Mediterranean diet shows food can be medicine

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, March 7, 2023

The Mediterranean Diet may be the easiest way a person could improve their long-term health. 

According to healthcare experts, like ECU Health’s Chief of Wellness, Dr. Christina Bowen, the diet could help a person reduce or eliminate their risk of having chronic issues commonly found in Eastern North Carolina – heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and cancer. 

Bowen explained the Mediterranean Diet is plant predominant which means it focuses on eating more vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, grains and nuts (also known as whole foods). It reduces the amount of red meat a person eats, but increases their intake of fish and recipes use extra virgin oil to cook with. 

“The science is clear on the fact that eating a plant predominant diet and focusing our diet on those whole foods and trying to minimize any processed foods, sweetened beverages – what that does is really helps to prevent and often reverse many chronic diseases and it can also help prevent cancer,” Bowen said. 

The Mediterranean Diet can help lower cholesterol, high blood pressure. It also can help manage blood sugars and weight as well as dementia prevention. “All of those can be helped by eating a plant predominant Mediterranean Diet,” Bowen said.  

Bowen illustrated that eating a whole food like an apple is much better for a person as opposed to eating applesauce or a slice of apple pie. “I’d rather you eat the apple. That’s what we’d prefer – the whole foods that are not processed…,” Bowen said. 

The processed foods can create inflammation in the body. Inflammation isn’t inherently bad in fact it helps the body fend off infections and help it heal from injuries, but prolonged inflammation can lead to chronic illnesses like the ones mentioned above as well as autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal disorders, lung diseases, depression and Parkinson’s Disease. 

This is why Bowen encourages people to think about food as a type of medicine and ask themselves if what they are about to eat is nourishing their body. Processed foods are not ideal choices when deciding what to eat to nourish and fuel the body to optimize well-being.

Bowen said the Mediterranean Diet is not difficult to adopt if a person makes small changes like eating one healthier meal a day then increasing to two and three meals and choosing healthier snacks over processed ones. 

She explained that setting smart and small goals is the key to a long-term successful lifestyle change. She recommends a person start with adding a whole food to their upcoming meal. 

“This is not a fad diet,” Bowen said, “this is a lifestyle and that’s what we’ve seen are these health benefits for eating a plant predominant diet.” 

After trying the Mediterranean Diet, Bowen’s patients came back and told her they have never felt better in their life. She said the diet can have a ripple effect and motivate people to increase their exercise or improve their sleep schedule. 

The North Carolina State Extension office has a program focused on the Mediterranean Diet called Med Instead of Meds. It is a multi-week course that teaches participants the benefits of the diet. 

The Mediterranean Diet recommends five servings of vegetables and fruits per day, choosing beans and grains over red meat, three small handfuls of nuts and seeds per week, four tablespoons of olive oil per day, choosing fresh herbs instead of salt to season food, eating seafood three times a week and poultry two times a week. Thirty minutes of physical activity every day is recommended. The diet limits sugar to three servings per week at most, meat to two to three times per month, and recommends rarely or never eating stick butter, margarine, fast food and highly processed foods. 

Louise Hinsley, an extension agent at the Beaufort County Extension Center, said people living in the Mediterranean have prolonged healthy lives due in part to their diet. “Their lifespan is not only long, but long and healthy,” she said. 

She added that people living in the Mediterranean have access to local foods which add to their vitality much like people in Beaufort County have access to fresh fish from the river which the diet recommends eating over red meats. 

A difference in American diets versus Mediterranean diets is that the Mediterranean diet gets its fats mostly from oils as opposed to animal fats like in an American diet.  One of the ways people can add healthy fats from oils into their diet is by making their own salad dressings and vinaigrettes. 

When Hinsley prepares recipes from the Mediterranean diet, people are often surprised that her meals are not made with lots of salt and unhealthy fats but are instead flavored with vegetable and chicken stocks and herbs.

She suggests making more food so that families and individuals can have leftover which can be used to prepare meals throughout the week.  

The Beaufort County Cooperative Extension office is offering six new sessions on the Mediterranean diet. The sessions are hosted by Hinsley on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. from March 16 to April 20. The sessions cost $60 per person and payment is due March 14. The Extension office is located at 155 Airport Road in Washington.