By David Grotto, RD, LDN
The traditional Mediterranean diet is often described as the dietary pattern that emerged in coastal olive-growing countries bordering the Mediterranean region in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This was a period of recovery from World War II and growth for Europe before the influence of Western culture and obesity-promoting fast food fully arrived. The diet itself is characterized by an abundance of vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, and cereals (mainly unrefined); a high intake of monounsaturated-rich olive oil but a low intake of saturated fats from marbled meats and full-fat dairy; a moderately high intake of fish; a low-to-moderate intake of dairy products in the form of yogurt and cheese; a low intake of meat and poultry; and a regular but moderate intake of alcohol, mainly from wine and generally drunk during meals.
There are several possible explanations for why following a Mediterranean diet may help in the battle of the bulge. The Mediterranean diet is high in hunger-busting and digestion-promoting fiber, which may help shave off excess calories. Those same fiber-rich foods don’t bring with them a truckload of calories, so you can load up on volumes of produce, for example, and not worry about blowing your calorie budget. Several researchers feel the diet’s success may be due to its low glycemic load, which studies suggest may help control blood sugar and appetite.
The science indicates a Mediterranean-style diet targets dangerous belly fat that contributes to inflammation associated with heart disease and obesity. A meta-analysis of 16 different studies found that the Mediterranean diet helped participants lose weight and maintain the weight loss, especially when they kept an eye on their calorie intake, exercised regularly, and participated in a follow-up program that lasted at least six months. Put all of those elements together and you have the makings of a healthy diet and lifestyle program no matter what part of the world you live in. Is there an advantage of a Mediterranean diet over other cuisines of the world? Unfortunately, research is somewhat wanting when it comes to comparing equally healthy traditional diets the world over.
It’s a healthy way of eating, for sure, but even for Mediterraneans, it can be a struggle to follow, especially in today’s world, filled with tempting, cheap, hyperpalatable food as evidenced by the obesity explosion in Greece. Hey…Westernization happens.