It seems every year a new crop of fad diets sprouts up almost out of nowhere. We are enticed to brush aside the bread, or stock up on grapefruits, or consume larger portions of red meat, or banish dairy to the dark recesses of our refrigerators. All of these types of diets promise results, but which ones really pay attention to our nutritional needs? And are these diets the quick fixes they promise to be?

As a nutritionist, I often encourage embracing lifestyle changes rather than focusing on the dreaded D-word. Adjusting your normal eating habits, even slightly, will have a greater lasting effect than severely limiting your overall food intake. That is one of the reasons why I appreciate the merits of the Mediterranean diet. Don't be confused by the word diet - the Mediterranean diet is really an enjoyable way of life.

Although dietary patterns do differ slightly between the 16 or so countries that ring the Mediterranean, several commonalities exist. The standard Mediterranean diet consists of a wide variety of breads and grains and a high daily consumption of fruits and vegetables. Olive oil is embraced and dairy is consumed in moderation. Red meat is limited, while fresh fish is served at least once weekly. Nuts may be enjoyed by the handful and indulging in a glass or two of wine is divine, not sinful.

These tenets, on the surface, appear to reflect the recommendations found in Canada's Food Guide. Much like Canada's Food Guide, the Mediterranean diet is loaded with daily servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. These antioxidants - for instance, lycopene, routinely found in tomatoes - may protect against diseases such as coronary artery disease and cancer. Additionally, a staple of grains and cereals in both the Mediterranean diet and Canada's Food Guide provide a preferred source of energy and contain no unhealthy trans fats.

While these similarities are evident, they are not exact and the differences between the Mediterranean diet and the recommendations of Canada's Food Guide may demonstrate the health benefits associated with a diet that contains an overall higher fat percentage. Contrasting with the 1988 American Surgeon General's warning of the adverse health effects associated with diets containing a higher percentage of fat, the Mediterranean diet stands out as a paradox: How can a diet with a higher fat content be enjoyed by a population that is 20% less likely to die of coronary artery disease and one-third less likely to develop cancer than their North American counterparts?

The answer is the fact that the Mediterranean diet stresses the importance of what types of fat are consumed, not how much fat is consumed overall. Canada's Food Guide does not accentuate such a distinction between types of fat. The Mediterranean diet contains little saturated and trans fat (the fats known to raise blood cholesterol levels). Instead, the diet is rich in monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, which has been proven to lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Olive oil also lowers blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Further, research indicates it may help prevent peptic ulcers and certain types of cancer.

Another factor limiting the amount of saturated fat in the Mediterranean diet is the sources of protein consumed. Unlike Canada's Food Guide, the Mediterranean diet separates servings of fish and the occasional handful of nuts from servings of red meat. By favouring fresh fish instead of red meat, the Mediterranean diet provides an advantageous amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fat.

An additional and enjoyable feature of the Mediterranean diet is the allowance of one 5 oz. glass of wine for women or two glasses of the same amount for men. Although excessive alcohol consumption poses dangerous health consequences, light intake is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Red wine, much like ASA (Aspirin®), acts to prevent blood clotting, and the flavonoids it contains have powerful antioxidant properties.

While the recommendations set forth by Canada's Food Guide effectively serve to educate Canadians about healthy food selections that help meet their individual dietary needs, the options provided by the Mediterranean diet can be a great supplement to healthy eating habits. By adapting some or all of these healthy and delicious choices into your current daily dietary patterns you can enjoy all the benefits the Mediterranean diet has to offer. So next time you are craving carbohydrates, pacify that guilty feeling by knowing that indulging in a small dish of pasta served in tomato sauce and drizzled with olive oil may increase your plasma antioxidant activity by a factor of 20. Add a glass of red wine and buon appetito!

Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)

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