The Mediterranean diet is a nutritional model inspired by the traditional dietary patterns of the countries of the Mediterranean basin, particularly Italy, Greece, and Spain.
Common to the diets of these regions are a high consumption of fruit and vegetables, bread and other cereals, olive oil and fish; making them low in saturated fat and high in carbohydrates and fiber. A main factor in the appeal of the Mediterranean Diet is its rich, full flavored foods. Margarine and other unhealthy hydrogenated fats are considered bland and lacking the flavor olive oil can impart to foods. Red wine is also consumed regularly but in moderate quantities.
Although it was first publicized in 1945 by the American doctor Ancel Keys stationed in Salerno, Italy, the Mediterranean diet failed to gain common currency 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. In addition, the consumption of red wine is considered a possible factor, as it contains flavonoids with powerful antioxidant properties.
Dietary factors may be only part of the reason for the health benefits enjoyed by these cultures. Genetics, lifestyle, and environment may also be involved.
The French Paradox
The French paradox is the perceived paradox that people in France suffer relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease, despite their diet allegedly being rich in saturated fats. The phenomenon was first noted by Irish physician Samuel Black in 1819. It is often confused with the related but different notion of the Mediterranean diet.
One possible reason for the attention devoted to this apparent paradox in countries such as the United States is a popular misconception about French food, whereby haute cuisine elaborated dishes with heavy sauces and fatty specialties, such as foie gras, all well-represented in French restaurants outside of France, are mistakenly considered representative of the meals eaten by the average Frenchman.
It has been suggested that France's high red wine consumption is a primary factor in the trend. This theory was expounded in a 60 Minutes broadcast in 1992. The program catalysed a large increase in North American demand for red wines from around the world. It is believed that one of the active ingredients in red wine is resveratrol.
Resveratrol and other grape compounds have been positively linked to fighting cancer, heart disease, degenerative nerve disease, and other ailments. Although many people wrongly assume that red grapes have the most health benefits, the fact is that grapes of all colors have comparable benefits. Red wine has health benefits not found in white wine because many of these compounds are found in the skins of the grapes and only red wine is fermented with the skins.
The first scientific study of the relationship between alcohol consumption and atheriosclerosis was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1904. The first epidemiological study to report that moderate drinkers exhibit greater longevity than abstainers or heavy drinkers was published in 1926. Hundreds of studies have followed in recent decades.
There is a lack of medical consensus about whether moderate consumption of beer, wine, or distilled spirits has a stronger association with longevity. Of ten major studies, one-third found stronger evidence for wine, one-third for beer, one-third for liquor, and one study found no difference between alcoholic beverages. Most researchers now believe that the most important ingredient is the alcohol itself.
The major cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease and most research finds that moderate consumption of alcohol reduces coronary fatalities in the range of 40% to 60%. The mechanisms by which alcohol reduces coronary events are becoming increasingly documented. Research has found that alcohol improves blood lipid profile (increases HDL and reduces LDL), decreases thrombosis (reduces platelet aggregation, reduces fibrinogen and increases fibrinolysis), reduces blood pressure, increases coronary blood flow, and reduces blood insulin levels.
Nevertheless, the medical causes of the French paradox are still not entirely clear, A number of studies have been made and some researchers are moving away from the theory that wine consumption is the primary cause.