4 Tantalizing Facts About the Mediterranean Diet

When I look back at the summer of 2015, I’ll remember daily dips in the azure sea in Kiveri, a small village situated on the bay of Argos in the Peloponnese. My ritual involved a swim, followed by simple but succulent meals: fresh grilled sardines accompanied by a Greek salad of local tomatoes, red onions, green olives, peppers, and cucumbers, drizzled in real olive oil, sometimes with a side of ‘horta’ (boiled rapini-like wild greens excellent for digestion). The freshness was tangible.

While I usually maintain a very healthy eating regime (organic whenever possible and superfoods, with no gluten, dairy or sugar cane), I vowed to adopt a Mediterranean diet once back in the United States. I say “adopt” because the Mediterranean diet is not a diet in the traditional sense at all, but more of a lifestyle.

Traditionally characterized by vegetables, legumes, fruit, nuts, seeds, olives, lots of extra virgin olive oil and fish, this way of eating not only involves a low consumption of processed food, processed carbohydrates, sweets, chocolate and red meat, but a state of being. The atmosphere and mindset are equally important: people enjoying long, relaxed meals, the warm climate and a sea breeze full of negative ions. The pace of life in the region differs considerably from the Western world.

As Marion Nestle Ph.D, M.P.H, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health has remarked, diet is only one of the great many behavioral factors that influences health.

Elise Truman, a registered dietitian working with Barilla, seems to agree. “What Western-style eating patterns often fail to acknowledge, is that *how* we are eating is equally as important as *what* we are eating,” Truman tells me via email. “Slow down. Take the time to really taste your food and share mealtime with people you care about. Laugh. Stay active. Find balance and realize that all things in life (desserts included) are about moderation and enjoyment. Because like Julia Child said, ‘that’s what human life is all about – enjoying things!’”

Here are 4 things you likely did not know about The Mediterranean Diet:

From The Vineyards of Crete To The Forests of Finland

In reality there is no “one” Mediterranean Diet, which in 2010 was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. More than 20 countries border the Mediterranean Sea and each has their own unique culture and cuisine. The “Mediterranean diet” encompasses all of them—it’s not one size fits all.

The first systemic attempt to investigate dietary intake in the Mediterranean region took place shortly after the end of WWII by an epidemiologist named Leland Allbaugh, who visited the island of Crete to conduct a study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet the health implications of the Mediterranean diet more commonly begins with the work of American biologist and physiologist Ancel Keys and wife and collaborator chemist Margaret Keys, who coined the Mediterranean diet in 1957.

Years earlier in 1952, impressed by the low rates of heart disease in the region, Keys initiated a series of investigations of dietary and other coronary risk factors, measuring skinfolds and meticulously collecting physiological data on the health and eating habits of 10,000 individuals,across three continents and seven nations. The inquisitive scientist and author of the bestselling Eat Well and Stay Well, traipsed the world, visiting vineyards of Crete, the mountains of Dalmatia, the forests of Finland, along with those on the University of Minnesota campus where he worked. His findings later became known as the Seven Countries Study.

Long before such ideas become commonplace it was Keys who associated the typical American diet, rich in meat and dairy fats, with higher concentrations of blood cholesterol and therefore with increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Long Life, Strong Heart, Optimal Health  

Adults living in certain regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea display rates of chronic diseases that are among the lowest in the world and life expectancies that are among the highest. Case in point, while visiting Agios Ioannis, a mountain village of less than 1000 inhabitants, near the Argolic Gulf in the northeast of Peloponnese, Greece, I saw several yayas and papous (grandmothers and grandfathers) in their 90s, walking down a hill to the nearby church with relative ease.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown to increase longevity and reduce incidence of chronic illnesses, especially major cardiovascular diseases,” says Mauro Serafini, who leads the nutrition class at Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies.

The positive findings have been plentiful:

  • A plant-based Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil or mixed nuts may counteract age-related cognitive decline in older adults, according to a report published online May 11 by JAMA Internal Medicine.
  • A 2010 meta-analysis published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the Mediterranean diet conferred a significant benefit with regard to the risk of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease. 
  • In 2014, two meta-analyses found that adherence to a Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes  Another 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a decreased risk of cancer mortality.
  • Due to the emphasis on fish and healthy fats which are needed for prostaglandin formation, the Mediterranean diet is beneficial for decreasing inflammation in the body.
  • The biggest impact of Mediterranean is on lowering incidences of  diabetes
  • The Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of cancer incidence.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions And Environmental Impact

The Mediterranean diet has many virtues – on our health and on our planet as well. Not only can it add time to your life, it can also prevent massive environmental damage.

According to a recent study by University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, the Mediterranean diet slashes greenhouse gas emissions, and saves the habitat of endangered species. 

To confirm the connection between diet and planet health, the researchers gathered all published life-cycle assessments covering “cradle to farm gate” greenhouse gas emissions  (greenhouse gases are: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and similar) for production systems of food crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture — some 500 studies. They also gathered 50 years of data for 100 of the world’s more populous nations to see the way food consumption patterns were changing.

If Mediterranean, pescatarian or vegetarian diets were widely adopted, they would not only reduce diet-related chronic non-communicable diseases, but also reduce the environmental impact on agriculture, says Tilman.

“The Mediterranean diet is an outstanding resource for sustainable development, as it contributes to promoting local production and consumption of food, encourages sustainable agriculture, and safeguards the environment. In addition, this dietary shift would prevent the destruction of an area of tropical forests and savannahs of an area half as large as the United States.”

Interestingly, this study made no distinction between an organic Mediterranean diet and a conventional one. According to Tilman there wasn’t enough data to ask that question. And back in the day, all food was organic. 

Degradation: Mediterranean Diet Vanishing Into The Sea

The Mediterranean diet’s origins lie in the Cilento National Park area in Italy. It was at Pioppi that Ancel Keys settled down to develop the guidelines of this now world famous nutritional model. But ironically, the diet “hardly exists” where it originated. Globalization, food marketing, tourism, urban development, depletion of natural resources, rise in prices of food, and a loss of traditional knowledge has altered the menu for the worst

Products today are increasingly being sourced from outside the region. Only 10 percent of the traditional local crop varieties are still grown today, which affects not only local food producers but also the environment. Ancient vineyards, orchards, and olive groves have been uprooted to make way for large-scale fruit or olive plantations. Mixed rotational farming has been replaced by intensive monocultures, just like in America. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that to satisfy the needs of a growing and richer population globally, food production will have to increase by 60 per cent towards 2050. 

Changes in food supply and consumption negatively impacts not only wildlife habitats, water supply, and small-scale farmers who once depended on these systems for their livelihoods. More than 36 percent of Italian children are either overweight or obese by the age of eight, making Italy the country with the second highest obesity rates among children in Europe after Greece!

Check out this short film segment, which was produced by students studying Food Filmmaking at Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies, titled Fat Italy: The Fate of Italian Youth that addresses this very subject.

Rising incomes and urbanization are driving a global dietary transition in which traditional diets are being replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats. According to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the Mediterranean is one of the major regions of the world where global warming will threaten the environment and human activities in future.

As Mauro Serafini of Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies suggests “Given the importance of food consumption, urgent steps must be taken in the Mediterranean region, as well in other regions, to promote dietary patterns which can drive food production towards more sustainable patterns.”

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago


Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen3 years ago

Thank you

Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey3 years ago

Thanks for this article

Clare R.
Clare R3 years ago

Very informative, thanks for posting.

Janis K.
Janis K3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

B E.
Angela G3 years ago

thanks-this worked for my relatives who lived long lives

Heidi Aubrey
Heidi Aubrey3 years ago

Very good article. I completely agree with the Mediterranean Lifestyle as being very healthful.

I do have a bone to pick though: "higher concentrations of blood cholesterol and therefore with increased risk of coronary heart disease"

I don't want to get into the specifics of Cardiovascular Disease-long and complicated, but I do want to state this is an erroneous statement.

One half of all heart attacks are with people who have completely normal cholesterol.

In fact, those who study coronary disease up close, have already completely discounted the high cholesterol-as-a-cause theory.

Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.3 years ago


Heidi Aubrey
Heidi Aubrey3 years ago

Maryam, wonderful article. Great information.