Using the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid as a Guide to Healthy Eating

The Mediterranean diet has become recognized all over the world as an excellent pathway to good health. It is known as the eating pattern that allows the body to be relatively free from chronic disease and in recent years, research has shown that its beneficial effects extend to relieving depression.

What the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid Illustrates

The Mediterranean diet pyramid depicts the foods that are customary in the eating patterns of Crete, southern Italy and Greece. The extraordinary thing about this pyramid is that it might as well how people from these three Mediterranean areas ate during the 1960s. At that time, medical services in all three locations were limited and yet the rates of chronic diseases were among the lowest in the world and life expectancy was among the highest.

From a certain perspective, the diet illustrated in the pyramid was the diet of the poor people from the southern Mediterranean. It was dictated mainly by what was available and possibly affordable in the region at that time: fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, healthy grains, fish, olive oil, small amounts of dairy and moderate amounts of red wine. The Mediterranean diet today is essentially what it used to be five decades ago. Ironically, the more lavish diet which could have replaced it is now known to lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other diseases.

The Mediterranean Diet’s Eating Patterns

More than half a century of research has gone into the study of the Mediterranean diet. A pyramid that attempts to demonstrate the Mediterranean eating patterns (relatively unchanged through the years) will show several salient features.

• There is an abundance of food from plant sources. These include fruits and vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.

• The diet emphasizes the consumption of foods that are minimally processed. There is a preference for seasonally fresh and locally grown foods which optimizes the health-promoting micronutrient and antioxidant content of these foods.

• Olive oil is the principal source of fat which has not been replaced by other fats and oils such as butter and margarine.

• About 25 per cent to over 35 per cent of calories are from fat with saturated fat counting for no more than seven to eight per cent of calories.

• There is low to moderate consumption of cheese and yogurt with low-fat and non-fat versions preferred.

• There is low to moderate amounts of fish and poultry twice weekly and up to seven eggs per week including those used in cooking and baking.

• Fresh fruit is the typical daily dessert while sweets with a significant amount of sugar are consumed not more than a few times per week.

• Red meat is eaten only a few times per month and lean versions are preferable.

• There should be regular physical activity at a level which promotes a healthy weight, fitness and well-being.

• Wine, normally with meals, can be consumed in small amounts.

What the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid Illustrates

At the base of the pyramid would be daily physical activity. Following this would be a large section for bread, pasta, couscous, polenta, whole grains and potatoes. The third level, divided into three parts, would be fruits, beans legumes and nuts then vegetables. Above this would be a section wholly occupied by olive oil.

These four levels comprise around 60 per cent of the pyramid, starting from the bottom. This shows that these items are the major components and the most frequently consumed foods in the diet. Above these, one will find cheese and yogurt then fish then poultry followed by eggs then sweets. The smallest part of the pyramid includes the apex and this is where you find meat.

The pyramid illustrates how eating patterns can be designed for longevity and good health. However, a good reminder to those who would follow this pyramid is that the very base of it is physical activity. Then, as every cook will tell you, Mediterranean cooking includes something that is not shown in the pyramid – herbs, spices and seasonings. These add life and flavor to the healthy pyramid.

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