Happy ThanksgivingMediterranean diet is the rock star of nutrition right now. This diet dramatically lowers disease risk, aids in long-term weight loss, lowers the risk for dementia and depression, and extends life. This traditional diet (which is almost extinct and holds no resemblance to most meals you’ll get today in Rome, Barcelona, Athens or Morocco) is based on grains (pasta, polenta, and other whole grains), fruits, vegetables, and legumes. It has a daily allotment for small amounts of olive oil and yogurt, while fish or poultry grace the plate a couple of times a week. Meat or sweets are a couple times a month, if at all. Wine, typically red wine, is consumed in moderation. Except for a few sweets and pasta, there are virtually no processed foods in this traditional diet.

What is the secret to the Mediterranean diet? The answer depends on which researcher you ask. Some experts vow it is the lycopene in the tomatoes that lowers disease risk. Others say it is the healthy fats in fish and olives along with all the antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in olive oil. The lack of saturated fat and the abundance of fiber-rich foods also have been credited for the low risks of diabetes, depression, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. The vitamin and mineral-packed produce is thought to improve mood, the high amount of lutein is thought to contribute to the low risk for vision loss, the resveratrol in the wine is certainly the reason why inflammatory diseases such as Alzheimers are low, while the probiotics in yogurt must explain why digestive tract problems are rare. Other researchers vow the high vitamin C and beta carotene from all that produce explain why cancer rates are low, while some studies conclude the high magnesium intakes are the reason why stress levels are low.

In truth, you can’t isolate one factor out of tens of thousands. It is the perfect amount and balance of the 40+ nutrients mixed with the almost one million phytonutrients that are supplied only by a diet based on real food. It is that balance that allows our immune, antioxidant, and cell communication systems to keep the body running well.  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is just one of several real-food diets, from the Okinawan diet based on an eating style associated with extreme longevity to vegetarian or Asian cuisines, all of which are loaded with real foods. It’s the whole package, and the whole package needs to be mostly real, not processed.

Photo credit: Creative Commons License Faith Goble via Compfight

Thousands of studies spanning decades of research repeatedly find that the more real foods people eat, the lower their disease risk, the happier and leaner they are, and the longer they live. For example, cutting back on processed foods high in saturated fat lowers disease risk, but combine that habit with extra fruits and vegetables and disease risk drops significantly more. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that people who skip the junk, avoid fast-food restaurants, and instead focus on real food are the ones most successful at long-term weight loss.  There is no magic combination in the Mediterranean diet. The “magic” comes from eating foods that are unprocessed.