Science on the Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet

It’s common knowledge that dietary patterns can be either beneficial or detrimental to your health.

Having an unbalanced diet can lead to an increased risk of chronic inflammation, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and it can disrupt the balance in your gut.

On the other hand, a healthy diet can notably decrease the risk of these conditions, make you feel better and more energetic overall.

The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world because of its emphasis on unrefined cereals, high fiber, fruits and veggies, olive oil, and legumes.

Because of the intake of these foods, the Mediterranean diet has often been recommended as the dietary part of treatment strategies for various diseases and conditions.

This diet has often been the subject of numerous studies, and some of the latest discuss things like its impact on the gut, especially compared to fast food, and its effects on diabetes. 

We’ve compiled some of the most important facts that were recently discussed in the scientific community.

Fast Food vs. Mediterranean Diet and the Gut

Fast food has been known to be the bad guy for decades now, yet, people still seem to consume it not taking into account the detrimental effects it may have.

Compared to the Mediterranean diet, fast food is rich in processed foods, high in saturated fat, simple sugars, red meat, and cholesterol, and very low in fruits, veggies, and fiber.

Both of these patterns can significantly alter the gut microbiota, and in turn, affect your health.

The microbes present in the gut produce many bioactive compounds of which some are ‘good’ and help the normal functioning of the gut, while some are ‘bad’ and impede it.

Having said that, fast food is very commonly associated with an increased risk of inflammation, heart disease, or other cardiovascular conditions.

The following study aimed to examine the effects of both completely different diets on the gut microbiota.

The Details

The study involved 10 healthy individuals who consumed a fast-food diet and a Mediterranean diet for 4 days each, with 4 days in-between as an elimination period.

This method showed that:

  • Saturated fatty acids were higher in the fast-food diet, whereas mono and polyunsaturated fatty acids were higher in the Mediterranean diet;
  • Overall fat content was higher in the fast-food diet;
  • Fiber was significantly higher in the Mediterranean diet compared to the fast-food diet;
  • Protein intake was more or less the same for both.
  • Even though these two diets are nutritionally very different, when it came to the gut microbial diversity, no drastic changes were observed.

    In other words, the gut microbiota of each study participant remained more similar to how it was at baseline than to be affected by the diet.

    In this case, even though the gut flora diversity is little affected, the rest of the body very much responds to what you eat, and a diet rich in fiber and healthy fats is more beneficial than processed foods.

    Connection Between the Mediterranean Diet, Physical Activity & Gut Flora

    The gut flora is becoming increasingly recognized as having an important role not only for gut health, but also for general health, and even mental health.

    The changes in its composition are usually brought on by lifestyle, daily habits, and environmental factors.

    Diet and physical activity, in particular, are often thought to have the biggest influence on gut flora.

    In healthy individuals, two groups of bacteria are predominant in the gut flora, though their ratio changes with the individual’s nutritional status, age, and gender.

    Diet plays a major role in the gut’s composition because the gut bacteria need certain nutrients more than they need others for their biological processes.

    The Mediterranean diet seems to be the friendliest to the gut flora.

    The connection between the gut and physical activity has not been firmly established yet, but there’s some evidence that exercise may affect the gut.

    The following study addresses the changes in the gut brought on by the Mediterranean diet and physical activity.

    The Details

    The scientists collected data on gut flora, adherence to the Mediterranean diet, and physical activity habits in a sample of 140 healthy young adults.

    The results from the laboratory tests they did indicated that diet and physical activity indeed affect the gut bacteria composition.

  • Bad bacteria were more abundant in overweight/obese individuals and inactive individuals;
  • Some of the bad bacteria were found to be associated with a risk of type 2 diabetes development in overweight/obese individuals;
  • Good bacteria were more prevalent in individuals who adhered to the Mediterranean diet;
  • Bacteria that can produce short-chain fatty acids were found in individuals who were more physically active. Short-chain fatty acids are produced through the fermentation of fiber, and they’re crucial to gastrointestinal health.
  • Mediterranean Diet Effects on Type 2 Diabetes

    Type 2 diabetes is a very common disease, however, even though its exact causes aren’t fully established, it’s known that an unbalanced diet, a sedentary lifestyle, being overweight, and having a family history of diabetes significantly increases the risk.

    The Mediterranean diet is known to have a positive effect on diabetes, and therefore, it’s often recommended as part of the treatment for diabetic individuals.

    The following review of literature on the effects of the Mediterranean diet on type 2 diabetes discusses the ways this diet helps manage diabetes.

    Here are the highlights:

  • The Mediterranean diet has a protective role in controlling the levels of blood sugar;
  • It reduces the levels of Hemoglobin A1c, which is the average blood sugar level for the previous three months;
  • It leads to decreased insulin resistance.
  • Furthermore, it could be said that the composition of the Mediterranean diet plays a major role in helping diabetes.

    The most noteworthy mechanism of action is that diet helps reduce obesity and diabetes is an obesity-related chronic disease.

    In fact, it has been shown that the Mediterranean diet is more effective for weight loss than low-fat diets.

    The benefits of this diet could be attributed to several mechanisms, the most important being:

    • The Mediterranean diet is rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds present in fruits, veggies, legumes, and cereals, thereby reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the body. It’s also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids which are beneficial for insulin sensitivity;
    • This diet positively influences the composition of the gut microbiota due to the high content of dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates. It regulates the balance between the good and the bad bacteria, thereby enhancing insulin sensitivity and regulating blood sugar levels.

    Bottom Line

    The Mediterranean diet is very beneficial for your health in more than one way.

    The body if a complex system where many processes are intertwined and taking good care of one aspect of your health will inevitably positively influence another aspect.

    The interest in the Mediterranean diet has been steadily increasing, as more and more studies attest to its beneficial effects, so maybe it’s time that more people try it.


    Resources:

    1. Zhu, C., Sawrey-Kubicek, L., Beals, E., Rhodes, C. H., Houts, H. E., Sacchi, R., & Zivkovic, A. M. Human gut microbiome composition and tryptophan metabolites were changed differently by fast food and Mediterranean diet in 4 days: A pilot study. Nutrition Research 2020, 77, 62-72. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nutres.2020.03.005 
    2. Resource: Gallè, F.; Valeriani, F.; Cattaruzza, M.S.; Gianfranceschi, G.; Liguori, R.; Antinozzi, M.; Mederer, B.; Liguori, G.; Romano Spica, V. Mediterranean Diet, Physical Activity and Gut Microbiome Composition: A Cross-Sectional Study among Healthy Young Italian Adults. Nutrients 2020, 12, 2164. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12072164 
    3. Martín-Peláez, S.; Fito, M.; Castaner, O. Mediterranean Diet Effects on Type 2 Diabetes Prevention, Disease Progression, and Related Mechanisms. A Review. Nutrients 2020, 12, 2236. doi:https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082236 
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