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MEDITERRANEAN DIET

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The Mediterranean diet is a modern nutritional recommendation inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of some of the countries of the Mediterranean Basin. The most commonly-understood version of the Mediterranean diet was presented by Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University's School of Public Health in the mid-1990s. Based on "food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece, and southern Italy in the early 1960s", this diet, in addition to "regular physical activity," emphasizes "abundant plant foods, fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert, olive oil as the principal source of fat, dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt), and fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts, zero to four eggs consumed weekly, red meat consumed in low amounts, and wine consumed in low to moderate amounts". Total fat in this diet is 25% to 35% of calories, with saturated fat at 8% or less of calories. The diet is often cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fiber.

Although it was first publicized in 1945 by the American doctor Ancel Keys stationed in Salerno, Italy, the Mediterranean diet failed to gain widespread recognition until the 1990s. It is based on what from the point of view of mainstream nutrition is considered a paradox: that although the people living in Mediterranean countries tend to consume relatively high amounts of fat, they have far lower rates of cardiovascular disease than in countries like the United States, where similar levels of fat consumption are found. A parallel phenomenon is known as the French Paradox.

One of the main explanations is thought to be the large amount of olive oil used in the Mediterranean diet. Unlike the high amount of animal fats typical to the American diet, olive oil lowers cholesterol levels in the blood. It is also known to lower blood sugar levels and blood pressure. Research indicates olive oil prevents peptic ulcers and is effective in treatment of peptic ulcer disease, and may be a factor in preventing cancer. In addition, the consumption of red wine is considered a possible factor, as it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties.

The principal aspects of this diet include high olive oil consumption, high consumption of legumes, high consumption of unrefined cereals, high consumption of fruits, high consumption of vegetables, moderate consumption of dairy products (mostly as cheese and yogurt), moderate to high consumption of fish, low consumption of meat and meat products, and moderate wine consumption.

Michael Pollan suggests the explanation is not any particular nutrient, but the combination of nutrients found in unprocessed food.

Dietary factors may be only part of the reason for the health benefits enjoyed by these cultures. Genetics, lifestyle (notably heavy physical labor), and environment may also be involved.

Although green vegetables, a good source of calcium and iron, as well as goat cheese, a good source of calcium, are common in the Mediterranean diet, concerns remain whether the diet provides adequate amounts of all nutrients, particularly calcium and iron.

This diet is not typical of all Mediterranean cuisine. In central Italy, for instance, lard and butter are commonly used in cooking, and olive oil is reserved for dressing salads and cooked vegetables. In North Africa, wine was traditionally not consumed by Muslims. In both North Africa and the Levant, along with olive oil, sheep's tail fat and rendered butter (samna) are traditional staple fats.

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