The Mediterranean diet has received considerable attention from the scientific community over the past several years, and for good reasons. Between 1958 and 1970, nutrition researcher Ancel Keys surveyed the eating patterns of people living in eighteen areas of seven countries. Keys, who founded the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota in 1948, pioneered the investigation of the relationship between diet and chronic ailments such as heart disease and cancer.
His landmark Seven Countries Study found, among other things, that people living on an island of Crete and in other areas of Greece and southern Italy had notably lower rates of heart disease and some cancers. Keys became convinced that the traditional dietary patterns among these populations contributed to their longevity and relative freedom from the coronary artery disease that was becoming rampant in Western nations. In addition to developing a series of scientific articles related to the Seven Countries Study, he and his wife Margaret, also published How to Eat Well, Stay Well the Mediterranean Way (now out of print) in 1975 to promote this diet to a larger audience. The Mediterranean diet’s characteristics include:
- A great amount of plant-based foods; fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts, whole-grain cereals, and breads
- Olive oil as the main source of fat
- Low consumption of saturated fat
- Low to moderate amounts of dairy products, primarily in the form of cheese and yogurt
- Fish, poultry, and eggs a couple times a week
- Red meat only a couple times a month
- A reasonable amount of wine with (at least some) meals
Some reviewers of Key’s works asked whether other determinants besides diet might play a role in the approving rates of heart disease. What about the effects of genetic inherited) traits, exercise, or even portion sizes? As it turns out, some persuasive research has suggested that Keys was on the right track.
An important study from France, the Lyon Diet Heart Study, enrolled more than 600 men and women who had survived their first heart attack and divided them into two groups. Half followed a low-fat diet widely suggested by the American Heart Association for people with coronary artery disease, while the other made use of a Mediterranean-type diet with characteristics similar to those listed above. (In place of olive oil, the researchers used a specially prepared margarine containing monounsaturated fats in amounts similar to those found in olive oil.) The study was stopped less than halfway through its five-year course because the people following the Mediterranean diet were doing so much better than those in the other group, with 73% fewer coronary events and 70% fewer deaths from all causes.
A more recent study carefully evaluated the dietary practice of more than two-hundred thousand adults in Greece. It found that those who adhered more closely to a traditional Mediterranean diet were less likely to die not only from heart disease and cancer, but from all causes.
There are actually nearly twenty countries that border the Mediterranean Sea (not to mention the island nations of Cyprus and Malta), with widely varying dietary patterns. Furthermore, eating habits among many who lived in Greece and other Mediterranean countries have changed since the 1960s (not necessarily for the better) with the introduction of Westernized foods high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. Nevertheless, a number of features of the traditional Mediterranean diet can be translated into some basic take-home principles.