Rich in health benefits, inspired by the seasons and steeped in the traditions of food celebration, the Mediterranean diet has been the subject of research for over sixty years. It is the most scientifically validated diet in human history.
An interest in the Mediterranean diet was sparked in the 1950s, when the Seven Countries Study revealed that the population of Crete had startlingly low rates of heart disease and some cancers. Researchers attributed this to the Cretans’ peasant-style diet that focused largely on plant foods, with very small portions of meat and olive oil.
When a follow up study was conducted ten years later, almost none of the study subjects had died from heart disease whereas participants in northern Europe, on a diet very high in animal fat, had the highest rates of heart disease death.
Extensive studies conducted in the following years have proven that the Mediterranean diet can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and dementia – and promote cancer recovery, weight loss and longevity.
"Studies have proven that the Mediterranean diet can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and dementia – and promote cancer recovery, weight loss and longevity."
Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos, Associate Professor in Dietetics and Human Nutrition at La Trobe University, is deeply involved in researching the health benefits of the traditional Cretan Mediterranean diet and has focused much of her 25-year career to furthering our understanding of it.
Passionate about its role in preventing diseases and also reversing the risks of developing certain conditions, Catherine also champions the lifestyle aspect of the diet, where food is celebrated and seen as a pleasure.
“Our consumption of high-calorie foods with low nutritional value is leading to record rates of obesity and associated chronic conditions, notably heart disease and diabetes,” explains Catherine. With this in mind, one of the most exciting aspects of the Mediterranean diet is its ability to impact people presenting a risk factor for diabetes and actually reverse it.
“When I started studying, once you got diabetes you were on the path, you had to live with it or manage the symptoms and complications. Now we can see opportunities with diet and lifestyle to prevent that progression to diabetes.”
What foods are in the Mediterranean diet?
While there are many variations of the Mediterranean diet depending on where you are situated around the sea, Catherine’s book, The Mediterranean Diet, focuses on the Cretan diet, which is based on the following:
- High intake of vegetables (especially leafy greens and tomatoes) and fruit
- Whole grain cereals (mainly sourdough bread)
- Olive oil as the main fat
- Cheese (particularly goat’s cheese) in moderation
- Fish and seafood
- Small portions of meat
- Moderate amounts of wine (enjoyed with meals)
Eating the Mediterranean way
Catherine suggests following a few simple guidelines to enjoy a variety of fresh foods, Mediterranean-style:
1. Eat with the seasons
“The Mediterranean way of life is to eat seasonally – when zucchinis are in season, we cook with zucchinis, and same with eggplant and broad beans,” Catherine says. Focusing on what is in season is the key to a much more affordable, tastier way to enjoy food.
2. Connect with the land
While the agrarian lifestyle of post-World War II Crete is very different to how many of us live today, Catherine believes we can still maintain a connection to the land – and indeed we should in order to reverse the rising incidence of lifestyle-related diseases. Simple things like growing herb gardens or planting some tomatoes or beans helps renew our focus on seasonal foods and, after the effort to grow it, we’ll be sure to eat it.
3. Focus on flavours and taste
“You really need to think about how you dress up the vegetables and legumes so that they are more palatable and can be enjoyed,” says Catherine. When snacking, thinking about what is nourishing. Greek yoghurt over walnuts with honey or some fresh tzatziki with cut up vegetables are delicious, sustaining options.
Incorporating any dietary change can be challenging and Catherine hopes her book will be a guide to successfully adopting the Mediterranean diet into our lives. Starting small and making changes like swapping butter for olive oil or introducing more vegetables is a good start.
Fill up on leafy greens, whole grains and healthy fats. Dr Catherine Itsiopoulos explains why eating Mediterranean-style can make you healthier.