What Are the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Both the Greek and Spanish Mediterranean diets, modeled on the eating habits and lifestyles of inhabitants who live near the Mediterranean Sea, feature healthy, nutritious foods. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans displays both Mediterranean diets alongside the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended eating pattern. If you are interested in following a Mediterranean diet, learning which foods to eat in greater quantities and which foods to limit can help you reap the benefits of these heart-healthy diets.

Mediterranean diets are similar in many ways to the dietary recommendations from the USDA. When you follow a Mediterranean diet, you eat from the same food groups such as fruits, vegetables, protein, grains, dairy and oils but in slightly different amounts than the USDA guidelines recommend. The Mediterranean diet recommends eating less red meat and refined sweets, while consuming mainly fish as your source of protein, moderate amounts of dairy and poultry and generous servings of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, beans and seeds.

Following a Mediterranean diet can benefit your health in significant ways. In addition to a reduction in developing or dying from stroke or heart attack, you may also reduce your risk of some cancers and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, and increase your longevity.

The Greek version of the Mediterranean diet advises that you avoid solid fats such as shortening and butter completely, and instead consume 40 g of healthy olive oil each day. Eat about 4 cups of vegetables each day, including about 1/2 cup of a starchy vegetable such as potatoes in your total. You can have 2 1/2 cups of fruits and nuts each day. The Greek diet recommends 5.4 oz. of whole grains each day, and just 1 cup of milk products. For protein, eat 3.5 oz. of poultry, lean meat or fish per day. The diet recommends eating at least 1 oz. of fish each day. You may have 24 g of refined sugar daily and small amounts of alcohol, if you desire.

The Spanish version of the Mediterranean diet varies from the Greek because it allows more dairy, less vegetables, fruits, oils and grains and recommends significantly more seafood. On the Spanish diet, you can consume 1.2 cups of vegetables, including 1/2 cup from beans and peas, but no starchy vegetables. Eat 1.4 cups of fruits and nuts, just 2 oz. of whole grains and about 2 cups of milk or dairy products. The diet recommends 2.4 oz. of seafood or fish each day, 1.9 oz. of eggs and 19 g of healthy oils. Avoid eating refined sugars, fats and limit alcohol to 7.1 g per day.

As with any diet, if you consume more calories than you expend through normal activity and exercise, you may gain weight. The olive oil recommended on the Mediterranean diet has about 240 calories per 2 tbsp., and 1 oz. of nuts has between 150 and 200 calories. Use low-fat cooking methods such as broiling or poaching the seafood, and baking poultry to balance your calories.

What Are the Health Benefits of Traditional Mediterranean Diet?

The health benefits related to the Mediterranean diet have been the subject of investigation for decades. The diet largely consists of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Preferred meat protein comes from fish, poultry, yogurt and cheeses, with minimal red meat consumption. Red wine is also used in moderation. Even though the typical Mediterranean diet contains about 40 percent fat, the type of fat is key; the primary oil is from olives, a monounsaturated healthy fat.

Heart Disease Protection

Those living in the Mediterranean experience less heart disease than Americans. A study published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" evaluated the effects of a Mediterranean diet on those who had just experienced a heart attack. After two years, those on this eating plan realized a 70 percent reduction in subsequent heart attacks or other cardiac events, and were also living longer. Many risk factors related to coronary heart disease were also improved, including blood pressure, triglyceride, cholesterol and LDL levels. Prevalence of heart arrhythmias declined as did sudden cardiac death.

Metabolic Syndrome Reversal

Those with metabolic syndrome seem to be at increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. A study titled "The Mediterranean Diet: Is It Cardioprotective?" found that patients with metabolic syndrome, who followed a Mediterranean diet, lost weight and saw a decline in glucose and triglyceride levels, total cholesterol and blood pressure. Many also realized an increase in HDL-C, the good type of cholesterol. The best part is that more than 50 percent of those on the Mediterranean diet were no longer considered to have this metabolic condition.

Diabetes Prevention

A Mediterranean diet can actually help prevent type II diabetes. A study published in the "Diabetes Care" followed patients without diabetes, but who still had multiple heart disease risk factors. They were monitored for four years to assess diabetes risk. Those who stuck with a Mediterranean diet were more than 50 percent less likely to develop type II diabetes. Researchers theorized that the monounsaturated fats reduced overall inflammation in the body; inflammatory markers have been closely linked to many diseases including type II diabetes.

Reduction in Cancer Risk

Cancer in the Mediterranean is also less common than in the United States. Research shows that even a moderate shift toward the Mediterranean-style diet reveals a 6 percent reduction in cancer-related deaths. Those who followed the Mediterranean diet closest, realized an even greater risk reduction. One of the benefits can be attributed to the use of olive oil instead of polyunsaturated oils. Corn oil, for example, contains omega-6 fatty acids which, when used in excess, has been shown to increase tumor production. The significant consumption of fruits and vegetables also provides antioxidant protection. Another benefit of the Mediterranean diet is weight loss, which also reduces cancer risk.

Reduced Risk of Depression

The a Mediterranean diet may cut the risk of depression by as much as 30 percent. The beneficial components of the diet seemed to be related to fruit and nut consumption, intake of legumes and the ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat consumption. Research published in the "British Medical Journal" also demonstrates that a Mediterranean diet can decrease Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's.

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