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It’s OK to Eat Fat: Why the Mediterranean Diet is Successful

October 25th, 2010

The Mediterranean Diet offers both healthy and appetizing food choices.Copyright 2010

Take a look at the meal plans for the Mediterranean Diet and you might be surprised by the amount of fat that it recommends. While the diet restricts consumption of red meats, it heartily encourages dieters to use olive oil in their cooking and to make nuts and legumes a staple of their diets.

In fact, the typical Mediterranean diet recommends getting 25%-35% of your calories from fat.

Doesn’t this seem strange when we’ve been told all our lives that fat is unhealthy and that we should avoid it at all costs? After all, the food pyramid itself states that we should base our diets on carbohydrate-heavy foods like grains, fruits, and vegetables, with foods high in fat taking up a smaller spot nearer to the top of the pyramid.

Yet the Mediterranean Diet, with its lax attitude toward fat, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. How is it that a diet relatively high in fat actually reduces the risk of heart disease?

All the negative attention that fat has drawn over the years would suggest that it isn’t healthy in any form, but more recent research has shown that not all fats are bad.

The Mayo Clinic states that healthy fats, including the polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and omega-3 fatty acids that are recommended by the Mediterranean Diet, can actually help reduce one’s risk of heart disease by lowering levels of LDL cholesterol – the bad type of cholesterol.

Another aspect of the Mediterranean Diet that contributes to its health benefits is its emphasis on specific kinds of fruits and vegetables. Grains such as bread are recommended as staples of the diet, yet it takes care to mention that dieters should refrain from eating processed bread and instead opt for whole grain bread.

Processed bread, such as common “white bread” found in grocery stores, actually strips much of the nutritional value from its grain and oftentimes even contains high fructose corn syrup. A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men who ate more whole grains put on less weight in their middle age years than those who ate processed grains.

The Mediterranean Diet also recommends large quantities of fruits and vegetables which, compared to the processed and refined carbohydrates commonly found in the Western (American) diet, do not cause dangerous insulin spikes.

While fruits are high in sugar, those sugars are naturally occurring and, for the most part, do not cause extreme fluctuations in insulin levels, which may contribute to the development of Type-2 diabetes.

The Mediterranean Diet does not follow the template of a typical fad diet, and for good reason: it’s actually effective in reducing weight and contributing to the overall health of the dieter. A 12-year study of people following the Mediterranean Diet found that their health improved over a wide spectrum of categories, from body weight to blood pressure to insulin levels. The diet is effective because it relies on making small but permanent changes rather than radical, unsustainable ones, as with many fad diets.

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