The Mediterranean diet is a modern nutritional model originally inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of some of the countries of the Mediterranean Basin, particularly Greece and Southern Italy. The diet is often cited as beneficial for being low in saturated fat and high in mono unsaturated fat and dietary fiber. A parallel phenomenon is known as the French Paradox.
Common to the traditional diets of those specific regions are a high consumption of fruit and vegetables, bread, wheat and other cereals, olive oil, fish, and red wine. However, this is not typical of the Mediterranean basin as a whole. 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, sheep’s tail fat and rendered butter (samna) are the traditional staple fats. In inland areas before refrigeration, fish was largely unknown, even in Greece and Southern Italy.
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.
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.
Michael Pollan in his book “In Defense of Food” 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.
Concerns remain whether the diet provides adequate amounts of all nutrients, particularly calcium and iron. Nonetheless, green vegetables, a good source of calcium and iron, are used in the Mediterranean diet as well as goat cheese, a good source of calcium.