Published on 02/25/10

Mediterranean diets limit disease risk

By April Reese Sorrow

Mediterranean people eat healthy. Following their culinary tastes may reduce anyone’s risk for diseases, says a University of Georgia expert.

“The Mediterranean diet is based on the food habits of people living in countries that grow food locally and eat few highly processed foods,” said Connie Crawley, a nutrition specialist with UGA Cooperative Extension. “Because of the high amounts of vitamins and minerals and low amounts of saturated fat in the Mediterranean diet, studies have found that the diet may reduce risk for many chronic diseases.”

There are at least 16 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. Diets vary between the countries, depending on the culture, economy and agriculture production.

But they share a common dietary pattern, she said. All include a high consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, breads and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds. Olive oil is used as a healthy source of fat. The diet includes moderate amounts of dairy products, fish and poultry and red meat. Eggs are included in some diets. Wine is consumed in moderation.

“People who follow the average Mediterranean diet eat less saturated fat than those who eat the average American diet,” according to the American Heart Association Web site. “More than half the fat calories in a Mediterranean diet come from monounsaturated fats, mainly from olive oil. The incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean countries is lower than in the United States. Death rates are lower, too. But this may not be entirely due to the diet. Lifestyle factors, such as more physical activity and extended social support systems, may also play a part.”

Arthritis and the risks for Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease and stroke are decreased for those who follow a Mediterranean diet.

“Mediterranean diets include very little animal fat or saturated fat,” Crawley said. “Because there is a direct link between the consumption of saturated fat and colorectal cancers, heart diseases and strokes, the risks of getting these diseases are reduced when following a Mediterranean diet.”

A diet rich in nutrients may control inflammation and decrease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. One study of women suffering from RA, she said, found women who received counseling and information about the Mediterranean diet reported significantly less overall pain and early-morning stiffness than women who only received general nutrition information. The women following the diet lost weight and lowered their blood pressures.

“Two studies have shown a connection between following a Mediterranean diet and a reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Crawley said. “Many participants saw a nearly 50 percent reduction in risk.”

To follow a Mediterranean diet at home:

  • Use olive oil and canola oil instead of butter when cooking.
  • Replace one red-meat entrée a week with fish.
  • Use whole-wheat bread.
  • Switch to low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
  • Fill half a dinner plate with vegetables (especially brightly or deeply-colored ones like broccoli, carrots, tomatoes, beets and greens).
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner. If you don’t already drink alcohol, however, don’t start.

April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.

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