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Article by Lorraine Heller

We’ve all heard how the Mediterranean diet is good for you, and it’s no longer just the people of the Mediterranean who are shouting out about it. Over the past decade, the diet plan and its health benefits have become a scientifically-backed global phenomenon.

It is now around two decades since the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Harvard School of Public Health collaborated on the introduction of a Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, which provides easy-to-understand guidance on the food groups in the diet plan.

Since then, more and more scientific studies have been published on the eating pattern, which either confirm its already suspected health benefits, or demonstrate new benefits that were previously unknown.

Published studies have linked the traditional diet of the people of southern Europe to a longer life, less heart disease and protection against some cancers.  Other demonstrated benefits include reducing the risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, aiding in weight management and depression, improving rheumatoid arthritis and promoting better breathing.

But most significant of all, a large and rigorous study published in February 2013 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that about 30% of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet.

What’s in the Mediterranean diet?

The eating pattern, which has come to be known as the ‘Med diet’, is rich in cereals, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil.

However, the health benefits are based on the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is not always the same as that followed today in countries such as Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain – where diets have evolved along with changing lifestyles.

Although most of the food groups remain the same, the balance between the different foods has been skewed by higher incomes, a changed food distribution system and more indulgence; today, many people of southern Europe eat more red meat and more carbohydrates than their ancestors.

In fact, a report published by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that the most extreme dietary changes over the past 40 years occurred in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Malta.  Calorie intake in these countries has increased by 30% since the 1960s.

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, though, which was agreed upon by leading international nutritional scientists, is based on the traditional Mediterranean eating pattern and recommends:

  • Daily consumption of foods from plant sources, including fruits, vegetables, potatoes, breads and grains, beans, nuts and seeds

  • Olive oil as the principle fat

  • Moderate daily consumption of cheese and yoghurt

  • Fish and shellfish at least twice per week

  • Poultry and eggs every two days or once a week (with no more than four eggs per week, including those used in cooking and baking)

  • Red meat only a few times per month, preferably limited to a total consumption of no more than 12 to 16 ounces (340g to 450g) per month

  • Sweets and sugary desserts no more than a few times per week

  • Wine in moderation if at all – one to two glasses per day for men, and one glass for women.

Above all, it’s important to remember that the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are delivered by the dietary pattern as a whole, not by any single food.

It’s a lifestyle approach that includes eating from a well-rounded menu of foods mainly from the plant kingdom, as well as regular exercise and enjoying the company of family and friends!

The pyramid concept

Nutritional pyramids set out the standard food groups of a particular diet plan in an easy-to-understand pyramid format: The wide base of the pyramid depicts the foods that form the daily base of the diet, while the foods higher up in the pyramid should be consumed on a weekly or monthly basis.

The concept of the nutritional pyramid is particularly widespread in the United States, where the government’s nutritional guidance to the nation takes the pyramid form.  The Med Diet pyramid was launched in 1993 by the non-profit nutritional group Oldways, in collaboration with the Harvard School of Public Health and WHO.

Since then, the copyrighted pyramid has appeared in millions of impressions in nutrition books, newspapers, magazines and even on television – in the United States and elsewhere.

View the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid.
Find out more about the Mediterranean diet.

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