Is a Mediterranean diet actually healthy?

Is a Mediterranean diet actually healthy?

The Mediterranean diet is often cited as one of the healthiest in the world. In theory it sounds great. It is rich in fibre, antioxidants and omega 3 fats and is recommended by many professionals for heart health, for diabetics, depression and even certain cancers. 

However, in reality, the modern Mediterranean diet can have some negative health consequences and a modified Mediterranean diet may be more appropriate if you're looking for improved health. Our expert nutritionists explain the pitfalls to avoid and how to modify the Mediterranean diet for best results. 

What is the Mediterranean diet?

The principles of a Mediterranean diet include eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes and minimally processed foods. The Mediterranean diet emphasises the use of olive oil for fats, and moderate consumption of cheese, yoghurt, fish and poultry. Red meats are part of the traditional Mediterranean diet in small amounts and sweetened desserts are only allowed a few times per week. Wine is also part of the diet and can be consumed a few times per week.

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There is plenty of research into the benefits of a traditional Mediterranean diet and it is the intake of unsaturated fats, wholegrains and antioxidants where most of the health benefits are derived from. 

Benefits of a Mediterranean diet

There can be lots of health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, in particular:

Low intake of processed & refined foods

The Mediterranean diet focuses on the consumption of wholegrains, fruits, vegetables and seeds which are rich in fibre and nutrients. These nutrients have a positive role on the probiotics in our gut which are vital for our overall health, brain, energy, skin and immunity. They're also beneficial for keeping blood sugar levels stable, keeping excess weight at bay and losing weight healthily.

High level of antioxidants & polyphenols

The high level of antioxidants and polyphenols consumed on a traditional Mediterranean diet protects the cells in our body from oxidative stress which may otherwise contribute towards disease. 

Polyphenols are naturally occurring organic compounds in plant-foods, while antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body that can otherwise cause disease and illness. 

Naturally low in sugars

The traditional Mediterranean diet typically consists of mainly fruit for sweet foods, and very little processed puddings that contain refined sugars. Fruit is rich in fibre, antioxidants and vitamins and is much better for you than puddings such as ice-creams, pastries and sugary processed deserts.

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The way it's consumed

Where and who you eat with makes a big difference to how much you eat and how your body digests your food. Research shows you eat about 20% less food when eating with other people at a table compared to when you eat while watching TV.

The way people eat in Mediterranean countries and their culture play an important role in health. Typically they will sit down and eat together, which promotes relaxation before a meal and encourages the production of digestive enzymes. These digestive enzymes break down your food and improve the absorption of nutrients by your body. And they eat smaller quantities. 

5 pitfalls of a Mediterranean diet

While there are plenty of benefits, there are important pitfalls to avoid if you're adopting a Mediterranean diet.

1. High in oils

Although some healthy fats are needed in our diet, too many oils can cause weight gain and hinder weight loss. The main source of fats in a Mediterranean diet is from olive oil which is rich in omega 9 fats. Omega 3 and omega 6 fats can't be made by our body, so they are called 'essential fats', however omega 9 can be produced by your body. Too much omega 9 is a sign your diet is high in fat and cholesterol which causes risk of obesity and heart disease.

Learn more in 'The best oils for cooking'.

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Beware that olive oil sold on shelves today has a much lower polyphenol content than the olive oil grown on small farms in the Mediterranean where there is minimal processing. It's always better to choose small and local.

2. High in animal products

While these foods can be consumed in moderation on a Mediterranean diet, foods such as red meats, processed meats and cheeses can cause havoc for some people, in particular bloating, IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and poor gut health.

By contrast, a 'green Mediterranean diet' that is rich in polyphenols and antioxidants, which excludes cheese, red and processed meats, is much healthier. A 'green Mediterranean diet' may have benefits for heart health and your metabolism, lowering 'bad' LDL cholesterol, and helping you lose weight.

3. High in seafood

The modern Mediterranean diet typically contains fish and seafood multiple times each week. Although omega 3 gained from fish is beneficial to our health, unfortunately the fish and seafood we buy on supermarket shelves has become much more polluted with heavy metals, such as mercury and other persistent toxins.

Most of the fish and seafood sold in shops now is farmed and not wild-caught, and the higher levels of toxins increases our resistance to antibiotics and increases the level of omega 6 fats due to the diet they are fed. If in doubt, always choose local, wild caught fish.

4. Not so traditional diet

Unfortunately the traditional Mediterranean diet has been corrupted by convenience and processed foods. Traditionally, everything would have been locally sourced and made from scratch in villages and towns, but with modern lifestyles this has become very difficult - when could you last find olives grown locally or from a small farm?

The other problem with the modern Mediterranean diet is that foods are not consumed in the portions and ratios that they traditionally were. For example, in the traditional Mediterranean diet cheese used to be consumed on the side for taste, whereas in modern times it is very commonly included in the main part of the meal.

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The traditional Mediterranean diet was supposed to be mostly plant-based, with only a small, infrequent serving of meat, fish or cheese, once a week or twice a month. Modern Mediterranean dieters consume far too much animal products - instead we should follow a mainly vegetarian 'green Mediterranean diet'.

5. Moderate alcohol consumption

Wine, especially red wine, is encouraged in moderation on a Mediterranean diet. And although red wine might be better than other types of alcohol, regular alcohol consumption of any sort has its negatives for our health.

Alcohol is high in calories, puts strain on our liver and can interfere with the function of our gut. Alcohol also decreases the absorption of some nutrients in our diet, especially thiamin, also known as Vitamin B1. Vitamin B1 is 'an essential vitamin' which cannot be made in our body and is important for our nervous system, brain, muscles, heart and gastrointestinal wellbeing.

Can a Mediterranean diet help menopause symptoms?

Yes. A health wholefood diet with a good balance of wholegrains, healthy fats, proteins and as many coloured fruits and vegetables as you can fit on your plate can help relieve symptoms of menopause. 

Recent research of over 1,000 women showed that 40% of those who made changes to their diet felt improvement in their symptoms. However, unfortunately only 50% of women are aware making changes to their diet can help relieve symptoms. Learn more how about how a Mediterranean diet can help in 'Nutrition for the menopause'.

Discover the latest research in menopause.

Improving the Mediterranean diet

Modifying a Mediterranean diet to make it more like it was before the 1960s, and making a few other tweaks, will be healthier than a modern Mediterranean diet. Here are 6 ways to improve the Mediterranean diet.

Organic wholegrain bread

Eating minimally processed foods is important. Unfortunately most breads sold in the shops are overly processed with additives to make them last longer. Investing in a bread maker and buying top quality flour is not only healthier, but may reduce the cost to your health of a Mediterranean diet in the long run. Many home bread-making machines have a timer, so you can wake up to freshly baked bread each morning.

Swap seafood for an algae oil supplement

Fish sold in supermarkets can be very toxic, and industrial scale fishing is bad news for the planet. Consuming algae oil rich in omega 3 fats daily will provide you with the omega 3 that you need, and without having to worry about toxins or damaging the environment.

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Reduce olive oil consumption

Unsaturated oils, including those from olives, are much better than saturated fats for a healthy heart. However, too much of one type of oil can restrict your nutrient intake. Consuming a variety of cold pressed oils in moderation, including walnut oil, flax seed oil and chia oil will have more benefits than just consuming olive oil. 

Learn more in 'The best oils for cooking'.

Make it plant-based

Adopting a 'green Mediterranean diet' will help you avoid the common pitfalls and risks of a modern Mediterranean diet. Focus on consuming high-quality plant based, natural foods and ditch the meat.

Discover the '7 health benefits of a plant-based diet'.

Buy local and seasonal

When buying local and seasonal, you may not be able to eat aubergine and exotic fruits all year around, but the foods you do eat will be richer in nutrients and antioxidants as they will be fresher and won’t have been transported from the other side of the planet.

Ditch the wine

If you must drink, drink only one glass of organic red wine. However, ditching alcohol all together will be even better for your health. Your liver and gut will thank you. There are also plenty of other sources of resveratrol (the antioxidant in wine) including peanuts, grapes, cocoa, blueberries, bilberries and cranberries.  

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