Decades of Research on the Mediterranean Diet

The traditional diet of of the Mediterranean region have long been studied due to the long life expectancies, low rates of heart disease and cancer, and chronic disease.  A 2014 review paper by Castro-Quezada and colleagues from Spain describes some of the potential benefits found to be associated with this diet.

As described in the paper, the A Mediterranean diet “is a plant-based pattern, where vegetables, fruits, cereals (preferably as whole grain), legumes, and nuts should be consumed in high amount and frequency. The Mediterranean dietary pattern (MDP) also includes moderate consumption of fish and shellfish, white meat, eggs, and dairy products. On the contrary, consumption of red meat, processed meats, and foods rich in sugars and in fats should be small in both quantity and frequency. The principal source of dietary lipids of the MDP is olive oil and an adequate daily intake of water should be guaranteed, as well as moderate consumption of wine is recommended.”

The authors go on to note that the diet is part of an overall healthy lifestyle, which consists of “conviviality, culinary activities, physical activity, and adequate rest”.

The authors reviewed 15 published papers on the Mediterranean diet in order to assess whether the nutrient intake from the diet pattern meets nutritional adequacy.  In particular, they considered nutritional recommendations from different organizations, including experts from the FAO, WHO, and UNICEF.

In their review, they found that while there was variation in nutritional adequacy between studies conducted in different Mediterranean countries, generally, greater adherence to theMediterranean diet was associated with greater prevalence of individuals with adequate intake of micronutrients, and generally there was a positive correlation with greater intake of fruits and vegetables, poultry, and fish, as well as having a healthy lifestyle (for example, not smoking and being more physically active).  This was in contrast to those who tend to follow a “Western diet pattern”, which found to be correlated with not meeting certain micronutrients requirements.  The authors noted that the healthier Mediterranean diets tended to have lower intake of saturated fat, with most energy coming from protein and carbohydrate, rather than fat.

To read more about the study, see their paper.

The effect of adopting the Mediterranean diet has also been studied in intervention trials.  Dr. Estruch and colleagues in 2006 published a study in which a group of 772 persons were randomized to either follow a Mediterranean diet or a conventional low-fat diet.  Those that were assigned the Mediterranean diet tended to show improvements in various cardiovascular risk factors, including low to high density cholesterol ratios, blood pressure, glucose levels, compared to the control group.

To learn more about the study, see their paper.

Longer intervention studies of the Mediterranean diet have also been conducted, including the Lyon Diet Heart Study that recruited patients who have had a heart attack, and randomized them either follow a Mediterranean or Western diet.  The study cohort was followed over time to determine if the Mediterranean would reduce the risk of having another heart attack.  The researchers found that compared to a Western diet, a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of heart attack out to at least 4 years.

To learn more about the study, see their paper.