Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

Photo: CA Walnut Commission

The Mediterranean Diet is widely known as one of the healthiest diets on the planet. It’s a complex diet containing many foods which contribute to its health benefits. It’s plant-based, high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fish, low-to-moderate in dairy and meat (very low in saturated – animal – fat) and the occasional glass of wine. Olive oil is the diet’s principal source of fat.

It was first observed in the 1950s by nutrition scientist, Ancel Keys, that people in Greece, southern Italy, southern France and other countries bordering on the Mediterranean, eating their local food, experienced few nutritional problems and rarely suffered from heart disease. Since then, many studies have confirmed that this mixture of foods we now call the Mediterranean diet has many important properties which may help prevent not only heart disease, but certain cancers, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and even weight gain.

While every element in the Mediterranean diet is important, eating fresh, extra-virgin olive oil may trump everything. The type of fat you eat is critical to your health. This is because fat ends up in all of your body’s cells. It acts as a cell lubricant, improves flexibility and communication between cells, and is important for cell metabolism and gene expression. If the fat you eat is saturated – solid at room temperature – as in butter or animal fat – this decreases cellular flexibility and functioning. So, following the Mediterranean diet, but eating the wrong kind of fat, could reduce your health benefits immensely.

Olive oil, the staple of the Mediterranean diet, is unique in many ways. First, it’s made from a fruit which is exposed to the elements. This exposure forces olives to synthesize antioxidants to protect themselves and concentrates the valuable nutrients in the oil, which is high in compounds called polyphenols, Vitamin E and caretenoids. Polyphenols are also found in wine, tea and cocoa and are known for protecting the heart in many ways – reducing blood clotting, lowering bad (LDL) cholesterol, raising good (HDL) cholesterol and lowering blood pressure. Vitamin E is a well-known antioxidant, which helps prevent oxidation and cellular aging and may help prevent diseases such as cancer. Caretenoids are plant compounds giving the olive its color. They’re important for your immune system, your skin, your vision, bones, reproduction, and may reduce cancer risk. Olive oil is also high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acid called Oleic acid.

To extract the oil from olives, which has been done since 3,000 B.C., it is cold pressed without heat or chemicals and this helps preserve the nutrients in the oil. Extra Virgin, the highest quality, is cold pressed only once. It maintains a certain acidity (below 0.8), which is important for its nutrient content, staying power, and superior flavor and cooking characteristics.

The stability and nutrient content of the oil depends on a variety of factors – harvesting and storage practices – but one of the most important factors I learned about in Italy was: freshness. Olive oils should be green and fruity. They should smell like fresh olives. Mediterraneans consider olive oil a seasonal food. And studies confirm that as days, weeks and months go by after harvest, the nutritional quality of the oil diminishes. “Eighteen months is currently considered to be the maximum time for keeping virgin olive oils after production,” according to the French Institute for Fats and Oils, and that’s only if harvest and storage conditions are ideal. Bruised olives, hot temperatures, oxygen, sunlight – all reduce nutrition and quality.

“Polyphenol content reduces by 40% within four months when olive oil is exposed to light,” said Armando Manni, CEO, MANNI Organic Exra-Virgin Olive Oil, at the New York University- and James Beard Foundation – sponsored conference I attended at the Villa La Pietra outside Florence, Italy last spring. “Olive oils must carry a date of harvest,” said Manni. Unfortunately, most olive oils sold in United States grocery stores don’t carry harvest dates. The rare bottle I found with a date will often be two or three years old! “Sold by” dates are not useful because some companies will make that date two or three years after harvest. Not good, according to the experts. I’ve found smaller companies will more likely carry bottles with harvest dates and I only buy olive oil from the most recent harvest – and use it up quickly!

Contrary to popular belief, eating the Mediterranean way is the most economical way to eat. It is a diet borne of poverty: the Mediterraneans ate mostly plants which were grown in their locality. This is all that they could afford and it happened to be the healthiest diet on the planet. Several studies have confirmed the cost savings of this way of living and eating:

* Researchers from the Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods Institute at Laval University studied 73 healthy women in free-living conditions for 12 weeks and found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet led to a reduction in daily dietary cost and overall caloric density concluding that increased dietary cost is NOT a barrier to the promotion and adoption of a Mediterranean diet. (Journal of Nutrition 2008;138:54-9)

* Researchers from Glasgow found that after six-weeks, a Mediterranean dietary intervention not only reduced pain and stiffness in a group of rheumatic women but presented an effective method for increasing the daily consumption of healthy foods at low cost. (Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases 2007;66:1239-43)

* After a cost utility analysis comparing the Mediterranean diet to a prudent Western diet over a time frame of ten years, a team from Monash University concluded that the Mediterraean diet was highly cost-effective for persons after a first acute myocardial infarction. They went on to state that replicating the Mediterranean diet intervention in other countries and health settings could substantially improve health outcomes and reduce the use of health care resources and that the Mediterranean Diet represented an important opportunity for cost-effective preventive care. (Journal of Nutrition 2006;136:1879-85)

For more information on the cost of eating healthy, see “Fit and Frugal.”

See the new Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.

Buying Olive Oil:

“Olive oil should be in an opaque container (not clear glass) as sunlight destroys it. Store it in a cool, dark place, tightly covered after using it – away from heat and sunlight,” says Dennis Lurgio, President of Imports, LLC of Narragansett, Rhode Island (www. Mr. Lurgio imports award-winning, fresh extra-virgin Oleificio Dell’Orto Olive oil from his ancestral village in the Campagnia region of Italy. Lurgio only sells bottles from the most recent harvest, which he says will usually be in Fall or Winter – and his bottles carry the harvest dates.

“Olive oil buying is personal and taste-driven. You can’t go wrong with a Tuscan or Umbrian olive oil, which are strong and flavorful. It’s great for anything, dipping bread, salad dressing, cooking. Sicilian oils may be stronger, Ligurian oils may be lighter and better for fish,” says Bill Menard, Owner of Bella Italia, an Italian goods and gourmet foods store in Bethesda, Maryland. Menard, who is passionate about Italian food, says most of his bottles are harvest-dated, but he keeps track of harvest and bottling dates of all of his oils, knows all of his producers, who include Italian families in the olive oil business for hundreds of years.

The following is a typical Mediterranean dish…

Katherine’s White Beans with Garlic and Basil
Step-by-Step Pictorial Guide to Katherine’s White Beans with Garlic and Basil 

excerpted from Diet Simple

My friends love these beans. I love these beans. They’re always a hit. Every time I serve them, I’m asked (begged) for the recipe. They taste deceptively rich and are easy to make. The garlic and abundance of fresh basil added at the end fills the house with irresistible aromas. This is a warm and satisfying dish which can be eaten in many ways. My friend David uses them as a dip (what can I say, he`s a shrink and a priest!). My (very healthy) friend Alan loves them so much he eats them for breakfast (another weirdo)! I bring them to pot lucks to serve alongside lean ham.

I love to fill a large plastic container with them in the frig, ladle a heap into a microwave-safe bowl, and heat them up for lunch along with a slice of hearty whole grain bread topped with smoked turkey, lean ham or light cheese (or all three) – and some crunchy lettuce. One of our favorite ways to eat these beans is with spicy sausage. Just slice a spicy chicken sausage of your choice into a microwave-safe bowl, smother with the beans and pop in the microwave. Together with a greens salad and a tart dressing, you’ve got a winning combination.

I usually double the recipe so I have plenty of servings during the week. Without any meat, it’ll last more than a week in the frig. Your colleagues at the office will be jealous when they smell your private bowl heating up. Let them eat cake!

4 servings:

1/2 pound dried small white (cannellini) beans, or 24 oz. canned rinsed bean
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1-1/2 Onion, Chopped
4 Garlic Cloves (more or less to taste– I double it)
1 Quart defatted Chicken Stock (2 Cups if using canned beans)
Salt to Taste
12 Oz. (3 medium) fresh or canned Tomatoes, drained, peeled and chopped
1 Large Handful of Fresh Basil
Juice from 1 Lemon (1/4 cup)
Freshly Ground Pepper

If you’re using dried white beans:

Soak the beans in one quart of water overnight or up to 24 hours. Drain and rinse. Add one quart Chicken Stock (or more if you like the dish more soupy) to the beans along with one clove of garlic and 1/2 onion.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 1-1/2 hours or until the beans are almost tender. Add more water or stock to keep moiste. Add salt to taste and finish cooking until beans are tender.

Continue with your cooked dried beans or start here if you’re using canned white beans:

Heat the oil in a large, heavy soup pot or casserole and saute the remaining one onion and garlic over low to medium heat for 10 or 15 minutes or until soft. Add the tomatoes, and more salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Simmer about ten minutes then add the beans with their cooking liquid and simmer 15 – 20 minutes. If you used canned beans, rinse the beans then use enough stock to keep the beans moiste while cooking. At the end of the cooking time, add the fresh basil (it will get bitter if overcooked), fresh lemon juice, and freshly ground pepper. Mix together. Then I let the beans sit at room temperature overnight to let the flavors blend before I refrigerate and heat to serve.

You can also add greens to this dish for more authentic Mediterranean flavors and nutrition.

Nutritional Information:

Calories 290
Total Fat 4.5g 7%
Saturated Fat 0.5g 4%
Cholesterol 0mg 0%
Sodium 180mg 8%
Total Carbohydrate 45g 15%
Dietary Fiber 16g 63%
Soluble Fiber 4.15 g
Omega 3 Fatty Acids 0.21 g
Sugars 9g
Protein 19g
Vitamin A 15%
Vitamin C 60%
Calcium  15%
Iron  35%

Adapted from Mediterranean Light, by Martha Rose Shulman (Bantam Books, 1989) Mediterranean Light is one of my favorite cook books and I have been recommending it to clients for years. I know you’ll love it too.

For more recipes, buy Diet Simple: 192 Mental Tricks, Substitutions, Habits & Inspirations (LifeLine Press, 2004)

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