MICHIGAN, May 14, 2012 - Celebrities are promoting what are intended to be revolutionary dietary regimens that are supposed to be your prescription for health. “Ripped in 30 Meal Plan,” “Dr. Oz 90-day Meal Plan,” and “The Ultimate Weight Solution” are all authored by celebrities who use colorful, magnetic language to market their products. On the other hand, we have the Mediterranean Diet, named after the Mediterranean Sea, which is rich in tradition, and supported exhaustively by research and clinical studies which suggest that it increases longevity while warding off chronic disease. More important, for centuries, those residing along the Mediterranean coast have adhered to this diet, and have enjoyed the best health among all people in the world.
Did you know that the word diet originates from the Greek word diaita meaning “a way of life, a regimen”? The Mediterranean Diet is exactly that - a mixture of lifestyle habits, eating patterns and cooking techniques used by these countries. Greece, France, Spain, Italy, and parts of the Middle East constitute the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The land inhabited by these countries have some of the oldest cultures on Earth, so the diet has evolved over the years, but the basic staples of the diet remain unchanged.
How does the Mediterranean Diet Differ from the American Diet?
Differences between the lifestyle habits of the European and Middle Eastern countries adhering to the Mediterranean Diet and that of the modern western world respectively is vast.
We love processed foods; the aisles at our supermarkets are filled with canned soups, microwaveable meals, cereal, bread, and bottled beverages. These manufactured foods are often replete with preservatives, artificial flavors, salt, and sugar. Our food labels depict ingredients that are foreign to us-they sound like chemical compounds concocted in some alien laboratory by a bunch of tawdry scientists in lab coats.
Common preservatives include Butylated Hydroxyanasole (found often in cereal), Sodium Nitrite (used to preserve meat), Sodium Benzoate (found in soft drinks). Although preservatives protect the food from mold and bacteria giving food a longer shelf-life, they are deleterious to our health. Some potential side-effects of consuming these and other preservatives include cancer, allergic reactions, and nerve damage.
“Natural” is what the Mediterranean Diet promotes. Those who reside along the Mediterranean coast rarely eat foods with chemically based preservatives or artificial flavors. Instead, they eat fresh, whole foods. The key components to the diet are fruits and vegetables (5-6 servings per day), along with olive oil (3-4 servings per day), as well as moderate intake of whole grains (from breads and cereal, rather than pasta). They also frequently snack on nuts, such as cashews, walnuts, and almonds. The residents of these countries also eat meat rarely, consuming about 3-servings of fish per week, and largely refraining from red meat all together.
It is also noteworthy that a glass of red wine per day is common as well. That sounds a bit enticing, doesn’t it?
With regard to cooking techniques, they generally do not use salt when preparing meals and they rarely fry foods. We, on the other hand, frequent restaurants and fast-food joints that serve a hefty array of fried foods and high sodium -containing foods on their menu. The insidious pleasures of fried foods are exploding waist lines around the country.
You have probably now deduced some fundamental differences in our diet and the Mediterranean diet. We eat red meat, they hardly do (they eat fish and seafood primarily). We consume processed foods, they eat fresh foods. We snack on chips and sweets, they snack on nuts. We eat pasta regularly, they don’t. We use salt to give flavor to our meals, they use herbs and spices. We use vegetable oil, they use olive oil.
But the Mediterranean diet is a way of life, as it should be, so it’s not confined to food, but stresses physical activity and social life as well. Regular physical activity is something common among those residing in the Mediterranean countries. In fact, many use walking or biking as their primary mode of transportation. The cumulative effects of walking, biking, or even standing can prevent obesity, and help you get the recommended daily activity to help prevent illnesses.
Also, rather than wolfing down their food, they chew slowly, and appreciate their food. Their meals are leisurely and long; social gatherings with family and others during meals are common and help them break away from daily stressors. Eating slowly has numerous beneficial effects, with the largest benefits being that satiety signals are triggered in time to prevent you from overeating, and that food is digested much more efficiently.
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Does the Mediterranean Diet Work? How So?
Countless studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet increases longevity, and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity. In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) sought to see how the Mediterranean diet would affect mortality rates in a cohort of elderly individuals aged 70-90 over a 10-year period. This was one of the few studies to look at how the Mediterranean diet affected mortality rates associated with numerous maladies such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. They determined that participants adhering to the Mediterranean Diet had a significantly lower rate of mortality (by 50%) in each of these categories.
Simply looking at the rates of heart disease in these Mediterranean countries and comparing them to the rates here in America is compelling enough to contemplate adopting the Mediterranean diet. Fatalities from heart disease in America are nearly double that of the Mediterranean countries. In the U.S., the rate is 106 deaths per 100,000 people, while in Greece, Italy, and France the rates are 68 deaths (or less) per 100,000.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing nearly ¼ of Americans annually. The two biggest risk factors for heart disease are inactivity and obesity. Heart disease is often caused by a build-up of fatty deposits which causes a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart or brain. If the blockage prevents blood from going to the heart, you will have a heart attack, whereas, a blockage that prevents blood going to the brain leads to a stroke. Both are fatal, yet preventable consequences.
Just looking at some of the individual components of the Mediterranean diet will help illuminate how it can prevent heart disease while improving health.
Fruits and vegetables, for example, are a great source of Vitamins A and C, and also have nutrients such as beta-carotene, lutein, and lycopene. These are known to be rich in antioxidants-they protect the body from harmful free radicals, which have been shown to be linked to cancer and heart disease. The key to getting all of these in adequate amounts is to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, with the notion that their color bears on how much of each vitamin and nutrient they possess.
Nuts are high in Vitamin E which is also an antioxidant. They also have good fats, better known as mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats, which have been shown to increase HDL (good cholesterol) and reduce LDL (bad cholesterol). A little secret about nuts that people do not know (and probably explains how those residing in these Mediterranean countries can eat smaller portions) is that they contain oils which help keep you feeling full. That’s right-if you snack on them, chances are your appetite won’t be as ferocious.
Fish is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids are that they keep the blood from clotting and reduce inflammation in the body. Thus, fish reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and cholesterol elevation. Omega-3 fatty acids are also considered “brain foods,” since they have been shown to improve memory, concentration, and attention, hence reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This is because fish, or specifically Omega-3 fatty acids, are a rich source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid that is found in high concentrations in the brain.
There are numerous diets on the market, the promoters of which make intriguing claims in their creative advertisements while using reputable people to advance their cause. But just as we should never judge a book by its cover, we should never judge a diet by who promotes it.
The staple of the Mediterranean diet is its fresh foods packed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber working collectively as a line of defense against heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Let the Mediterranean Diet act as your fortress-make it a way of life that supports your desire to live a longer, healthier, and fuller life. A diet rooted in tradition and practiced for thousands of years with success most definitely will be the surefire way to better health.
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