I use the word “diet” here not as a weight-loss program, but “the usual food and drink of a person.” Twenty-one countries have a coastline of the Mediterranean sea, and additional countries are in the Mediterranean region. When nutrition scientists talk about the healthy traditional Mediterranean diet, they’re referring mid-20th century eating habits. Observational studies around that time linked the Mediterranean diet with longer lifespans, reduced rates of chronic disease (fewer heart attacks, strokes, and dementia), and fewer cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, and uterus.
There is no monolithic, immutable, traditional Mediterranean diet. But there are similarities among many of the regional countries that tend to unite them, gastronomically speaking. Greece and southern Italy are particularly influential in this context.
So here are the characteristcs of the traditional, healthy Mediterranean diet:
- It maximizes natural whole foods and minimizes highly processed ones
- Small amounts of red meat
- Less than four eggs per week
- Low to moderate amounts of poultry and fish
- Daily fresh fruit
- Seasonal locally grown foods with minimal processing
- Concentrated sugars only a few times per week
- Wine in low to moderate amounts, and usually taken at mealtimes
- Milk products (mainly cheese and yogurt) in low to moderate amounts
- Olive oil as the predominant fat
- Abundance of foods from plants: vegetables, fruits, beans, potatoes, nuts, seeds, breads and other whole grain products
- Naturally low in saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol
- Naturally high in fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins (e.g., folate), antioxidants, and minerals (especially when compared with concentrated, refined starches and sugars in a modern Western diet)
- Naturally high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, particularly as a replacement for saturated fats
Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, in Boston, MA, has done great work promoting the traditional Mediterranean diet. Click the link for their definition of the Mediterranean diet. Based on a scientific conference in the fall of 2008, Oldways modified their original Mediterranean diet pyramid in 2009. View the 2009 pyramid here.
Be aware that the documented health benefits of the Mediterranean diet may be related to a physically active lifestyle and other social and cultural issues. For example, traditional Mediterranean mealtimes were leisurely family affairs, not a MacDonald’s Happy Meal eaten off your lap on your drive home from work.