Adopting the Mediterranean-style Diet

There have been plenty of articles promoting the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. But for people used to packaged and pre-prepared food, adopting the mostly fresh and unprocessed diet was proving difficult, until the nutritionists at Tufts University came up with a plan.

Nutritional epidemiologists at Jean Mayer USDA Human Research Center at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, developed a new “map” for adults in the USA and other countries who want to enjoy the great health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but may not be able to get all of the same foods from the Mediterranean region.

“We developed a Mediterranean-style Dietary Pattern Score (MSDPS) to assess the conformity of an individual’s diet to a traditional Mediterranean-style diet,” the researchers, Dr. Marcella Rumawas, Dr. Johanna Dwyer and Dr. Nicola Mckeown wrote in the abstract to their paper, published in the April 2009 edition of the Journal of Nutrition

Based on the 13 food groups in the Mediterranean diet pyramid, the MSDPS was tested against the diets of people enrolled in the Framingham Offspring Study during 1999-2001.

The Framingham Offspring Study is a community-based, prospective, observational study of cardiovascular disease and its risk factors. It is perhaps the most famous study of heart disease ever undertaken, and much of our knowledge about heart disease and diet comes from results provided by this study.

Members of the Offspring cohort are white and of mixed European ancestry, The study began in 1971 with an older group, the Offspring’s parents, and is continued every four years.

Once the MSDPS had been developed, it was tested against the food choices of the Framingham Offspring participants. While they weren’t necessarily following a Mediterranean diet as such, the most heart-healthy ones were presumably eating the same balance of nutrients, such as an excellent intake of omega-3 fats, dietary fiber, B-complex vitamins, essential minerals, and antioxidant phytonutrients, and a low intake of saturated fats and trans fats and sugar.

Mediterranean Diet is Cardio-Protective

The USDA researchers predicted that their 13 food-group structure for analyzing the nutrient benefits of the Mediterranean diet would show which Framingham participants had a diet that was closest to providing the nutrient benefits of the Mediterranean diet and which participants had a diet that failed to provide these benefits.

The Mediterranean diet has been cited in several clinical papers as being cardio-protective, especially for people over 50. The 13 main food groups included in the diet are: whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, dairy foods, wine, fish, poultry, olives/ legumes/nuts, potatoes, eggs, sweets, meats, and olive oil.

These provide good amounts of dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, and low levels of added sugar, saturated fat, and trans-fat.

Testing Diets for Heart Health

What the USDA researchers hoped show was that the people in the Framingham Cohort with the healthiest hearts had diets that followed the essentials of the Mediterranean diet without necessarily being that diet.

That way, they could prove their tool, the MSDPS, would work to evaluate any diet for its contribution to healthier hearts, and enable people who didn’t live in the Mediterranean area to follow a heart-healthy nutrition pattern.

They found that participants whose diets had the highest MSDPS score were generally non-smoking or no longer smoking older women with relatively low BMI and waist measurements.

“The MSDPS demonstrated content validity through expected positive associations with intakes of dietary fiber, (omega-3) fatty acids, antioxidant vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, and inverse associations with those of added sugar, glycemic index, saturated fat, and trans-fat, and the (omega-6):(omega-3) fatty acid ratio,” the researchers wrote in the paper’s abstract.

Putting the Mediterranean Diet into Practice

Changing from a lifestyle where large amounts of processed and pre-packaged food contribute to daily nutrition to a heart-healthy Mediterranean–type diet won’t be easy initially, but the MSDPS highlights the 13 areas to focus on.

It might pay to take one food group at a time and incorporate it, increase it, or reduce it as needed before starting another group.That would be simpler than trying to adopt the whole diet in one attempt.

  • Increase: You will probably need to increase your consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grain cereals, olives/legumes/nuts, fish, and olive oil
  • Reduce: On the other hand, it’s probably time to cut back on the quantities of eggs, meats, and sweets.
  • Moderate: And with dairy foods, wine, poultry, and potatoes, moderation is the key.

You might also be interested in reading: Valentine’s Day – Think Food For your Heart, Mediterranean Diet May Relieve Depression and Cardio-protective Benefits of Weekly Fatty Fish

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