Mediterranean Diet: Principles & Benefits

How the Mediterranean diet can improve your quality of life

Photo of author

By Alex

mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is easy to integrate into your daily routine: it allows great freedom in food choices, as well as renewed seasonal freshness. Adopting it can be advantageous both from the point of view of health and the from a gastronomic standpoint. More than a diet in the strict sense, it is a healthy and diversified dietary regime. It is a diet recommended for anyone who wants to improve the quality and expectancy of life and is very suitable for children.

Let’s discover together its origin, the basic principles and benefits as well as the very few contraindications.

Origin of the Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean is inspired by the food traditions of the Mediterranean countries and is still recognized today as one of the healthiest diets.

It originally took shape from the culinary traditions of 4 countries: Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco, all overlooking the Mediterranean basin. It can be traced back to the set of practices and knowledge that those populations have built over the centuries around the culture of eating.

In 2010, the Intergovernmental Committee of the Unesco Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage approved the registration of the Mediterranean Diet in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Its nutritional and cultural value as a world excellence was thus recognized.

The history of the Mediterranean diet

The first to carry out accurate scientific investigations on the benefits induced by the Mediterranean diet was the American nutritionist Ancel B. Keys, in the 1950s. He noticed that Mediterranean populations were less susceptible to some pathologies than Americans.

The hypothesis formulated by Keys was that the Mediterranean diet was able to increase the longevity of the people who followed it.

mediterranean diet
These foods are the pillars of the Mediterranean diet.

Returning to his homeland, he continued his research for a few years and published the results in the book Eat well and stay well, the Mediterranean way.

Starting from the Seventies, these eating habits began spreading in America too. Greater consumption of cereals, fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil began to be promoted instead of a dietary regime saturated with fats, sugars and proteins.

Note: when we talk about the Mediterranean diet, however, we are certainly not talking about a “native” diet, limited to native products from ancient times. In fact, the Mediterranean diet benefits from countless additions from other geographical areas. Just think of all the foods that arrived after the discovery of the Americas (tomato, corn, prickly pear, beans…). Or those that arrived from the East, such as rice, oranges, lemon, peaches and aubergines.

Food pyramid of the Mediterranean diet

To simplify and summarize all the principles of this diet, the so-called food pyramid was created in the 1990s.

This graphic suggested the frequency and quantity distribution of foods to be consumed throughout the day, week and month. Today, the Mediterranean food pyramid, born from the union of this nutritional scheme and the Mediterranean regime, represents the nutritional model of reference for experts and nutritionists from all over the world.

Everyone agrees in stating how the principles and food rules inspired by the Mediterranean diet ensure the body has the right caloric intake and the nutrients essential for its correct functioning. It is also the best defense against some of the most widespread cardiovascular, metabolic and gastrointestinal diseases.

dieta mediterranea

How does the food pyramid work?

At the base of the pyramid there are those foods that must be consumed every day, even several times a day. We start with 5 portions of fresh fruit and vegetables, and 2-3 portions of complex carbohydrates, such as cereals, bread and pasta, preferably wholemeal.

Still in the daily context, the food pyramid includes fats, preferably raw, which must above all be saturated. Olive oil, seed oil or oilseed oil are to be preferred, in the ratio of a maximum of 2 portions daily, as are dairy products, preferably if low-fat.

Further up we find those foods that should be consumed a couple of times a week, that is, meat, preferably white meat: so, green light to poultry and pork, eggs and fish, trying to avoid red meat, which should be an exception.

At the top of the food pyramid are foods that can be eaten sporadically because they are unhealthy, as well as not common to the Mediterranean area.

Once a week you can indulge in sugar in the form of simple carbohydrates, such as sweets, which in any case should not be eaten more than 3 times a month, as well as red meat and sausages.

This scheme also allows you to control the calories intake, thus balancing fats (30% of the total) and proteins (15% of the total), in favor of carbohydrates (50-60%).

piramide alimentare dieta mediterranea
La piramide alimentare della dieta mediterranea: alla base i cibi da consumare più volte al giorno, all’apice quelli da limitare

The fundamental principles of the Mediterranean diet

What distinguishes it from all other dietary models is the correct balance of foods and the choice of typical foods from the Mediterranean area.

The caloric aspect is relegated to a secondary role. Approximately 2.500 calories per day are calculated for an adult man. These must derive 60% from carbohydrates, 20% from lipids and only 10% from proteins.

The fundamental principles can be summarized in these 9 key points:

  1. Greater consumption of vegetable proteins compared to animal proteins.
  2. Reduction of saturated fats in favor of unsaturated vegetable fats.
  3. Reduction of the global calorie quota.
  4. Increase in complex carbohydrates to the detriment of simple ones.
  5. High intake of dietary fibre.
  6. Reduction of cholesterol.
  7. Greater consumption of white meat compared to red meat (once or twice a week).
  8. Increased consumption of fish and legumes.
  9. Occasional consumption of sweets.

The Mediterranean nutritional model also includes a significant reduction in the consumption of sausages, alcohol, white sugars, butter, fatty cheeses, salt, margarine, coffee and lard.

A RECIPE TO TRY: Potato gnocchi with tomato sauce

The benefits of the food pyramid

As mentioned, the Mediterranean diet represents the best natural defense against many diseases and some forms of cancer. The consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grains rich in antioxidants helps strengthen the heart and has a protective action against many cardiovascular diseases.

Being rich in vitamins, mineral salts and non-digestible fibre, the Mediterranean diet is also indicated for preventing diseases such as arteriosclerosis, hypertension and stroke.

The detoxifying action is also notable thanks to the high vitamin intake of the suggested foods.

dieta mediterranea

The high nutritional value is ensured by bread, pasta, olive oil and fish. The latter is one of the most complete foods because it is rich in proteins, good fats, mineral salts such as phosphorus, iodine and iron. Tomatoes are also rich in antioxidants, in particular lycopene, which protect against the onset of some forms of cancer such as prostate cancer.

Another fundamental component is dietary fiber, which stimulates the sense of satiety and has a regulating and protective action on the digestive system. It also optimizes intestinal functions, metabolic functions and nutrient absorption.

In summary the benefits can be summarized as follows:

  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduced risk of cancer.
  • Increase in life expectancy.
  • Improved general health.

The Mediterranean diet and the environment

In addition to being good, healthy and complete, recent studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet is also sustainable and ecological. a survey conducted by the BCFN (Barilla Center for Nutrition) reveals that an individual who follows the principles of the Mediterranean diet emits approximately 2.1 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere. While we are talking about 6.5 kg for an individual who eats following the North American diet.

In other words, the daily intake of 100 additional calories with the typically North American diet corresponds to more than double the ecological footprint of the same calories consumed according to the Mediterranean diet.

It therefore emerges that this diet is also the best from the point of view of the environmental impact.

To give a better idea, just think that a menu consisting of ham, parmesan, pasta and vegetables consumes less energy, water and land than a beef steak. The analysis is based on three “ecological footprints”: greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and land use.

It emerges that the food pyramid has high energy density dishes at the top. On the contrary, the environmental impact pyramid appears upside down, with meat having a high environmental impact at the base.

It should also not be forgotten that for several years now, from a strictly health-related point of view, an ever-increasing number of nutritionists has been calling for a decrease in the consumption of red meat. Even at the table it is possible to do something to save our planet.

Contraindications and warnings on the food pyramid

There are no particular contraindications. Some controversy still surrounds the topic of possible Vitamin D deficiencies. But it must be said that the people of the Mediterranean benefit almost all year round from the sun which provides them with a regular synthesis of vitamin D. For the inhabitants of the Nordic countries less exposed to the sun, cow’s milk is the main source of this vitamin.

Since milk is not part of this diet, these populations should focus on a high intake of fatty fish (especially salmon, mackerel, and sardines) as well as vitamin D-enriched yogurts, or at the very least supplements.

Otherwise you may experience a vitamin D deficiency following this diet.

What about wine?

Consuming wine in small doses with meals may or may not be advised, depending on each individual’s personal experience and attitude towards alcohol.

For people who are not used to eating olive oil, fish and legumes, a gradual addition of these foods to the diet is recommended, to allow for easier integration.

More on this topic

You might also like: