Various philosophies regarding healthful eating patterns have surfaced through the years, which can certainly confuse the public. We all would like to combine an eating plan that allows us to lose weight in a healthy manner, with a regimen that also tastes good!
Over the last few decades, scientists have investigated eating habits of different populations of the world, attempting to relate them to incidence of disease, especially heart disease, as this is the number one killer in most societies. One such dietary pattern noted was termed the “Mediterranean Diet.” It was discovered that certain populations of Greece, southern Italy, and specific islands of the Mediterranean Sea had developed ways of eating that seemed to correlate with less incidence of cardiovascular disease.
Much of this diet is in step with the standard eating plans espoused by most nutritional experts. This consists of fresh fruits, vegetable and whole grains (not processed carbohydrates like sugar and white flour). There should be little red meat and lots of fish.
So far, no big deal.
What breaks from tradition is the amount, and type of fat, the use of red wine and the specific types of seafood in the diet. These differences seem to account for the less prevalence of heart disease in the Mediterranean population. When those in other areas of the world adapt their diets in this way, they definitely seem to reap the benefits that pervade in Mediterranean areas.
The fat in their diet, although greater in quantity, differs greatly in quality. There is much more “monounsaturated” fat, and much less “saturated” and “trans” fat. Monounsaturated fat lowers LDL (bad)cholesterol, thus preventing plaque build-up in the arteries. Saturated and trans fat, on the other hand, promote heart disease.
These “good” fats come from liberal use of olive oil on many of their foods. Virgin and extra virgin olive oils are the least processed, and thus offer the most protection. Overzealous use of this oil can add a lot of calories, so they must be used judiciously if weight control is an issue.
They also use a lot of nuts, especially tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazel nuts). These nuts also contain healthy fats and anti-oxidants that tend to ward off heart disease. Again, overeating them (especially roasted and salted brands) will promote weight gain and negate the health benefits of the diet.
Despite the perception that Greeks and Italians eat a lot of meat, those in the populations that were studied eat mostly lean fish and poultry as their meat source. Some seafood in particular (anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna and salmon) have higher levels of “omega-3 fatty acids,” thus giving even more heart protection.
As these people do consume moderate amounts of red wine, it has been felt that this is an important part of the diet that promotes heart health. In fact, studies show that women who consume one glass of red wine per day, and men who consume 1-2 glasses per day, may have less heart disease and strokes. As alcohol can obviously have negative effects, especially in young people, and those with heart, liver and neurologic problems, its must be used cautiously. I would not recommend starting to drink wine just for the sake of following the diet if you have not used it before. Also, one has to be careful to stay within the proper parameters of alcohol use.