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The Mediterranean Diet

Sep 1 2021
5 min read
overhead table view of hands serving from plates of mediterranean food including cheese and olives

Turn on the news and you’ll undoubtedly hear talk of the “latest, greatest” food fad — which will soon be replaced by the next best thing.

However, the Mediterranean diet is here to stay for very good reason. Increasing longevity, preventing memory loss, fighting inflammation, and protecting against heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and cancer are some of the benefits linked to this profoundly healthy way of eating.

That’s why we at Canyon Ranch continue to promote a Mediterranean diet as a sound approach to health, and to attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. “We savor the flavors, honor the philosophy, and share the joy of the Mediterranean,” says Jenny Flora, MS, a nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. “Food should be delicious, fresh, boldly flavored, simple, and delicious.”

To really grasp what the Mediterranean diet is, we have to look back several decades. In the mid-20th century, an American scientist named Ancel Keys was the first to investigate how the eating patterns of various countries affected their risk of heart disease. His Seven Countries Study ultimately found that the diets of Crete (a Greek island) and Japan were both linked with low disease rates.

An Eating Pattern, Not a Diet

The idea of the Mediterranean diet started by identifying the pattern of foods eaten in pre-1960s Crete:

  • An abundance of plant foods every day: fresh vegetables and herbs; fresh fruit (especially for dessert); legumes and nuts

  • Whole-grain sourdough bread every day

  • Olive oil and olives every day

  • Cheese and yogurt from grass-fed cows most days

  • Fish several times a week

  • Red meat from grass-fed animals about once a week

So, do you have to eat these exact foods to get the benefit? Not really. They translate into a nutritional pattern that explains why the diet is so healthy. This is what it looks like in nutrition terms:

  • High intake of omega-3 fats, especially in relation to omega-6 fats

  • Low intake of saturated fat

  • High intake of vitamin C and vitamin E

  • Generous intake of “bioactive” nutrients and other compounds from plant foods and olive oil: lycopene and beta-carotene; polyphenols, flavonoids, glutathione and other antioxidants; selenium

  • Low glycemic index, which means they have a moderating effect on blood sugar

Remember that the pattern of foods eaten in Japan at the time of the Seven Countries Study was also associated with a very low risk of heart disease. Although the specific foods are not the same, the nutritional pattern is quite similar. The Mediterranean pattern has more fat than the Japanese pattern, but the relative amounts of omega-3 to omega-6 fats match.

Does It Work for Everyone?

We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. That said, the Mediterranean diet has been shown to be widely beneficial. Early in the discussion about the Mediterranean diet, some suggested that the unique genetic makeup of the Cretan people was more
responsible than their way of eating. Since then, many large and well-designed studies have found that the health benefits hold true when the nutrition principles of the diet are adopted by people of different cultures or geographic origin, including Americans.

The fact that conforming to the pattern — nutrient-dense, lots of plant foods, good fats, low impact on blood sugar — is more important than the specific foods you eat is what makes the Mediterranean diet so versatile. This also means that vegetarians, vegans, and people with dietary restrictions can apply the basic principles to their lifestyles.

How to Move Toward a Mediterranean Eating Pattern

It’s important to remember that there were and are many different patterns of eating in the Mediterranean region; not all are as healthy as the pattern we describe here. And even in Crete, the eating patterns today have changed dramatically from the 1950s.

These simple strategies embody the essence of the Mediterranean diet, as we’ve explained it. Enjoy the benefits of this extremely healthy way of eating by:

  • Using mainly extra virgin olive oil or organic expeller-pressed canola oil in place of butter, margarine, or other vegetable oils.

  • Eating a rich source of omega-3 fat at least once a day. Choose from cold-water fish (such as salmon and sardines); flaxseed and flax oil; chia or hemp seeds; omega-3 rich eggs and walnuts.

  • Opting for fish and chicken more often and red meat less often.

  • When you do eat red meat, choose grass-fed.

  • Eating a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Aim for two to three servings at every meal.

  • Choosing low glycemic index carbohydrate-rich foods. For example, try to find sourdough whole-grain bread (sourdough breads have a lower glycemic index than other types); cook whole-grain pasta al dente (slightly firm pasta is digested and absorbed slower, giving it a lower glycemic index); cook whole grains like quinoa; and build meals around beans or other legumes.

A headshot of Jenny Flora

About the Expert

A headshot of Jenny Flora

Jenny Flora

MS, Clinical Nutritionist

Jenny meets with guests to discuss their unique needs and goals. She provides nutritional guidance to help them manage chronic conditions, properly fuel their bodies for exercise, and improve their overall health.

Read Full Bio