Diet is perhaps not the right word to describe eating the Mediterranean way. The word “diet” has a connotation of restriction or weight loss. Restriction is certainly not a principle of the Mediterranean diet. Rather, the focus is on enjoying food more fully. As Marissa Cloutier and Eve Adamson state in The Mediterranean Diet,
“Life is for savoring and food is a glorious and beautiful expression of life.”
Thus, food is not something to be rushed through or cheapened. In the United States, eating often becomes simply another event to fit into a busy schedule. In Italy, eating on the go is not always considered culturally acceptable, such as on public transportation. In contrast, there seems to be much more respect for leisure time here. Many cities essentially shut down midday to allow people time to rest and enjoy a meal with family.
As for the foods included in the Mediterranean eating pattern…
Olive oil is the standout component. It is the principle fat used in the diet and has been much acclaimed for its health benefits, mainly protection against cardiovascular disease. Olive oil is composed mainly of monounsaturated fat, specifically, oleic acid, which has been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol). Olive oil also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Plant foods constitute the base of the diet. Fruits and vegetables are emphasized, accompanied by whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy are consumed in smaller amounts, and red meat is used sparingly on occasion. This is quite a contrast between the typical American diet, where the meal is typically centered around a piece of meat.
The Mediterranean diet evolved as the “poor man’s diet”. The idea was to use what was on hand and to make the most of the foods available. Also, meat was expensive, so many could not afford to include it in their diets on a regular basis. Instead, meals were centered around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. For example, many famous Italian dishes follow this principle, such as pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans) or Tuscan soup made with bread.
Although the limited inclusion of animal products in the Mediterranean diet was originally viewed as undesirable by those who followed it, this is likely a major reason why the diet is believe to be so healthy. One of the major studies conducted on the Mediterranean diet was the Seven Countries Study, led by Ancel Keys. This study found that cardiovascular disease rates were higher in the United States and Northern Europe, where consumption of animal products was higher, than in Southern Europe.
Another main concept of the Mediterranean diet is variety. Because the Mediterranean diet is used to describe a style of eating among eighteen countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, there are regional variations due to geography, climate, culture, and religion.
Finally, fresh, local foods are best. Produce that is in season tends to be less expensive and tastier too!