Health, Mediterranean Style

There is more evidence that people who follow a Mediterranean diet live longer with less chance of dying from heart disease and cancer.

The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explained Tuesday that a traditional Mediterranean diet is part of the culture in European countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece; as well as some parts of North Africa, the Balkan region and the Middle East.

A Mediterranean diet is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), nuts, unrefined whole grain food and olive oil. It includes a moderate amount of fish and a low-moderate amount of dairy products such as cheese or yogurt. It also includes a moderate intake of wine (usually with meals) and low amounts of meat, poultry and saturated fats.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine observed more than 22,000 Greek adults for almost four years to see if a Mediterranean diet had any effects on their life span.

Researchers found there were 25 percent fewer deaths among people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet, including a 33 percent reduction in the risk of dying from heart disease and 24 percent decrease in risk of dying from cancer.

Senay says it is important to note that exercise increased the benefits of the diet. Also, the diet is about nutrition, not weight loss. It is possible to become overweight with a Mediterranean diet if you indulge in too much of the fattening components of the food. She says olive oil can make you fat if you eat enough of it.

If you follow a Mediterranean diet, Senay explains, you will have low intake of foods containing cholesterol, saturated fat and trans fatty acids. The diet has a high intake of food rich in protective antioxidants, phytochemicals and fat from plants or fish instead of meat and butter.

The study doesn't show any evidence that one particular food was more beneficial than any other in the diet. The researchers suggest that the benefit from the diet comes from a cumulative effect of the combination of ingredients over time. It suggests, Senay says, that a healthful diet is more complex than simply fat, protein or any one ingredient over another.

The nice thing about the diet, Senay says, is that it allows some of the diet hazards — fat and alcohol — in moderation. The Mediterranean diet often includes monthly servings of meat and weekly meals of poultry, eggs and sweets. Items, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, unrefined cereals, olive oil and sometimes fish, are eaten most days. Moderate amounts of cheese and yogurt may also be included in the diet.