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A Strict Mediterranean Diet Offers a Big Health Boost

mediterranean diet, olive oil, extra-virgin olive oil, antioxidants, heart disease, diabetesSticking strictly to a “Mediterranean” diet offers substantial protection against cancer, heart disease and other major chronic illnesses, according to researchers.

The research team reviewed 12 international studies which included more than 1.5 million people whose eating habits and health were tracked for follow-up periods of three to 18 years.

Strict adherence results in a 9 percent drop in death from heart disease, a 13 percent reduction in incidence of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease and a 6 percent reduction in cancer.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and healthy fats such as olive oil.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Contrary to popular belief, there"s actually no one "Mediterranean diet.” At least 16 countries border the Mediterranean Sea, and dietary habits vary from country to country due to differences in culture, ethnic background, religion, economy and agricultural production. The Mediterranean-inspired diet was first introduced in the U.S in 1945 by the American doctor Ancel Keys, but it failed to gain widespread recognition until the mid-1990s when it was popularized by Dr. Walter Willett.

The common Mediterranean dietary pattern includes:

  • high consumption of fruits and vegetables
  • high consumption of bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds
  • liberal consumption of olive oil
  • low to moderate consumption of dairy products, fish and poultry
  • low consumption of red meat 
  • eggs are consumed zero to four times a week
  • low to moderate wine consumption

In many ways the Mediterranean diet is head and neck ahead of the standard American diet. It emphasizes fresh vegetables, which is something most people could use more of, while downplaying processed foods. Reducing your intake of MSG, a neurotoxin, and high fructose corn syrup, which aggravates inflammation, will in and of itself have a positive impact on your health. 

Olive Oil – One of the MVP’s of the Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet also includes plenty of olive oil, whereas many Americans still believe that dietary fat leads to obesity. But olive oil, specifically extra-virgin olive oil, is clearly one of the "good fats” that should be included in your diet.

It’s a monounsaturated fat whose health benefits stem from it being unrefined and unheated. It also contains vitamin E and A, chlorophyll, magnesium, squalene, and a host of other cardio-protective nutrients. In addition, olive oil does not upset the critical omega 6:3 ratio, as most of the fatty acids in olive oil are actually omega-9.

Studies have shown that extra-virgin olive oil can reduce some cancers, reduce LDL cholesterol levels, and improve rheumatoid arthritis; the same or similar benefits touted by the Mediterranean diet.

According to one such study,  adults who consumed 25 milliliters (mL) or about 2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil daily for one week showed less oxidation of LDL ("bad") cholesterol and higher levels of antioxidant compounds, particularly phenols, in their blood. Antioxidants can help prevent oxidative damage that is caused by free radicals, byproducts of your body"s normal processes that can damage body tissues.

Beware: Olive Oil Should NOT Be Used for Cooking

While olive oil can, and should be, included as a healthy part of your diet, it should not be used to cook with, as it is highly susceptible to oxidative damage when heated.

Instead, it should be added cold to salads and other dishes.

If you want to try a chilled, raw, Mediterranean-style soup that features extra-virgin olive oil, check out this delicious recipe by Luci Lock.

When choosing an oil to cook with, you’ll want to pick one that will not be damaged by high temperatures. One of your absolute best choices is coconut oil, which is rich in lauric acid -- a proven antiviral and immune system builder.

The Health Benefits of a Mediterranean-Style Diet 

That the Mediterranean diet can be good for you has been well established. Studies have shown that it can:

With these impressive benefits, does this mean that the Mediterranean diet is the optimal diet for everyone?

Not so fast.

Even the Mediterranean Diet Has Some Flaws That Could Lead You Astray

There are several glaring errors that come to mind when I think about the “”heart-healthy” Mediterranean diet.

1. It promotes the misguided notion that saturated fats are bad for you.

Like the U.S. food pyramid, the Mediterranean diet vilifies saturated fats. Things like red meats and eggs, according to the diet, should be eaten sparingly. Saturated fats, however, have been wrongly blamed for the epidemics of heart disease and obesity. In reality, these healthy animal fats are necessary and very good for you.

2. It encourages eating many grains.

Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and other grains are emphasized in the Mediterranean diet. However, these are the exact items (along with vegetable oils and sugars) that have significantly contributed to heart disease, diabetes and obesity spiraling out of control in the United States.

A small portion of people, perhaps one out every six people, can thrive on a diet like this one that encourages whole grains. But what about the rest of us? 

You can read my other article on insulin to find out if you are someone that needs to avoid many or most grains.

3. It encourages eating fish and seafood.

In theory this is a healthy choice because fish contains beneficial omega-3 fats. However, their guidelines have not been amended to warn about excessive pollution of our waterways, which means that today most fish is polluted too. And eating farm-raised fish is an even worse option. So while I believe you should definitely get omega-3 fats in your diet, I recommend doing so through an animal-based omega-3 supplement like krill oil. This way you get the benefits without the pollution. 

4. It does not distinguish between pasteurized and raw dairy.

While cheese, yogurt and other dairy are popular foods in this diet, there is no mention of consuming raw dairy products, which is a key part of making them healthy. Of course, in many regions overseas dairy products are still widely available unpasteurized, so it may be more of an American issue to clarify the importance of eating dairy products raw.

5. No one diet is ever right for everyone.

You have an individual nutritional type that dictates which foods are healthy for you. Those foods may or may not be the same ones that are healthy for your spouse, your neighbor or your best friend. So while a carb nutritional type may do very well on the Mediterranean diet, a protein type would feel lousy because there simply isn’t enough red meat and fat to sustain them.

The Mediterranean Diet Effect May Be About More Than Just Food…

While study after study keeps finding tremendous health benefits from the Mediterranean diet, this effect may not be entirely due to the food choices. Many of the studies finding lower death rates and reduction in chronic illnesses – including the study above – are international studies that include countries other than the U.S.  

Therefore, lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and extended social support systems may also play a part.  

For example, according to one 2005 study,  Sports Participation in the EU: Trends and Differences,  Finland, Sweden and Denmark have the highest levels of physical exercise and sports participation out of 15 EU member countries.

And, according to the European Society of Cardiology, cardiovascular disease mortality rates -- which have dropped significantly since the 1970s -- have seen the largest decreases in the North European countries. A full two-thirds of these reductions are attributed to risk factor reduction strategies, which include dietary modifications, quitting smoking and exercising.  

The latest European Guidelines on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in Clinical Practice includes the following recommendations for physical exercise: 

For more recommendations on how to improve your health and change your life with exercise, please review my recently updated Exercise Guidelines.

+ Sources and References