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The real Mediterranean diet

February 6, 2021

If, like most people my age, you have any kind of health challenge, it won’t be long before you stumble across the Mediterranean diet. It’s apparently a cure-all and benefits conditions from arthritis to cancer, as well as facilitating weight loss and helping you to live longer. Who wouldn’t want that?

Except that it’s quite difficult to find out just what the Mediterranean diet is. There’s no shortage of information of course, with food lists and meal plans and helpful information about recommended portion sizes. But I didn’t really buy it. My understanding is that before it was adopted by American bloggers, the Mediterranean diet was a diet in the sense of “food regularly provided or consumed” rather than “a regulated regimen of food for weight-loss”. And I’m pretty sure that all those people in Italy that lived to over 100 were not measuring their portions.

In order to benefit in all the ways that medical research says I can, I want to be sure that I’m following the same diet that the researchers were investigating. So, I went digging through that research to find out just how the Mediterranean diet was defined. Here’s what I learned from a paper that is cited by many of the researchers (references below).

The term “Mediterranean diet” refers to the diet that was common in the 1960s in the olive tree-growing countries around the Mediterranean Sea, especially Greece, Crete and the south of Italy. The time period is important, because in many of these countries, the diet has since changed. More than 16 countries border the Mediterranean Sea, with different diets according to cultural, social, or religious traditions. However, there is an overall Mediterranean dietary pattern. Mostly it’s about eating plant-based food, but the complete characteristics are:

  1. eating large amounts of fruits, vegetables and salad, bread and whole grain cereals, potatoes, legumes/beans, nuts and seeds
  2. using olive oil as the main source of fat
  3. wide use of herbs and spices, reducing the amount of salt and fat used for flavouring
  4. drinking wine or other fermented beverages in low to moderate amounts, with meals
  5. eating eggs up to four times a week
  6. eating moderate to low amounts of fish, shellfish, poultry and dairy products
  7. eating very little red and processed meat
  8. and finally, the diet is diverse, with a wide variety of food being eaten

Researchers have a number of ways to test how closely you are following this diet or how much you are straying from it and they put a lot of effort into designing and refining those “instruments”. I’m not part of any research, so I wasn’t too interested in that aspect. I think this list of what to eat and how often will be enough for me.

But here comes the interesting part…

I also learned that there are more characteristics of the Mediterranean diet and they relate to how food is consumed and even to lifestyle. (The Greek diaita means “a way of life”.) So, apart from the food consumed, the following are necessary to complete the dietary pattern:

  1. food is sourced locally, and is eaten shortly after harvesting
  2. food is prepared traditionally (cooked or processed at home)
  3. eating takes place in a pleasant, familiar environment
  4. after the meal, you rest
  5. and in-between meals you are physically and socially active

Now this interests me. Of course, it may not be easy to source food locally, or to cook from scratch, but it is worth trying and I look forward to doing more cooking now that I’ve reduced my working hours. The injunction to eat in pleasant surroundings means I will have to critically examine my selection of table cloths and perhaps add to it. The need to rest after meals should be enough to start a campaign for longer lunch-breaks. Sadly it will probably be most difficult to be physically and socially active, given that I’m living in lockdown right now, but it does provide motivation to get creative about staying active and connected.

Studies show that people who adhere to the Mediterranean diet have a better quality of life and greater life expectancy, along with less chance of chronic diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases. Now I know how to approach it, I can’t wait.

What about you?


Mazzocchi A, Leone L, Agostoni C & Pali-Scholl (2019). The secrets of the Mediterranean diet. Does [only] olive oil matter? Nutrients 11(12):2941.

Sanchez-Villegas A., Zuzpa I. A Healthy-Eating Model Called Mediterranean Diet. In: Sanchez-Villegas A., Sanchez-Tainta A., editors. The Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease through the Mediterranean Diet. Elsevier; London, UK: Academic Press; London, UK: 2017.

From → Living

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