December 5, 2013

The Mediterranean-Style Diet

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Considered the birthplace of Western civilization, Greece holds an important place in history. The home of the first Olympic games, the Iliad, Socrates and, most recently, Chobani yogurt, Grecians have contributed their culture to the world for thousands of years. However, the true contribution of Greece must not be forgotten: setting the standard for sculpted abs and toned bodies. Take one look at the statues of Zeus, Aphrodite and Discobolus, and you can’t help but wonder the secret behind those marble chiseled abs. The great Greek secret may lie in their way of eating for the past few thousand years: the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern.

Presented very similarly to the preached USDA Food Pyramid, the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern is is also presented in pyramid form. At first glance, it may appear as if the USDA Food Pyramid Guidelines are similar to the Mediterranean Diet with grains forming the base of the pyramid and familiar categories of fruits, vegetables and dairy. With a closer look, take note that it’s not just grains, but whole grains that the Mediterranean Diet is built upon. Additionally, potatoes are included in this category instead of in the vegetable family. Similar to the the Food Pyramid, the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern recognizes the complex nature of foods, and includes olive oil, fish, red meat, poultry, legumes and nuts in their own respective categories.

The differences in categorization between the two pyramids is crucial in the way various foods are depicted and amounts consumed, relaying vast differences in health outcomes. For example, the Mediterranean Style Dietary pattern recognizes the variety of consequences the word “fat” can mean in diet. The US pyramid lumps all oils together in a single category, placing deleterious partially saturated oil in the same bracket as olive oil. The US pyramid also advises that all oils should be used sparingly. The Mediterranean Food Pyramid places olive oil in its own category in the “to be consumed daily” section because of its beneficial nutritional properties. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which has shown to be beneficial to the heart. All oils do not have the same effects on health, and the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern applies this principle to optimize health.

Another important distinction in the Mediterranean Food Pyramid is the separation between red meat and fish. In the US Food Pyramid, meat, fish, poultry and beans are all congregated in one category. However, the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern separates red meat and places it at the top of the pyramid and labels it as the only food that should be eaten the least frequently, or monthly. Red meat is usually high in saturated fat and can increase cholesterol. The Mediterranean Food Pyramid places fish, a food group rich in Omega-3 fatty acids and full of cardioprotective effects, in its own category as a group that should be consumed weekly.

Not only is the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern superior to the USDA’s pyramid in categorization and appearance, but also in its effects on health. There is mounting and non-controversial evidence that indicates that the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern lowers risk for disease and can increase longevity. Studies have associated the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern with reduced BMI, total cholesterol, blood pressure and serum insulin as well as increased HDL cholesterol, a beneficial component of cholesterol. According to Marie Caudill, Professor of Nutrition and Disease at Cornell University, “consumption of this dietary pattern has long been associated with lower risk of several diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. The diet emphasizes the consumption of healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, fish and high fiber complex carbohydrates — all of which may be contributing to reduced disease.”  The Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern increases the consumption of many desirable nutrients, including fiber, increased consumption of monounsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids.

According to Caudill, it’s difficult to find something negative about the Mediterranean Dietary Pattern. It can increase fat consumption, but only in a way that improves lipid profiles by lowering consumption of saturated fat and increasing consumption of monounsaturated fat. Little is known about the effects of this dietary pattern on children, but even that claim is a stretch. For increased longevity and a bod of the Greek gods, the Mediterranean Style Dietary Pattern may help get you there.