What Makes the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?

Dr. Tetyana Rocks from Deakin University looks into the healthful components of the Mediterranean Diet that contribute to overall wellbeing.

By Dr. Tetyana Rocks

The Mediterranean-style diet is renowned for its healthful components that contribute to overall wellbeing. Let’s review some of these below: 

This diet is abundant with plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

  • This great diversity of plant foods makes Mediterranean-style diets rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support various bodily functions, including the brain and central nervous system.
  • Diverse plant foods deliver a variety of diverse fibres – those parts of plant cell walls that are not metabolised by humans but are essential for beneficial gut microbiota functions.
  • Plant foods are also rich in polyphenols – chemical components that plants produce and use for their optimal growth. Polyphenols have many beneficial properties applicable  to humans too, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, improved heart health, and potential protection against chronic diseases (and this includes depression!).  

Mediterranean-style diet is based on a variety of whole-grains such as wheat, oats, rice, and others.

  • Although we discussed whole-grains in the previous point, these hamble foods deserve a special mention as an essential component of a healthful human diet due to their wide range of essential nutrients and fibres.  

The diet has plenty of healthy fats.

  • Traditionally, olive oil is the main source of fats in Mediterranean-style diets. Olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, is a source of monounsaturated fats known for their heart-protective properties. Additionally, extra virgin olive oil is packed with polyphenols, which are increasingly studied for their benefits for gut health.  
  • Another excellent source of healthy fats is fish and seafood – staples of diets following in the Mediterranean basement. Fish, particularly fatty fish, is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, play a critical role in supporting health, reducing inflammation, and supporting brain health.  

Another remarkable feature of the Mediterranean diet is the variety of legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices used in standalone meals and as additional flavourful ingredients.

  • Beans, lentils, and chickpeas, and other legumes are staples in traditional Mediterranean diet, offering a plant-based protein source and high fibre content. 
  • Together with other plant-based ingredients such as vegetables, fruit and whole-grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices deliver a diverse array of fibres, prebiotics, and phytonutrients necessary for supporting a thriving and balanced gut microbiota. The composition and function of gut microbiota are increasingly considered due to their impact on our mental health through the microbiota-gut-brain axis.  

Traditional Mediterranean-style diets are also low in so-called ‘Western’ foods that are often ultra-processed with high added sugar and salt content.  

  • High consumption of ultra-processed ‘Western’ foods has been flagged due to its possible link to many chronic noncommunicable diseases, including depression.  
  • Although some dishes and foods consumed in Mediterranean-style diets might be preserved through various technics, such as fermentation, drying, or freezing, these are prepared with whole ingredients with little or no added sugar and salt.  

In conclusion, adopting a Mediterranean-style diet offers a plethora of health benefits, ranging from improved cardiovascular health and reduced risk of chronic diseases to enhanced mental well-being. Its emphasis on the variety of whole, nutrient- and fibre-rich foods, low consumption of highly processed items, and inclusion of heart-healthy fats is a sustainable and effective dietary approach for promoting mental and physical well-being. 

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