The Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet Plan
Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen w/ Jill Stein
Originally published at Quips and Tips for Achieving Your Goals
January 8th, 2009
Here’s how the Mediterranean diet plan affects your health and lifespan – and can help you achieve your diet goals! This Q & A with Dr Jill Stein reveals how this eating plan affects your body, brain, and lifestyle – and even how it influences Mother Earth.
“Being able to consume fat while dieting may make the Mediterranean Diet plan easier for some people to adhere to,” she says. “And, as as a largely plant-based diet, the Mediterranean Diet plan is good for the planet as well as for people.”
Dr. Jill Stein is a co-author of Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, a 2008 report on the environmental drivers of chronic disease, and how to reduce them. Dr. Stein was a practicing internist for over 20 years, and is now a spokesperson for Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. Dr Stein is also co-founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities.
For more info on the Mediterranean Diet, click on the cover of Mediterranean Prescription: Meal Plans and Recipes to Help You Stay Slim and Healthy for the Rest of Your Life by Laurie Anne Vandermolen and Angelo Acquista. And, read on for Dr Stein’s tips about how this eating plan can help you achieve your diet goals.
Dr. Jill Stein Explains the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet Plan
LPK: Dr Stein, what is the foundation of the Mediterranean Diet?
JS: The Mediterranean Diet plan consists of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes (such as lentils and chick peas), whole grains, fish, nuts, unsaturated fatty acids (especially olive and canola oil) and sometimes wine, in modest amounts. This diet may also include low-moderate quantities of low or no fat varieties of dairy products and meat.
Interest in the Mediterranean Diet arose in the 1950s when it was noted that people eating this diet, particularly on the island of Crete, had very low rates of heart disease and some cancers, and long life expectancy. While other conditions, such as exercise and strong social networks, contributed, the Mediterranean Diet plan is believed to have been a major factor in the good health enjoyed by the region.
LPK: Are there any common misconceptions about the Mediterranean Diet?
JS: The term “Mediterranean Diet” implies there is a specific diet from the region, but in fact there is no one official Mediterranean Diet. Traditionally, there was considerable variation in foods, diet and culture among the 15 countries bordering the Mediterranean. Currently, different versions of the Mediterranean Diet plan use different sources and proportions of vegetable fats (olive oil, canola oil, and nuts), types of carbohydrate (differing in glycemic index, a measure of the tendency to elevate blood-glucose) kinds of protein sources (legumes, fish, chicken, eggs and lean meat) and quantities of alcohol (from none to moderate).
Currently, the Mediterranean Diet plan is an endangered species in the Mediterranean region. Western style eating has recently taken hold in the area – with the rapid growth of supermarkets, convenience foods, and advertising aimed at children. This has been accompanied by a meteoric rise in obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and other cardiovascular risks, especially among children. A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations noted that the traditional diet of the region had “decayed into a moribund state”.
LPK: What is the link between the Mediterranean Diet Plan and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases?
JS: Several large observational studies (which look at people’s eating habits, and then assess their health many years later) suggest that people who eat a Mediterranean Diet plan are much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than people who eat a more typical western diet. These studies also suggest that people with Alzheimer’s who eat a Mediterranean Diet plan have a greatly reduced mortality rate (by up to 70%), and longer life span (by an average of four years). The one study to date looking specifically at Parkinson’s disease and the Mediterranean Diet plan found that people eating the diet had a reduced risk (by approximately 25%) of developing this disabling disease, as well.
LPK: Are there any other specific links between our health, healthy diet goals, and the Mediterranean Diet plan?
JS: The preponderance of evidence links the Mediterranean Diet plan with many striking health benefits. Observational studies suggest the diet substantially reduces the risks of developing heart disease, diabetes (by as much as 80%) and cancer as well as the mortality from heart disease, cancer and all causes in general. Clinical trials have shown the diet reduces recurrent heart problems by 50% or more among people who’ve previously had a heart attack. Though less studied to date, there is growing evidence that it also reduces adverse elevations of blood sugar, insulin resistance, triglycerides and cholesterol, excess body weight, inflammation (specifically CRP) and metabolic syndrome.
LPK: What makes it easy or appealing for people to incorporate the Mediterranean Diet Plan into their lifestyle?
JS: There are many web references and books on the Mediterranean Diet. One particularly good source is the MayoClinic’s Mediterranean Diet Plan page. You can also download the section on healthy nutrition guidelines in the report Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging, which includes many of the basics of the Mediterranean Diet.
LPK: What would surprise people to learn about the Mediterranean Diet and their healthy diet goals?
Many people think dieting means you have to strictly limit your fat intake. In the Mediterranean Diet plan, the emphasis is not so much on reducing fat intake as it is on choosing healthy types of fat. Specifically, the Mediterranean Diet avoids unhealthy saturated fats in meats and dairy products, and trans fats in hydrogenated oils found in many processed foods. Instead the Mediterranean Diet plan encourages the consumption of healthy polyunsaturated fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids (in canola oil, fish, walnuts and green vegetables like spinach), and mono-unsaturated fats (in olive oil and canola oil).
LPK: Dr Stein, do you have any additional tips about the Mediterranean Diet?
As a largely plant-based diet, the Mediterranean Diet plan is good for the planet as well as for people. That’s because plant-based foods require less energy and less land to produce than animal-based foods. That means less global warming, more food to go around, and healthier ecosystems in general. And since the food of the Mediterranean Diet Planis unprocessed, much of it can often be produced sustainably (”organically”) by local family farms and agricultural coops. That can provide green jobs and create a hedge against the unstable cost of food transportation – while also helping to improve community nutrition and food security.
Finally, it should be mentioned that there are many other things you can do – in addition to eating a Mediterranean-type diet – to reduce your risks for developing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other chronic diseases. Protective actions you can take include daily exercise, avoidance of harmful chemicals and pollutants, and being socially engaged with family, friends and community. In addition to what we do as individuals, we can also encourage our communities to adopt programs that integrate health-protection into the fabric of community life. Such programs promote, for example, better nutrition and local sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, safer chemicals, walkable built environments, and fitness-friendly transportation. More information about how to protect your health, and that of your family and community, can be found at www.agehealthy.org .
About Jill Stein. Dr. Jill Stein is a board certified internist, health and environmental advocate, and author. She previously served as a staff physician at Harvard Community Health Plan and Simmons College Health Center , and was an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. She co-authored two reports, Environmental Threats to Healthy Aging and In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development, (GBPSR 2008, 2000), documenting the key role of environmental factors – including the nutritional, chemical, energy, social and built environments – as drivers of chronic disease throughout the lifespan. The In Harm’s Way report has been translated into four languages and used worldwide to strengthen the scientific basis for health and environmental advocacy, to help change public policies, and for medical education.