. Here, they persuaded 26,000 Greek people to record their food-intake for an eight-year period. They found that just adding Olive Oil alone can reduce the risk by 9%. Those who made two changes to their diet – eating less red meat and more peas, beans and lentils, cut their risk by 12%.Dr Dimitrios Trichopoulos, who led the study, said, “Adjusting one’s overall dietary habits towards the traditional Mediterranean pattern had an important effect.”Research continues on this subject, but the collected results of more than forty years of research are becoming somewhat overwhelming. No one is saying, “Eat this and do that and you will live longer”; rather, it is a case of adopting at least parts of this diet and changing your lifestyle just a little may help to prevent diseases and illnesses that may shorten your life expectancy.No one likes to be told what to eat and what not to eat. Most people like a piece of cake now and then, or a pizza, or fish and chips. What’s the point of living longer if you can’t have such occasional, tasty, gratifying comfort food? However, the evidence is mounting to show that by at least adopting elements of the Mediterranean diet, you will be increasing your chances of living longer to carry on enjoying such indulgent foods.
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Shane Clarke serves as London Correspondent for The Seoul Times. He has been involved in humanitarian work for numerous years. He’s also a freelance management consultant. Having completed an honors degree in Law at Wolverhampton University, he then moved on to an MBA at Warwick Business School. He’s heavily involved in the fight against international parental child abduction to Japan.
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