How Does the Mediterranean Diet Work? The Good, The Bad & The Tasty
After spending the last six months indulging in the internet’s newest sensation, Pasta Grannies, where food journalists travel across Italy to meet with nonnas in their nineties and discover their traditional dishes along the way, I’ve noticed some common themes. Firstly, traditional pasta (without all the nasties, just fresh, local ingredients), looks delightful. Secondly, these Pasta Grannies are incredibly old, but they’re fit and ready to handroll ravioli each day. So this sensational series begs the question again - how does the Mediterranean Diet work? And should we all be following it?
It’s not all margarita pizza and red wines in the afternoon (although they have their place); it’s a rich diet with widespread health benefits. It’s a lifestyle and I, for one, would love to be living it.
So what is the Mediterranean Diet?
On holiday, the Mediterranean Diet looks like an Aperol Spritz by the ocean. At home, it’s based on the familiar concept of blue zones, where the diets of cultures praised for longevity were observed and brought into today’s society. The Mediterranean Diet is predominantly influenced by the foods eaten in countries like Italy and Greece over the last century, as initial researchers noticed that those living with this diet had a significantly decreased risk of lifestyle-related disease.
Consider the elements of what you know to be Greek and Italian foods. They’re rich in good-quality oils, feature lots of fresh, seasonal produce with anti-inflammatory benefits, and when eating meat, they tend to look for fresh-caught fish. And wine, when consumed in moderation, can actually be a good source of polyphenols, as well as black coffee. Most noticeably, the diets emphasize wholefoods, with minimal processing and unnecessary ingredients for thriving health. This diet isn’t a day-by-day meal plan as we know it, but rather a healthy guideline and framework you can consider following.
But what does the diet consist of? What can we actually eat?
While the diet is not strictly vegetarian, and encourages the addition of seafood once or twice a week, it has a predominantly plant-based focus. First and foremost, seek out fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Make the most of herbs and spices for flavor, and opt for foods rich in the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids wherever possible; high-quality cheeses, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, and greek yogurt. If you don’t eat seafood, you can still enjoy chicken from time to time, and don’t forget to include a healthy serve of olives and a glass of red wine each day (although it’s okay if you don’t drink too).
I’ve heard it’s filled with health benefits? What are these, and why are people living so long?
Much of the health-promoting benefits of a Mediterranean diet can actually be simmered down to their anti-inflammatory properties. We know that chronic inflammation within the body is one of the leading contributors to chronic disease, so when addressing that through the diet we can begin to alleviate ourselves of debilitating conditions.
A significant amount of research has gone into the role that the Mediterranean diet plays in supporting heart health. Specifically, reducing stroke, heart attack, and death from heart disease, alongside observing reduced levels of oxidized LDL (bad) cholesterol and prevented the development of type 2 diabetes and repeated heart attacks. Weight loss has also been frequently observed as a side effect.
As heart conditions are some of the greatest contributors to premature death, these observations are paramount in supporting health and longevity.
What about the diet and dementia? Studies say that it’s meant to support cognitive function…
Because of much of the widespread and unknown nature of dementia, a singular diet hasn’t yet been established as a treatment protocol. Yet, many studies have indicated that those following a Mediterranean diet might promote both brain and cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of developing dementia.
The high-quality fats found in the diet are proven to be associated with slower cognitive decline, such as the healthy consumption of fish to improve cognitive function due to higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. If fresh, good quality fish is not readily available, it is suggested that fish-oil tablets or flaxseed and flaxseed oil are consumed in the diet (Murray, 1998). With the Mediterranean diet also comes a low to moderate consumption of red wine, but grapes and grape seed extract have been shown to be just as beneficial. The polyphenols present have been shown to prevent beta-amyloid formation and assist in disassembling neurofibrillary tangles – lesions that cause Alzheimer’s disease (Murray, 1998).
So what lessons can we take from Pasta Grannies? Am I allowed to eat gnocchi for every meal?
Embrace this diet with a grain of Maldon salt. While the foods specific to your approach may differ from mine, there are a few key things we can learn. The first, most astounding being, when we eat a diet that is as nature intended, our bodies thrive. It will differ from region to region, but as long as there is minimal processing and as many wholefoods as possible, we’re going to benefit from it. The next lesson is that fats are not a bad thing, all of the time. We still need to be mindful about the amount we’re eating, how often, and the quality of these fats, but this lifestyle teaches us that those omega-3 fatty acids are essential for mental and physical health. And finally, we can learn, and hopefully embrace, that a big bowl of pasta every once and a while is good for the soul.
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