Given that it has been one of the most historically acclaimed diets since the 1960s, it is especially striking that the oft-cited “Mediterranean diet” isn’t really a diet at all, at least in the sense of comprising a single set of agreed-upon rules and restrictions. And clearly, it isn’t a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ trend. What it essentially is, is an eating pattern and culture broadly inspired by the diets of southern European countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Nonetheless, certain consistent characteristics of a typical Mediterranean diet have been identified, ranging from the daily consumption of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains, to the weekly eating of fish, beans, eggs and poultry, and minimal red meat intake.
A Mediterranean diet, then, is easy to follow compared to many much shorter-lived but ‘trendy’ eating plans. But in which ways may it be good for your health?
A stronger heart
Today’s widespread recognition of the Mediterranean diet as healthy might have its origins in American scientist Dr Ancel Keys’ observation in the 1950s that residents of southern Italy’s poorer areas were at lower risk of heart disease and death than people in wealthier parts of New York.
Dr Keys suggested the Mediterranean diet as potentially explaining the discrepancy. Studies over subsequent decades have backed this, making a link between the diet and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
A better gut
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of sound gut health; there are literally billions of good and bad bacteria living down there, and a lack of balance of types of bacteria could adversely impact your health.
It’s fascinating, then, to read of a 2018 study of non-human primates published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, which found that a Mediterranean diet boosted good bacteria by seven per cent, compared to a mere 0.5 per cent when a more meat-focused diet was followed.
Decreased risk of diabetes
Another study, in 2014, indicated that a Mediterranean diet may be useful for minimising the chances of developing type 2 diabetes, in addition to improving markers of diabetes in those who already had the condition.
Reduced risk of stroke... in women
The above is an important caveat – while research published in the Stroke journal in 2018 found an association between women consuming a Mediterranean diet and a lower likelihood of suffering a stroke, this was not mirrored in a statistically significant way in men.
Relief from the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis
The autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes symptoms including pain, swelling and stiffness as a result of the body mistakenly attacking the joints.
It is thought that some of the Mediterranean diet’s qualities, such as its high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids like those found in fatty fish, may assist in relieving the symptoms of RA.
Lower chance of depression
Although we don’t know precisely why a Mediterranean diet may reduce the likelihood of depression, a 2018 analysis of 41 observational studies, published in the Molecular Psychiatry journal, did make the link.
More specifically, the combination of figures from four longitudinal studies pointed to a 33 per cent decrease in depression risk for those following this diet, compared to when a “pro-inflammatory diet” – consisting of higher levels of processed meats, sugar and trans fats – is pursued.
Reading all of the above advantages of pursuing a Mediterranean diet should leave you unsurprised that it has also been associated with helping people to live longer!
Indeed, the vegetables, fruits and olive oil that make up such a significant proportion of this diet have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that may help to combat age-related oxidative damage.
As the NHS website explains, the Mediterranean diet largely mirrors the government’s own healthy eating advice, which should further affirm just how healthy it could be for you to adopt some ‘southern European’ dietary habits.
Furthermore, with there being few set ‘rules’ about what exactly constitutes such a diet, it’s relatively easy for even the most time-poor and cash-strapped eater to make their own diet ‘more Mediterranean’.