The Mediterranean Diet and The Complicated Science Behind Diet Studies

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What is the Mediterranean diet?



The Mediterranean diet is based upon the dietary habits and culture of people who live near the Mediterranean Sea. Collectively, the Mediterranean diet, and its associated lifestyle, was included on the "Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" during the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2013 proceedings.


Groups that follow the Mediterranean diet aren't limited to one country or cultural tradition, so each has slightly different definitions of the Mediterranean diet. Despite these differences, the overriding similarities have become the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle we'll look at in this article.


The nations surrounding the Mediterranean experience warm summers and relatively mild winters. Its direct access to a large, nearby body of water undoubtedly influences the proportion of seafood found in the diet.


The Mediterranean houses some of the leading producers of olives in the world. With plentiful access to olives, the Mediterranean diet often includes olive oil as an alternative to other fats.


In addition to the foods included in the diet, a traditional Mediterranean lifestyle includes certain cultural habits that promote a healthy life. Frequent, informal physical activity is a cornerstone of Mediterranean culture. This exercise contributes to the positive health outcomes observed in groups who follow these diets.


Another cultural aspect that shouldn't be overlooked is the social nature of mealtimes in the Mediterranean. Gathering during mealtimes provides socialization that can be missing when we eat in isolation. 


Conversation at a lively dinner table can also extend the length of the meal. With a longer meal, we give our bodies a chance to become satiated and stop eating when we've had our fill.



What foods are included in the Mediterranean diet?



Fruits, vegetables, seafood, legumes, and grains are the primary foods included in the Mediterranean diet. An important guiding principle in the diet is limiting the amount of processed foods. Poultry and dairy are also limited while red meats and sweets are the most rare component of the diet.


Contrary to many diets, you'll frequently see moderate amounts of wine included in the discussions of the Mediterranean diet. Typically, the reported amount of wine in the diet is limited to one glass or fewer each day. The overconsumption of alcohol can lead to many problems, so it's wise to consume moderately.


The drink of choice in the Mediterranean diet is water. Health benefits of drinking more water are well represented in the medical literature, especially when replacing sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks and bottled fruit juices.



What are the reported health benefits of moving to a Mediterranean diet?



One of the most common health benefits reported for those who follow the Mediterranean diet is an improvement to heart health. Consuming more monounsaturated fats from olive oil, as reported by the Mayo Clinic, contributes to lower levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) in the body. 


Omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat found in various types of fish, may also contribute to a reduction in triglycerides which reduces the "risk of stroke and heart failure."


Another article from the Mayo Clinic suggests that following a Mediterranean diet can lead to a decreased risk of developing cognitive decline, a precursor to Alzheimer's disease. The studies aren't conclusive at the moment, but early evidence is promising.


The Mediterranean diet doesn't necessarily include weight loss as a major benefit, but studies have found some evidence of weight loss for individuals who follow a Mediterranean diet. 


Additionally, a study found evidence that the Mediterranean diet can improve results for individuals with type 2 diabetes when compared to those following a low-fat diet.



A word of caution regarding the science of "healthy" and "unhealthy" diets



Now that we've explored some of the health benefits commonly associated with the Mediterranean diet, it's important to take a moment to explain some difficulties facing nutrition scientists. Simply put, scientific certainty is difficult to achieve when it comes to nutrition.


Outside of the large costs and effort required to run long-term studies, there are ethical concerns related to human trials. To confirm that a healthy diet is better than a traditionally unhealthy diet, some subjects would need to consume the unhealthy diet for a period of years.


When medicine is inevitably prescribed, to counteract the effects of the poor diet, the study loses some information. People live longer and are healthier than they otherwise would be, so the evidence isn't quite as strong as it might be in other scientific areas.


Moreover, controlling for the environmental and lifestyle effects, especially those that happened prior to the study, become increasingly complex.


Adding to the scientific difficulties mentioned above, there are inherent political considerations when it comes to food. Representatives with large farming constituencies are, understandably, going to prefer legislation that encourages prosperity for those groups. These complications can't be ignored when it comes to choosing the best diet for your situation.



Would you like to follow a healthier diet?



Before diving into a new diet it's important to realize that there isn't a perfect answer. What works for one person at one time may or may not work for someone else. A retiree may be able to spend more time preparing meals when compared to a family that's constantly on-the-go.


Fad diets might lead to short-term results, but longer-term lifestyle changes you can easily maintain are much better. Making steady improvements, and tracking progress along the way, is the simplest way to reach your health goals.


This holistic view of your current health and future goals is the cornerstone of Dr. Inman's Nutritional Counseling service. Take the steps to make progress on your health journey; use the button below to schedule an appointment with Dr. Inman. Your happier, healthier life is just around the corner!