Mediterranean Diet
Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, is associated with various health benefits. Some of the benefits include the reduced risk of dementia and protection against some cancers and depression. Image Credit: Gulf News

The Mediterranean eating style has been voted the best overall diet for the sixth year. In the 2023 ratings announced by US News & World Report, Mediterranean meals are topped in the best diet for healthy eating and best plant-based diet categories.

It is the newest feather in the cap of the Mediterranean diet, whose health benefits are well known. Many follow the diet for weight loss as it is delicious and nutritious, unlike other food regimens.

The diet that science shows could help you live longer

Rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, the diet is associated with various health benefits. Several studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet helps reduce the risk of dementia. A study published in the journal BMC Medicine on Monday said that following the diet lowers by 25 per cent the risk of developing dementia, which affects 55 million people worldwide. That’s great news since there’s no cure or way to prevent the condition.

It’s not surprising as several studies have found that the diet has been found to help support brain function and prevent cognitive decline. There are adequate data to support claims that it helps protect against depression, improves memory, and lowers the risk of problems with memory and cognitive skills in people with multiple sclerosis.

How the diet fights chronic diseases

That’s not all. Meals from the sunny Mediterranean are also found to promote heart health, prevent bone loss and regulate blood sugar levels. So it plays a role in improving responses to therapy for advanced melanoma, besides reducing the risk of heart diseases in women by 25 per cent, preventing prostate cancer, enhancing gut health and microbiome, and helping to rein in obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

All of that makes it an excellent solution to protect against chronic diseases and prevent premature death. Let’s look at the diet and how it helps fight disease and promote a healthier lifestyle.

Mediterranean diet - foods - Updated
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Health benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Reducing the risk of dementia — People on a Mediterranean diet have a 23 per cent lower risk of developing dementia, according to the UK Biobank study involving 60,298 people who were tracked for more than nine years

Weight loss — There’s considerable evidence that the diet helps shed weight. It limits the intake of sugar and processed food, which contribute to weight gain and obesity. Fibre-rich whole grains, fruits, and green leafy veggies can keep out the hunger pangs. A study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, which followed over 32,000 subjects over 12 years, found that those who ate a Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than those who did not. Another review published in The American Journal of Medicine agreed with the findings. A study in The British Journal of Nutrition found a twofold increase in weight loss maintenance.

Battling depression — A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition said the Mediterranean diet significantly improved the signs of depression in many patients. The study focused on 72 men aged 18-25 years. “It suggests that medical doctors and psychologists should consider referring depressed young men to a nutritionist or dietitian as an important component of treating clinical depression,” Jessica Bayes, who led the University of Technology Sydney researchers, said.

Improves mood — Bayes said the gut has a direct to mood, adding that around 90 per cent of serotonin (happy hormone) is made by gut microbes. “There is emerging evidence that these microbes can communicate to the brain via the vagus nerve, called the gut-brain axis. To have beneficial microbes, we need to feed them fibre found in legumes, fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Heart health — The Mediterranean diet is good for the heart; hence, adding this diet can reduce risks arising from heart complications or conditions that give rise to heart complications. A 2017 study published in Atherosclerosis found that following a Mediterranean diet for 1.5 years improved arterial blood flow in diabetes patients.

A Mediterranean diet was associated with a 24 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 23 per cent lower risk of death from any cause in women, Australian researchers said in their findings, published in Heart journal. They were based on the results of 16 studies in 2003 and 2021 involving more than 700,000 women in Europe and the US.

According to Johns Hopkins expert Haitham Ahmed, the diet helps your heart in four ways.

  1. It helps keep cholesterol levels healthy.
  2. It enhances your body’s ability to absorb blood sugar (diabetes and prediabetes threaten heart health).
  3. It fights off damaging inflammation. Obese people may have chronic inflammation, leading to diabetes and liver and heart disease.
  4. It helps arteries stay flexible and resist plaque buildup.

Live longer — “Our [Johns Hopkins] study shows that you have the control and power to change the trajectory of your health and life,” says Ahmed. “With a healthier diet, exercise, weight maintenance and smoking avoidance, thousands of our participants were able to live longer and free of cardiovascular disease.”

Fighting cancer — A Mediterranean diet may have a role in improving responses to immune checkpoint blockade as therapy for advanced melanoma, according to findings from a cohort study published in JAMA Oncology.

According to research from the University of South Australia, men who regularly consume colourful fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of acquiring prostate cancer. The findings from two studies published in the journal Cancers highlight the importance of a Mediterranean or Asian diet that includes these foods.

Fertility and reproduction — Evidence from Australia showed that a Mediterranean diet improved fertility. The study, published in the journal Nutrients, found that people who adhered to an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, had better outcomes with pregnancy and artificial reproductive technology. Evangeline Mantzioris, a researcher on the study and programme director of nutrition and food sciences at the University of South Australia, said: “This dietary pattern that is low in animal and processed foods show us that you can reduce the chronic inflammation that occurs in the body — and chronic inflammation does have an impact on many aspects of fertility.”

Mediterranean food 2
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Memory and thinking skills — Many studies have shown how the Mediterranean diet can impact brain function. Here are a couple of samples.

Patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) on a Mediterranean diet may have a lower risk for problems with memory and thinking skills than those who do not follow the diet, according to a study. “It’s exciting to see that we may be able to help people living with MS maintain better cognition by eating a Mediterranean diet,” said study author Ilana Katz Sand of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, New York, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.

Young students following the Mediterranean diet and exercising regularly demonstrated improved working memory, according to an Italian study. “Research has proven that physical activity and the Mediterranean diet affect cognitive function,” Francesco Esposito, a researcher at the University of Bologna and co-author of the study, told Olive Oil Times. “It has also shown that the intake of polyphenols and other Mediterranean diet contents impact cognitive health.”

More benefits — Adherence to the Mediterranean diet may decrease the progression of age-related macular degeneration (an eye disease), according to a review in Acta Ophthalmologica.

Several studies have proved that the diet can help lower the risk of metabolic syndrome, support a healthy balance of gut microbiota (bacteria and other microorganisms) in the digestive system, reduce the risk for certain types of cancer and slowing the decline of brain function as you age.

Mediterranean Diet: Fit facts

Why is the Mediterranean diet good?

Cleveland Clinic in the United States says a Mediterranean diet is good because it:

Limits saturated fat and trans fat — Eating too much saturated fat can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, which increases the risk of plaque buildup in arteries. Trans fat has no health benefits. Both can cause inflammation.

More healthy unsaturated fats — Unsaturated fats enhance healthy cholesterol levels, support brain health and combat inflammation. A diet high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fat promotes healthy blood sugar levels.

Cuts sodium — A diet high in sodium can raise your blood pressure, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Reduces refined carbohydrates — Foods high in refined carbohydrates spikes blood sugar. It also gives excess calories without nutritional benefit.

High fibre and antioxidants — These help reduce inflammation in the body. Fibre keeps waste moving through the large intestine, and antioxidants protect against cancer.

What is the Mediterranean diet?

A typical Mediterranean diet is high in plant foods and low in meat, animal products, and dairy. Olive oil is the primary source of fat. Fish rich in Omega-3 and seafood is recommended.

Food is not the only thing; a good lifestyle is part of it. The Mediterranean lifestyle requires regular physical activity, sharing meals with others and reducing stress.

Mediterranean diet - what you can eat
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Why is it called the Mediterranean diet?

Since the diet is based on the traditional foods that people used to eat in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, including France, Spain, Greece, and Italy, it is called the Mediterranean diet. Researchers say these people were exceptionally healthy and had a low risk of many chronic conditions.

When was the Mediterranean diet created?

The concept began in the 1950s after American researcher Ancel Keys studied the link between diet and cardiovascular disease worldwide.

During the study, which spanned decades, Keys and his team found that eating patterns in Greece and Italy were linked with lower rates of coronary artery disease compared to the US and northern Europe. That was how the Mediterranean diet was born.

Over the years, the eating patterns in many Mediterranean countries changed. When you refer to the Mediterranean diet today, it’s the meal pattern followed in the region in the mid-20th century.

Mediterranean snacks
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What’s the social component of the Mediterranean diet?

The health benefits of a Mediterranean diet were not restricted to food. Social interactions, sharing food and eating in the company of others formed a critical component of the Mediterranean lifestyle.

“The Mediterranean way of eating is not just about the food on plates, it’s about the social interactions linked to food, and people who socialise more have a lower risk of dementia and other conditions,” Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior lecturer at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, told CNN.

How is lifestyle linked to the Mediterranean diet?

Cleveland Clinic in the United States says that to get the most from the Mediterranean diet, follow this.

■ Exercise regularly, ideally as a group activity.

■ Avoid smoking and tobacco products.

■ Cook and eat with family and friends.

■ Cook at home rather than eat out.

■ Eat locally-sourced foods whenever possible.

Is Mediterranean the ultimate diet?

A look at the benefits of the Mediterranean diet tells us this is the best diet. What's conveniently forgotten is the social component. A diet without social interaction may not be of much help. So when family and friends eat together, it’s more than just a meal.