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Mediterranean Diet's Good for You

The Romans of the 4th century B.C. may not have given much thought to the potential health benefits of the diet they consumed. But a couple of millennia later, scientists and nutritionists are taking a hard look at the nuts, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil and red wine that, taken together, we've come to call the Mediterranean diet. They're compelled by the observation that people in the Mediterranean basin have historically lived longer and experienced less disease than we in the West. Does this magic combination of foods really make people healthier? And if so, how?

To 21st-century American ears, the Mediterranean diet doesn't sound completely good for you -- the alcohol, the fat and calories in the nuts and oils. But the evidence supporting it as a healthful way of eating continues to build.

Last summer a major study in the Archives of Internal Medicine established that the Mediterranean diet increases longevity (and reduced risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease) in Americans -- not just in Europeans. This was huge, as it helped dispel the idea that the diet's apparent benefits might be strongly tied to genetic, cultural or geographic elements, not just to the food itself.

This July the New England Journal of Medicine published research showing that people following a Mediterranean diet or a low-carb diet patterned after the Atkins diet lost more weight over two years than those on a low-fat diet did. The much-ballyhooed study was important in that it established the Mediterranean diet as a potential weight-control tool, not just a healthful way of eating. But it's important to note that the subjects following the Mediterranean diet (and the low-fat diet; the low-carb eaters had no calorie restriction) were limited to 1,500 calories for women and 1,800 calories for men. You'd have to tailor your Mediterranean diet carefully to keep calories that low.

A big study in the British Medical Journal this September showed that adherence to the Mediterranean diet not only lowered the risk of dying of cancer and cardiovascular disease but also reduced risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. This study emphasized the importance of evaluating the diet as a whole, with components that perhaps complement one another in meaningful ways, rather than focusing on individual nutrients or food groups.

And just last week a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a low-glycemic diet similar to the Mediterranean one helped Type 2 diabetics manage their blood sugar better than a diet high in cereal fiber did. Meanwhile, researchers reporting in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people consuming a Mediterranean diet plus extra nuts were less likely to have the coronary disease risk factors known as metabolic syndrome than those eating a Mediterranean diet with extra olive oil -- and way less likely than those on a low-fat diet.

Researchers note that the healthful fats found in tree nuts, the anti-inflammatory properties of the oleic acid in olive oil, the fiber in whole grains and legumes and the alcohol in wine all contribute to cardiovascular health.

The folks at Oldways, the Boston-area food think-tank that, along with its many sponsors (many of which are food manufacturers and trade organizations), has been working for 15 years to promote the Mediterranean diet and make it accessible to the American public, would add this: Part of what makes this diet good for you is the set of circumstances under which it's designed to be consumed. (Sadly, as this New York Times article reports, people actually living in the Mediterranean basin today have largely abandoned their traditional diet in favor of fast food -- to the detriment of their health.)

The food on the Mediterranean table is meant to be savored slowly, in small bites separated by sips of wine. It's best when eaten in the company of family and friends, with convivial conversation as much a part of the meal as the salmon on your plate.

As I confess in the "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column today, I find the Mediterranean diet appealing in theory but strangely difficult to incorporate into my lifestyle. I read the recipes and menus, but when I get to the grocery store, all that inspiration somehow evaporates. I'm going to keep trying, starting with the recipes provided by Oldways for our healthy holiday feast in today's column. But even before I get the food part down pat, I'm going to work hard at eating slowly, really enjoying my food and, most of all, really enjoying my company.

Eat, drink and be healthy indeed.

Have you tried the Mediterranean diet? Do you see any health benefits? Is it hard to incorporate into your life?

Answer to last week's quiz:

Most of you -- 39 percent -- correctly responded that a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese had the fewest calories (510). Thirty-one percent of you thought the Panda Express Orange Chicken with Steamed Rice had the fewest; that meal in fact has about 680 calories. That small Heath Shake from Baskin Robbins fooled 29 percent of you. Guess how many calories in that baby? 990! (A medium serving has 1,420 calories; a large has a whopping 2,310!)

Take This Week's Holiday Challenge Quiz:

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  December 23, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

Thanks for articles like this one. They make for a well rounded, balanced news diet.
We have combined both the Med and American diet for close to thirty years.
We leaned more Med, less American and almost entirely vegetarian with fish and chicken allowed.
This was not difficult since one of us didn't care for "red" meat and the other didn't grow up eating it regularly because it was always more expensive than beans, chicken or fish. Farms were nearby and visited weekly for fresh vegetables and fruits. A man delivered fresh eggs several times a week and milk was delivered daily and placed in
an insulated chest provided by the company.
When we had children I included red meat two or three times a week as I thought they should be introduced to all good foods and a balanced diet.
It did not spare one of us older folks from being diagnosed with Parkinson's, which some specialists now believe may actually be caused by a virus. Who knows since there are a variety of other possible causes and triggers.
However, this one had become much more of a 'mouse', loved cheese, eggs, tuna, pizza, french fries, shunned baked potatoes, sweet potatoes, brocoli and cauliflower (unless they were in a creamy cheese sauce), and many green leafy vegetables. The justification was it was okay because of not eating red meat.
We all wind up with particular likes and dislikes. Making the change to healthier habits is not easy but information like this is very helpful. I am certainly going to go to the Oldways web site even though I often use the two
Mediterranean and numerous vegetarian cookbooks we own.

Posted by: postitution | December 23, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I am a huge advocate of the traditional Mediterranean diet.

You are correct to imply that total calories have to be given attention; it is in fact possible to become morbidly obese on the Mediterranean diet.

To improve my personal patients' health and longevity, I have made available a free do-it-yourself Mediterranean diet here:
http://advancedmediterraneandiet.com/doityourselfdiet.html

That document suggests an appropriate caloric intake level and helps you track it. Check with your personal physician and/or dietitian before trying it.

-Steve Parker, M.D.

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | December 23, 2008 9:58 PM | Report abuse

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