History of the Mediterranean Diet

Dominique W. Brooks
mediterranean diet foods

The Mediterranean Diet is steeped in the culinary traditions of the Mediterranean region, particularly Greece and Italy. The importation of the diet into America and other parts of the world began in the 1940s and '50s.

Mediterranean Food Plans

There are a wide range of diets practiced in the Mediterranean region, but what most Americans refer to as the Mediterranean diet is a reflection of the historic way of eating in Greece and Italy. Many people farmed the land, producing grapes and olives that were turned into wine and olive oil. They fished and ate what they caught.

They didn't eat beef or a lot of dairy products because the climate is not right for the grazing land these animals require. Fish, lamb and goats were more often eaten.

Ancel Keys Influence

Ancel Keys was a nutritionist credited with the development of "K rations" for the American military. He noted that men who lived in the mountains of Crete and ate a traditional Cretan diet had low rates of heart disease and cancer and lived to a very old age.

He instituted a 15-year, seven-nation study to investigate how different regional diets affected disease rates and mortality. He looked at Greece, Finland, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States to see how the diets compared.

The study found people who ate what he called a Mediterranean diet had lower rates of death due to cardiovascular diseases even though they did not have lower cholesterol levels than people in countries like the United States, which had much higher disease rates.

Keys found the diet in Mediterranean countries he studied had fewer saturated fats, less dairy consumption and more fruit, vegetables and nuts than the other diets he studied.

Finland's Mediterranean Experiment

After the study was published, Finland instituted the North Karelia study, through which the entire nation was encouraged to decrease saturated fat and dairy product consumption and increase intake of fresh produce.

North Karelia is a region in Finland, and the community was given health education and monitored by community and health services. Cardiovascular death rates were said to decrease by 50 percent in the region, and after 14 years the incidence of both lung cancer in men and breast cancer in women were reduced by 10 percent compared to the wider population of Finland.

Greece's Clinical Trial

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 looked at how the diet affected death rates in Greece. More than 20,000 adults who were free of heart disease, diabetes and cancer at the beginning of the study were monitored for their adherence to the diet and onset of disease.

Adherence to the guidelines was measured on a scale of zero to nine, with zero being minimal adherence to dietary recommendations and nine being complete loyalty to the plan. The study adjusted for such factors as body mass index, gender, smoking, the ratio of waist to hips and other factors that might have accounted for the health of participants beyond what they were eating.

The study found that after almost four years, each two-point increase in adherence to the diet resulted in a 25 percent decrease in mortality for any reason and a 33 percent decrease in death rates due to cardiovascular problems.

Thus, the study showed the Mediterranean approach did improve survival rates among Greeks who stuck with it over time, and particularly cut the risk of death from heart disease.

Spain's Clinical Trial

A similar study in Spain found the more people followed a Mediterranean-type food intake, the lower their body mass index and the less likely they were to become obese.

Of course, this study did not show if switching to this type of diet would garner the same positive effects, but the three studies provide promising evidence that this kind of diet could help people who were not raised on olive oil and fish.

The Mediterranean Diet in America

There is no one Mediterranean Diet. Many diverse nations border the Mediterranean, from Spain and Italy to Morocco, Turkey and Greece. And it should be noted that this diet is a historical one; many people in Greece and these other nations don't eat the traditional diet anymore, particularly with the importation of American fast-food chains.

Oldways is an organization that promotes traditional ways of eating and living that bring health to people all over the world. The group has developed several alternative food pyramids that illustrate vegetarian and other diets different from the one consumed by most people in the United States and many other developed nations.

Its Mediterranean Diet Pyramid shows a foundation of grains, much like the food pyramid touted by American health authorities. From there it suggests eating fruit, vegetables, olive oil, beans, legumes or nuts, and cheese or yogurt daily.

Fish, poultry, eggs and sweets are recommended to be eaten on a weekly basis, and red meat is at the top of the pyramid, to be eaten monthly or not at all.

The pyramid also suggests drinking six glasses of water a day and wine in moderation.

The diet has increased in popularity in the United States over the past decade because it is a sensible way to eat. Unlike some other weight loss plans that have become popular in recent years, such as incredibly low-fat or high-fat, low-carbohydrate plans, the basic premise is really about moderation.

Both fats and carbohydrates are consumed in moderate amounts, though saturated fat and trans fat are avoided and the amount of fiber is higher than most Americans currently eat.

If you are worried about heart disease or obesity or are just looking for a healthier way of eating and living that incorporates more natural foods, the Mediterranean diet can be a very good option.

History of the Mediterranean Diet