Why the Mediterranean diet offers so many health benefits


More on why you should be celebrating International Mediterranean Diet Month

When it comes to promoting good health, it seems we are always on the lookout for a magical solution. We want a simple solution-a food or a supplement, something that will bestow good health and ward off disease. But science is showing us otherwise. And the Mediterranean diet is the perfect example of this.

While many people want to consider one component or food of the dietary pattern as the key component of the stellar eating regime, research points to combinations of foods as being the explanation. Traditional dishes, eaten for centuries in the Mediterranean, offer a powerful defense against disease. While the offerings may change as you travel around the region, the basics remain the same: a foundation of an abundance of plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, pulses (lentils, chick peas, for example), nuts and seeds and whole grains along with only small amounts of animal foods and the use of olive oil. Herbs and spices don’t just add taste but are integral in interacting with the various combinations to add disease-fighting weaponry such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer action.

Once again, we see the wisdom of the ages.

Scientists have been investigating what is called the synergistic or additive effects of different foods when eaten together. What this means is that is that when you consider the benefits of one food or another, when you put them together their action is much more powerful than each on its own. These effects are one of the reasons why supplements don’t measure up to real food.

For example, while extra virgin olive oil contains vitamin E, it also contains hundreds of microcomponents- phytochemicals-that interact with other foods and make them a more powerful defence against common ills.

When you take a supplement, you may be taking individual components, such as vitamin E, but then you don’t get all the different forms of this vitamin that’s found in food along with the critical synergistic effects of that real food. Researchers state that this is one of the reasons why no single antioxidant or phytonutrient can offer the same health perks as the combinations of phytonutrients in plant foods.

Here are just a few combinations as examples of the powerful health-promoting effects of the Mediterranean diet:

• In the Mediterranean region, cooked green vegetables are traditionally prepared with olive oil, rather than steamed. As the pigments, or carotenoids in the vegetables, such as lutein and beta carotene, are better absorbed when eaten with oil, traditional Mediterranean cooking methods also supply advantages to health.

Consuming tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil offers greater absorption of the colourful pigment or carotenoid, lycopene, than eating them with sunflower oil. Lycopene offers a range of health benefits including anti-cancer and antioxidant action and perks for healthy vision.

Combinations such as tomatoes, garlic and extra virgin olive oil offer greater antioxidant effects than lycopene on its own.

Eating foods together at the same meals from different foods groups helps to maximize their synergistic effects. For example, having vegetables such as broccoli or tomato with kidney beans boosts the antioxidant effects.

• Turmeric, which is widely used North Africa dishes, contains curcumin, a compound with an assortment of health benefits including anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. But on its own, the curcumin is not well absorbed. Add in some black pepper and it boosts curcumin absorption, unleashing its power.

Using onions and garlic in dishes boosts absorption of key nutrients such as iron and zinc for those eating vegetarian meals. These nutrients can more difficult to absorb from plant foods.

• Adding vitamin C-rich vegetables or fruits also boosts iron absorption from plant foods. An orange, onion and spinach salad is not only delicious but can also up the iron absorbed from a meatless main course containing lentils or beans.

The list goes on and on. These are just a few of the multitude of reasons to eat in the Mediterranean style.

For more recipes, subscribe to Oldways Fresh Fridays,a bi-weekly newsletter with recipes and tips for following the Mediterranean Diet.

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Categories: Food Trends, Research Roundup, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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