Due to varying cultures, religions, economies and agriculture of the more than 16 countries which border the Mediterranean Sea, the Mediterranean diet varies. The general diet principles include high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, olives, olive oil, nuts and seeds, moderate intake of wine and lean meats and low intake of processed foods. Lifestyle factors such as increased physical activity and enjoying meals with a social support system are also part of the Mediterranean way of life.
The American Heart Association’s, or AHA, Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes Diet is targeted for people who have elevated lipids and suggests 25 to 35 percent of total calories from total fat, less than 7 percent of total calories from saturated fat and up to 20 percent of total fat from monounsaturated fat. In comparison, the Mediterranean dietary recommendations include total fat content of 25 to 40 percent of total calories, 7 to 8 percent of total fat from saturated fat and more than 20 percent of total fat from monounsaturated fat.
Because the Mediterranean diet is comparable to the AHA diet, it is no surprise that the Mediterranean diet promotes heart health. According to the AHA, the prevalence of heart disease is lower in Mediterranean countries than in the United States. A large percentage of total fat in the Mediterranean diet is from monounsaturated fat, which is largely responsible for the reduction in heart disease because it does not raise cholesterol levels the way saturated and trans fats do. Other benefits on the Mediterranean diet include the high concentration of cancer-fighting antioxidants because of the emphasis on fruit and vegetables, promotion of regular physical activity to maintain a healthy weight and lower sodium intake due to the reduction of processed foods.
The Mediterranean diet does not state exact serving amounts per day, but rather lists total macronutrient distribution, which may be confusing for people. For example, the diet uses words such as" low to moderate intake", "abundance" and "often", which does not give exact amounts. Calorie totals and physical activity parameters are not stated, so those who are looking for specific measurements are at a loss. Lastly, moderate consumption of wine, from one to two glasses per day, is encouraged when following the Mediterranean diet, which may not be advisable for people taking certain medication, those with elevated triglycerides or who have pancreatitis.