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The Mediterranean diet

Although the cuisines of the countries bordering the Mediterranean are often high in fat, they all make extensive use of vegetables, fruit, herbs, garlic and onions, fish and dairy products, together with moderate amounts of red meat, all cooked in generous amounts of olive oil. In the 1950s, researchers demonstrated the nutritional benefits of these cuisines and brought them under a common label called the ‘Mediterranean diet’. Science has further confirmed their findings ever since.
CP019-04 Regime mediterraneen
© shuterstock / Timolina - Greek salad with fresh vegetables, feta cheese, black olives and olive oil

A modern twist on an age-old diet

Although the traditional cuisines in the countries of the Mediterranean basin are very varied, they are all remarkable for their high proportion of vegetables, pulses, herbs, garlic and onions, and fruit, as well as their extensive use of olive oil. They also make moderate use of animal protein, often from fish and more rarely from meat. We can thank the American physiologist Ancel Keys for discovering the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, a common denominator where all the different regional cuisines overlap. While living in southern Italy, he noticed that, against all expectations and despite a high-fat diet and a relatively rudimentary healthcare system, poor people in the region were in much better health and had a longer life expectancy than their Italian immigrant peers in New York City. He suggested that the Mediterranean population’s diet might be a contributing factor, and this was subsequently confirmed by a well-known study carried out in seven countries (Finland, Netherlands, the US, Italy, Greece, Japan and former Yugoslavia). The study showed that the populations of the Mediterranean basin, especially in Crete, had low blood cholesterol levels associated with a low prevalence of coronary artery disease. Originally called the Cretan diet, the Mediterranean diet has been an international success since the 1980s and has featured on the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2010.

Proven nutritional benefits

The Mediterranean diet combines active daily life with a wide variety of food. It features abundant quantities of cereal products (pasta, bread), fruit and vegetables (tomatoes, courgettes), and pulses, walnuts and seeds on a daily basis. Animal protein mainly comes from dairy products (cheese, yoghurt) and fish, more rarely from poultry or eggs, and only occasionally from red meat (beef, veal, pork).

This diet is noted for its olive oil, sometimes used in large quantities. Olive oil is thought to play a decisive role in protecting cardio-vascular health (although it is not the only factor) and has the advantage of being high in monounsaturated fatty acids, especially oleic acid. These tend to reduce blood levels of cholesterol and LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein), a protein that serves to transport cholesterol and often wrongly referred to as ‘bad cholesterol’. Moreover, olive oil contains a significant amount of oleocanthal, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory similar to ibuprofen. Regular absorption of oleocanthal apparently plays an important role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. When Paul Breslin, Gary Beauchamp and their colleagues noticed that the feeling of irritation experienced when swallowing olive oil was similar to that caused by ibuprofen, they decided to study the anti-inflammatory properties of olive oil and, in 2005, discovered oleocanthal. It is however important to note that the beneficial effects of this diet are not solely thanks to olive oil, but to a combination of all its components. So pouring olive oil onto an unbalanced meal will not make up for the long-term effects of unhealthy eating.

The Mediterranean diet follows the recommendations of international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO). In its annual ranking, the US News and World Report rated it as one of the top three diets, alongside the DASH (acronym of Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and MIND (acronym of Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diets, which are in fact adaptations of the Mediterranean diet.

The no-choice diet

Although the story of the nutritional advantages of the Mediterranean diet began in Crete, it is interesting to note that, amongst those who took part in Professor Ancel Keys’ survey, only one Cretan in six said they were satisfied with their diet, 72% wanted to eat more meat, and some even said they were constantly hungry. “Thus, the Cretan diet in the 1950s, much vaunted for its sobriety, was more the result of poverty, of the frugality of necessity, than a deliberate choice.” (Coavoux, 2015)