The Mediterranean Diet, a way of life – by Cameron McLean APD

Please welcome guest blogger Cameron McLean! Cameron is an Accredited Practising Dietitian who recently graduated from the University of Wollongong. Connect with Cameron on twitter

Over the years, the Mediterranean Diet has gained increased amounts of attention from researchers, dietitians and media from across the globe. In fact, just this week the 2nd World Forum on Nutrition Research held in Brisbane focused on Translating the Principles of the Mediterranean Diet. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky dietitians that were able to attend this program and I am going to share with you some of the things that I learnt.

What is the Mediterranean Diet?

Unlike many of those ‘popular’ fad diets you see in the glossy magazines and newspapers, the Mediterranean Diet is somewhat like a way of life. Although there are many interpretations what is actually included in a Mediterranean style diet, the image below represents the typical types of foods and the amounts consumed. Extra virgin olive oil is an important component of the Mediterranean Diet, and consumed on a daily basis. Wine is also consumed twice daily at meals, with an emphasis upon drinking with family and friends (not alone!). The diet is rich in antioxidant containing foods, healthy mono-unsaturated fatty acids and wholegrain carbohydrate sources. It is also important to note that this is not just a diet plan, there is a strong emphasis on the important role food plays in social gatherings and festivities. There is also an involvement in the harvesting, processing and production of foods (not just their consumption!).

med diet pyramid
Image: New Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

What is all the hype about the Mediterranean Diet?

Some of the answers can be drawn from the PREDIMED (Prevention with Mediterranean Diet) study. This was a 5 year study examining the effects of the Mediterranean Diet on the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Approximately 7,400 participants were randomised into three groups: lower-fat control diet ; Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil (50mL per participant per day, 1L was supplied to families each week); and Mediterranean diet supplemented with nuts (30g mixed nuts per participant per day (15g walnuts, 7.5g almonds and 7.5g hazelnuts). Approximately 2000L of extra virgin olive oil were donated by food industry per week for the duration of the study costing $350,000 per year. Approximately 60kg of mixed nuts were donated by food industry per week for the duration of the study, costing $250,000 per year (wow, just wow!). The scale of this study is phenomenal!

I could go into a lot of detail about the results of this study, but I will just highlight some of the key findings.
– Plasma fatty acid composition was improved after only 1 year in the group following the Mediterranean Diet + Mixed Nuts.
– A higher dietary intake of polyphenols (think of foods rich in antioxidants like fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee and wine) was associated with lower blood pressure.
– The consumption of mixed nuts was inversely associated with obesity, central obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
– The Mediterranean Diet, including nuts or olive oil, resulted in a 50% reduction in diabetes incidence, compared to following a low-fat diet over 4 years.

There were even discussions by Alissa Knight on how a Mediterranean Diet can impact upon cognitive performance. It has been estimated that by 2060 dementia will cost Australia $83 billion (yes that is $83,000,000,000). However, a 5% reduction in the number of people with dementia can reduce this number by $28 million. A Mediterranean Diet style has been linked to higher global cognitive performance, memory and processing. This type of dietary pattern has also been linked to a slower rate of cognitive decline. Watch this space for future research.

It seems that the Mediterranean Diet isn’t just beneficial to our health! A Mediterranean dietary pattern is more environmentally sustainable, when compared to typical western dietary patterns. In fact, if there was an increased adherence to a Mediterranean Diet plan across Spain green house gas emissions would be reduced by 72%; land use would be reduced by 58%; energy consumption reduced by 52%; and water consumption reduced by 33%. On the other hand, increasing adherence to a more western dietary pattern was shown to increase these descriptors. So following a Mediterranean Diet is not only good for your health, but the environment too!

What can you do?

There is always going to be research into dietary patterns that optimise our overall health. But some of the fundamental dietary principles of a Mediterranean style diet are already embedded in our own dietary guidelines.

These include:
– Start eating more fruits and vegetables! With only 5.5% of Australian adults meet current guidelines for fruit & vegetable consumption, this is a perfect starting point. If steamed vegetables or salads are becoming boring, dress them up a bit with some fresh herbs and olive oil. The more colour there is, the better!
– Limit the consumption of processed foods. Try and avoid things in packets, and start consuming more whole foods.
– Replace saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado and nuts.
– Use wholegrain products instead of white and refined.
– Consume oily fish twice per week.

If you are interested, more information can be found here

Thank you so much Cameron for all of this great information on the Mediterranean Diet. It seems as though this kind of diet and lifestyle should be adopted over some of the ridiculous fad diets that are around these days.
I must say that I do love eating with friends, as food is much more enjoyed when consumed in a social situation. Do you adopt aspects of the Mediterranean diet?
– Jenna


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