After centuries of culinary tradition, the Mediterranean diet was formally defined in 1980. On its fortieth anniversary, experts reveal the health benefits that have allowed the diet to endure and look ahead to its future.
In 1958, a physiologist from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health observed that incidents of coronary heart disease were more common in middle-aged Americans than their European counterparts living in Mediterranean countries.
Ancel Keys postulated that a correlation existed between people’s risk for heart disease and their eating habits and lifestyle.
You can make extra virgin olive oil part of a (Mediterranean) dietary pattern to improve your health acutely and reduce your risk of severe coronavirus infection.
This observation led Keys to launch his seminal study, with participants from seven countries around the world – the United States, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, Japan and Finland – to verify the hypothesis.
Consequent research showed a large discrepancy in the incidence and mortality of heart disease among the monitored populations.See more: Olive Oil Health Benefits
Participants from Italy and Greece, especially Crete, who had similar eating habits, had the lowest heart disease rates among other participants. The same was true for their Japanese counterparts, whose diet was also plant-based, but lacked the unsaturated fat that Mediterranean populations were receiving mainly from olive oil.
Participants from Finland and the United States, on the other hand, had the highest rates of heart disease due to their high intake of saturated animal fat, the research concluded.
The Seven Countries Study demonstrated that low rates of heart disease can occur both with a low and a high intake of fat, depending on its nature and the dietary habits of the participants.
This revelation led to the formal definition of the Mediterranean diet in 1980 after the first results of the study were published by Harvard University.
On the fortieth anniversary of the publications of these results, experts from various fields spoke with Olive Oil Times about the characteristics of the diet and its future.
Markos Klonizakis, a clinical physiologist at Sheffield Hallam University, in England, said one of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet is that there are many variations, making it adaptable across cultures.
“My team tried to apply a MedDiet closer to the Greek type, containing fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish, olive oil and more,” Klonizakis said. “Our research has repeatedly shown that the MedDiet can act defensively, providing short-term and longer-term benefits, either on its own or in conjunction with mild exercise.”
”Recently, we found that a Mediterranean-style eating pattern can quickly lessen the impact of Type 2 diabetes on microvessels, but more time is needed to ease the impact of aging on people,” he added.
Klonizakis argued that the eating preferences of people can be shaped by many factors and the current pandemic may be one of them.
“Unhealthy food is easier to prepare. Maybe the coronavirus pandemic is a chance for us to start eating better,” he said. “Of course, eating patterns are also a matter of trend, for example, the vegan regime has many adherents even though its benefits are not widely established, but nutritional tradition usually endures through time.”
David Katz, a doctor from Yale University and the founder of the True Health Initiative agrees. He told Olive Oil Times that part of the reason the Mediterranean diet is able to endure and remain popular is due to its cultural importance. It is not just a passing fad.
“It has been making and keeping people healthy for generations,” he said.
Katz added that supplementing the MedDiet with extra virgin olive oil makes it more pleasurable and enhances its health benefits. Following a healthy diet helps to improve the immune system.
“You can make extra virgin olive oil part of a dietary pattern to improve your health acutely and reduce your risk of severe coronavirus infection,” he said.
Mary Yannakoulia, an associate professor of nutrition and eating behavior at Harokopio University of Athens, named some of the traits of the Mediterranean diet demonstrated by numerous scientific studies.
“Many studies have shown that higher adherence to the MedDiet, leads to lower risk for coronary disease, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s,” she told Olive Oil Times. “In my opinion, the MedDiet is a healthy dietary pattern that can be used in Greece to promote the citizens’ health, and even prevent various diseases, given the availability of the staple Mediterranean food and its direct connection with the tradition and the culture of our country.”
In 2013, the MedDiet was named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity for both its health benefits and its cultural importance to the Mediterranean region.
In spite of all this, Yannakoulia remains skeptical about the long-term adherence of consumers in Greece to the MedDiet.
“It is a question of how much we have moved away from the MedDiet,” she said. “No easy answer exists, considering that eating habits change over time, as do societies.”
“Basic elements of the MedDiet continue to exist in the dietary patterns of people in Greece, such as the everyday use of olive oil and the frequent consumption of fruits, veggies, legumes and grains,” she added. “On the other hand, many people in Greece nowadays have started to consume more meat and processed food.”
However, on the other side of the Atlantic, Lizzy Freier believes the Mediterranean diet will continue to gain popularity with younger consumers. Freier works at Technomic, a foodservice research and consulting company in Chicago, and said that the diet is linked to many current healthy eating trends.
“These health trends include the growth of vegetable-forward diets and a focus on unprocessed foods — both of which are core attributes of Mediterranean fare,” she told Olive Oil Times. “Emphasizing health benefits of Mediterranean items especially appeal to younger consumers who are conscientious, are increasingly changing their diets to limit animal products and are looking to include more natural foods.”
There aren’t any strict rules, instead it’s based on a set of guidelines such as including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans and nuts.
Freier cited some market research statistics to back up her observation and said that 42 percent of consumers have tried and liked Mediterranean cuisine. An additional 37 percent have not yet tried a Mediterranean eating plan, but would like to do so.
“As health and diets evolve and consumption of ethnic food continues to expand, the Mediterranean diet is poised to grow as a popular cuisine that appeals to diners with flavorful, healthy dishes,” Freier said.
Brynn McDowell, an American dietician and blogger, agrees that the Mediterranean diet is likely to continue growing in popularity in the U.S. She said the flexibility of the diet plays a big part in making it an easy eating plan to follow.
“There aren’t any strict rules, instead it’s based on a set of guidelines such as including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans and nuts,” she told Olive Oil Times. “Emphasis is placed on what you should add to your diet for health. While some foods, such as red meat and sugary desserts and pastries, are recommended to be enjoyed in moderation, they aren’t forbidden. This makes the Mediterranean diet easily customizable to your lifestyle.”
McDowell sees this flexibility as a way to prevent consumers from getting frustrated by the limitations of the diet, which is one of the key reasons why people find more strict diets harder to follow.
“I feel like people are starting to get frustrated with the newest fad or restrictive diet and instead, getting back to falling in love with good food and healthy, fresh ingredients again, which is what the Mediterranean diet is all about,” she said. “It’s my opinion that the Mediterranean diet is here and popular for the long haul.”
The Mediterranean diet has been selected as the best diet of 2020 by the U.S. News and World Report. It was the third consecutive year that the eating plan was selected as the top diet.