Is the Mediterranean Diet the Key to Health and Happiness?
Measuring Mediterranean diet effects
To look at how food choices may be associated with physical and emotional health and social functioning, researchers collected information on diet and other health habits from 11,015 new college graduates in Spain. This information was collected again two and four years later. These young adults were categorized according to how closely they followed a traditional Mediterranean diet and by whether they maintained this dietary pattern over time.
The more vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas), fruit, nuts, whole grains, and fish a person eats, the higher his or her Mediterranean diet score. People who eat fewer of these foods and those who eat more meat and dairy earn a lower score.
Drinking 5 to 25 grams of alcohol per day for women and 10 to 50 grams of alcohol per day for men also contributes to a higher Mediterranean diet score compared with drinking more or less alcohol. For comparison, one drink contains 14 grams of alcohol and is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
The scores were then grouped into four categories: low, low-moderate, low-high, and high. After following the participants for four years, researchers discovered that compared with the low, low-moderate, and low-high categories, people with a high Mediterranean diet score had significantly better physical and social functioning, general and emotional health, vitality, and less bodily pain.
Compared with participants who had the lowest scores at the start of the study, and whose scores stayed the same or became even lower over four years, people who improved their initial high diet scores had significantly better physical functioning, general health, and vitality.
This study is observational, and therefore shows an association—not cause and effect—between following a healthy, Mediterranean diet and better, physical, emotional, and social health. Still, the findings agree with many other studies suggesting we gain major health benefits from going Mediterranean. Try our tips to mix more Mediterranean into your daily fare:
- Vegetables a fruit. A signature feature of a Mediterranean diet is plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit. Try carrying a piece of fruit in your brief case, backpack, or gym bag for a snack, and load up half of every plate with vegetables.
- Healthy fats. Snack on nuts—the perfect complement to the piece of fruit in your bag—and include other healthy fats, such as olive oil, in your daily diet.
- Beans and fish. Opt for beans and fish for most of your protein. Enjoy three-ounce servings of red meat, pork, and chicken no more than two to three times per week.
- Alcohol in moderation. If you drink at all, aim for no more than one drink per day for women, or two drinks per day for men, on average.
By Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD