The Foods characterizing the Mediterranean Diet
As has been demonstrated by many researchers, it is not the quantity of fats but the quality that makes the difference. That is why olive oil has become the principal fat of the Mediterranean diet. The fats that it furnishes have a beneficial effect on the organism because they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Olive oil is the only nutritional fat that is completely extracted from fruit; its origin gives it, in fact, its particular health and gastronomic characteristics. Olive oil, and in particular the extra-virgin variety, is composed for the most part of a fat molecule containing a high percentage of oleic acid. It also presents a good monounsaturated/polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio. Given these biochemical characteristics, the following can be said about olive oil:
- It is easy to digest;
- It inhibits gastric acid secretion in the stomach;
- It stimulates secretion by the pancreas;
- It promotes absorption of calcium and the growth of long bones.
Finally, the compounds called polyphenols present in olive oil have a marked antioxidant quality: in other words, they counteract the oxidative stress due to free radicals which cause aging and a variety of diseases. That is what gives olive oil its anti-inflammatory properties and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and atherosclerosis.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables take first place in the Mediterranean diet since it is characterized, in particular, by the intake of food from plant sources such as pasta, vegetables, and the various green leafy vegetables that are available throughout the seasons of the year and dressed with olive oil and fruit.
Consumption of fruit (even dry fruits) and vegetables guarantees the intake of nutritional substances such as vitamins and minerals and at the same time reduces the number of calories in the diet as fruit and vegetables contain high quantities of water and fiber that have satiating effects.
Each season provides a wide choice of vegetables and fruits. Experts advise eating fruit early in the day at breakfast and during in-between-meal snacks.
Dry fruit is also an integral part of the Mediterranean diet and in particular almonds deserve a regular place in our diet. Originally from Asia Minor, almonds contain essential amino acids that are necessary to our diet. Fifteen to twenty grams is the recommended daily intake of almonds or dry fruit. In view of the fact that they contain 500-600 kcal per 100 grams, they are an important source of energy. They have a high fat content, are a source of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs); they also contain a fair amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and have a low saturated fatty acid content.
About 60-70% of the dietary needs of individuals living in the Mediterranean basin even 8000-9000 years ago were satisfied by foods originating from cereal grains. Durum wheat, is, in particular, an element that is produced and utilized by almost all the populations living in countries located in the Mediterranean region as it constitutes one of the main raw materials in pasta, bread, cous cous, and other bread products. Today 3 million tons of pasta are produced every year in Italy. Nearly half is exported.
The quality of pasta depends on the quality of the reaction that generates gluten, one of pasta’s principal ingredients. Gluten is formed through the reaction between water and the gliadin and glutenin proteins which are contained in flour.
Wheat gluten proteins are largely insoluble in water and encompass the starch granules. All of the rheological properties of dough and its behavior during cooking depend on the quality of the gluten that is formed.
One hundred grams of pasta furnish approximately 350 calories. Pasta furnishes a large quantity of carbohydrates (sugars) in the form of starch which constitutes approximately 80% of its nourishment value; it also contains large quantities of protides (approximately 10%). It contains limited quantities of fats vitamins, and minerals. There is a marked imbalance in the proportion of minerals given the prevalence of potassium. To balance the glycemic index (that is the speed at which blood glucose is increased following assumption of food containing 50 grams of carbohydrates) it is best to eat pasta with vegetables for vitamins; with meats, legumes, or fish to integrate protein; with cheese for lipids; vegetable oils (in particular olive oil) for unsaturated fatty acids.
Wine is the historic beverage of the Mediterranean basin; Hippocrates prescribed it in the IVth century B.C to treat wounds, to lower fevers, as a laxative and a diuretic as well as a nutritional beverage.
Although a widely debated substance, scientists have recognized some of wine’s beneficial effects on human health. Some of the polyphenolic compounds present particularly in red wine are considered at least in part responsible for the reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease.
Although wine is a pro-oxidant, alcoholic beverages reduce the oxidation of low density lipoproteins (LDL, which are the lipid components of cholesterol) probably because they contain flavonoids and polyphenols which are anti-oxidants. Red wine basically reduces the oxidation of lipoproteins which play a primary role in the development of atherosclerotic plaques.
Alcohol also increases the levels of high density lipoproteins (HDL) in the plasma which contribute to reducing cholesterol. In studies focusing on cardiovascular mortality, when the data are adjusted for HDL levels, approximately 50% of the cardioprotective effects of moderate alcohol consumption are due to its capacity to increase the levels of HDL. It is nevertheless important to remember that alcohol also elevates serum triglyceride levels thereby potentially increasing vascular risk.