Over the years, the Mediterranean diet has gained popularity among nutritionists, a solid reputation among health food enthusiasts and a momentum that has led to its inclusion in the UNESCO world heritage lists that include iconic sites such as the Great Wall of China and the Grand Place of Brussels. UNESCO’s less renowned list of immaterial cultural heritage is where the Mediterrean diet sits.
The famed diet essentially consists of a relatively high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits and cereals – the vast majority of which were unrefined in the past – a moderate consumption of fish, a low consumption of saturated fats that is balanced by a fair-to-mild consumption of monounsaturated fats mainly in the form of olive oil, a low consumption of dairy products, low consumption of red and white meat and a moderate consumption of wine.
Current hype aside, a number of studies and significant clinical research have pointed to a minimal yet encouraging scientific verification of the alleged pre-eminence of the Mediterranean diet compared to a number of others around the world. According to a notable extensive research published in 1995 that was undertaken by professor Antonia Trichopoulou in collaboration with Dr Antigone Kouris-Blazos and Professor Mark Wahlqvist, elderly Greek born citizens of Australia had a higher life expectancy compared to the elderly Greek population in Greece.
The study compared 189 elderly Greeks in Melbourne to 104 Greeks residing in Sparta, Greece between 1989-1992 and illustrated that antipodean Greeks were living longer because they were sticking to the traditional nutritional regiment with comparably greater consumption of legumes. The study was part of an international elderly research project called Food Habits in Later Life which also studied elderly Swedes in Sweden, Japanese in Japan and Anglocelts in Australia that involved approximately 800 participants. A later study that was published by a PhD student, at Monash University, Dr Irene Darmadi, analysed the data from previous studies and also concluded that Greeks in Melbourne were living longer than Greeks in Greece.
Their extended lifespan can be directly attributed to their healthier diet and higher intake of legumes. The British Medical Journal printed a study conducted by Professor Trichopoulou, that stated people of the South of Europe, mainly Greece and Spain, showed they lived longer due to their respective cuisines and were considered to be closer to the Mediterranean diet in both ingredients and overall cooking style.
The most recent research on the subject, has been conducted by postgraduate student Tania Thodis and supervised by Dr. Antigoni Kouris-Blazos and Associate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos at the Department of Dietetics of Latrobe University who are currently researching elderly Greek-born Australian citizens residing in Melbourne; the novelty of this endeavor lies in the fact that it will be focusing on those who came from the Greek islands and Crete in particular (as a side note, the original studies on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet actually originates in Crete).
This research is part of the MEDIS study (Mediterranean Island Study) which has been running in Greece for several years now under the scientific guidance of Harokopio University in Athens, Greece, aims to reveal whether or not Greek islanders are healthier than continental Greeks. As Professor Itsiopoulos states in her blog, most people think of the Mediterranean diet as a single type of diet that contains a lot of olive oil, grilled meat, pasta and bread.
That said, one needs to point out there is in fact a number of different Mediterranean diets, probably about 30 subtypes, that roughly correspond to the number of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The traditional Cretan Mediterranean diet is considered in scientific circles as the archetypal Mediterranean diet while a research that was conducted in the 60’s showed that people from this island reportedly had the lowest rate of death from heart related diseases compared to other countries in the study precisely because of the peculiarity of their subtype diet.
The recipe for longevity may just lie in the Mediterranean diet so if you want a healthier lifestyle, you should follow a diet that sticks to the following tenets; high intake of vegetables (particularly leafy greens), and fresh fruit, wholegrain cereals, (mainly sourdough bread rather than pasta), olive oil as the main fat in the diet, cheese in moderation (particularly goat cheese), yogurt, nuts, more fish, less meat, and moderate amounts of wine with meals.