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What Is the Mediterranean Diet?

Sherry Christiansen
By Sherry ChristiansenMarch 26, 2018

In the mid-1900’s, scientists became aware that people in several Mediterranean countries were healthier and lived longer than in other regions of the world. So, researchers started studying the diet and lifestyle of the Mediterranean people to find out if what they ate, and how they lived had anything to do with the reason they were healthier.

Researchers discovered that the diet of the Mediterranean people was much different than the Western diet and its benefits include a reduction of cardiovascular disease, lower risk of cancer, reduced incidence of inflammation, oxidative stress and lower insulin levels. Thus, the Mediterranean Diet was born.

Foods in the Mediterranean Diet

The people in the Southern regions of Greece and Italy have many things in common when it comes to diet and lifestyle. They eat mostly fresh, locally grown food (not having access to many of the unhealthy processed foods in the Western diet) for one.

Other foods on the diet include:

  • A wide range of brightly colored (dark skinned) fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Extra virgin olive oil (replacing butter, which is high in saturated fat)
  • Moderate amounts (2 to 3 times per week) of fresh, locally caught wild, cold-water fish
  • Primarily vegetable sources of protein, such as beans and legumes
  • Small amounts of red wine
  • Very little red meat
  • Whole grains

Perhaps just as important as the food eaten in the Mediterranean Diet, is the lifestyle of the people, who socialize frequently and are physically active every day.

Clinical study findings were so astounding for overall health and disease prevention, that the Mediterranean Diet began to be studied for its effect on many different illnesses — including Alzheimer’s disease.

“Based on studies, the Mediterranean diet is considered by some experts to be an excellent method for reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. By one estimate, this diet can decrease disease risk by as much as 40% in older patients. The more strictly patients adhere to the diet, the more dramatically their risk is reduced,” says Dr. Richard Isaacson, M.D., Harvard trained Neurologist, in his book titled, “The Alzheimer’s Treatment & Prevention Diet.”

Foods to Avoid on the Mediterranean Diet

  • Animal products such as eggs, low-fat cheese and yogurt (in moderation)
  • Artificial sugar
  • Fried food
  • Processed foods (crackers, boxed instant foods, packaged potato chips and more)
  • Red meat should be limited (rarely)
  • Starchy foods
  • Sugary foods
  • Trans-fats (lard)
  • Unhealthy saturated fats (butter)
  • White pasta

Foods to Eat on the Mediterranean Diet

  • Bright colored, thick-skinned fruits, including: apples, berries, red grapes and oranges
  • Brightly colored vegetables such as: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, carrots, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes
  • Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (a great source of monounsaturated fat that lowers bad cholesterol [LDL] raises healthy cholesterol [HDL] levels)
  • Fresh herbs and spices
  • Fresh, wild-caught cold-water fish such as: cod, mackerel, oysters and tuna
  • Green leafy vegetables such as: collard greens, kale, spinach and Romaine lettuce
  • Lean meat such as: chicken and turkey
  • Nuts and seeds like: Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and walnuts
  • Red wine (in limited amounts, 1 glass per day for women, 2 glasses per day for men)
  • Whole grains such as: barley, oatmeal, quinoa and more

Other Things to Note About the Mediterranean Diet

Dairy Intake

Low-fat dairy should only be eaten in moderation on the Mediterranean diet — such as 1-2 servings per day of plain (no sugar added) Greek yogurt with live cultures, a 4-ounce glass of low-fat milk, or 1 to 2 ounces of low-fat cheese. Only eat dairy from grass-fed cows, because these products are higher in healthy fats, than cows that are fed corn.

Fatty Acids

Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are important to overall health. Healthy fats are a vital part of the Mediterranean Diet.

Fatty fish from cold water sources, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, was shown in studies to be an important factor in brain and heart health. Healthy choices of wild caught fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include:

Fish should not be fried in oil, but rather baked or broiled. Avoid large amounts of shellfish, which is not considered part of the Mediterranean diet. Farm raised fish is considered by many food experts to be unhealthy and toxic, and it should be avoided altogether.

Recent studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids protect against heart disease and stroke, reduce blood pressure, raise HDL (good cholesterol) and lower triglycerides. Omega-6 fatty acids mostly come from plant oils (such as corn oil) and from nuts and seeds.

Healthy Omega-3/Omega-6 Ratio

The American Heart Association recommends limiting food calories from omega-6 fatty acids to 5-10%. A diet high omega-6 fatty acid is associated with weight gain in human studies, whereas a high omega-3 fatty acid (fresh wild caught fish) intake decreases the risk for inflammation and weight gain while lowering bad cholesterol. In general, the Western diet is very high in omega-6 fatty acids, and too low in omega-3 fatty acids. It’s important to note that omega-6 fatty acids are healthy when the ratio is correctly balanced.

According to the American Heart Association, fatty fish (such as albacore tuna, herring, lake trout, mackerel, salmon and sardines should be eaten at least 2 times per week, with an average serving of 3.5 ounces cooked or ¾ cup flaked fish.

Those with a high risk of heart disease, or people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, may need to take a supplement of omega-3 fatty acid — under the supervision of the physician. High doses of omega-3 supplements could have dangerous side-effects (such as bleeding).

Foods High in Omega 3 Fatty Acids

  • Albacore tuna
  • Cod Liver and Krill Oil
  • Flax seed oil (has both Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids
  • Lake trout
  • Wild caught cod
  • Wild caught herring
  • Wild caught mackerel
  • Wild oysters
  • Wild caught salmon

Foods High in Omega 6 Fatty Acids

  • Flaxseed Oil (has both Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids)
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Pine nuts
  • Pistachios
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Unprocessed Non-GMO Corn, Safflower, Sunflower, Sesame and Soybean Oil
  • Walnutsm

The Mediterranean Diet, found to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, is also thought to slow down symptoms of memory loss in people in the early stages of the disease. According to a recent Harvard Health publication:

“This has been shown to help thwart Alzheimer’s or slow its progression.” Dr. Marshall of Harvard Health added, “A recent study showed that even partial adherence to such a diet is better than nothing, which is relevant to people who may find it difficult to fully adhere to a new diet.”

Have you seen the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet on brain or heart health? We’d like to hear more about your experiences with the diet in the comments below.

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Sherry Christiansen

Sherry Christiansen

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