Mediterranean Diet Benefits (cont.)

"Research continues to demonstrate that being physically active and eating a nutritious diet of primarily whole foods that are filling and satisfying can enable people to control weight, lower blood pressure [and] cholesterol levels, reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease [and] Alzheimer's disease, and basically protect against chronic diseases," says cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, creator of the South Beach Diet, based on the Mediterranean diet model.

What Makes the Mediterranean Diet So Healthy?

What is it about the Mediterranean diet that makes it so healthy?

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds provides thousands of micronutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can help protect against cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease, among other conditions, experts say.

The multiple factors at work in the Mediterranean diet, Agatston explains, provide health benefits that "cannot be replaced by a supplement."

Monounsaturated fats, found in avocado, fish, canola and olive oils, contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and fight disease at the cellular level. And olive oil, with its rich monounsaturated fat content, has gotten lots of attention. But according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, it may not be the olive oil itself, but the interaction or synergy between all the foods that leads to the health benefits.

Studies show the Mediterranean diet's protective effect against obesity and type 2 diabetes is likely due to its high proportion of plant foods, fish, and olive oil, along with moderate consumption of alcohol.

"A Mediterranean diet is high in fiber, which slows down digestion, preventing wild swings in blood sugar; reduces insulin resistance (a precursor of type 2 diabetes); and improves insulin sensitivity to reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes," says Agatston.

Many studies have confirmed that a diet that is high in fat but low in saturated fat ultimately reduces the risks of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

And it's important to note that the Mediterranean lifestyle is not just about food and wine; it also includes regular physical activity. Not only is the typical American diet much higher in calories and saturated fat, we are more sedentary. As a result, our rates of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes are among the highest in the world.

The good news is that studies have shown that it's never too late to adopt the Mediterranean lifestyle to increase longevity and reduce the risk of chronic disease. Research published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that seniors who led a healthy lifestyle -- defined as not smoking, eating a Mediterranean-type diet, drinking alcohol in moderation, and engaging in 30 minutes of daily physical activity -- significantly increased their life expectancy.