What Is the Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet is the name given to eating plans typical of countries of the Mediterranean, with Greece, Crete, Italy, and Spain being the main points of reference. These countries are built on agricultural, religious, and cultural traditions, and one of those traditions is making meals from current available crops.
Before reviewing the agriculture of the Mediterranean, it's important to understand the culture and religion of the region. The Mediterranean region, often referred to as the Mediterranean basin, is made up of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all of whom have different traditions.Muslims do not eat pork or drink wine or other alcoholic beverages. Jews avoid shellfish and pork, and Jews who keep kosher don't mix dairy products with beef, lamb, or veal. Greek orthodox populations avoid eating meat two days per week and during Lent will also often avoid it. Christians often avoid eating meat on Fridays, but do drink wine.
These varying religious traditions change the dynamics of what is often called the Mediterranean diet. One common aspect of all of these cultures is the importance of enjoying a meal. Mediterranean countries enjoy their big meal midday and most take several hours out of the day to enjoy the meal with family.
Agriculture in the Mediterranean
With the balmy climate of the Mediterranean, people in these countries build their meals largely around plant foods, which enhance variety, nutrition, and flavor. Wild greens are often used in salads, soups, and with eggs. Vegetables, including greens, carrots, peppers, cucumbers, and onions are served at all meals, with several Mediterranean countries using vegetables as a main part of their breakfast and lunch. Animal foods are typically smaller contributors to the meal plans and appear more as an accompaniment than as the entrée.
In countries where meat or poultry is used as an entrée, portions are traditionally three ounces or smaller. For many in the Mediterranean area a meal might be a large pot of beans, vegetables, bread, and olive oil that cooks together on the stove to yield a rich stew-like dish. The Italians call the dish ribollita, and it is a mainstay on the stove of many families.
While many traditions of the Mediterranean remain, changes in portions are resulting in higher calorie intakes. As the Mediterranean region becomes more westernized, portions are increasing in size as is the inclusion of meat and poultry. The region is also trying to adapt to meet the palates of Western tourists losing some of the traditional cuisine.
Popularity of the Diet
Interest in the Mediterranean diet grew when scientists noted that people in the Mediterranean area had lower incidences of several diseases, but especially heart disease. Searching for the source of this lowered risk resulted in the examination of the lifestyles of those who live in the Mediterranean. Upon observation of lifestyle, the diet was an obvious point of review.
Omega-3 fatty acids in fish provide more heart-health benefits than those found in plant foods like walnuts and flax. Try to include at least ten ounces of fatty fish per week and use walnuts and flax to add variety and small omega-3 benefits.
The Mediterranean diet, while plant plentiful, is also rich in olive oil, a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to using olive oil for cooking, the Mediterranean diet has limited intake of solid or animal fats like lard. These factors are the likely cause of the diet's impact on reduced risk of heart disease. While the diets of people in Mediterranean countries vary, the evidence related to health promotion is consistent throughout the region.
To accommodate the varying eating patterns of the different countries, a multitude of Mediterranean food pyramids exist. The pyramids all reflect a similar look, with lots of plant foods, but each has a unique twist to represent the cuisine of the country. With this variety of pyramids, what constitutes a Mediterranean diet can be confusing, but a close look makes it clear that Mediterranean diets, no matter which cuisine they represent, are built around plant foods.