The Mediterranean diet is one of the most healthful eating styles out there and it has a lot of anti-inflammatory foods. I am 48% Southern Italian according to ancestry results. Both of my parents passed on some Southern Italian genes so the Mediterranean diet, literally, hits home for me.
I wanted to compare the anti-inflammatory diet to the Mediterranean diet and interestingly enough, most of the comments made about the anti-inflammatory diet was that it is based on the Mediterranean diet, but how did the non-commercial Mediterranean diet come to be?
The Seven Countries Study by Ancel Keys may have its criticisms but what it observed was that many of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea had lower rates of diseases, like cardiovascular disease, which has a major inflammation component to it.
People that live in Sardinia, Sicily, Greece, Crete tend to live longer and free from disease, so naturally we want to know: what do they eat and drink (but also, what do they not eat and not drink, very often)?
This image from Oldways is the 1993 Mediterranean diet Food Pyramid. This is as old, or as young, as me!
Let's dive into the Mediterranean diet starting from the bottom-
Be Physically Active; Enjoy Meals with Others
This really is that lifestyle piece that all eating patterns really should focus on. Physical activity we know is important. The USDA Guidelines specify 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week which amounts to 30 minutes daily. However, I'm willing to be that the Mediterranean lifestyle includes much more activity than that considering a large part of the economy is stimulated by agriculture.
My Nonino is still farming Marineo that's the name of his land. Here he is picking us some cherries or ciliegie (chee-lee-eh-geh). We ate cherries on the daily. Fresh, organically grown cherries. #takemeback
The concept of eating minimally processed, seasonal fresh food is a major component of the Mediterranean lifestyle and why we were eating an abundance of cherries the weeks I was in Sicily.
Cherries were in season, ready for picking and eating! The Friday market is where most people shop for their weekly staples, including food.
Eating with others is also common. While we in the states get a "60 minute break" for lunch, let's be real we either work through it or if we do eat, we eat alone. In Sicily families completely break for lunch. Stores close and families meet for lunch. Then they return to work.
Now let's get into the food that's enjoyed in the Mediterranean eating style.
Abundance of Fruits, Vegetables, Whole Grains, Olive Oil, Beans, nuts, Legumes, Seeds, Herbs, Spices
What is so special about these foods that they make up the basis of the Mediterranean diet? Well they are rich in vitamins and minerals, they are unadulterated (unprocessed) and provide Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Fiber. These vitally important nutrients are why I don't see how certain diets that promote heavy meat consumption and limit other plants are so popular.
If the healthiest pockets of humanity are thriving on an abundance of plant foods-yes, grains, nuts, legumes, seeds included- then how do we logically conclude that omitting them = healthy? It makes little sense to me.
Notice olive oil gets its own spotlight. Fat from olives is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids which tend to be neutral in our blood chemistry, meaning they do not impact our cholesterol levels.
When you take a shot of very fresh olive oil there is a slight burn in the throat. That is due to oleocanthal. Oleocanthal is a potent phytochemical found in extra virgin olive oil that is noted to has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties in vitro. However, the dose used in the study would equate to about 3 1/2 tablespoons in humans. That may not be feasible , but small doses over time may be attributable to lower risk of disease like Alzheimer's.
In short, drizzle a little olive oil where you can, on salads, on roasted veggies, even using olive oil in baked goods (which should be eaten sparingly) would count and potentially elevate the nutritional profile of the sweets.
Fish & Seafood
This makes ecological sense because the Mediterranean eating style is named because of the sea these regions surround. Having fresh fish and seafood weekly is easy when you are a stone throw away from the sea.
The most important nutrients gathered from marine life are the omega-3s found within them. Yes, omega-3 fatty acids exists in plant foods but thy are not usually the most bioavailable source of omega-3. So, striving to get omega-3 in your diet from cold-water fatty fish is the most ideal for our human bodies. That is objective science.
Biology doesn't change if you decide ethically you cannot eat fish. Aiming to enjoy 3-4 ounces of fish or seafood weekly is encouraged if you are following the Mediterranean diet.
Poultry, Eggs, Cheese & Yogurt
Again, ecology is at play here because as you may have noticed these foods require cattle to be produced and Sicily doesn't have much cattle farming. In Northern Italy, they do and that's where you get your Alfredo pasta dishes and the like.
The idea here is to enjoy these foods, but sparingly. Up to 1 serving a day and the fresher the better. Nutritionally I am not aware of any major differences unless we are talking about probiotics.
Probiotics are live active cultures that when you eat them, flourish inside your gut with the rest of your microbiota. Not all yogurt is high in live active cultures. In fact, I studied this in college and the only live active cultures that were in enough quantities to make a difference in your health were from homemade plain yogurt (which is very easy to do!).
Poultry is generally reserved for more formal meals but can be used throughout the week especially as leftovers. No food waste is another important habit of the Mediterranean lifestyle.
Eggs can be eaten, although not usually more than 0-4 eggs per week (including those in baked goods).
Meats & Sweets
These items adorn the top of the pyramid as a suggestion to eat these only for special occasions. These items are laborious and costly. Pastries, cookies, ice-cream, and cakes are made from scratch. Meats are purchased fresh from butchers and again because they are costly, are reserved for special occasions.
It has been indicated to eat red meat even less than sweets.
There are 2 other key features of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid that cannot be overlooked! What they drink: red wine with meals and water.
Resveratrol is why red wine gets a health halo, but I think more so than the resveretrol is the stress reduction that a 5 oz glass of red wine can bring to some people. If you don't drink, you don't need to start, but if you do want to have a glass of something, red wine seems to be a component of one of the healthiest eating styles on the planet.
It's also important that it shows to enjoy it with a meal. I am no sommelier so I won't try to speak to the subject of wine pairing with food, but I think this concept 'drink with a meal' implies the social element to wining and dining that is a component of the mediterranean lifestyle.
Does water need more of a plug? Well it might! In my personal experience, I have come across many individuals who just do not drink water. The taste isn't right or the habit isn't there. I appreciate the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid's inclusion of water because its extremely important to drink water!
So what are the takeaways of the Mediterranean Eating style?
Variety & abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes. Includes wine, nuts, fish, dairy (mostly from yogurt and cheese, not drinkable milk), and olive oil!
It's rich in...
Monounsaturated fats from the olive oils and nuts
Omega-3 fatty acids from cold-water fatty fish, vegetables and nuts
Antioxidants Vitamin C, Mivtamin E, flavonoids and fiber
Low in saturated fats, transfer fats, and alcohol in excess.
This sounds very similar to the anti-inflammatory diet and that's because it is! There is a lot of overlap with these two diets and why I proudly have in my tool kit a meal plan subscription service that I base all of my meal plans, nutrition challenges & workshops on!
Food brings people together, like the mediterranean way so nothing brings me more joy than sharing about the benefits of this healthy eating style with people in my community!