Mediterranean Diet's Benefits May Extend to Multiple Diseases

William F. Balistreri, MD


November 07, 2018

In This Article

Obesity is a serious, costly, and common disease, affecting approximately 40% of US adults (93 million individuals) who are consequently at risk for some of the leading causes of preventable, premature death, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.[1]

Several recent studies strongly suggest that adherence to a specific dietary pattern—the Mediterranean diet—can reduce, or even prevent, obesity and its consequences. They lend credence to the common expression that "you are what you eat," and by extension, you are healthy if you eat healthy.

This article provides an overview of recent studies of the Mediterranean diet in a variety of diseases and conditions.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet? 

This nutritional model is based on the traditional dietary intake of the populations living in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The diet is characterized by a primary intake of unrefined grains/cereals, vegetables, fresh fruit, olive oil, and legumes and nuts ; moderate intake of fish and white meat ; limited intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets ; and wine in moderation.[2]

The Mediterranean diet offers a beneficial fatty acid profile—low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in monounsaturated fatty acids, with a balanced omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio. The diet is enriched in polyphenols, vitamins, and carotenoids, and, in addition, there is a high content of complex carbohydrates and fiber.[2,3]

It should also be noted that, in addition to the dietary components, to some the term "Mediterranean" implies a cuisine rich in cultural tradition—people eating together, among family and friends, sharing in the preparation and consumption of a meal.[4]

It has long been suggested that close adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with significant health benefits, including a lower risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), obesity, and diabetes.[3,4,5,6] Dr Ancel Keys, in seminal studies conducted 60-70 years ago, noted a lower mortality rate from CVD among people living in the Mediterranean regions.[7] Subsequent studies have confirmed this observation and suggested that the protective effects of the Mediterranean diet are attributable to the inherent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of its dietary components. This remains a plausible biological explanation of the proposed benefits.

At last year's International Conference on Mediterranean Diet and Health: A Lifelong Approach, major studies were discussed on dietary interventions to assess the efficacy of the Mediterranean diet in the prevention of chronic diseases and to define the potential underlying mechanisms. A subsequent consensus paper published this year[4] discussed the biological basis, clinical impact, health policy, and behavioral implications of the Mediterranean diet, and supported its use as a potential intervention for health promotion.


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