Mediterranean diet sails well in the USA
A Mediterranean eating pattern was first identified in the 1950s as part of a study of health and habits in seven countries — Greece, Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United States, and Yugoslavia. One of its most intriguing findings was that people living in Crete, other parts of Greece, and southern Italy lived longer and had the lowest rates of heart disease in spite of a high-fat diet and limited medical care.
Traditional diets — plenty of plant-based foods and unsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil) and relatively little red meat and sweets — undoubtedly contributed to the relative scarcity of heart disease in the Mediterranean region. But so did the high amounts of physical activity, relative rarity of smoking, and generally healthy weights. Genes may have contributed, too.
Transplanting the diet without these trimmings could have been a bust. But it turns out that a Mediterranean eating pattern benefits an Iowa accountant as much as a Greek farmer in preventing heart disease, treating it, and even for losing weight.
Confirmation comes from a long-term study of the 400,000 men and women participating in the U.S. National Institutes of Health–AARP Diet and Health Study. Those whose eating patterns most closely matched a Mediterranean diet were about 20% less likely to have died of heart disease, cancer, or any cause over a five-year follow-up period.
A Mediterranean-type diet seems to be as good for treating heart disease as it is for preventing it. In The Heart Institute of Spokane Diet Intervention and Evaluation Trial (THIS-DIET), heart attack survivors following this type of diet were less likely than their counterparts on a more typical American diet to have died or suffered a second heart attack, a stroke, or an episode of unstable angina over two years.
Are you trying to lose weight? A Mediterranean diet trumps a low-fat diet. Results of a two-year head-to-head comparison showed that the Mediterranean diet yielded greater weight loss and was better at easing low-grade inflammation, a process linked to heart disease. Among the volunteers with diabetes, the Mediterranean diet yielded better fasting blood sugar and insulin levels.
There's no such thing as the Mediterranean diet. You may already be following one and not know it. Here are the general characteristics:
- Four or more servings of vegetables a day. A serving is ½ cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup of raw leafy greens, or ½ cup of vegetable juice.
- Four or more servings of fruit a day. A serving is ½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit, ¼ cup of dried fruit, one medium-sized piece of fruit, or ½ cup of fruit juice.
- Six or more servings of grain — mostly whole grain — a day. A serving is 1 cup of dry breakfast cereal; ½ cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta; or one slice of bread.
- Two or more servings of fish a week. A serving is 4 ounces.
- One serving of yogurt or cheese a day.
- One serving of beans or nuts a day. For cooked beans, ½ cup is a serving; for nuts it's a handful (about 1½ ounces).
- If you enjoy alcohol, limit yourself to one (for women) or two (for men) drinks a day. One drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1½ ounces of liquor.
October 2008 update