Created on: August 12, 2011 Last Updated: September 06, 2012
The Mediterranean Diet is based on the normal eating habits of Southern Europeans, such as the inhabitants of Greece and the Greek Islands, Italy, Southern France, Spain and Portugal. If you're up on your geography, you'll be saying, 'But Portugal's on the Atlantic coast, not the Mediterranean coast.' Well spotted, but the Portuguese follow a similar diet to the Spanish.
The main components of the diet include plenty of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses, minimal red meat and lots of fish and poultry. Saturated animal fats are exchanged for healthy fats such as olive oil. Meals should be flavoured with herbs and spices, rather than salt.
What makes the Mediterranean Diet so popular is that alcohol - in moderation - is seen as a Good Thing. Okay, it should be red wine, but most diets treat alcohol as poison, so that's a plus. And Mediterranean people are more physically active than Northern Europeans and North Americans. In addition, the Mediterranean pattern of eating encompasses long, leisurely meals, with the main meal being taken at lunchtime. This means the digestive system works better, and because the main meal is eaten earlier in the day, there is time to burn off the calories before bedtime. Unsurprisingly, the Mediterranean Diet has a number of health benefits.
Exchanging saturated fats for monounsaturated fats is good news for the heart. Saturated - animal - fats contain cholesterol. While everyone needs a certain amount of cholesterol, the body can synthesise all the cholesterol it needs for health. Any excess is likely to build up fatty deposits in the arteries, which can lead to heart disease.
Olive oil is monounsaturated, and contains no cholesterol, although it has the same calorie count - 9 per gram - as other fats. However, olive oil helps lower levels of 'bad' LDL cholesterol, and raises levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats also help to regulate blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke.
The Mediterranean Diet is high in Omega-3 fatty acids due to the emphasis on oily fish such as sardines, tuna, mackerel and salmon. This helps to boost the metabolism, as well as helping to burn off fat rather than storing it in body cells. The diet is also high in fibre, due to the high fruit and vegetable content. This helps you stay fuller for longer, which automatically reduces the calories consumed, thus helping with weight loss.
Because the Mediterranean Diet relies on daily consumption of fruit and vegetables, it is high in antioxidants. This protects against numerous diseases, including cancer. The diet is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. This boosts the immune system, and helps the body fight infections, as well as helping to prevent and treat inflammatory conditions such as arthritis. The high fibre content of the diet also helps to regulate blood sugar levels, which reduces the risk of developing diabetes.
The Mediterranean Diet is not really a diet - it's a long term healthy eating plan, which can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of contracting life threatening or life limiting chronic conditions. Unlike many diets, you will never feel deprived on the Mediterranean Diet, as you can eat your fill from a number of healthy foods.
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