Background to the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet has the strongest evidence base for the reduction of cardiovascular events, increasing lifespan, and healthy aging. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not based upon a southern French or Spanish diet. It was conceived following studies in the mid-20th century. These demonstrated that residents of the Crete, Greece, and southern Italy had a low incidence of cardiovascular disease and higher than average life expectancy.
It was thought that their health might be due to their diet. However, we should consider that there were other possible factors beyond the food itself, at work in these communities. For example, there are positive social aspects of multiple family members eating meals together (reducing loneliness, increasing social support, etc). Daily physical activity was also prevalent in these communities. These might also contribute to the beneficial effects attributed to the diet.
The diet in Crete around that time was different to a modern western diet. There was much less red meat and moderate to relatively high fish consumption. Fat came mostly from olive oil and there were lots more vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts. It was primarily a plant-based diet, although up to 4 eggs per week were included. Small to modest servings of dairy, and red wine, were also consumed. When red meat was used it came from game such as rabbits, rather than beef or lamb.
A Mediterranean diet typically consists of:
· Low intake of meat, other animal products, and simple carbohydrates (sugars)
· Plentiful fresh fruit & vegetables;
· Olive oil as the major fat source;
· Legumes (eg broad beans);
· Tree nuts;
· Aromatic spices and herbs;
· Frequent intake of fish and shellfish;
· Moderate consumption of wine (particularly red wine) with meals