FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

What are the Secrets of the Mediterranean Diet?

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There are hardly any more debates about the merits and health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet. It has not only stood the scrutiny of many research studies, but has also stood the test of time in many of the countries that make up the Mediterranean region.

The secret may lie in that there may be a common component contained within most of these foods in the Med diet and it has been suggested that the component could be polyphenols,  phytonutrients found in many of these typical foods of the Mediterranean. Polyphenols are the most abundant and potent antioxidants in the diet and found only in plants.  They are thought to protect against low density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation, and high levels in the blood are considered risk factors for heart disease.

Their health benefits have been studied only recently, specifically since 1995.  Current research strongly supports a preventive role of polyphenols in heart disease, cancers, osteoporosis, brain function, and diabetes mellitus.  However, most of the effects have only occurred in animals.  Animal studies often use doses much higher than would be found in the typical American diet even when the diet is considered healthy.  There has been more progress and stronger evidence in the prevention of heart disease in humans with polyphenols, either from supplements or foods. Until further research is done, it won’t hurt to increase our intake of them in our diets.

How To Boost Your Intake

The levels in the blood of these compounds will peak soon after they are eaten, so it is best to consume them in small amounts throughout the day.

Eat fresh whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).  Processing and refining removes these valuable compounds, which could confound many research results.  Moderate ooking does not necessarily destroy them and actually cooking may make them more available to the body.

Where are They Found?

  • Dark colored berries and fruits – blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, pomegranates and their juices – watch the sugar content
  • Turmeric (curcumin) spice – used in curry
  • Caffeinated tea and coffee – decaffeination may remove polyphenols.  Green tea is especially high.
  • Red wine – Pinot Noir is especially rich in resveratrol (another polyphenol) – moderation please
  • Beer- from the barley and hops – dark beer is best – moderation please
  • Dark chocolate and cocoa powder – dark bitter is best – moderation due to calories and saturated fat content
  • Yellow onions
  • Extra virgin olive oil – first press preferred
  • Organic peaches and pears
  • Apples
  • Prunes

The presence of polyphenols may only be one part of the complexities of diet and health. But until we know more, it may be prudent to eat more like a Greek.

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