The Mediterranean diet is based on the diets enjoyed by the people of the South Mediterranean region, specifically the Greek island of Crete and Southern Italy. Nutritionists and health experts tout the benefits of the diet, which is based on whole foods, particularly fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and whole grains. The diet itself is steeped in a very particular lifestyle based on the culture and geography of this region.
The Mediterranean diet gained a reputation for being a way to achieve ultimate health in the 1990s. Researchers became interested in the diet because it was observed in the 1960s that the region's population experienced from very low incidences of chronic disease, specifically heart disease, certain cancers and diabetes. At that time, the people of these regions experienced one of the longest life expectancies in the world.
The Mediterranean region gets much of its food from the sea and the majority of its fat from olives, which grow in abundance in the hot summers and damp, mild winters. In the 1960s, the region was largely agrarian, so physical work in the fields and the home led to low rates of obesity. Dependence on agriculture meant a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, specifically potatoes and eggplants. Vineyards also thrive in the climate of the Mediterranean, so wine, especially red varieties, are a prominent feature of the diet.
Along with fruits and vegetables, the traditional Mediterranean diet includes fish, legumes (such as chick peas and lentils), whole grains and some eggs. The primary red meat provided, and usually only on special occasions, is lamb. Healthy techniques such as grilling and stewing comprise the most common preparations of meats. Vegetables are usually served in some sort of salad form dressed with olive oil.
A study reported in a June 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine showed that close adherence to the Mediterranean diet correlated to an overall reduction in deaths among 22,000 study participants. Scientists believe the diet's focus on mono-unsaturated fats in the form of olive oil and limited saturated fat helps reduce incidences of high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. A high intake of fresh produce provides the population with ample nutrition and antioxidants, which fight cancer-causing free radicals. The absence of red meat and its unhealthy saturated fat and processed foods contribute to the heathfulness of the diet.
In 1993, the Harvard School of Public Health, the World Health Organization and nonprofit Oldways introduced the Mediterranean diet at a conference in Cambridge, MA, as a model for healthy eating. Modern-day diet plans such as the South Beach Diet and the Sonoma Diet borrow from the Mediterranean principles by emphasizing mono-unsaturated fats, whole grains and lean proteins. With modern transport, it is very practical and easy to eat foods common in the 1960s Mediterranean diet. Healthful food still contains calories, so portion control and macro-nutrient ratios must remain a focus of a Mediterranean-style eating plan.