The traditional Mediterranean diet has garnered much academic and media attention in recent years, but it's no fad diet - in fact, it's been around for millennia. It is rich in protective plant foods, healthy fats and fish and eschews the refined carbohydrates, industrial fats and large quantities of red and processed meat that characterize the typical Western diet.
Over and above merely biochemical considerations, the Mediterranean diet embodies freshness, diversity, simplicity, conviviality and joie de vivre. As a nutritionist, I believe that healthy food should be enjoyable; if it feels like a chore, we won't persist eating that way for long. As a hedonist, the Mediterranean diet pushes all my pleasure buttons - and not just mine, as the huge popularity of Italian and French cuisines around the world illustrates.
In addition, the region has given birth to a rich food culture that celebrates conviviality, diversity and freshness - all of which boost the healthiness of the food we eat. (Incidentally, when I refer to the ‘traditional' Mediterranean diet, I mean a style of eating that prevailed until the 1950's, after which western eating patterns began making inroads into the Mediterranean way of eating - with regrettable consequences, as we shall see in a separate post.)
In relation to cancer, it is unclear whether the Mediterranean diet actually prevents the formation of tumors, or whether its protective role lies in hindering micro-tumors from developing into full-blown, life-threatening cancer. Whatever the mechanism, scientists estimate that up to 25% of colorectal cancers, 15% of breast cancers and 10% of prostate, pancreas, and endometrial cancers could be prevented if the populations of highly developed Western countries did nothing more than adopt a Mediterranean diet.
The more closely people adhere to the Mediterranean diet, the greater its anti-cancer effect. According to a study conducted in Greece, strict adherence to two elements of the Mediterranean diet - for example, a high consumption of vegetables and a low intake of meat - causes a 12% reduction in the incidence of all cancers. The study shows that the more elements of the Mediterranean diet are incorporated, the greater the protection; thus, simply adhering to four elements of the Mediterranean diet - for instance, by adding a high intake of fruits and legumes to the two measures described above - may reduce cancer incidence by up to 24%.
When combined with other healthy life-style habits, the Mediterranean style of eating can confer even greater protection. A large-scale European study found that people eating a Mediterranean diet who hadn't smoked for 15 years or longer, had regular physical activity and drank a moderate amount of alcohol, were 65% more likely to outlive their peers who had none of these healthy habits, and were 60% less likely to die of cancer.
You might be wondering how to adopt a Mediterranean diet without moving to Greece or Italy (albeit perhaps a tempting thought...). The good news is: you can eat this way wherever you live! Based on ingredients that are easily available everywhere, simple to prepare and delicious, Mediterranean-style eating can be transported to any part of the globe and adapted to local conditions.
During the Anti-Cancer Challenge, I have decided to adopt a traditional Mediterranean Diet following these principles:
The Mediterranean Diet: My Top-10 Tips
- High intake of vegetables and fruits
- High intake of olive oil, moderate intake of saturated animal fats
- High intake of legumes
- High intake of whole grains
- Frequent use of aromatic herbs and spices
- Moderate-to-high intake of fish
- Moderate consumption of dairy products, mostly as cheese and yoghurt
- Low consumption of meat and meat products, especially red meat
- Moderate red wine consumption with meals
- Enjoyment: taking time to prepare meals and sharing food and drink with others in a convivial atmosphere