The Mediterranean Diet developed over a period of 5,000 years. It spread from Eastern Mediterranean to Southern Europe and developed variations from local influences. Therefore, an appropriate Mediterranean Diet meal plan is more than just a defined diet of one region or another in the Mediterranean and must represent the union of the variations of food, cultural habits, and feeding norms.
A Mediterranean Diet meal plan that combines the dietary characteristics of those regions that exhibit long lifespans and a high frequency of centenarians has the following characteristics:
Frequent Servings of Fruits and Vegetables
Each meal should include 1 to 2 servings of fruit and a minimum of 2 servings of vegetables. Mediterranean cuisine is marked by the quantity and variety of vegetables consumed, which are served raw in salads and cooked as the primary ingredient in main meals.
The primarily vegetal eating habits of the Mediterranean developed around this region because of the rugged rocky terrain that is not conducive to raising livestock in quantity like in Northern Europe. In Dr. Valter Longo’s research into the life habits of centenarians from this region, he reported one common element: the low level of protein intake, especially from animal sources. The centenarians who came of age during World War II rarely consumed meat for much of their adulthood.
This relatively high and frequent intake of fruits and vegetables meant that the overall diet contained a high level of polyphenols, which are linked to numerous health benefits due to their antioxidant and protective properties.
Citrus fruits, for example, are a common element among all Mediterranean cuisines and should be part of any Mediterranean Diet meal plan. The solid membranes of citrus fruits contain a high level of flavanones, polymethoxylated flavones like tangeretin, nobiletin, and sinensetin. Aglycones like naringenin is found in grapefruit, hesperetin is found in oranges, and eriodictyol can be found in large quantities in lemons.
It is important to note that drinking orange juice is not the same as eating the whole fruit, and eating the citrus fruit is the more common means of consumption in the Mediterranean. A whole orange can contain up to 5 times as many flavanones as one glass of orange juice that takes many oranges to produce. Juicing promotes chemical reactions between what are normally compartmentalized molecules, and it causes a change in the molecular structure of these beneficial polyphenols.
Leafy vegetables are also high in polyphenol content. Spinach, lettuce, and cabbage are consumed in quantity throughout the Mediterranean. They have a high flavone and flavonol concentrations in their outer leaves, which become more concentrated in areas exposed to light.
Parsley contains a high level of flavones, which are less common than flavonols in fruits and vegetables. Flavanones are found in aromatic plants like mint. Anthocyanins are found in cabbage.
The prevalence of tomatoes throughout the Mediterranean is another factor in the diet’s anti-aging properties. Tomatoes contain a high level of flavonols in their skin, where biosynthesis takes place. The smaller the tomatoes and a higher proportion in weight of skin to juice, the higher the flavonol content. Cherry tomatoes are more nutritious than regular tomatoes.
This fruit is difficult to find for those not living around the Mediterranean, but it is one of the most effective ways to consume flavonoids. They also contain anthocyanins, punicic acid, and ellagitannins. The antioxidant properties of pomegranate seeds have elevated them to the status of superfood, and they are sold as supplements in many pharmacies around the world.
No other vegetable comes close to onions for its content of hydroxybenzoic acid. Onions are also a high source of flavonols and anthocyanins. They are typically eaten raw with salads all around the Mediterranean.
Garlic is a source of lignans and flavonoids. It has the status of a superfood, and many people consume it as a supplement for its high antioxidant capacity. Throughout the Mediterranean, garlic is consumed in cooked food and in raw form with salads.
High Consumption of Olive Oil
The primary source of fatty acids in the Mediterranean Diet comes from monosaturated fats in the form of olive oil. This is a common element in all Mediterranean cuisines and is to be consumed daily. It is mostly consumed in salads.
Olive oil has been associated with reduced risk of arterial disease. It works by reducing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and increasing HDL cholesterol. Type 2 diabetes is also less prevalent in populations that adhere to traditional Mediterranean patterns of eating because olive oil is more emphasized at the expense of carbohydrates.
Cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is best because it contains the highest level of hydroxytyrosol, which is the main source of antioxidant activity and is easily absorbed by humans.
Unrefined Cereals and Grains
It is important to emphasize the low glycemic load of the Mediterranean Diet. Despite allowing intake of carbohydrates, there is very little sugar consumption and cereals are mostly whole grain. The glycemic load is further reduced because of the combination of these grains with other foods that slow down absorption. Vinegar, fiber from legumes and beans, and olive oil are typically consumed with carbohydrates, which work to satiate at a lower overall carbohydrate intake, and they slow down the absorption rate and minimize insulin spikes.
Another recommendation with this meal plan is to adopt a Mediterranean style of eating; that is to say: take time to eat your food. You are less likely to have elevated insulin levels with all the associated metabolic dysfunction if you slow down your food intake. You are also more likely to eat less overall as you give your brain sufficient time to register satiety.
Daily Consumption of Nuts and Seeds
Mediterranean cuisines share another similarity: nuts and seeds are added with meals. Whether it is pine nuts on your cooked meal or walnuts in your salads, the custom of daily consumption of nuts and seeds is prevalent throughout the Mediterranean.
Roasted seeds are often consumed prior to lunch or dinner, which has two important effects: 1) it satiates and makes it less likely to binge during the meal, and 2) the added fiber and healthy fats slow down the absorption of carbohydrates and keeps insulin levels low.
Peanuts, which are commonly consumed around the Mediterranean contain phenolic acids, flavonoids, and stilbenes like resveratrol, the antioxidant that has been credited with red wine’s anti-aging properties.
Red Wine in Moderation
Red wine is a common ingredient for longevity in Mediterranean societies. The polyphenol content of red wines is staggering: 45 mg of flavonols per liter, 300 mg of catechins per liter, and 200-350 mg of anthocyanins. The more tannins a red wine has the higher quantity of dimers, oligomers, and polymers of catechins.
Resveratrol, which is a stilbene found in peanuts, is highly concentrated in red wine and has been the subject of much anti-aging research for its role as a sirtuin activator.
Regular Consumption of Legumes
Legumes can be consumed daily when other sources of protein are not consumed. A typical Mediterranean Diet meal plan would include a minimum of 2 servings of legumes per week. Legumes add protein to a diet that is primarily plant-based. They also have a marked effect on satiety and have been associated with weight loss.
Low Animal Protein Intake
Protein, in general, is less prioritized in Mediterranean Diet than it is in the typical Western Diet. This is conducive to longevity because elevated amino-acid levels in the blood trigger a hormone called IGF-1 (Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1). This hormone is essential for growth, but it becomes more destructive when we reach adulthood.
The primary protein sources in the Mediterranean Diet are fish and legumes (2 or more servings per week). Eggs are eaten in varying quantities around the Mediterranean, with some regions having more eggs in their diet than others. You should ideally target 2 – 4 servings of eggs per week.
To follow a more traditional Mediterranean Diet, minimize protein sources from other animal-sourced meat, and try to eliminate processed meat to less than 1 serving per week.
Similarities with the Longevity Diet
Dr. Valter Longo describes his Longevity Diet as different from the Mediterranean Diet in several aspects: 1) fruits are consumed in lower quantities until old age because of their sugar content; 2) cheese is minimized whereas Mediterranean cuisine typically contains moderate intake of cheese derived primarily from sheep and goat milk; 3) yogurt intake is low until age 65-70, at which time it can be consumed at moderate levels like in the Mediterranean Diet; 4) eggs are absent or very low.
In 2009 and 2010, a new revised Mediterranean diet pyramid was adopted by an international scientific consensus to match modern lifestyles. This food pyramid represents the common elements of Mediterranean cuisine with an emphasis on nutritional value and sustainability in the form of ecologically-friendly and biodiverse sources of food. The result is depicted below, and it can be adapted to different variations to match your lifestyle and constraints.
Berrougui, Hicham, Souad Ikhlef, and Abdelouahed Khalil. “Extra Virgin Olive Oil Polyphenols Promote Cholesterol Efflux and Improve HDL Functionality.” Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: eCAM 2015 (2015): 208062. PMC. Web. 13 Jan. 2018.