What Does Research Say About the Mediterranean Diet?
In 1951 the American physiologist and diet researcher Ancel Keys heard a peculiar rumor. It was said that cardiovascular disease was virtually non-existent in Italy. Could the reason be the Italian diet?
Keys was skeptical to start with but decided to travel with his family to Naples anyway to study Neapolitan dietary habits. By doing that Keys put his finger on the only diet that with certainty has been shown to have health benefits: the Mediterranean diet.
Keys fell in love with the culinary culture and then lived in Italy for many years. He lived to be over 100 years old.
Although one of the world’s most famous diet researchers, Keys did not publish only good research. One of his most well-known articles on the connection between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease omitted key data.
This contributed to exaggerating the risk of saturated fat, and Keys has been severely criticized for this. However, his findings about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet have been confirmed in study after study.1
The Mediterranean Diet Is Not Pizza and Pasta
So, what is the Mediterranean diet? It’s not exactly pizza and pasta, but rather a diet that was previously common in the countryside in Italy, Spain and Greece, with large quantities of olive oil, fish, fruit, nuts and legumes such as peas, lentils and beans.
The Mediterranean diet includes more white meat (e.g. chicken, turkey) than red meat (beef, pork, lamb). The diet is rich in fiber and contains more unsaturated than saturated fats.
The diet typically consists of at least three fruits and two vegetables per day, fish three times a week, and extremely small quantities of fat dairy products, cakes, pies and soda.2
The Mediterranean Diet Has Good Health Effects According to Numerous Studies
Studies with over half a million participants show that the Mediterranean diet reduces blood pressure, blood lipids and weight. The risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer is reduced by 25%. The Mediterranean diet also reduces long-term blood sugar.3
In contrast to many other diets, the effect of the Mediterranean diet seems to persist for a long time. In a large Spanish study, persons who followed the Mediterranean diet had 30% lower risk of heart attack after five years compared with those who had other diets.1
It is difficult to point to what particular ingredients in the Mediterranean diet produce these health effects. The effects seem to stem from the general dietary pattern. Or perhaps the general life pattern.
Social gatherings and a sense of community in a larger context are central to Italian food culture. The happy laughter and earthy folk songs heard in the old houses in Naples are perhaps just as important for health as the ingredients in the food.
The Mediterranean diet is both about what is good for you and the good things in life. No wonder that this is so healthy.
How could you let the Mediterranean diet inspire your food habits?
1. Rosén Måns. Sanningen om mat och hälsa: vad säger forskningen? [The Truth about Diet and Health: What Does the Research Say?]
2. Statens Beredning för medicinsk utvärdering. Mat vid diabetes [Food with Diabetes].
3. Ajala O et al., American Journal of Clinical Medicine, January 2013.