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Is a Mediterranean Diet Best?
We know that a Mediterranean diet is supposed to be healthy – we’ve all seen those adverts where older people are gambolling about in olive groves like young lambs after enjoying a meal of olive oil and vegetables. And we also know how delicious a Mediterranean diet can be, with all the lovely fresh flavours that conjure up holiday memories. Just one sniff of fresh herbs can transport us back to a sunny Greek island…
The “Mediterranean Diet” can be simplified into three elements:
- plenty of olive oil, fruit, vegetables, fish, cereals and legumes (peas, beans and lentils)
- moderate quantities of wine – usually with food
- small amounts of meat, milk and dairy products
Analysis of the eating habits of 74,000 Europeans over 60 years old revealed that following a Mediterranean-type diet could mean living longer – by as much as one year.
While the healthiest diet is low in saturated animal fats but high in unsaturated fats, in Britain we are consuming fewer fruit and vegetables and more full-fat dairy products, alcohol and soft drinks – according to the Office for National Statistics.
Further research into the daily diets of Greek people has been published in the British Medical Journal, and was reported in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in July 2008. More than 26,000 men and women were monitored for 8 years and the results were astonishing. For those whose diet resembled the Mediterranean ideal closely, women reduced their risk of developing all types of cancer by 16% and men reduced theirs by 9%.
In 2007 it was also claimed that a Mediterranean diet could help to prevent the development of asthma, respiratory allergies and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Another recent study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine in July 2008, compared the effects of three popular diets over 2 years. Overweight people aged 44-59, living in Israel, were assigned at random to follow either a low-fat diet, or a Mediterranean diet or a low-carbohydrate diet.
In the low-fat diet group, 80 men and 14 women completed the study and lost 3.4kg and 0.1kg respectively. This diet was based on American Heart Association guidelines: an energy intake of 1800 kcal per day for men and 1500 kcal for women, with 30% of calories from fat, 10% of calories from saturated fat and 300mg of cholesterol per day.
In the Mediterranean diet group, 76 men and 17 women completed the study and lost 4.0kg and 6.2kg respectively. This diet was high in vegetables and low in red meat, with poultry and fish replacing beef and lamb; added fat was from 30-45g olive oil and 5-7 nuts daily. Energy intake was 1800 kcal per day for men and 1500 kcal for women, with a goal of no more than 35% of calories from fat.
In the low-carbohydrate diet group, 77 men and 8 women completed the study and lost 4.9kg and 2.4kg respectively. This diet was based on the Atkins diet, and aimed to provide 20g of carbohydrates per day for the first 2 months, increasing gradually to 120g per day. Intake of total calories, protein and fat were not limited, although participants were advised to choose vegetarian sources of fat and protein and to avoid hydrogenated/trans fats.
All groups lost weight, with the maximum loss rate occurring during the first 6 months. While the men tended to lose more weight on a low-carbohydrate diet, the women lost more by following a Mediterranean diet.
However, those on the low-fat diet had regained up to a third of their 6-month weight loss after 18 months, before their weight reached a steady state. The Atkins dieters had a similar experience, regaining up to a quarter of their 5-month weight loss after 15 months, before reaching a plateau. By contrast, the group following a Mediterranean diet lost weight rapidly for 6 months but continued to lose weight for a further 6 months when their weight reached a steady value, AND they didn’t regain weight.
After 2 years, women had lost 6.2kg – that’s almost a whole stone – on the Mediterranean diet. So, it’s official girls – the Mediterranean diet really can do wonders for our thighs!
Let’s tuck in to a dish of Mediterranean vegetables roasted in olive oil to celebrate – maybe with a (small) glass of red wine on the side…
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