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I recently received an Ask Dr. Gourmet question about my thoughts on the Mediterranean Diet. As I answered the question, I realized that a lot of people may not know exactly what this is.
The Mediterranean Diet is the name that has evolved to symbolize the healthy foods eaten by those whose countries surround the Mediterranean Sea. Their diets are higher in vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and whole grain cereals. The main fat used is olive oil and there is less emphasis on highly saturated fats. Protein from animal sources is mostly fish with some dairy although much of the dairy is in the form cultured products like cheeses and yogurt. There is a lower intake of poultry and red meat and a moderate consumption of wine (mostly with meals).
The diet, for the most part, adds up to fewer calories and better quality foods than the diet that has evolved in America. Interest in this way of eating began because of the longevity of those who have traditionally eaten this way. Prior to 2003 there had been a number of studies to indicate how healthy this diet is but no definitive data. Antonia Trichopoulou and his colleagues reported on a large study that examined over 22,000 healthy adults in Greece and found that those eating a Mediterranean diet had a significant reduction in death due to heart disease and cancer (NEJM 2003; 348: 2599 - 2608).
This was the first large scale study to evaluate people "prospectively," meaning that the researchers followed the participants over time. Dr. Trichopoulou and his colleagues evaluated the diets of those in the study for a year prior to the beginning of data collection. They then looked at nine dietary components. A value was assigned of either 1 or 0 for each dietary category. If a participant was found to have eaten a diet higher in one of the nine dietary components they received a 1. The maximum score for a "perfect" Mediterranean diet would be 9 and a score of 0 would indicate a more Western diet pattern. The also issued a lifestyle questionnaire that recorded physical activity.
The results are pretty amazing. Those who had better scores lived longer. The best part is that small changes have a large effect. A two point improvement (say, from 5 to 7) on Dr. Trichopoulou's scale resulted in a 25% reduction in death from heart disease. This would mean that by simply eating more vegetables and legumes you could markedly improve your health.
Next week: What goes into the 9 dietary categories?
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
May 30, 2006