The secrets to longevity and overall health have long been debated. Exercise programs, constantly evolving diet regimens, vitamin supplements and pharmaceutical medications have all been mentioned as essential components to maintain health. However, recent studies indicate that the secret lies along the Mediterranean coast and is much less expensive than a cruise around the Greek islands. The inhabitants of the western Mediterranean coast have for centuries adhered to a simple diet that may hold the key to sustainable health.
“In the last two decades, we have witnessed a marked expansion of research into how food and nutritional elements influence health and disease. Food and its interactions with the immune system are a critical topic for gastroenterology to address, changing our view of digestion and resorption of food as the principal role of the gastrointestinal tract.”1
Recent publications reviewing a data pool of nearly 2 million individuals found that adhering to a Mediterranean diet can significantly lower the risk of certain cancers. This includes colorectal cancer, breast cancer, gastric cancer, prostate cancer, liver cancer, head and neck cancer, pancreatic cancer, and respiratory cancer.2
Evidence suggests that a diet low in meat and high in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, such as the Mediterranean diet, can also decrease inflammation and promote a healthy digestive tract. Microbes in the gastrointestinal tract are necessary for proper digestive function and may benefit from a diet rich in plant-based foods.3 Components in western diets may have undesirable effects on the pathogenesis of disorders such as inflammatory bowel diseases, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. Components associated with unhealthy fats including phosphatidylcholine, and L-carnitine have been implicated in promoting inflammation and atherosclerosis. The by-products of fatty acid degradation induce these undesirable effects in the gastrointestinal tract and throughout the body.
As the microbiomes in our gastrointestinal tract process and digest the foods we consume they produce chemical messengers and metabolites that can signal the body to react in undesirable ways, including promoting inflammation, altering immunity and metabolism.
Researchers were able to demonstrate that, in as short of a duration as six weeks, following a modified Mediterranean-based diet decreased inflammatory responses as seen through measuring various known biomarkers. This had a beneficial effect on patients with Crohn’s disease and even showed alterations in gene expressions.4
The Mediterranean diet pyramid recommends that the majority of a meal be plant-based food such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, seeds, beans, nuts and legumes, with herbs and spices replacing salt intake. It’s recommended that fish and seafood be consumed at least 2 to 3 times per week, replacing poultry, eggs, and dairy. The smallest number of calories should come from red meats and sugar and sweets.
This is in contrast to the traditional western food pyramid established by the USDA that focuses on a base of breads, cereals, rice and pasta, followed by fruit and vegetables, with meat, dairy and sweets, at the top of the pyramid, emphasized the least.
Nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet’s preferred foods include antioxidants, vitamin D, and calcium, which have been shown to have potential chemo-protective effects and decrease the risk of cancer, such as colorectal cancer. Olive oil, a monosaturated fat can also reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Canola oils, certain nuts, and fish contain beneficial types of omega-3 fatty acids that work to lower triglycerides and inflammation in the cardiovascular system, decreasing the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.