Curious About the Mediterranean Diet? Here's the Lowdown

Jan. 16, 2015

The Mediterranean diet is not merely about eating well, but about healthy living.

Beginning this month, the University of Arizona is hosting a series of events — a reception with celebrity chefs, an international conference, a workshop series and a study-abroad opportunity for students — to explore and share current research associated with the Mediterranean diet.

"We're showcasing the foods and helping people translate dietary recommendations to actual strategies — taking science to the plate — showing people what you can do, how to do it and where to find it," said Melanie Hingle, UA assistant professor of nutritional sciences and public health. 

Based on research and empirical findings advanced by researchers and educators, including Hingle and other faculty from the UA Department of Nutritional Sciences, here is a how-to guide for adopting Mediterranean-style eating habits inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of Greece, southern Italy and Spain.

The Mediterranean diet, explained

The Mediterranean way of eating focuses on fresh and antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits, olive oil, unrefined whole grains, beans and nuts, along with lesser amounts of fish, lean meats and dairy, and the moderate consumption of red wine.

Often called a diet, it is actually a dietary pattern.

The pattern gained international acclaim after research by American scientist Ancel Keys and his wife and collaborator, Margaret Keys. The Keys' research suggested that the diet's low saturated-fat content could help explain the low incidence of cardiovascular disease in cultures around the Mediterranean Sea as compared to other regions.

How to eat Mediterranean

With balance in mind, the Mayo Clinic suggests that those following the Mediterranean diet should:

  • Base every meal on fruits, vegetables, mostly whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes and seeds.
  • Choose unrefined, unprocessed, whole foods.
  • Focus on seasonally fresh and locally grown foods.
  • Eat meats and sweets less often.
  • Limit the consumption of red meat to no more than just a few times monthly.
  • Eat moderate portions of cheese, eggs and yogurt.
  • Eat more fish and seafood (at least twice weekly).
  • Use mostly plant fats, especially olive oil, for cooking and on salads.
  • Enjoy red wine in moderation.

Health benefits abound 

With its focus on a high consumption of plant fats, which come mostly in the form of olive oil, and a relatively low consumption of meats, the Mediterranean diet has been found to confer protection against obesity, an important risk factor for many chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Research also indicates that the dietary pattern can reduce the incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. 

The dietary pattern has received significant attention in scientific community since the 1990s, particularly after research findings indicated that a diet too heavily reliant upon refined carbohydrates could have negative health effects.

Social and cultural benefits

In addition to the individual health benefits, researchers have found that the Mediterranean diet can aid in regional health.

The diet also has important social and economic implications, as it encourages the support of local agriculture, regional food industry and shared meals.

In 2010, the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage agreed to include the Mediterranean diet on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO first recognized Greece, Spain, Italy and Morocco as countries where the dietary pattern maintains an important presence, later recognizing Portugal, Cyprus and Croatia.

Physical activity is an important complement  

Common foods include the flavor and color-blasted likes of white bean stew, baked falafel, vegetable and garlic calzones, grilled salmon, fish served in tomato-olive sauce, barley and roasted tomato risotto and also salads topped with artichokes, cucumber, tomatoes, olives and the ubiquitous feta cheese.

In addition to preventing disease and lowering cholesterol, following a Mediterranean-style diet also has been associated with increased levels of physical activity. Research has not established how these behaviors are linked but suspect that they function together as part of a lifestyle, not just an eating pattern.

Either way, regular physical activity appears to contribute to the observed benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Credit: Bach-Faig A, Berry EM, Lairon D, Reguant J, Trichopoulou A, Dernini S, Medina FX, Battino M, Belahsen R, Miranda G, Serra-Majem L, Mediterranean Diet Foundation Expert Group: Mediterranean diet pyramid today. Public Health Nutr 2011, 14:2274–2284.

Contact: Melanie Hingle, UA assistant professor of nutritional sciences and public health, 520-621-3087 and hinglem@email.arizona.edu.